With all the talk of a possible general election it is worth reflecting on the possibilities for a Progressive Alliance. The Progressive Alliance (PA) reached maximum recognition at two points – first at the Richmond Park by-election this time two years ago – and then at the subsequent snap general election in June 2017. In the harsh electoral reality of an impending Tory landslide, Compass made an equally snap decision to run the PA in the form of local electoral deals plus tactical campaigning and voting to try and reduce this expected Tory landslide. Continue reading “A note on the progressive alliance”→
(this is the third of three blogs. The first blog examined the reasons why our initial attempts to form an election compact between different centre left parties failed. The second looks at the role of social media in promoting extremism and tribalism. This third blogs looks at exciting how deliberative democracy can inaugurate a new progressive politics)
Many celebrate the recent Irish referendum vote on abortion as a vote for women’s rights and a fundamental break with its Catholic, conservative past. But what is less well known is the groundbreaking approach adopted by Ireland that preceded the vote – one that was the very opposite of our muddled, polarised and fear-ridden debate on Brexit.
Referendums dont normally lend themselves to nuanced debate. By their nature, questions are framed in a binary manner to solicit a straight ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer with a ‘tyranny of the majority’ as the outcome. However, what can be done is to use the period preceding a referendum vote to promote a wide ranging and informed public debate.
This is exactly the strategy adopted by the Taoiseach – the Irish government. To do this, they convened a ‘citizens assembly’ of ordinary people, chosen by sortition, in order to ensure a representative sample of the wider population. Housewives, students, ex-teachers, truck drivers and others, met over five weekends at the end of 2016. Members of the assembly included a mix of a mix of pro-lifers, pro-choicers and undecideds whose views broadly reflected opinions in the wider Irish population. By the end of it, they voted for change on one of the most divisive issues in Irish politics that no party dared touch for fear of electoral suicide.
The citizens’ assembly helped break the deadlock by giving permission for a more balanced, open and informed debate and it added democratic legitimacy to the difficult decisions confronting the Irish government. Much of the assembly’s deliberations were broadcast live on the internet and assembly members listened to presentations by medical, legal and ethical experts, campaigners for pro as well as anti-abortion, as well as powerful personal testimonies by women who had chosen abortion and those who chose to keep their baby.
“I think this issue, in Ireland, could never have gotten to the point we’re at today, were it not for the citizens’ assembly,” says Fine Gael’s deputy, Kate O’Connell. “I think we would have been years getting there, if we ever got there.”
The An all-party parliamentary committee charged with considering the work of the citizens’ assembly subsequently recommended legal abortion without restriction up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.
As Oliver Escobar, a lecturer in public policy at Edinburgh University, commented, “It’s quite a milestone in the field of democratic innovations. This is the first time this has been part of everyday politics”.
When the referendum vote came, the result was a resounding ‘Yes’ to withdraw the Eighth Amendment on Abortion, a part of the Irish Constitution, and allow women the right to decide. And evidence suggests that the information and debate that came with these assemblies had an impact both on vote choice and turnout, with a better understanding of the issues, and an unwillingness to be sucked into polarised debate promoted by shock imagery and disinformation campaigns.
Is deliberative democracy the antidote to party political tribalism and fake news?
But this experiment in ‘deliberative democracy’ did not come from nowhere. Ireland already has a track record in convening citizens assemblies, and this is part of growing interest and experimentation in citizens assemblies, smaller ‘citizen juries’, consensus conferences and ‘planning cells’, all forms of ‘mini-publics’ tested in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia and Oregon state in the USA, over the last twenty years.
Recent experiments in the UK have also included a specially convened Citizens Assembly on Brexit. However unlike the Irish example, this was a little known research project by University College London convened after the referendum vote, to deliberate on what kind of Brexit deal a representative sample of the UK population hoped for. This citizens assembly had no official support or backing by the UK government and was largely ignored by the mainstream media. The lack of official support also meant tat tight budgets could not include a properly funded national media campaign to trigger a wider public conversation.
Despite this, the Citizens Assembly on Brexit demonstrated what other similar deliberative forms have found: that when ordinary people are given clear, fact based information, expert presentations for and against a particular issue, and a safe space to discuss these in, they are capable of wrestling with complex questions, respecting different opinions, and arriving at consensual decisions.
Divisions and categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’ dont necessarily disappear but they are no longer the governing categories by which people relate to each other. This more constructive and deliberative approach that respects difference and seeks common ground was despite the fact that the assembly included a marginal majority of those who voted ‘Leave’. The Assembly’s first preference was for a bespoke trading relationship with the EU. Failing that, most opted to remain in the Single Market. For the full report along with annexes, click here.
Neal Lawson from Compass Think-do tank has recently argued that any future second referendum ought to adopt the Irish model and have a government commissioned citizens assembly.
Annex: how do citizens juries and assemblies work?
This is an ideal approach than needs to be adapted to time and resource constraints. There are a couple examples I know of, of local campaign groups who adapted this approach to their own needs.
Planning and recruitment. Usually, an Independent Advisory Committee (or Stewarding Committee oversees the process to ensure its quality and fairness. It may include academics and public figures from a range of backgrounds and opposing viewpoints. Mini-publics usually deal with divisive topics and their legitimacy depends on the buy-in from a range of voices across divides.
Learning phase. Participants are supported to learn about the topic from diverse perspectives. Time for individual learning (e.g. citizens receive information packages checked by the Independent Advisory Committee (IAG) to minimise bias),with group learning. During the latter, they are exposed to a range of evidence, views and testimonies covering the topic from various angles. Depending on the topic, this may include experts, officials, politicians, activists, and stakeholder representatives of various sorts. Participants are empowered to interrogate these ‘witnesses’, and sometimes to choose them from a list prepared by the IAG in order to ensure that assembly members are exposed to a balanced range of evidence and views.
Deliberative phase. Aided by impartial facilitators and recorders, participants then engage in small group face-to-face deliberation where they reconsider their initial ideas on the topic in the light of the evidence and testimonies from the learning phase, but also with respect to the arguments and experiences of their fellow deliberators.
Decision-making phase. The learning and deliberative work from previous stages enables participants to engage in considered judgement and informed decision-making. Depending on the topic, this may lead to a particular recommendation or set of recommendations which are articulated through reasoned arguments in the final report statement.
Follow up. The focus in this stage is impact. Ideally,the citizens assembly has already been in the ‘public eye’ from its inception. One way to ensure impact is to involve key public figures and broadcasters in the process and Stewarding Committee/ Independent Advisory Committee. The outcomes of the citizens assembly are shared through all relevant networks, thus informing broader public deliberation and decision-making.
These notes are taken from Forms of Mini Publics by Dr Escobar and Dr Elstub published on the New Democracy Website
(this is the second of three blogs on democracy and the future of progressive politics. The first blog examines why the Progressive Alliance initiative failed and the next blog looks at what can be done)
Remember the early promise of social media to transform democracy, give everyone a voice and circumvent mainstream news outlets with their own controlling agenda? The Arab Spring in 2011 was the high point of those hopes. It ended with Cambridge Analytica seven years later.
In 2011, it seemed that democracy was breaking out across the Middle East as Facebook, Youtube and Twitter were credited with mobilising mass networks of dissent and protest that toppled dictators and faced down tanks and riot police. Tahrir Square is said to have inspired the Occupy movement with messages of solidarity sent by Cairo based campaigners to Occupy Wall Street.
But maybe we mistook democracy for populism in countries that had no history of democratic governance, and were already riven with religious and political splits. For very quickly, democratic aspiration gave way to bitter factionalism, extremism and violence as new players such as Isis and Al-Nusra moved in.
What we had not bargained for was the power of social media platforms not only to give everyone a voice, to be a publisher and express a point of view, but the hidden dangers of being able to freely choose what to believe and whom to follow. It is this element of personal choice that has proved a powerful recipe for tribalism: if we can choose who to follow and what to believe, we follow the easy path of self-affirmation and ‘group think’. We follow people who agree with us and unfollow those who dont; and in doing so we diminish our capacity to be challenged by uncomfortable facts and people. There is nothing to provoke us to think and reflect in ways that enrich our understanding.
Critically, that includes our understanding of others and why they think so differently to ourselves. This empathetic understanding of others is even more vital than so called fact-based rational analysis. Put simply, the less we know how others think, the less we know.
The result is filter bubbles, anti-semitic conspiracy theories and an endless array of online parallel universes populated by people and sets of ‘alternative facts’ closed off from each other. This is toxic for it is but a short step to then rubbish, damn and de-humanise those who are ‘not like us’. In an online world, you can choose your tribe, however way out, exotic and weird its values and viewpoint; weird that is, to everyone except you and your people because you alone know ‘the truth’.
Nor is this danger only applicable to fringe groups and extremists, for different gradations of the same creeping polarisation is infecting broader public debate online and offline.
One example is the final report National Conversation on Immigration, whose authors make the telling observation that “face-to-face discussion is different to the online debate on immigration” :
While the National Conversation on Immigration showed that there is a moderate and balancing majority on immigration, this is not reflected everywhere. We found considerable difference between the face-to-face discussions in the citizens’ panels and an online debate dominated by relatively few voices, where those with stronger views at either end of the spectrum are most likely to voice their opinions. The difference between online and offline debate was profound……
The open survey was taken online by 9,327 people. The red line marks out the spread of responses – look at the peaks at either end of the red line.
A majority of the online survey respondents chose either the minimum or the maximum score: almost one-third (31%) gave a score of 1 out of 10 and a quarter (23%) gave a score of 10 out of 10. This helps to explain the highly polarised nature of online debate. These most strongly-held views were much rarer in the nationally representative ICM research, where just 15% of the ICM sample chose either end of the spectrum: in ICM’s representative poll, just 8% chose the lowest score of one, and just 7% the highest score of ten.
In another piece of research by social social scientists in America, several hundred people – a mix of Democrats and Republicans – were encouraged to follow a Twitter bot that re-tweeted messages opposed to their point of view. Far from building understanding, it pushed them to a more polarised viewpoint.
These findings chime with a recent article by Jamie Bartlett “How social media makes fascists of us all”, in which he makes the chilling connection between the growth of social media and a new kind of fascistic style of politics unwittingly embraced even by those on the Left. It is a hardened, angry, blame-seeking politics that prizes action over reflection, and loyalty over independent thinking. It is hard wired into the nature of social media with its constant, disconnected stream of news,comments and updates that work against careful, deliberative thought. And he sees tribalism as endemic to social media:
It is the return of tribalism, which is the natural state for social media. This is because in our hyper-connected, over-saturated yet under-informed world, we are encircled by enemies and protected by fellow travellers. Joining a tribe is the only way to survive.
Moreover he sees nothing in it that expands our understanding or challenges our thinking. He goes on to remark:
online there is always a fact or a comment or a hot take to prove your side is right and the other side is utterly wrong. When was the last time you actually changed your mind after discussing something online? I’ll answer that for you: probably never, because who has time online for the long, careful, respectful discussion necessary to see the other side of it?
The role of Cambridge Analytica
This brings us to Cambridge Analytica and the role of ‘dark money’ (defined as money from unknown sources) and online political advertising to spread disinformation and ‘fake news’ in order to game election results.
To be clear there is nothing new in so-called ‘fake news and disinformation by governments, corporations and the media. What is new is the scale and power of online tools to effect changes in an individual’s world view through highly personalised disinformation campaigns. This is for two reasons:
Firstly, our every action online leaves a digital trace as our lives translate ever more into electronic media and data. This enables online platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to collect vast amounts of personal data by continuously monitoring its users. This ‘surveillance capitalism’ enables the creation of extremely accurate psychological profiles on both individuals and groups based on who we communicate with, what we ‘like’, and the content we consume and share such as photos, movies, music, news. These profiles include personal beliefs, opinions and behaviour and importantly: the ability to predict which side you will ultimately vote for in an election. Indeed, research has suggested Facebook ‘likes’ alone enable algorithms to assess your personality better that your own friends could, or indeed levels of self-understanding achieved through introspection (1). Cambridge Analytica claimed to have individual profiles on over 200 million American citizens.
The second reason follows on from the first: it is because algorithmic intelligence is able to capture and model indepth profiles on each of us, that tailored political advertising is able to frame a given message that speaks to us directly. Because only Isee it on my newsfeed, it is possible to frame messages that may even say opposing things to different groups and individuals but always personalised in a way that triggers an emotional response. Unlike a printed newspaper article or party political flyer where all of us see the same message, read the same argument, agree or disagree on the points made, there is no such need for consistently worded common message in online political advertising. Its reach and power is precisely because a given message can be tailored and framed in multiple ways. Moreover, the information source remains unknown – there is as yet no legal obligation to identify the author.
Wow. Look at this. Another Vote Leave "ad" released by Facebook to parliament today. And look! There's no imprint on it. There's NOTHING to say it's an ad, or that it's from Vote Leave.
All that is needed is for you ‘like’ ‘share’ or ‘retweet’. While you may not have bothered to check its source or veracity, ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ will take it on trust because the message came from a trusted source -YOU! As Mark Turnbull, former Managing Director of SCL Elections said in an unguarded moment: We just put information into the blood stream of the internet and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again… It has to happen without anyone thinking, ‘That’s propaganda’. Because the moment you think, ‘That’s propaganda’, the next question is: Who put that out?
None of this is to say that we must abandon social media; it is too much a part of our lives, family and friendships. But it is to say that we need to take a big step back and re-balance our use of social media by combining it with more deliberative democratic forums that are face to face, as well as online. There are now a number of groundbreaking experiments underway with proven power to re-balance our politics and act as an anti-dote to fake news. It is this that forms the next and last of the three blogs
Many of you will know the considerable efforts we went to, in order to promote a more progressive politics in Cornwall by finding common ground between centre left parties.
And how that failed.
It is worth exploring why. When we initially kicked this process off, we had considerable interest by members of the public who had voted Labour, Libdem or Green in the 2015 election and who had switched votes in previous elections, moving across all three parties in some cases. A good few were party activists but there also significant numbers who belonged to no party at all. Continue reading “Cornwall Progressive Alliance meets Life of Brian: the story so far”→
This post was previously published on Cornwall Reports 4 July 2018. Things are now moving at a break neck speed to…..nowhere! except possibly a general election or second referendum.
I am reposting this article because it is vital that people understanding the threat to our democracy that this bill poses. The new Trade Bill – Liam Fox’s baby – is also a thoroughly anti-democratic attempt to shut down parliamentary accountability for laws passed by ministers that promote corporate interests, not ours.
On 26th June, a group of policy experts came down to Cornwall to give a briefing on the impact of the EU Withdrawal Bill which has just been passed in Parliament. The Repeal Bill Alliance takes no side in the debate about leaving or remaining in the EU. Their two-fold aim is to uphold democratic accountability along with a ‘high standards UK’ – the protection of existing rights and regulations, the devolution settlements and the Good Friday Agreement, once we leave the EU.
Jane Thomas, their spokesman, made clear her desire to reach out to local voluntary organisations in Cornwall, as well as farming and fishing community, who have concerns or questions about the impact of the bill. Contact details are given at the bottom of this article.
It’s up to Labour and the Liberal Democrats to take the lead in getting Parliamentary representation for people who don’t want the Conservatives back in next time
post by Richard Clark – Mid and East Cornwall Green Party Spokesperson for the St Austell and Newquay constituency
The meeting in Penzance on 22 February 2018 gives a glimmer of hope for the future, but it is only a flickering gleam as things sit, a long way from the furnace of all that is blue and depressing that some of us would hope it to be.
Some of you may know that, wearing a separate hat, I am also campaigning for constitutional reform. Why does this matter? Because our democracy is in a serious state of disrepair. Whether we are Labour, Green, Libdem or MK, we urgently need to understand that as Graham Allen ex Labour MP says “make our democracy work or possibly lose it”.
Labour in particular needs to take this message on board because Brexit changes everything. Labour fails to understand that it is playing a dangerous game of poker with an opponent who has the power to change the rules of the game at every point (viz resurrection of electoral boundary changes before next election). And power is what this is all about. Our democracy is being rigged. It is no longer just about a broken election system but an EU Withdrawal bill which includes a massive transfer of power from Parliament to the Executive. Be in no doubt, this will eviscerate our parliamentary democracy if the bill passes in its present form.
It is just not good enough for us to ‘carry on campaigning’ for the NHS, for Labour, or whatever party we support; or disability rights, welfare rights, the environment, as though nothing had changed. This is increasingly a form of collective denial. We busy ourselves with good causes and fail to see the political earthquake taking place beneath our feet. Our right to vote, petition, demonstrate, means nothing in a sham democracy that sees real power exercised by the few-and that is what is happening now, quietly, without too much fuss. In a very British way.
I urge you to read this article and join the cause for a citizens convention on a new, modern constitution fit for the 21st century. A written constitution directs the work of government – and not the other way round as in the UK. It must be ordinary people who come together to agree and decide the rules by which we are governed. Not constitutional experts, not politicians or political parties. It must be ‘For The People, By The People’. If we really want to #TakeControl then this is the way forward.
Labour is in the best position to do this – but slowest to take up the cause. Liberal Democrats, Green Party, MK have long arrived at this point. Will Labour have the courage, vision and leadership to embrace this most important of issues and join the cause before it is too late?