People's Assemblies Network

Democracy Session at the London People’s Assembly against Austerity

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Democracy and Decision-making – fixing our broken political system

Interim Report from the Peoples Assembly against Austerity

On 22 June 4,000 people gathered at the ‘People’s Assembly Against Austerity’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UgyGVm2mnPU to discuss what action they could take against the state’s austerity programme. The event involved fifteen different workshops on a variety of topics, including thanks to the work of campaigners from Occupy and related movements,  a workshop on ‘Democracy’ . 

Over five hundred activists attended this dynamic and participatory workshop. The session’s starting point was that if we want social, economic and environmental justice then we will need to build a functional democracy. 

This is a topic which is often ignored by the traditional Left in Britain, however there is an increasing realization that we have a democratic crisis – millions of people no longer vote and our institutions often seem to represent  the 1% and corporations, rather than people.

The session had two themes, firstly; what reforms are needed to fix our broken political system  and secondly; how can grassroots  people’s assemblies and participatory movements  bring them about. 

To answer these questions, eight speakers briefly presented on their area of interest before facilitating an interactive discussion on the crisis of democracy and how to tackle the democratic deficit. 

Here is a list of the organisations and topics discussed, and you can find a full summary of the workshops they facilitated below.

 (1) Corinna Lotz : Agreement of the People  http://agreementofthepeople.org/index.html 

Mobilizing  for a democratic constitution based on political, social, economic, human and ecological rights 

(2) Natalie Bennett – Green Party : Localism, Voting and Electoral Reform

(3) David Bovill

 http://parliamentofthings.org/

Real time meetings, streamed, recorded and legally constituted as part of a globally distributed network

 (4) Naomi Colvin : City Reform Group

 http://cityreform.org.uk/City 

The City Reform Group is a group of citizens who are coming together to help ensure that the City of London is governed to the highest standards

(5) Bill Greenshields : The People’s Charter

Representation and voice for working people in constructing the alternative

 (6) James Holland :Community Organising where you live 

 (7) Richard Bagley , Morning Star : Media Reform

 (8) Loz Kaye,  Pirate Party : Transparency and Liquid Democracy

Whilst we could not possibly do justice to the topic in the time allotted, and a number of key issues were not addressed – in particular the England, Scotland and Wales question, reforming global finance and other institutions and questions around use of referenda and citizens initiative e.t.c. Nevertheless overall there was considerable support for a range of proposals. In particular many people at the workshop wanted to develop alternatives and to make demands for systemic change to the way our institutions are governed, and more radically to build a new politics based on participatory democracy and people’s assemblies.

 We hope that participants will feel as we do (as facilitators and presenters) that it is important to take the ideas discussed at the workshop and support their inclusion (and crucially the new way of making decisions they herald) into the anti-austerity movement. 

Below are set out a draft summary of each presentation and the short workshop that followed. Also the whole session was recorded on live-stream and key points were recorded and fed back to the whole room, this was also live-streamed at  http://occupylondon.org.uk/archives/30706

 (1) Corinna Lotz : The Agreement of the People for the 21st century  

 Introduction: 

Developed by the Campaign for a 20th Century Constitution, Real Democracy Working Group of Occupy and A World to Win. Supported by 14 organisations. Its name is inspired by the Leveller movement of the English revolution of 1640. 

 The system is broken – global capitalism is in a worsening crisis, as shown in Brazil, Turkey, Greece, Spain. All the main parties are facilitating the rule of the corporations and banks. Our votes hardly count. 

That makes the state and political system democratic in name only. 

This system cannot be fixed by reforms. Thus, we need to develop a grassroots constitution from below. 

The Agreement is a draft framework for this, open to development. It can be discussed and implemented through a network of permanent People’s Assemblies. In this way Assemblies become the basis for an alternative to the existing state. 

If we are to end austerity and build a truly democratic country, we have to do it ourselves. Please support the campaign for the Agreement. 

Points made in working group:  

Power: is it right to seize power? What do we need power for? People need power to get services, such as the Barnet Alliance.

Collective power is better than individual power. Corporations hold power over individuals. Capitalism imposes its will over the rest of the world. 

It’s down to us to break the power of the capitalist system.

The UK has no constitution. It needs one in order to have democracy. A system of privilege wields power, such as through the privy council. You cannot democratize the current state.  We need to build a new constitution. 

A revolution is needed against the capitalist state. 

A peoples’ uprising is needed through people’s assemblies which can form a Peoples Republic. 

Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina show examples of building people’s assemblies. 

It is not a true democracy when there is an unelected head of state. We should also get rid of the unelected second chamber (House of Lords). 

How? Be positive. Use the anger of the people to mobilize them. Use local people’s assemblies to formulate a new constitution. 

Need to separate financial power from political power. Peoples assemblies can assemble peoples resistance. They can be the nucleus of new structures. 

Concluding points read out to meeting: 

PAs can be a nucleus to formulate a new way of doing politics.

We agreed that there was need to break power of current regime.

PAs would be a way of discussing and drafting a new constitution.

No one has a single answer.

Local campaigns can be brought together and support each other.

Separate financial from political power.

Democracy is not possible without elected head of state. A republic is needed.

Take anger and mobilize people in assemblies.

Arguments were for and against revolution. 

(2) Natalie Bennett, Leader Green Party:  Localism,  Voting and Electoral

Introduction:

a) Election of the House of Lords, to replace our appointed/hereditary system that really belongs in a previous century – or perhaps in Saudi Arabia, which despite our arms trading there is surely not a place we want to be able to compare ourselves with in terms of democracy.

b) Proportional representation in House of Commons and council elections. Millions live in “safe” seats where they can vote for decades and never see their chosen candidate elected.

c) An end to the “ownership” of political parties by their donors – the system that’s given us a government of the 1% for the 1%.

Points made in working group 

Votes at 16 and decent political education in schools and for young people (and older people) out of schools.

Getting more younger people voting – one suggestion on “how” was that politics should actually address the issues they were concerned about, from tuition fees to drugs policy.

Tackling media ownership, so diverse views could get an airing (something I was writing about this week).

Local People’s Assemblies in which residents can participate in making decisions about their street, their neighbourhood.

Industrial democracy – making sure workers have a say about how their workplace has run. (That’s worked out remarkably well for Germany.)

State funding for political parties. 

Abolition of the Corporation of the City of London and its privileges (an issue close to my heart.  

Natalie Bennett commented: “The energy, the enthusiasm, the desire for change was almost a physical presence in the room today.” See her full write up here:  http://thebackbencher.co.uk/we-need-democracy-in-britain-2/  

(3)  David Bovill: Parliament of Things 

on real time distributed meetings live-streaming and legally constituted to be updated..

 ”I’m working on  ..  on a series of follow up discussions and work groups – specifically as to how we can create some tech and legal infrastructure to support create freeform assemblies. 

For more info check for updates at: participativeassemblies.wordpress.com

(4)    Naomi Colvin: City Reform Group – with support from Dave Dewhurst,  Occupy Economics.

Introduction  

City of London’ Reform Sub-group at the Emmanuel Centre…….TO BE COMPLETED

Points made in working group

1.       One worker or resident one vote – including residents or employees in outlying areas controlled (e.g. parks) (Democratize the City from the inside raise awareness among City workers of their NON vote.) 

2.       Massively more financial transparency – which would imply real G8, and wider, reforms. All countries able to access citizens’ holdings in tax havens & freedom of information access beyond sovereign tax authorities, as appropriate. (OK a bit of a fudge at the end, for further articulation????)

3.       End City exclusion from Freedom of Information Act.

4.       End the office of the Remembrancer or make all its lobbying activity open to public scrutiny.

5.       Financial Transaction Tax (obviously for the whole finance sector not just the City.

6.       Separate the City’s international financial function from its Local Authority function.

7.       End the office of Alderman.

8.       Its accounts in detail open to public scrutiny (At present it has given a summary and vaguely offered to provide more/full detail ????- here is your chance !)

(Also concomitantly address the issue of regulatory arbitrage ((Google search

Occupy London Economics Working Group - Little Book of Ideas Chap 17) specially relevant to points 2 and 5. 

(5) Bill Greenshields: The People’s Charter

Introduction 

We began by endorsing the thought, “Down With Miserablism” . It’s just no good listing an increasing catalogue of misery that is being inflicted on working class people. We need to know what is being done, and how and by whom… but it’s not enough if we want to inspire people to take part in a real movement against “austerity” and for real change, a movement for  real democracy. We need to present a coherent, integrated and radical alternative to unite, excite and ignite our people… and that’s the People’s Charter. It’s been developed collectively over the last few years, drawing on individual trade union policies and those of single-issue campaign groups, together with expert analysis and advice and real awareness of the needs and hopes of “ordinary people.” You’ll find it at :www.thepeoplescharter.org.uk 

It is a program that would mean a massive shift in wealth and power away from the tiny class of monopolists, millionaires and bankers.. and to those “ordinary people” – who in being liberated to exercise real democracy will be far from ordinary!

Points made in the meeting 

So – first question – the People’s Assembly needs to clearly adopt a positive program for change – not just opposition to “austerity” – and as the People’s Charter has been adopted by the TUC Congress on more than one occasion, by Women’s TUC, Wales TUC, Scottish TUC and the local Trades Unions Councils (representing union organisation in every town and city) – why not start there… adopting the Charter and helping develop and extend it?

We discussed how “austerity” had “hollowed out” democratic processes that had been established as a result of real struggle over the last hundred years and more. We considered how the consensus of the “main political parties” for cuts and privatization  – the “austerity agenda” was produced by top down pressure and diktat from the “top 10%” of the population in terms of wealth and power.

We agreed that to build a movement we needed to start with the immediate issues facing people who currently may not even think of themselves as interested in politics, let alone “activists”. This has to be at local level.

Conclusion  

So we would propose

  • the People’s Assembly steering group should adopt the People’s Charter, put it on the website and encourage all local People’s Assemblies to do the same
  • The national steering group should suggest that local People’s Assemblies take from the People’s Charter just one or two issues of great significance and importance locally as a focus for local work  to begin to “unite and ignite” the people in a mass movement  - and from that to build awareness of and activity around all the anti-austerity and pro-Charter issues facing us.
  • That local People’s Assemblies involve all democratic organisations of the people working locally – trades unions and trades councils, campaign organisations, political groupings etc, and give each a representative on a local steering group that works as far as possible by open debate and resulting consensus… not by big organisations dominating small ones, or by individual groups “colonizing” a local Assembly and claiming it as “theirs”.

 (6) James Holland: Community Organising where you live

(Read James’ blog at http://commdem.wordpress.com/ )

 James spoke about his  work in  New Cross  and gave a very quick introduction to his activity in New Cross, and made it clear that he  thought we needed to really think about what we mean by local, not the scale of current so called local government, but much smaller – no more than a few thousand people, so we can work together face to face. He suggested that pre existing political forms and language were a barrier, that the way forward isn’t about big ‘P’ ‘Politics, but the simple work of people working together to get what they need.  He explained that current main tactic is a community survey – where we go to people where they are and ask them what they want, and if they would get involved to make it happen. 

The main points were:

- building slowly from the bottom

- conversations and listening, without an agenda

- organising social events and public meetings but most importantly going TO people and asking what they want. 

Points made in the meeting 

A number of people expressed frustration with how hard it is to get people to be active or believe that things can be different. One was particularly concerned that we not forget about politics as its needed when you come up against unpleasant views. 

Experience of talking about particular issues shows people are engaged and do appreciate being asked for their opinions. 

People seem very willing to complain but less easy to talk about positive, constructive alternatives.

It is difficult to move forward from conversations to action (e.g.. attending a meeting)

Important to have action, not just talk–this is more inspiring.

People can’t see that they can change things, especially where there is no tradition of activism. 

We shouldn’t forget that this is already happening, particularly in the field of disability activism, thousands of people in every community are already working together 

We need to find ways of getting engaged for people who are not natural “joiners-in”.

Try different structures to meetings- facilitation not chairs, being open rather than having committees.

Be creative- arts, film chalking pavements, etc. 

Pass on positive rather than negative messages.

Help out your neighbours.

Get to know each other- through volunteering and neighbourliness- this will build up relationships. The first step in community organising is to build a community in the first place.

It is important to have our politics and be clear on what we stand for. But this should be in the form of principles rather than dogma.

Education is something we can do- myth-busting e.g.. about benefit fraud stories.

Important to keep the bigger picture in perspective as well.

Look at examples from other countries and from history. 

One person shared that  she decided to do stuff after the riots, and how you just have to get out there and do it, look after your neighbours etc

Participants said we need to show an alternative, food, housing more democratic, more inspiring way

At community council (parish council) in wales were experimenting with having much more direct involvement of the wider population

 More about the idea of Community Democracy at http://commdem.wordpress.com/ 

(7) Richard Bagley,  Editor Morning Star : Media Reform

Introduction 

Against a backdrop of the corporate stranglehold of our national media and

the withdrawal of the corporate media from our communities, and with

academic studies showing a clear link between the level of democratic

participation and the existence of a local press, what changes should the

People’s Assembly movement be demanding?

 Points made in the meeting 

- Change to the Localism Act to redefine local newspapers as a community

asset and prevent owners from unilaterally shutting them down without

giving the community a chance to have its say, and intervene if desired

- Right and assistance to workers and communities to exert local

co-operative ownership over titles where a corporate owner wants to wield

the axe and withdraw from an area

- Crowd-sourcing could be used to help fund such initiatives

- People’s Assemblies should seek to intervene locally through activism

and direct action if need be to keep media open and show solidarity with

journalists facing the axe.

- There should be a specific newspaper etc of the People’s Assembly

movement

- Rules on ownership of national media not confined to the number of

outlets belonging to a single individual/business, but amended to

encourage a broad range of ideas, aided by state subsidy, as in other

countries, where required

- A cap on advertising per title could help to redistribute the balance

away from a few large titles and encourage more smaller ones

- There should be laws governing fair access to retail outlets to prevent

a handful of retailers i.e. supermarkets, which now have a sizable market

share replacing news-agents, dictating what publications can and can’t be

displayed on their shelves

- A national distribution network should be established so that all titles

have equal access to potential readers, on the day of publication, and

this facility is not restricted to the big corporate players 

 (8) Loz Kaye,  Leader Pirate Party UK : Transparency and Liquid Democracy

 Introduction 

 The UK is facing a crisis of democratic participation. It’s most obvious in the terrible turnout of recent elections. Look at the Police Commissioner vote where the average turnout was under 15%. November 2012′s Manchester Central by-election saw the worst level of participation since the second world war. Does this matter or is just an incidental problem in the wave of crises brought about by economic collapse and austerity?

It matters profoundly.

Lack of democratic participation is closely bound up with the communities who are most affected by austerity. Manchester Central also has the highest incidence of premature deaths, and is the constituency with the highest rate of child poverty in the UK.

Why is this the case? If you spend any amount of time campaigning in Manchester or indeed any marginalised area, the same responses come up time and again. “No one is interested in what I think”. “They’re all the same”. “Nothing ever changes”. People feel they are lacking a voice. It’s not about apathy, it’s outright antipathy. It’s not a lazy response as it’s too often characterized, it’s a reasonable reaction to generations of neglect. Democratic reform has to go deeper than putting a cross in a box. It has to be about getting everyone involved in the process and allowing people their voice. Voices to air what is happening in our marginalised communities and to find solutions.

In the Pirate Party we have been pushing for ways to get more people in to the decision making process. In Germany we have been developing the ‘liquid democracy’ approach where groups can give feedback and guide using the wisdom of the crowd. In the UK our manifesto was crowd sourced on line, voting up and down suggestions and ideas, in a process that involved over 3000 people. We know it’s not the answer to everything. But it is a challenge to the idea that policy is to be left to a select elite. Policy is just a good idea, a way to make it up and evidence that it will work. The UK is full of those ideas, that’s what democratic reform has to do, to restore that voice.

Points made in the meeting 

In our group we identified two areas of concern:

1) engagement

2) access

Four points to help engagement:

Taking action in every forum: the workplace, unions, community groups.

Being creative with demonstrations: for example taking a vote on a concrete measure after.

Using technology in campaigning and sharing its use educating one another.

More referendums, better participatory democracy.

Four points to help access:

Make companies subject to freedom of information where they are providing public services.

Better rural broadband access.

Making sure the digital divide is bridged across generations.

Acting to make our elected representatives better reflect the diversity and experience of the people.

If the current framework can’t provide it’s up to us to change it.

We don’t need to wait to put this in to action, let’s hack democracy.

– 

Following this session a national working group to take forward the ideas presented and discussed is now being proposed and taken forward. More info to follow ..

2 Comments

  1. Mark,

    you wrote, “an independent platform which seeks to link together different strands of democracy campaign / reform work in order to share info, support one another and possibly facilitate a joined up campaign for an alternative political system incorporating the demands, reforms / proposed structures of the different strands.”

    This is a very worthy aim. I would like to learn about how the project progresses.

    Politicians have oft promised to reform, if elected, the system and the constitution. In recent decades there has been a growing tendency to declare that the people shall be involved in formulating reform proposals and in making final decision(s) by means of referendum. The promised participation, at least in UK, has never worked well. IMO, for new “fixing” proposals we should try to build in ways to effectively improve the participation of citizens. Some thoughts related to this are in the short polemic http://www.iniref.org/peoples.constitution.html

  2. Addressing the mechanisms which exaggerate income and wealth inequality is important. Without fixing tax avoidance/evasion the value of the rest imo is limited. So the agenda of the Tax Justice Network et. al. should, I think, be included. This would include (modestly) ending tax havens. A return to more ‘traditional’ (?) progressive taxation rates is also needed to stop the ‘ecology of financial mammoths’ which international political economy now fosters. This means addressing ‘regulatory arbitrage’ whereby large capital holders play off different governments to lower their tax rates and employment conditions for them.
    All this implies that solutions need to incorporate international ‘ground-up’ coalitions. Such co-operation is sometimes vilified as a path to world government and plutocracy (who decides things internationally now?) but if we don’t co-operate, which means apparent national restrictions for greater international collective payoffs (a form of the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’) we will have less freedom as the 99%+ has to continue to dance to the requirements of gross wealth and the chaotic swings of a market system which is neither free nor efficient.

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