On doing referendums well – the way forward for Brexit?

For historical reasons we need not go into, Ireland requires agreement through a referendum every time the government signs a treaty. In 2008 Ireland rejected the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum. The Lisbon Treaty was a complex arrangement that changed the nature of the EU in a number of subtle ways. The referendum campaign was a farce. The then Taoiseach, Brian Cowan, admitted he hadn’t read the Treaty.

In the vote there was a narrow (53%-47%) victory for the “No” side. Which was embarrassing, and resulted in a second referendum (which resulted in a clear victory for the Yes side).

When Irish Labour became junior coalition partners in 2011, they wanted to change the constitution to create equal marriage. In a country that had been hostile to gay rights until the mid-1990s this was seen as difficult and controversial. A change to the constitution required a referendum, which was an even greater barrier than existed in other countries.

More out of fear than optimism the conservative Fine Gael-led government allowed the creation of a Citizens’ Assembly, which drew a roughly geographically and demographically balanced section of the Irish citizenry. These 100 people were charged with considering how equal marriage could be implemented.

The result was a national conversation about the changes that led to an extremely successful referendum. And successful not just because the right decision was reached. Successful because it received almost complete “losers’ consent” – those who lost haven’t sought to undermine the result.

Ireland isn’t good at referendums because its political culture is better than the UK’s. Ireland has simply worked out how to have a good referendum. We should learn from them.

A similar Citizens’ Assembly led to the legalisation of abortion last year in another referendum. And again there was almost universal losers’ consent.

The reason this works is that it allows thorough consideration of the proposal at hand, that isn’t susceptible to the sort of misunderstandings that so often dog public debate. And the creation of a consensus around the way forward offered by the Citizens’ Assembly paves the way for a successful referendum.

So now may be the time to have a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit (like the one already undertaken by UCL Constitution Unit. It should be on a statutory footing and should consider the various ways forward, suggesting 2 or 3 to be put to a referendum (or preferendum) that might just gain the losers’ consent we need to get out of this mess.

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Planning better communities

A version of this blog first appeared on the Snook website:

I come from Ireland. Irish villages used to grow laterally. When the time came to build a house, the builder would go to the last house in the village and throw his hat. He would build his house where his hat landed. The result is sprawl: fine in the 19th century. A real problem now. It’s not good for transport, and with larger populations, it results in people living too far from shops and facilities to make strong communities. It creates huge problems for health services and for delivering amenities like electricity, water and sewage.

Our planning system exists to avoid this problem but it’s not without its problems. On the one hand, there is the need to provide housing, shops and services for communities. On the other hand, there are people whose communities are under threat from those developments.

The town and country planning system in the UK dates from the 1940s, when communities gained the right to determine how land was used. Community interest was represented through local authorities, who ran a process through which people or companies could be granted or denied permission to build on land. The system involves zoning for different uses such as industry, commerce, or residential, but each development needs planning permission.

The planning system often tended toward elite control, with grand plans being created by city fathers (because they were, almost without fail – men) and foisted on communities. During the 1960s and 1970s resistance grew to this approach. People – who were better educated than ever before, and who wanted more choice – made sure that the plans suited them and their communities. However this has gridlocked the system and made planning confrontational. For some organisations, the planning system lies at the heart of all that is wrong, to the extent that they believe sorting it out would solve all our problems.

Planning the future

This system was great in it’s time, but it’s time has now passed, and we have the opportunity to create something much better.

By necessity, the planning system we have is one that is adversarial and we should create something based on the principles of co-design. We need to put communities at the heart of the process and changes in technology will make this much easier.

Organisations like Snook have been working with Hackney Council to build on the work that Future Cities Catapult have been doing on transforming the planning system. Separately, the Scottish Government is running a process that harnesses technology and participation to make planning better. We believe now is the time to make this work, building on the foundation of a new planning system, with data informing community-led decisions.

We’ve moved from a world where people needed information brought to them to make decisions. Those city fathers were the possessors of enormous accumulated knowledge that allowed them to make decisions. But that has now changed. We’re now in a world where the information is mostly out there already. The internet was designed to keep communications alive in the event of a nuclear war. It distributes information to protect it. But this has a huge additional benefit: it means we can all access that information.

Over the past 10 years, networked approaches to information in public services have begun to emerge. These include crowdsourcing information and citizen science. This is good but still isn’t at the heart of how public services work. Leading businesses in the private sector have data at the core of their operations. We need to identify new ways to harness the data that we now have access to, to deliver better public services, and we need to increase the role for communities in those services.

So what does this look like?

We should replace the current planning system that sets developers and communities at loggerheads with one that co-designs with our communities.

Imagine a community event where we use inclusive design and participatory processes to identify what a community actually needs. Add to this skills in urban design, throw in some Minecraft experts, and we could have a process where the community sets out what it wants to see, then commissions the facilities that are needed. The process can be based on the best data and modelling available. It will transform the adversarial system we have into a creative system. The time spent on opposing developments could be spent on co-designing communities of the future.

Furthermore, using machine learning and artificial intelligence can help develop proposed developments. Having all planning data on open standards might allow us to create 3D models of our cities, and an opportunity to understand rural service needs. We could create dynamic plans in which the greatest effort is devoted to making the important decisions, not making the models. We could deploy augmented reality and virtual reality to help people understand what is being proposed. There are digital tools that allow better and more inclusive consultation.

Snook wants to develop our role in planning and community participation. This means creating a community of designers committed to human-centred design. We want people to have the right tools to challenge or contribute to the the processes that shape their environment.

These processes need to be open to everyone. They need to be truly participatory. That means we want to improve the information that supports policy and how policy is subsequently developed. Organisations like Snook are asking the question: could local development plans be fluid, responding to live data, population needs, emerging trends and unexpected events? What would it be like if urban data could be used to create a dynamic framework. An approach that allows for policy at the local level which is responsive and connected to community needs as they arise?

Technology creates the opportunity for human involvement to be focused on the highest value decisions. It offers us the opportunity to codesign the cities of the future. It allows us to better understand where to site housing, shops and other facilities.

The Scottish Government’s commitment to reforming the planning process gives us a real opportunity. However we need to think deeply and creatively about how we can make design something that we do together – that helps to create better communities for us all.

Why we’re talking about the wrong bits of Brexit


We’ve spent a lot of time taking about Brexit and very little time thinking about the causes of Brexit. That’s important because as the withdrawal date draws closer, so the expected benefits will come into focus. I think that whatever happens after March next year risks deeper divisions amongst progressives. And a ride of the hard right.

The reason why the hard right wanted a Brexit referendum was precisely because it would unleash racist forces and divide the left. We need not to fall for that tactic.

This is because Brexit can never solve the problems it was meant to address. There were two major drivers of the Brexit vote: opposition to austerity; and opposition to immigration and the presence of black, Asian and minority ethnic people in the UK.

But Brexit isn’t going to end austerity, and it isn’t going to make Britain white again. And no Brexit can be sufficiently Brexity for the Brexit enthusiasts.

I am very concerned that any failure to leave the EU will be a massive recruiting agent for the hard right. They will be able to make the case that democracy doesn’t work, so we should have authoritarianism instead. This is almost certainly what will happen if Brexit is stopped.

But it’s also what will happen if we have a Brexit that doesn’t end austerity, or doesn’t end immigration, or doesn’t create a racially pure Britain. In other words, any actual existing Brexit.

And everyone who understands politics or economics knows ending austerity will be more difficult outside the EU than inside the EU. And it is both impossible and totally wrong to end immigration or revert to the racial mix of the 1950s.

We need to focus on the causes of Brexit and the real solutions to those. We need to change how we make the case on austerity and we need to win the argument for immigration and anti-racism.

There have been effective campaigns against austerity, but the lesson from the Brexit vote is that they need to be clearer about how austerity can be ended. We focused on the problems of austerity, rather than the ways we could end austerity. There’s good evidence that people believe that there is a limited amount of money which had to be allocated by government. It’s, of course, not true. But it makes arguments against the EU (and international aid) very attractive. It is a significant part of what made people believe the notorious ‘£350m a week for the NHS’ lie.

This is not just an expression of regret. We need to change how we do politics so we can avoid Brexit becoming a permanent recruiting agent for the far right.

There has not, on the other hand, been an effective campaign for immigration. And this is what we need to change. The first priority must be to make the moral and economic case for immigration. Immigrants have the right to be here – it’s not just Scotland that is a mongrel nation – and they make our economy and our public services function. We must be on the front foot about immigration and race.

Whether you are in favour of Brexit or not, whether you are campaigning for a People’s Vote or not, addressing the causes of Brexit must be a higher priority. We are at a very dangerous juncture, and we need to ensure that we speak to the concerns that led to the Brexit vote.

#IndyRef 3 years on: another world is possible

Three years on from the independence referendum, politics is moving ever faster. In looking back we must look forward.

“In some decades nothing happens, in some weeks decades happen.”

It feels like we’re living in a decade of weeks in which decades happen. Political change keeps accelerating – from the student protests in 2010 to the ongoing mess the UK government is making of Brexit. 

There’s much to regret in this. It’s been a decade of right-wing rule in the UK, people’s lives have been very badly damaged by austerity, the NHS in England is close to collapse, and the ongoing attack on immigrants is a political stain.

But the 2014 Scottish independence referendum stands apart from this. It was here that the left began to learn how to win. The issue of independence isn’t one that is necessarily of the left. For much of the campaign opponents of independence tried to characterise it as a right-wing cause. That characterisation didn’t stand up to much scrutiny, and the reason behind that is what was so invigorating about the campaign. We believed that another Scotland was possible.

For the first time in my political lifetime ideas had the space to breathe on the left. We weren’t campaigning to have ‘our people’ cut taxes, remove regulations and privatise things, rather than letting ‘their people’ do it. We moved from opposing austerity to building support for alternatives.

Ideas that had been fringe and underappreciated gained new currency. We talked about the opportunities for a Citizen’s Basic Income, for a Land Value Tax, for a profoundly different type of government. People became engaged in a popular debate about the benefits of a Scottish currency.

Through 2 years of public meetings we moved from a triangulated set of proposals to tweak the post-Thatcherite consensus of British politics to a lively carnival of ideas. This was the first time I’d seen movement politics truly manifested. The old, neoliberal politics was knocked sideways. There were repeated calls to stop such debate, because it was distasteful.

And that way of doing politics hasn’t died. The ideas popularised through the referendum have worked their way into the latest Scottish Government “Programme for Government.” The Women for Independence campaign against a new national women’s prison quickly secured victory. The work of organisations like Common Weal has put a National Investment Bank on the agenda. But most of all, it created a new way of doing politics: exciting, progressive, idea-rich and transformative for society.

Armed with more access to information than ever before, with a combination of online and offline meetings, and faced with a ruling hegemony deep in crisis this way of doing politics may change the 21st century as the pamphleteers changed the 17th century, or trade unions changed the 20th century.

Of course many people found this difficult. The neoliberal consensus came with a comforting disdain for debate, disagreement and discussion. Learning to do politics again can mean people take their passions too far. The answer was not to exclude debate, it was to find ways to channel those passions constructively. During the campaign that was, I think, a success.

It’s hard not to see echoes of this movement-politics in the campaign to elect Bernie Sanders and in the Corbyn movement. It is far from perfect, but if we are to create a better world democratically we need to learn from this unforgettable political moment. With more access to communication tools at lower cost than ever before, the weeks in which decades happen will come more and more frequently. Popular movements can help harness those decisive moments for progressive change. It’s not just another Scotland that is possible. Another world is possible.

History is back

In the last week Scottish politics has had a shock and a surprise. Kezia Dugdale’s resignation came as a shock to most. In the timing at least. And the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government is a (pleasant) surprise.

Both are results of the June General Election.

Both have one thing in common – they mark the end of centrism and triangulation in Scottish politics. At least for the present. A centrist leader of the Scottish Labour Party simply saw her party leave her. Far from her prediction that a move to the left would leave the party ‘carping from the sidelines’, the June election showed that a radical programme could profoundly change the debate.

The shock created by Labour’s success was all the greater because that success was based on a very political, ideological manifesto. That Labour was able to overcome an almost unprecedented set of barriers made the shock even more significant. The Labour Party wasn’t just profoundly split. It faced an almost entirely hostile media, a leader who started the election period with terrible ratings, a muddled position on Brexit and a poor recent track-record in elections.

The decisive moment in transforming this situation came with the launch of the Labour manifesto. The initial media reception was one of (metaphorical) eye-rolling. But it was popular with the public.

It allowed Labour to deny the Conservatives a majority. Even against the background of Brexit and despite the Conservative move into Labour territory on issues like worker involvement and a play to economic nationalism, they only gained 2 Labour seats in England.

In 1989 Francis Fukuyama wrote a widely cited essay called “The End of History.” His contention was that with the collapse of the USSR only liberal democracy and capitalist economies remained. The right had won the ideological contest of the modern era, and with it, history had ended. This informed a political strategy of appealing to the ‘centre-ground’ – the only place where an election could be won from.

The parties that had behaved according to the rules of the 1990s political universe, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP woefully underperformed expectations. Both thought that having captured the ‘centre ground’ they would reap hundreds of thousands of Labour votes. They didn’t. In Scotland Labour gained because of the manifesto. They did that despite the centrist leanings of their leader.

The iron rule that elections were won from the centre was shown to be wrong. The fundamental claim of centrists was always that their approach gave the best chance of electoral success. This was exposed by the June General Election not just to be wrong, but to be profoundly wrong.

With no prospect of the Labour party moving back to the right and with the removal of the  ideological cudgel that dictated centrism was the only road to electoral success Kezia Dugdale saw the writing on the wall and resigned.

Which brings us to the SNP. With the evidence that the centrist approach didn’t work, outflanked by Corbyn in the UK and the Greens in Scotland, they are trying a new approach.

The programme for government is bold (at least in the range of consultations). It contains policies considered too radical even for Green manifestos in the past. It marks an end to the Scottish Government’s safety first centrism.

History is no longer at an end. Ideology is back. And politics will be much the better for it.

The Community Right to Buy and #SaveBellfield show the way to a new politics

Great news – both Scottish Ministers and the church trustees have approved the buyout of Portobello’s Bellfield Church. The first urban buy out under the Community Empowerment Act.

I’m delighted that this idea, which (I think) first featured in an SCVO manifesto in 2010, I co-authored with Sarah Beattie-Smith is making its way into reality. And in a place I love.

I’m very grateful to those who’ve spent so much time on this, not least Justin Kenrick who planted the seed of the idea, and Mary Campbell who has done so much work to make it happen, alongside the many, many hours devoted to the buy out by super-dedicated community activists.

So many of the political problems we face today are the result of people feeling disconnected from the problems that they face. From the 1990s onwards the drive of the market into every relationship has robbed people of control of their lives. That’s primarily a failure of democracy. And it’s very difficult to see how we can go back to the ‘delivery state’ that so effectively built council houses, eliminated infectious diseases like tuberculosis and created the modern infrastructure of this country.

The aim of the community right to buy is to pioneer a new way of living and working together. One that isn’t either the ‘delivery state’ that worked well in the mid-20th Century, or the market, which has so spectacularly failed in the last 10 years.

The opportunity to decide how our lives work, together with those who live around us, is one of the fundamental characteristics of being human. Learning how to do that better will be at the heart of overcoming the challenges we face, from inequality to climate change.

The Bellfield buy-out (and other initiatives like the Edinburgh Student Housing Cooperative) make a start – a small one – but pioneering these ways of working will be vital. So thanks to everyone who’s got us this far. and here’s to building the future.

 

Has austerity ended? 

Today’s budget really crystallised something for me. Since 2008 there has been an incessant demand for cuts. This was accepted across the media and leadership of most political parties. 

The argument went that the UK’s national debt was too high and that cuts would allow us to pay off this debt. Both those assumptions were wrong. The national debt wasn’t too high. And cuts would never help us pay debt off. 

Parties and politicians who made the argument that this was wrong were laughed out and shouted down. Journalists and economists (even those with Nobel prizes) who made this argument were marginalised. There was to be no space for alternatives to austerity. 

The reality has been that cuts removed demand from the economy, reducing tax take and actually increasing debt. 

People have starved to death because of cuts to social security. Our world-leading renewables industry has lost almost all support. Jobs have been destroyed and lives ruined. 

Then Brexit came and put intolerable strain on this economic-political settlement. 

And it’s this point that has crystallised for me today. The Chancellor, Philip Hammond had abandoned the target date to get the economy into surplus. Yet those who silenced the politicians, parties, journalists and economists who objected to austerity are themselves now strangely silent. 

What struck me is that it is now entirely clear that they never believed in austerity for the reasons they said they did. It was never about debt or deficit. It was always a tool to discipline the poor. And now there’s a much better tool. Which is the full power to dismantle the social rights associated with, and protected by, European structures. 

Those rights were, of course, always limited and came with deeply undesirable regulations appearing to require privatisation and tendering of services. Procurement is a nightmare not helped by European regulation. 
But nevertheless the European institutions were perceived, especially by elites, as a major hurdle to dismantling protection for workers and the poor. 

It’s infuriating that the stick used to beat the social democratic consensus has been dropped so rapidly and with so little contrition from those who both used it so vigorously and who have now so swiftly moved on. 

And are we now seeing a move from one strategy to another? From the use of austerity to create the imperative to shrink the state to another strategy that uses Brexit as the pretext for attacks on workers? And how do we respond to that?