The Concept

“It is accepted as democratic when public offices are allocated by lot; and as oligarchic when they are filled by election.”    (Aristotle, in ‘Politics’ c. 350 BC)

The idea is to do away with politicians in government and to find a way for the considered collective will of the people to drive public policy more directly.

This is not just a nice academic notion about some possible future constitutional reform, but is intended to be a practical plan which can be put into action immediately and unilaterally by groups of citizens, without having to wait for any constitutional change to be agreed by Parliament.

It goes roughly like this:

1. The original form of democracy – at least the one that was called ‘democracy’, and was used for example in Athens from about BC 500 to BC 200 – did not use elections much, but mostly used random selection from the citizenry (aka ‘lottery’ or ‘sortition’) to choose public officials, who would then be in office for a fixed term.  They knew all about elections but did not associate them with democracy.  Democracy was a different system and the lottery was seen as a necessary part of it.  The main reason the  Athenians used random selection seems to have been a desire to minimise polarisation along tribal or factional lines, and to maintain the cohesion of the State.  They were often at war with neighbours, and internal conflicts would have been quite dangerous.  They also wanted to avoid oligarchy.  For us, the advantages could be many…

a) Less division in society of course.

b) Greater stability in government policy, as public opinion doesn’t change much over time but switching from Labour to Tory every few years means government policy swings wildly.  One non-obvious advantage of this is that international relations would be easier. The Falklands War would probably not have happened without the switch from Labour to Tory for example.  The Argentinians were in negotiations with the Labour Govt for a managed transfer of sovereignty, but Thatcher came to power and basically said. “Talks?  What talks?”  The Argentinians lost patience, and the rest is public knowledge.

c) Statistical representativeness of the general population.  Random selection is far and away the best method of ensuring proper proportional representation of gender, race, religion, political leaning, sexuality, age, income group, blood group, star sign, etc.  Balance of all factors, whether known or as-yet-unknown, are taken care of automatically, whereas any self-conscious attempt to artificially create balance by ‘positive discrimination’ and so on, will always tend to reflect the prejudices of those who decide which factors to ‘balance’ and which to ignore.  Randomly-selected legislators would not be remote and ‘out-of-touch’ and constantly going on about how important it is to LISTEN to the PEOPLE (smiley face, look to camera, empathise…) because they would BE the people and could simply get on with it.

d) Less corruption. It takes time for politicians to become corrupt, and most randomly-selected MP’s for example would probably work seriously and diligently for their whole term. They would also police each other, and there’d be less cosy back-scratching. Less of an institutional culture of entitlement.

e) It would stop an awful lot of the tedious bickering and lying and public manipulation that politicians indulge in constantly, and which the public is so thoroughly sick of.

f) Legislation which has to be approved by randomly-selected MP’s or other legislators, who are probably not going to vote according to some Party Whip, would probably have to be written in a simpler, more comprehensible way, as if it cannot be understood by an average citizen then it is likely to be rejected for that reason alone. Legislation currently varies enormously in quality.  Some of it is badly-drafted and has then had to be extensively amended, which makes it then even harder to understand.

g) It would make more people engaged in politics as they would know they might well be selected for office themselves at any time.

h) All voting in Parliament would be more-or-less honest and driven by personal conscience. Terms of office would be fixed-length and once-only, so there’d be no point in compromising personal principles to pander to either the Party or the Electorate.

So that’s sortition. The Wikipedia page on Sortition is really quite good now. (It wasn’t so good a couple of years back.)


2. So, I think Sortition would be a good system, but it looks like it would take sustained rioting on the streets to even get a change to a Proportional voting system in the UK, let alone something as radical as replacing elections with random selection.  Politicians in Parliament are never in a thousand years going to vote to make their whole chosen profession obsolete.

So how do we get from here to there?

Then I hit on another idea:

The other idea is to devise a way to ‘graft’ real democracy onto the present system without having to wait for any constitutional changes. I’ll describe the idea as it would work for the Westminster Parliament.  It would be similar for other legislative bodies….

The basic idea is to use a Lottery to randomly select members to sit on Citizens’ Juries, one for each constituency.  The Juries will meet periodically to debate and decide on policy and on issues which are coming up for vote in Parliament.  Each Jury then simply instructs their elected MP how to vote in Parliament.

The deliberative process – everything from the Lottery to the Jury – is run by a registered political party (The ‘Lottery Party’?) which has no substantive policies of its own but works solely to facilitate the democratic process of the Lotteries and Juries.  That Party also fields candidates in elections, who are selected for their integrity and for their ability and enthusiasm to serve as constituency MP’s. The candidates will be Lottery Party members, and will have solemnly pledged to only and always vote in Parliament how their constituency Jury instructs them to vote.

The Lotteries and Juries will run from the start, before any MP’s have been elected.  The Juries will shadow Parliamentary business, and all the decisions the Juries make will be recorded and published, so that prospective voters can see the quality of decisions made by these Juries and compare them to the quality of decisions made by other political parties, whether in government or not.  If on balance those past decisions are seen to be as good as or better than those made by other parties, then people may choose to vote for the Lottery Party candidate at the next election.  But even if no MP is elected, that record of decisions made will be a resource for others to use to show what considered public opinion actually is on any particular issue.

A monthly Lottery ticket will cost about the same as a National Lottery ticket and the money will be used partly to pay an attendance allowance to Jurors.  Participation in the Lottery will be encouraged from all eligible residents in that constituency, regardless of what political views they may hold, how they may have voted in the last
election, and regardless of whether or not they belong to any political party.  The hope is that as wide a range of views will be expressed as possible, but that charging a small ticket price will ensure that only those who really want to take part will do so, …and the attendance allowance will hopefully ensure that everyone can afford to take part, should they win a place on the Jury.

32 million people play the National Lottery every single week, and buy an average of three tickets each per week.  That is more people than voted in the General Election in May 2015.  It’s just as much trouble to go to a newsagent’s and buy a Lottery ticket as it is to go to a Polling Station and vote, but 32 million people do that every single week, and pay for the privilege.  The average National Lottery player spends £225/year on tickets.   Lotteries are extraordinarily popular – it’s hard to STOP people playing them – and they represent not only a positive regard for the workings of pure chance, but also an irrepressible optimism about the possibility of a better future.  My thinking is, why not channel some of that enthusiasm into hope for a better collective future, not just for a wealthier personal future?

Also, in the UK, people trust randomly-selected juries to decide whether a person accused of a serious crime is guilty or innocent, despite the fact that those jurors will have had no legal training at all.  Indeed Trial by Jury is seen as an important right to be defended.  In that context, people trust randomly-selected citizens to do a good job, so why would they not trust them to do an equally good job in deciding whether a proposed piece of legislation should be approved or rejected?

In fact, many people express doubts as to whether they WOULD trust such randomly-selected ‘average’ citizens to make political decisions, but those doubters seem quite happy to trust the very same ‘average’ citizens to vote in elections to decide which politicians should be entrusted with that power.  Why trust public judgement in elections but not in determining public policy directly?  It’s not as if politicians need any particular qualifications for the job.  I wouldn’t trust a Citizens’ Jury to decide how to build a bridge or fight a war (and neither did the Athenians) but political decision-making is generally not that technical.

Anyway, that’s the basic idea.

I’ve been thinking around this issue for several years, but only recently made the link between Citizens’ Juries and Lotteries.

Some of my influences include…

…the various campaigners for the use of sortition in reforming the House of Lords, around the time of the Wakeham Report into Lords Reform in 2000,

The Athenian Option: Radical Reform for the House of Lords – by Anthony Barnett and Peter Carty

…the continuing use of sortition for electing leaders of various religious groups, such as the Amish, the Mennonites, and others,

…the story of Demo-Ex – the ‘direct democracy’ party that was born out of a High School project and won a seat on the local Council in Vallentuna in Sweden from about 2000 onwards.  See The Little Horse from Athens by Per Norbäck for a full account…

…’The Wisdom of Crowds’ by James Surowiecki (2004)

4 thoughts on “The Concept”

    • Hi Lucy, glad you like the web site. It’s early days, and there’s not yet a formal system for joining. I’ll set up a proper way of joining very soon, but in the meantime, please consider yourself a member. Welcome!

  1. Seems like a good idea, i’d prefer have any random person make decisions for me than david cameron.There are no obvious flaws as far as I can tell.


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