Sunday, 31 August 2014

Tea Party Time on both sides of the Atlantic

David Coates considers possible similarities between the US Tea Party and the UK Independence Party.

There is always a complex but close relationship between economic conditions and political options, such that the understanding of one invariably requires an understanding of the other. That is particularly true in periods of sharp economic or political change of the kind we have known since 2008. The decision by the MP, Douglas Carswell, to transfer his political loyalty from the Conservative Party to UKIP triggered the following set of thoughts about present and future interactions between economics and politics on both sides of the Atlantic.

On the economic side of the equation, as is now widely understood, people in both the UK and the US still live under the shadow of the great recession of 2008-9. The credit crisis of September 2008 which triggered that recession was not a normal moment in modern economic history. On the contrary, it changed everything. It brought to an abrupt end nearly two decades of sustained economic growth, and in doing so, it completely blocked the continuation of the balancing act between demand and supply that had brought generalized prosperity to an entire generation of workers in each economy. It also left a lot of people struggling economically simply to survive.

There were people struggling before, of course. Capitalism and poverty always go together; but post-2008 the numbers and proportion of the population experiencing daily pressure on their budgets increased dramatically.[1] Jobs were no longer plentiful. Part-time employment, even self-employment, on low/subsistence wages became commonplace.[2] Semi-skilled workers who a generation before had left school and found good paying jobs in readily-available manufacturing plants suddenly found those jobs in short supply, and their equivalents in the service sector – if there at all – significantly less well paid.[3] The burden of that unexpected adjustment fell particularly on the young as the unspoken deal, which they spent their teenage years expecting to be theirs for the taking in their young adulthood, suddenly evaporated before their eyes. In the United States, for example, instead of guaranteed employment, a high-school diploma brought for many only systematic exclusion from the paid labor force.[4] Instead of high-paying jobs, four years at college for many middle-class children brought them only record levels of student debt.[5] And instead of living independently and even buying a first property, even many of the more privileged children of the late baby boomers often found themselves as academically qualified as their parents but still living at home![6]

The financial crisis and its aftermath left, that is, a working class in or on the edge of poverty; a middle class economically squeezed as it had not been in living memory; and an entire generation of millennials facing a lower rate of social mobility than their grandparents enjoyed in 1970, and a lower rate of house purchase than any time since the 1970s.  Politics could not be “business as usual” in the wake of so sharp a break with previous experience and expectations; and contemporary politics in both Washington and London these days is not “business as usual.” Amid the existing array of familiar political faces and options, new political forces are in play whose significance and potential need now to be understood.

When the assumptions of a whole generation are thrown into question in this fashion, it is only to be expected that the politics of that generation should also begin to change. Yet what is intriguing in our present circumstances is how modest those changes have thus far proved to be amongst the particularly deprived and exploited in both economies, and how little traction the recession has given the Democratic Left among its traditional constituencies. It is as though being poor – and particularly poor and black – in both the US and the UK is so deeply entrenched in the way the economies and societies function that not even an intensification of that poverty can do more than trigger an occasional outburst of urban rioting of the kind witnessed in parts of London in 2011 and in Missouri in 2014.[7] And it is though the bulk of American labor has given up even the fight to join a trade union, let alone to use it for progressive political purposes. At least low-paid American retail workers are in revolt, but even they stand so often isolated and alone.

What is also intriguing is how, so far at least, the millennial generation have stayed off the streets. Some of them were there briefly in the “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrations, but in the main millennials seem too overwhelmed by the daily struggle to find work, wages and even a career to do more than vote with their feet, staying away from a mainstream politics that offers them nothing immediate to ease their conditions.[8] Where the politics have changed, and where unexpectedly a right-wing populism has established deep roots in both political systems, is among white adults – the bulk of whom are now already middle-aged or older.  Right now we are seeing the coming together of a white working class that feels threatened by labor market competition from the next generation of immigrants, and a white lower middle class struggling to avoid slipping back into the ranks of the nearly poor. Angry white men seem particularly significant participants in all of this:[9] sustaining a profound Tea Party challenge to main-stream Republicans in the United States, and enabling UKIP to win a larger percentage of the popular vote than did any of the other three main political parties contesting the UK’s European elections in May.

The demographics of the Tea Party movement in the United States and of UKIP are, in this sense, remarkably similar. Typical Tea Party activists “are overwhelmingly older, white, conservative men and women who fear that ‘their country’ is about to be lost to mass immigration and new extensions of taxpayer-funded social programs…for low- to moderate-income working-aged people, many of whom are black or brown.”[10] The UKIP equivalent is “blue-collar, old, white, male, with few qualifications and a very pessimistic economic outlook,”[11] with UKIP best described as “a first home for angry and disaffected working-class Britons of all political backgrounds, who have lost faith in a political system that ceased to represent them long ago.”[12] The two political movements are not identical, of course.  Each is a product of its own place and time. Tea Party politics is infused with a Protestant evangelical social conservatism that UKIP broadly lacks, and by strands of libertarianism[13] which have no real purchase in more social-democratic Britain. And by the same token, UKIP is particularly engaged with issues of immigration from, and political subordination to, the European Union, which parallel but do not exactly match Tea Party anger at illegal immigration across the US-Mexican border. 

But both political formations share an anger at the present impasse, a strong conviction that the existing political parties cannot break that impasse, and a determination to do so themselves by rolling back the welfare state and freeing their members from the existing burden of taxation.  Though the different candidate selection systems in the two democracies allow the Tea Party to colonize the Republican Party in a way that UKIP can never hope to replicate inside the British Conservative Party, both are potent forces pulling their national politics to the right: collectively constituting for the modern era what Trotsky, long ago when talking of interwar fascism, called a “levée en masse of the petty bourgeoisie.” 

It is not immediately obvious yet just how permanent a presence in UK political life UKIP will prove to be. But what may determine its long-term potency and presence of UKIP is whether a millennial generation thus far so ill-served by mainstream parties also proves open to its appeal. And in that sense, mainstream parties on both sides of the Atlantic hold their – and indeed, our – future in their hands. Stopping the spread of support for rightwing populism requires more from them than simply refuting Tea Party and UKIP claims on immigration, important though that refutation will be. It also requires the design and implementation of a new economic growth strategy that can bring jobs and prosperity back to an entire generation.  So as we go to vote next time, it will be worth asking all the candidates just what elements, in their view, such a growth strategy should contain. For rather more hangs on the quality of their answers than simply the outcome of one general election. What hangs on the quality of their answers could well be the outcome of many elections to come.

David Coates holds the Worrell chair in Anglo-American studies at Wake Forest University, and has published widely on British politics. 

[1] Don Lee, ‘Fed survey: 40% of households show signs of financial stress,” Los Angeles Times, August 7, 2014: available at

[2] Will Hutton, “George Osborne’s economic ‘recovery is built on sand,” The Observer, January 26, 2014: available at

[3] A wage gap representing $93 billion in lost wages since the recession. For details see the press release of the United States Conference of Mayors, Wage Gap Widens From Recession As Income Inequality Grows, August 11, 2014: available at

[4] See Pew Research, The Rising Cost of Not Going to College, Published February 11, 2014: available at

[6] Matt O’Brien, “It’s not your imagination: millennials really are living in their parents’ basement,” The Washington Post July 11, 2014: available at

[7] Tim Newburn, “The Ferguson riots may seem similar to those in the UK – but there are stark contrasts,” The Guardian, August 21, 2014: available at

[8] There is also a strong libertarian current among millennials. On this, see Robert P. Jones et al, In Search of Libertarians in America, Washington DC: Public Religion Research Institute, October 2013, available at

[9] See Frank Schaeffer, America’s White Male Problem, posted on, January 7, 2013: available at  Also Thomas Magstadt, Angry White Guys: The Roots of Reactionary America, posted on NationofChange April 14, 2013: available at;  and Michael Kimmel, Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, New York: Nation Books, 2013.

[10] Theda Skocpol, “Why the Tea Party’s Hold Persists,” Democracy Journal, Winter 2014, p. 11: available at  See also Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, The Tea Party and the Remaking of American Conservatism. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 25-32.

[11] Robert Ford & Matthew Goodwin, “Why UKIP and the radical right matter for progressives,” Policy Network, April 10, 2014; available at

[12] Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain. London: Routledge, 2014, p. 270.  The full social profile of UKIP supporters is at pages 152-62.  Available at

[13] On this, see Edward Luce, “The tide is rising for America’s libertarians,” Financial Times, January 12, 2014: available at

Monday, 25 August 2014

Why Labour Orators Need A Divided Party

Andrew Crines outlines the need for divisions within the Labour Party as a means of promoting oratory.

The Labour Party was a divided party since its inception in 1906. It was a confederation of groups interested in the promotion of workers’ rights – such groups included the Social Democratic Federation, the Trade Unions, and the remnants of the ILP. It can be no surprise that it was subjected to defeat and division over the following decades. Without spending too much time lingering on history, the expulsion of Ramsay Macdonald, the emergence of the Gaitskellite/Bevanite axis, and the incursion of the radical left kept the Labour Party ideologically divided. In this context leading elites emerged to articulate various interpretations of labourism. For example Wilson’s arguments in the immediate aftermath of securing the leadership enabled him to present an alternative to the defeats of the 1950s. Michael Foot’s leadership was an attempt to attack the radical left by reaffirming the moderate left. In a nutshell, this was a history of defeat and division in which strong orators stepped forward to lead the party.

So, why is this important today? Put simply the New Labour project removed all ideological divisions by imprinting a set idea of what post-Thatcher Labourism would stand for. This enabled Blair to win three elections, however the effect on the party was dramatic. Without divisions, few orators stepped forward to articulate an ideological case. The party had Blair, so why would it need anyone else? Blair’s oratory is highly impressive, and through that he was able to set out his alternative vision of pragmatic labourism in the period running up to his first victory. Put simply there was no need for a Bevan, Gaitskell, or Foot because the party was united behind Blair and the Third Way. Remnants such as Scargill and Galloway removed themselves from the party, reducing division further.

This reduction of division, and with it the need to argue alternative ideological understandings of contemporary Labour has transformed the texture of the party to a professionalised, polished form of communication. The dryness of political professionalism lacks the momentum of ideological division because there is no counter-argument with which to compare it against. Ed Miliband’s Labour Party is One Party for One Nation. There is no alterative vision for Labourism. The lack of the alternative means no one needs to articulate it, thereby reducing further Labour’s capacity to grow its next generation of orators. This damaging impact on Labour will lower the expectations of the electorate, thereby reducing its appeal.

On first look this unity may appear to be ideal. The party can present a vision to the electorate without the distractions of debate or counter-argument. However this has historically been an important technique of labour renewal, and with it new leading figures emerged through the party to elite level. Without those divisions, the party risks becoming ideologically stale and rooted to elites who have little or no communication skills.

The remedy to this will mean encouraging divisions within the party again. Granted, those advocating continued unity would rightly argue such divisions may risk defeat. This is true. However that is the nature of politics. The Gaitskellites and Bevanites had two very different positions on how democratic socialism could and should be achieved. Such divisions enable future leading elites to grow their communication skills through making counter arguments, internal and external debates, and of course the media. This also enables orators to test the appeal of their ideology by measuring audience reactions. 

Thus, the biggest problem facing contemporary Labour is it has forgotten how to be constructively divided. It has lost its passion because it has lost its ability to debate. Labour oratory needs division, and the present unity could be problematic for demonstrating the relevance of labourism in the post-New Labour world.

Andrew Crines is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Leeds, and the co-editor of three volumes on oratory. Labour Orators from Bevan to Miliband and Conservative Orators from Baldwin to Cameron (both Manchester University Press) will be released early 2015. The third volume is on Democratic Party oratory and will appear the following year through Palgrave.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Your chance to shape the UK’s democratic future

Graham Allen MP discusses the future of the UK's democracy.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be able to write your own version of the political rulebook?  Well, now you can, thanks to a unique consultation being run by Parliament’s Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee.  As we approach the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta—one of history’s most famous constitutional documents—the Committee is asking people whether they think the UK needs a codified constitution and, if so, what should be in it.  

People living in nearly all democratic countries in the world expect to be able to find in one place the rules that govern how the state exercises power in their society.  They take pride in their constitution.  Every school child in America can quote from theirs. In the UK, there is no single document that sets out our constitution.  Instead, we have a host of Acts, common law, conventions and precedents. 

Now the Select Committee is asking whether this needs to change.  We’ve just published a report, A new Magna Carta?, setting out the arguments for and against codification, and providing three example constitutions.  The report represents the results of a unique four-year project which has seen the Committee working in partnership with King’s College London. The Committee itself deliberately didn’t express an opinion for or against codification, believing it is for the public to decide. There are plenty of people who would defend the status quo.  They would argue that it’s served us well for centuries and doesn’t need changing.

My own view is very different.  I think mainstream politics in the UK is broken and needs fixing.  The signs are all around us.  Differing paces of devolution in different parts of the Union – and the stifling over-centralisation in England – are leading to dissatisfaction that is not going to go away, no matter what the results of the referendum in Scotland. A significant number of people are completely disengaged from mainstream politics. They don’t feel that the main parties represent their views, or that politicians understand what their lives are like.  And some of them are turning to anti-politics parties in protest.  More and more people are deciding not to vote because they simply don’t see the point.  But I don’t think this is because people don’t care about politics—it’s because the world of mainstream politics seems remote and sometimes incomprehensible.

Having a constitution written down in one place is not going to magically re-engage people.  But it would be a start.  To enjoy a game of football or a tennis match, it helps to understand the rules.  If you want to take part, it’s essential.  But imagine if the rules weren’t written down anywhere, or were written down in a variety of different places that were difficult to find, so you never knew whether you were getting the whole picture. 

Recently, some attempts have been made to write down some of our existing constitutional arrangements in documents such as the Ministerial Code, the Civil Service Code, and the Cabinet Manual.  These attempts to write down existing arrangements, have, however, been piecemeal.  I think the time is right for a more coherent approach. 

The three example constitutions we have published represent a range of different approaches to codification: a non-statutory code, an Act consolidating existing constitutional laws and conventions, and a completely new written constitution.  They could be taken separately, as options in their own right, or regarded as steps on the road to codification. 

The Committee’s consultation runs until 1 January 2015 and we’re seeking views from everyone with an interest in the UK’s democratic future—from school children to professors of constitutional law.  To send us your views, visit We’ll be publishing submissions as we go so that you can see the debate unfold and in the new year we’ll report the views to the Government, ahead of the general election. 

In addition to its consultation, the Committee is running a competition to write an inspiring 350-word preamble to a written constitution for the UK.  We’ve already published some entries on our website, including my own attempt.  This is the moment for budding Thomas Jeffersons to get writing.  Please visit our website and submit your preamble online:

It’s great that we’re so interested in our constitutional history and that 2015 will see a host of celebrations to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, but I find it surprising that we are not more interested in our democratic future.  What do we in the UK want the next 800 years to look like? I see the Committee’s consultation as an opportunity for everyone to become a founding father or mother.  I look forward to hearing from you! 

Graham Allen is the MP for Nottingham North.

Monday, 11 August 2014

The Problem with Fixed Term Parliaments

Philip Norton, Lord Norton of Louth discusses the problems of fixed term Parliaments.

There are problems with fixed-term Parliaments and there are particular problems with the
Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. 

Fixed-term Parliaments limit rather than enhance voter choice.  The outcome of one election cannot be undone until the end of the stipulated term.  There may be the collapse of one government and inter-party bargaining producing another.  In such circumstances, voters are denied the opportunity to endorse what amounts to a new government.  There may be government instability or a largely ineffective government staggering on without achieving anything.  As the then Leader of the House of Lords, Lord Waddington, put it in 1991:

Is it better for a government unable to govern to go to the country to try to obtain a new mandate or for the same government to spend their time fixing up deals in which the unfortunate electorate has no say whatsoever?...  The people not the parties should decide who governs’.  (HL Deb, 529, 260)

In essence, fixed-term Parliaments rob the system of flexibility and limit voter choice.  That choice is especially limited by the provisions of the 2011 Act.  Although the policy of the Liberal Democrats was for four-year Parliaments, agreement was quickly reached in May 2010 on a five-year term.  This, according to David Laws, was to allow time to implement plans before worrying about the timing of the electoral cycle.  However, five-year terms mean that voters will have fewer opportunities than before to go to the polls.  Most post-war Parliaments have not gone their maximum length, whereas now a five-year term is the norm and not the exception. 

David Laws’ revelation of the coalition negotiations also implicitly accepts the argument that fixed-term Parliaments facilitate long election campaigns.  That is a practical objection, the realities of which we are seeing in the last session of the present Parliament.  MPs are not expected to be very visible at Westminster during the session – from September, as one put it, ‘I’ll be out campaigning’.  In terms of legislation, the heavy lifting will be done by the House of Lords. 

The other objection – made in evidence to the House of Lords Constitution Committee – was that knowing well in advance when the next election will be may encourage a government to manipulate the economic cycle to their maximum advantage. 

We then come to the 2011 Act.  The Act was the consequence of the need to build trust between coalition partners, was agreed in haste and by negotiators who were not especially well versed in the nation’s constitutional arrangements.  The Act did not do precisely what the short title suggests.  Rather, the Act provides for semi-fixed terms.  There are provisions that would enable early elections in certain circumstances.  They arguably give false hope that voter choice may not be as limited as under strictly fixed-term provisions. An election may be triggered if a vote of no confidence is carried against a government (and within 14 days a new government is unable to carry a vote of confidence) or if two-thirds of all MPs vote for an early election.  It is difficult to envision when the latter provision would be employed.  Parties are not going to vote for an early election if the opinion polls are not propitious.  A government could seek an early election by engineering a vote of no confidence in itself, but that is not likely to enhance the reputation of the political system.  The Act is silent on what happens in the event of a government imploding and then resigning.  The provisions of the 2011 Act are not triggered.  We would then be in what has been described as the ‘Belgian situation’, the Parliament continuing without a government being in existence. 

It is not at all clear that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act has delivered benefits to the British political system.

Philip Norton, the Lord Norton of Louth is a member of the House of Lords and a Professor at the University of Hull. He frequently blogs at The Norton View and is a contributor to Lords of the Blog. He tweets at @LordNortonLouth

Monday, 4 August 2014

Ed Miliband and the Problem of the ‘Personalised Political’

Judi Atkins, from the University of Leeds discusses personalised politics within the context of Ed Miliband's leadership.

Since the 2014 local and European elections, Ed Miliband’s public image and communication skills have come under renewed scrutiny from the Labour Party and the media alike.[1] Although he employs the same narratives of modernisation – party traditions, ‘new times’ and national renewal – that Tony Blair and Harold Wilson once used to great effect, Miliband has failed to convey his policies and vision in a way that resonates with the electorate. So, what’s gone wrong for the Labour leader? In a forthcoming article in Politics, I argue that part of the answer lies in Britain’s increasingly populist ‘rhetorical culture’, in response to which Miliband offers himself as the embodiment of Labour’s modernising narratives. This strategy has given rise to a solipsistic ideology that is unable to conceive of an audience beyond itself. Labour must therefore imagine a wider audience, and adapt its language accordingly, if it is to secure victory in 2015.             

In arguing for One Nation, Miliband makes references to luminaries from his party’s history, notably Clement Attlee and William Beveridge who, though a Liberal, was a key architect of the welfare state. This enables him to locate his approach within Labour’s traditions, reaffirm his commitment to its core principles, and cultivate his leadership character by allying himself with pioneering figures from its past. Such appeals to tradition are designed to reassure supporters that the One Nation agenda is in harmony with the party’s ideological heritage, and that modernisation will not come at the cost of Labour’s soul.

A second narrative stresses the necessity of breaking with Labour’s past, to which end Miliband characterizes the present as ‘new times’. This is achieved through an ideological periodisation, which proceeds from the assumption that the certainties of the New Labour era were swept away by the global financial crisis of 2008. These developments render New Labour’s approach outdated and, if it is to meet the challenges of ‘new times’, Miliband contends that his party must be bolder in its efforts to realise its core values. He thus frames ideological revisionism as Labour’s only option, while laying the foundations for a radical programme of national renewal.        

Labour’s ultimate goal is to rebuild Britain as One Nation. In Miliband’s words: 

 I didn’t become leader of the Labour Party to reinvent the world of Disraeli or Attlee. But I do believe in that spirit. That spirit of One Nation. One Nation: a country where everyone has a stake. One Nation: a country where prosperity is fairly shared. One Nation: where we have a shared destiny, a sense of shared endeavour and a common life that we lead together. That is my vision of One Nation. That is my vision of Britain.[2]

Here, Miliband seeks to win assent by inspiring his listeners with the prospect of a better future for Britain, one that contrasts starkly with the divided society he claims the Coalition’s policies have created.

In the above extract, Miliband articulates ‘One Nation’ in terms of his personal beliefs. For John Gaffney and Amarjit Lahel, this is an example of the ‘personalised political’, which involves ‘bringing the self in some way into responses to wider issues’[3] and so affords the speaker a populist means of inviting an audience to identify with their values and interests. More than this, however, Miliband’s leadership ‘character’ supplies a point of coalescence for the three Labour narratives, as I demonstrate next.
By aligning himself with historical party figures, Miliband offers himself as the present embodiment of Labour traditions. Although he acknowledges the achievements of New Labour, Miliband rejects as ill-suited to ‘new times’ those aspects of its approach – notably the disregard for the duties of those at the top of society – that are contrary to his own principles. Meanwhile, ‘Old’ Labour’s way is discarded due to its neglect of rights and responsibilities per se, which again runs counter to Miliband’s values[4] though he endorses its commitment to collective endeavour. Miliband is therefore positioned within, and in opposition to, aspects of Labour’s ideological heritage by virtue of his personal convictions. In the same vein, his commitment to inclusion and social justice provides a basis from which to criticise the ‘unfair’ policies of the Coalition. The three narratives thus converge within Miliband’s leadership persona, creating a self-referential rhetoric with limited appeal beyond Labour’s core supporters.

According to Simon Danczuk MP, Labour has ‘become too comfortable with talking to ourselves, with policy announced through set-piece speeches’.[5] Such addresses are characterised by the epideictic genre of rhetoric, whereby audience members are assigned the role of spectators who are there to ‘experience the affirmation of values’.[6] However, this type of rhetoric serves only to reinforce the existing identification between the Labour leadership and the party faithful, and so is unlikely to persuade a sceptical electorate to think of itself as belonging to that community. To address this, Labour needs to rely less on appeals to its own values and traditions (as embodied in Miliband’s leadership character), and instead conceive of an audience beyond the Party and adapt its rhetoric accordingly. Many of Labour’s policy proposals are proving popular with the public; the challenge is to communicate them in a way that resonates with this wider audience.

Judi Atkins is a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds where her research interrogates the interface between political theory and British party politics. This is orientated around leadership, rhetoric, and ideologies.

[1] Simons, Ned (2014) ‘European Elections: Ed Miliband Doesn’t Appeal to Voters And Party “Unforgivably Unprofessional”, Says Labour MP’, The Huffington Post UK, 23 May. Watt, Nicholas (2014) ‘Ed Miliband must go if we lose election – Labour frontbencher’, Guardian, 20 June.
[2] Miliband, Ed (2012) Speech to the Labour Party Conference, 2 October.
[3] Gaffney, John and Lahel, Amarjit (2013) ‘Political Performance and Leadership Persona: The UK Labour Party Conference of 2012’, Government and Opposition, 48, pp. 481-505.
[4] Miliband, Ed (2013) Speech to the Fabian Society New Year Conference, 12 January.
[5] Danczuk, Simon (2014) ‘“Mantra of misery” is a fool’s policy: Labour won’t win election by fighting defensively’, Mail on Sunday, 18 May.
[6] Finlayson, Alan (2012) ‘Rhetoric and the Political Theory of Ideologies’, Political Studies 60 (4), pp. 751-767.

Monday, 28 July 2014

The Irish Constitutional Convention, 2012-14

David Farrell from University College Dublin discusses the Irish Constitutional Convention.

The Irish Constitutional Convention (ICC)[1] was established on the heels of the worst economic crisis in the history of Ireland as an independent state. The Fine Gael-Labour coalition government that was elected in the 2011 electoral ‘earthquake’ promised a ‘democratic revolution’ with an attractive suite of packages, among them: the introduction of gender quotas; re-instatement of appropriate freedom of information legislation; enacting whistleblower legislation; establishing a register of lobbyists; making party finances more transparent; and parliamentary reform.[2]

Included in the mix was a proposal to establish a Convention to consider a number of potential areas of constitutional reform.  Ireland’s 1937 constitution is showing its age but it can only be reformed by referendum, something that has been attempted 33 times – 24 of them successfully.  The existential nature of this crisis brought into sharp relief the need for a fundamental overhaul of Ireland’s constitution and wider political institutions. The ICC represented a step – to many a far too small step – in that direction, with a rather eclectic agenda of topics including: marriage equality, blasphemy, the role of women, electoral reform, reducing the voting age, votes for emigrants (but only in presidential elections), the length of the president’s term of office.[3]

This is not the first time that a body has been established to investigate possible constitutional reform. But what marked the ICC out as unique was its membership and how it was selected. Building on the citizen’s assembly model that was trail blazed in British Columbia in 2004, ordinary citizens were at the heart of the process, only in the Irish case the citizens were sitting cheek by jowl with politicians: citizens comprised two-thirds of the 100 members, with members of parliament the other one-third. 

Following the British Columbia example the citizen members were selected randomly by an opinion poll company (though ensuring a fair representation in terms of sex, regions and socio-economic sectors): they did not run for election (as in Iceland), nor were they selected to represent particular sectoral interests as has happened often in the past in processes like this. 

The reason for selecting citizens at random was to ensure that they were there in their own right as ordinary citizens; they didn’t feel mandated as a result of fighting for office, nor did they feel duty bound to represent vested interests.  This selection process was a crucial feature in the design of the ICC organization, which was modeled on deliberative principles.  These principles also applied to how the ICC operated. Rather than the norms of parliamentary grandstanding and debating from fixed positions that so often governs the modus operandi of bodies of this type, in this instance the norm was deliberation – detailed discussion after becoming informed on all sides of the issue, respecting differing views, being prepared to change one’s mind.

The ICC met over a 14-month period, meeting roughly one weekend a month.  The members were ranged around tables of eight (mixing citizen and politician members), with trained facilitators ensuring that all members had equal opportunity to contribute.[4]  Each weekend ended with a secret ballot on the ICC’s recommendations.

These recommendations are gradually making their way through the higher echelons of government and parliament.  The government committed to responding to each of the ICC’s reports within four months of receipt by way of a parliamentary debate.  To date, four of the reports have been discussed resulting in government commitments to hold a number of referendums early in 2015 on marriage equality, reducing the vote age to 16, and reducing the age requirement for presidential candidates.  More referendums are anticipated.

It is too early to judge the success of this ICC: the government has only reacted to a portion of its reports (and there have been some worrying delays in reacting to the remaining ones); and we’ve yet to see the outcome of the referendums.  But what can’t be denied is that as a process, in terms of how the ICC operated, it was seen as a great success: many who had been critical before admitted to being converted, and senior politicians from all parties talk of the possibility of creating another ICC in the future.

Given the ongoing constitutional uncertainties in the UK due to the impending Scottish referendum and the anticipated referendum on Britain’s future in the European Union, it might be timely to consider borrowing from the Irish example and establishing a constitutional convention for the UK.
David Farrell is a Professor of Politics at the University College Dublin. He is a member of the Royal Irish Academy and was the Research Director for the Irish Constitutional Convention.

[2] Some less attractive – and in some cases, frankly, potty – proposals included the abolition of the Seanad (Ireland’s upper house), reducing the size of the Dáil (the lower house), and cutting politicians’ salary.  The government’s efforts to sell the idea that less-government-means-better government backfired spectacularly in October 2013, when the abolition of the Seanad referendum was defeated.
[3] The ICC was given space at the end of its deliberations on the agenda set by the government to consider other matters.  Having sought public submissions, the members voted to devote its final two weekends to the issues of parliamentary reform and economic, social and cultural rights.
[4] Experts prepared briefing documents that were circulated a week in advance of each meeting; the same experts then made presentations at the start of the meeting and were available to answer questions of fact.