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19 September 2014

Why it’s time for a People’s Convention to draw up a new constitution for our country

Politicians and ordinary people coming together in town hall meetings up and down the land should shape a new constitution.

By Natalie Bennett

After nearly a century of inaction on constitutional change at Westminster, British political parties are now falling over themselves in the race to offer new arrangements for the governance of the United Kingdom.

But what’s entirely lacking is serious thought about how we decide what to do.

It is clear that our current political structures cannot deliver a new constitutional settlement. This is too important to be shunted off to a Cabinet Committee or the modern day equivalent of a smoke-filled room.

When the terms of the Scottish referendum were apparently changed by the three main Westminster parties just days before the vote, with “No” now meaning significant change, and no status quo option on the ballot paper, parliament wasn’t consulted. The people certainly weren’t consulted.

It appears Gordon Brown made a declaration and the details were worked out, as an FT journalist put it, by David Cameron on the back of a panini wrapper on a train heading north for a panic campaign stop. This comes after more than four years of inaction on House of Lords reform despite all three largest parties promising change in their manifestos.

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We cannot go on this way and call ourselves a democracy. The business-as-usual party leaders cannot be trusted to choose the way forward; parliament simply isn’t trusted by them or the public – and has long failed to exercise the powers that it could.

Scotland has shown us the way with a huge national political debate that stretched over two years, involved an unprecedented proportion of the public – the enrolment of 97% and turnout of 85% are just markers that don’t get to the depth of the political engagement.

To fix our broken politics what we need to do is create the same level of engagement in a political debate about how we should be governed stretched across the UK.

What we need instead is a People’s Constitutional Convention – a meeting of delegates to draw up a new constitution for our country. Politicians and ordinary people coming together in town hall meetings up and down the land to debate, discuss and agree the changes we so urgently need. If it were possible to negotiate Scottish Independence in less than two years it need not take decades to agree a new settlement for the rest of the UK.

More than 200 years ago the Founding Fathers of the United States of America drew up a blueprint for the governance of their newly-independent nation. Nothing less than a project of similar ambition will suffice as we recast the relationship between the government and the governed so that it is fit for the twenty-first century.

The Green MP Caroline Lucas is leading the way on this. She’s launched a petition following her open letter calling on the leaders of the largest parties to deliver real change.

A People’s Convention would draw on a diverse range of talent from across the political spectrum. It would include people from all parties and none, experts and lay people. It would be given a mandate to rethink our democracy, to map out a blueprint for the democratic rebirth of the United Kingdom.

This isn’t pie in the sky thinking – plenty of other countries have gone through similar processes and there is much we can learn from them. The Scottish Constitutional Convention included leaders from Scottish churches and other civic groups. Iceland used a form of jury service to give ordinary people a role. Ireland’s Convention has just concluded its work and the Irish Government has agreed to hold referenda on three of the main issues.

The Green Party of course has ideas for how it should operate and what it should consider which we set out today. But these are suggestions – what we need is a wide and deep national debate, one involving everyone: pensioners and 16-year-olds, carers and the unemployed, women’s groups and those representing ethnic minorities, and yes even bankers (although only in proportion to their positive contribution to the economy, which is small). We haven’t seen significant constitutional change in Westminster in nearly a century (the last big change was women getting the vote). There’s tremendous pent-up demand for reform. We need the right mechanism to get the right result – one that results in real change and democracy for everyone.

Natalie Bennett is leader of the Green party

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