April Political Intelligence
The debate on Retail Crime secured a good turn-up in the House of Commons, according to David Hanson MP. The debate focused on shop theft and violence and aggression towards retail staff, and opened with a worrying statistics from the British Retail Consortium, of an average of 115 daily instances of violence against shop staff in the past 12 months. The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW) annual survey found that 64% of the 6,725 members interview had experienced verbal abuse when serving a customer, and 40% had been threatened. The main causes include theft and the enforcement of age-related sales. Hanson insightfully noted that “It is not the police, trading standards or the Minister who will uphold the legislation on the frontline; it is the members of staff who face a customer seeking those products.” With agreement from peers, Mr Hanson suggests that the government considers legislating for an aggravated offence with respect to age-related sales and abuse of shop staff.
The House of Lords discussed the UK Advertising in a Digital Age (Communications Report), inquiring on how the industry can maintain its success through the shift form print to online media and through Brexit, among other changes. As well as maintaining international reputation and attracting overseas talent, the advertising sector is worried that the production of high-quality content is under threat. In the debate, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port confessed to allowing himself the pleasure of the crossword from the Guardian newspaper. Following his anecdote, Lord Griffiths shared that he is very frequently targeted by ads that he does not want when playing the same game online, including Bentleys and women’s clothing. So, what should the government do to stop algorithms from flooding our screen with things we do not want? But on the other hand, so we really think it would be better for us to be constantly nudged towards buying things we actually have an interest in?
The month could not end without mention of small businesses: what steps are being taken to support small businesses? Kelly Tolhurst, Minister for Small Business, Consumer and Corporate Responsibility recognised in the House of Commons that “small businesses are the backbone of our economy”, with a collective contribution of over £2 trillion. The government has provided an astounding £5.9 billion of finance to over 82,000 small businesses across the UK, and has just announced an additional £200 million for innovation for British businesses. It’s all about innovation.
A Citizens’ Assembly
April marked the first Extinction Rebellion occupation, with Rebels setting up camp in Oxford Circus, Marble Arch, Waterloo Bridge and around Parliament Square.
What is interesting about the group and their demands is that they are predominantly policy facing rather than consumer-oriented, demanding truth and legislation from politicians, and the creation of a Citizens’ Assembly to deliberate on climate change proposals. Their premise is clear: politicians and governments are failing us, be it because of the short electoral cycle, the need for public and media support and the lobbying power of big corporations, interested in maximising profits with little consideration for environmental consequences. This begs the question of where our current system went wrong? And if it is broken, was it once not broken and functioning properly? Regardless of the answers, it seems that we, as a society, have outgrown traditional democratic systems and are prepared for more complex civic participation.
A Citizens’ Assembly and deliberative democracy practices are already in use around the world to resolve punctual policy points (both corporate and governmental). The assumption is that decisions are better reflective of the population’s needs if the population is actively involved in the decision-making process. Which does make a lot of sense.
In 2005, Yale scholars Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin proposed to replace Presidents’ Day with a new national holiday, Deliberation Day. Held once every presidential election year, Deliberation Day would bring together Americans from all walks of like to discuss the most divisive points that the candidates are responding to. Before their book, Fishkin had been organising a number of Deliberative Polling events before elections, and saw that decisions and opinions were better formed, and people who participated became more understanding of the opinions and positions of others. Without engaging with the debate of whether decisions made via deliberation are better than the ones made by representatives, we can agree that increasing people’s awareness of why decisions are being made and increasing acceptance of other people’s points of view is definitely a win.
Back to Extinction Rebellion – what is the use of a Citizens’ Assembly for resolving climate change? For it to have tangible policy outcomes, politicians and policy makers would have to recognise the value of the Assemblies, be open to their suggestions and solutions, and be willing to use them as a tool for decision-making. Imagine the benefits of presenting controversial ideas and solutions to a Citizens’ Assembly and engaging people in the decision-making process. As well as being very beneficial for the people, policy makers would also have a better gauge of what their constituents want, and not have to rely on polls and media representations.
However, it would be quite surprising if this were implemented quickly and swiftly (obviously Brexit is a more complex issue, but it brought to light the complexities of directly involving the public in political decision-making). But what appears to happen in cases where Citizens’ Assemblies are used is that they build trust, empathy and understanding between those who participate. And wouldn’t that be welcome activity?