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A Magazine for Sheffield

Citizens’ assemblies and deliberative democracy: An open letter

Sheffield has almost no control over its own destiny, "not worthy of making decisions for ourselves", according to our hyper-centralised government.

City centre panorama 5
Rachel Rae Photography

We take for granted that power is concentrated in Westminster and that Sheffield and Yorkshire have almost no control over their own destinies. It doesn’t even occur to us that in normal countries not only are most services and powers delegated to regions and cities, but even neighbourhoods have democratic power. In a normal country Heeley, Darnall and Nether Edge would all be lively hubs of democratic action - but not in England.

However there have been rumblings of change. After many years of battle, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland did achieve devolution and in England there has been the movement to create regional mayors, like Andy Burnham in Manchester and our own Oliver Coppard in South Yorkshire.

As the shock of Brexit tore through the Westminster establishment, there have been some in the Labour Party who have begun to realise that the current system isn’t serving ordinary people well. So in 2020, Keir Starmer announced that Gordon Brown would lead a commission to explore what might be possible in the future. However, so far, little has been heard about the work of this commission.

For this reason, a letter has been sent to Gordon Brown to ask him to consider opening up conversations with ordinary people, civil society and those organisations that have already been thinking about how regional devolution should work. Ideally this should be through an open and balanced citizens’ assembly, which is a process which would allow various alternatives to be considered.

Dear Mr Brown

Firstly, we would like to take this opportunity to applaud the good work that you do on so many fronts, from global education and health to addressing child poverty at home.

Our purpose in writing to you is with regard to your role as chair of the Labour constitutional commission launched by Keir Starmer in December 2020.

Our understanding is that you have brought together Welsh and Scottish Labour leaders and English mayors from across the country to demand a “new constitutional offer” and a “new deal for a better Britain”. This is according to an article in Labour List 21 December 2020. However, since then, we can find no further reference to what progress the commission has made.

We would much appreciate an answer to two questions:

Firstly, when will the commission publish its report?

Secondly, has the commission undertaken any public consultation to explore what kind of devolution settlement ordinary citizens would like to see? If not - and provided time permits - can the commission adjust its proceedings to include such a consultation?

We ask this question particularly with regard to Cornwall and English regions given that devolution is more rooted in Cornwall and the North. We are keen for Labour to avoid the mistakes of past governments by imposing a top-down devolution settlement without consulting or engaging civil society. To win any credibility, real devolution has to be a democratic process that is open, transparent, and actively involves local people and communities.

To this end, we urge you to consider using citizens’ assemblies and other forms of deliberative democracy to kickstart a national conversation about what kind of democratic settlement people would like to see.

We look forward to hearing from you in due course.

Kind regards

The irony of England is that not only is it hyper-centralised, with power and money concentrated in London, but also the only part of England with a half-decent devolution deal is London itself. The rest of us, it seems, are not worthy of making decisions for ourselves. However the emergence of new political parties and movements pushing for genuine forms of democracy may mark the beginning of some more meaningful change.

Learn more

If you would like to add your name to the letter, email Gavin Barker.

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