You come from the world of science. What directed you towards politics, and in particular political reform?

I was politicised following 9/11 and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Following that I became involved in political campaigns, afterwards moving into environmental and climate change campaigns. These weren’t moving fast enough so I moved into politics. I thought to myself maybe inside politics would work, and I started climbing up the “greasy pole” of the political world. I was a bit horrified by what I saw, and thought to myself, if social justice campaigns are struggling and the political system is broken, what should we be doing? I started reading up about alternative and networked forms of democracy and came across people using random selection to populate policy juries. It really impressed me. For example, in Australia there was a case where 300 people talking about a nuclear waste dump in their state. They were random people, who represented a microcosm of society. To me that is true political representation and information. It moves beyond public opinion and kneejerk reaction. In such a situation people can reach well-considered views and the public can trust these views. I thought to myself, imagine if democracy was done like this at all levels.

You advocate the sortition system. What exactly is it?

It’s a randomly selected representative sample, consisting of for example, 50 percent men, 50 percent women, proportionally represented, young and old. It simulates what the wider society would do if they had informed discussions and debates.

What about your own political background?

I was active for a while in the UK and Australia. The systems there are similar: they both have first-past-the-post systems, which means two parties dominate and smaller parties are excluded. The Green Party and UKIP (The UK Independence Party) both get 10 or 15 percent of the vote but no seats in parliament. In the Netherlands the system is that if you get 10 percent of the vote, you get 10 percent of the seats. But still, in countries where I have experience, if you look at the people in parliament, they’re generally pale, male and stale old, white males. Some countries have quotas. For example in Afghanistan, a certain number of women should be members of parliament because they have a quota. Twenty-nine percent of MPs in the UK are women.

What do you say to people who criticise quota systems?

Most critics say that if you replace the current system with a quota-based system, representatives will not be accountable because they don’t stand up and say: if you vote for me, I will do this or that. In general most people don’t believe what politicians say anyway, they break promises all the time. It’s a different kind of representation – instead of people saying, I will give you my vote in the hope that you do what I want you to do, it’s a kind of representation where there is someone just like you in there, so rather than hoping they do what you want them to, they should do what you would do in that situation.

How have people reacted to your ideas?

Some people are impressed with my ideas and some people are quite critical. It’s such a dramatic shift from what most people are used to: there are legitimate criticisms and some support. There are groups doing this on the ground – Involve in the UK, New Democracy Foundation in Australia, there’s a campaign in Scotland, Common Wheel, campaigning for a citizens assembly in the Scottish parliament selected using random selection. In France there is the Sénat Citoyens, and they have the same idea, to replace the senate or upper chamber with randomly selected people. The same could be done in the House of Lords, for example. This could be a step towards this system where you still vote for the lower chamber but you have this randomly selected representative sample in the upper chamber.

Tell me more about your involvement in the Sortition Foundation.

We are a registered not-for-profit, we have nine directors and many volunteers and around 500 people signed up to our mailing list. Common Wheel in Scotland works towards a similar aim, for a second parliament in Scotland. The New Democracy Foundation in Australia is one of my inspirations, and they have held maybe 15 or more of these policy juries, on a smaller scale, but you randomly select 30, 40 or 50 people, get them to talk about nightlife in Sydney, energy infrastructure, all different policy areas. They are also in some sense trying to do the same thing. Sénat Citoyens has a wide reach, based on Facebook and Twitter numbers.


What are you actively doing to promote the movement?

We’re holding what’s called a G1000 in Cambridge, which aims to randomly select 1000 people, teachers, students, residents alike, put them in a room together and talk about how they could improve Cambridge. That’s our next project for the next four months. After that I would like to campaign to launch a campaign to reform the House of Lords and replace it with a citizens senate to randomly select people to make political decisions.

Generally people are quite conservative when it comes to political change. How can you motivate people?

People have been trying to change the House of Lords for a long time. I’m optimistic that we can organise more things like G1000 and on a slow policy by policy level our ideas can spread throughout the UK. How that leads to direct political change is an interesting question. Prominent figures such as historian Mary Beard and Arron Banks, one of the main funders of UKIP, both revealed in recent interviews that they think the House of Lords should be replaced with a house of representatives, so there are people with influence who believe in this idea. Whether they would back a campaign to push for it is another question.

How does the power of the media tie into all this?

The media is very powerful in today’s society, and the prime example of that is the Murdoch empire. Every politician especially prime ministers, have to have a close relationship with these powerful media because before social media that was the main way to access people and influence their opinion. I still think they’re very powerful in influencing political opinion and policy. If media runs campaigns against a policy it can be dead in the water. This has been seen in Australia with mining regulations for example, and in the UK with financial regulations, where millions of pounds were spent trying to combat that.

I can still remember the pre-internet days, and when it first came along, people thought it would democratise information. No one expected we would get stuck in our little echo chambers and so I actually think although it’s made it easier for us to get information, it has actually led to a closing down of debate and discussion, because everyone just sees on Facebook and Twitter what their colleagues like and get stuck in it.

This was shown in the Brexit vote. All the “remainers” were shocked and turned round and said, well, none of my friends wanted to leave. So the internet has had this paradoxical effect of closing down communities.

Some people might say that true change can only occur following a catastrophe. What do you think?

There’s a famous quote by the Chicago Economists of the 1960s that the only way real change happens is after a crisis or catastrophe. For sure crisis does provide opportunity. I believe a campaign for a citizens senate could have an impact, particularly if it works in Scotland and then other nations look at them and are impressed by what they’ve done. Systemic influences and the whole political spectrum would step up against that, I imagine. The media would join that and it would make a struggle hard.

You have lived in Hungary for some time. What can you say about the local politics?

I have lived over a year in Hungary. People’s disappointment with the political system is sometimes expressed as a vote for someone who has little respect for democratic and liberal norms, so you shut down press freedom and political voices and try to stifle descent. I think that’s what is happening here with Orbán. He’s playing the populist card of us guys against the Brussels elite, but he is part of that elite- had a scholarship to go to Oxford, etc. I wish it was different. With the recent case of the CEU and trying to legislate to shut it down is another example of crushing free and liberal thought. There has been an impressive pushback against that, and the demonstrations show there is an active civil society in Hungary fighting against that, so I am somewhat optimistic.

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