London’s next mayor should be a democratic trailblazer

Both of the frontrunners to succeed Boris Johnson have pledged a more open and inclusive politics. Tessa Jowell, who has been a long and lonely advocate for throwing open Labour’s selection processes through the use of primaries, says she wants her party to leave behind the ‘old politics of backroom deals and factional stitch ups’, while Zac Goldsmith has taken the unprecedented step of balloting his constituents to decide whether or not he should run.

Nevertheless, neither they, nor any of the other candidates, have yet laid out how they would practice politics any differently once elected. Nobody, it seems, is proposing to make the mayor more accountable or advocating experiments which involve people more directly in political decision-making.

But such a stance could be a highly popular one. New polling for a Policy Network report launched today shows that only 31 per cent of people in Britain feel their voice counts in decisions taken by local politicians. In London, it is not much higher at 33 per cent. Sixty-five per cent of Britons think the system of government could be improved either quite a lot or a great deal – in London this goes up to 71 per cent. Giving people more of a say in how decisions are made is one of the most popular reforms, with Londoners being the most open-minded about innovations such as using lotteries to select ordinary citizens to play a part in political decision-making.

To honour their rhetoric about re-engaging people and opening up participation in politics, London’s mayoral candidates should pledge to hold a citizens’ assembly shortly after the election. The people of London could develop a set of priorities and concrete proposals for the mayor’s four-year term. The experience of other countries, as well as the new polling showing high levels of support for the idea, should give the candidates encouragement to take the plunge into a more participatory style of politics.

Over the past 18 months, the Netherlands has seen ‘G1000 citizens’ assemblies in seven municipalities, each occurring shortly after elections. They bring together 1,000 randomly selected, ‘ordinary’ people from the community with employers, politicians and civil servants. Rather than starting the day with an agenda handed down from on high they start with conversations asking about the most important issues in their communities, how they want to see them tackled and what they, as citizens, will contribute to doing so.

The process is not about furnishing a list of demands to elected politicians. It is about finding common priorities and proposals, as well as ways to empower people to make the change they want to see in their communities. By the end of the event hundreds of ideas get moulded into 10 concrete proposals. The Dutch G1000s are also remarkable because they are intended not as one-off events, but regularly recurring processes, ensuring an ongoing conversation between citizens and their representatives.

It is true that the mayor has a team of experts to hammer out policy, but citizens’ assemblies can increase democratic legitimacy and accountability; better represent the diversity of Londoners; and ultimately help politicians arrive at better decisions.

The use of lotteries may seem like a drastic step to improve accountability, but it is not radically different from the way we currently appoint juries. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence that when people are given the time and information necessary to make decisions, they prove to be extremely competent in doing so. Random selection also means they have no political mandate keeping their thoughts on re-election, rather than on what’s best for the community.

Crucially, the citizens’ assembly would help redress the unbalanced nature of the London assembly. Elected by only 40 per cent of Londoners in 2012, it is almost 70 per cent male, and consists almost entirely of people who have spent their lives working in politics or the professions, such as medicine, law and architecture. Including the voices of female, working class and more diverse backgrounds in the mayor’s decision-making would truly ‘open up’ political participation and ensure those views are reflected.

Additionally, new polling shows that 56 per cent of Londoners support the idea of a local citizens’ assembly. London was the trailblazer for elected mayors in 2000. Now is the time for it to be a trailblazer in the next wave of democratic innovation, showing other cities with mayors like Liverpool, Bristol and, very soon, Manchester the way forward.

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Claudia Chwalisz is a policy researcher at Policy Network and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change

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Photo: Martin Pettitt

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