Book review: People Power by Richard Askwith

"That single, simple, bold reform could harness the power of populism in a focused, constructive, democracy-friendly way. Instead of merely trying to appease the swelling mass of alienated voters, we could empower them. By giving Westminster a small injection of direct democracy, we could re-emphasise and re-legitimise our commitment to representative democracy."

Richard Askwith wants to replace the House of Lords with a randomly selected People's Chamber. Out with an unrepresentative elite. In with a properly informed, appropriately rewarded assembly of ordinary citizens. That would indeed be a bold reform. It is a fascinating idea, and it would be an exercise in radical common sense were it to happen. But that is its problem. People need to look beyond the radical to see the sense. Proposing a bold idea is relatively easy. Making it seem simple to execute is not. In that respect, People Power is a missed opportunity.

People Power was commissioned and written as a polemic. It is part of Biteback Publishing's series of Provocations, which are, "sharp, intelligent and controversial," and which provide, "insightful contributions to the most vital discussions in society today." 

Richard Askwith is a sharp and intelligent writer. And People Power is based on a big, controversial idea. Given the brief, Biteback must be very happy with it.

But it is the very nature of polemics to rail and rant, with the emphasis more on what the writer is against than what he is for. Richard Askwith is very much for an empowered, well-informed, participative alternative to the House of Lords. And that is great. However, his book is defined less by his heroic idea than by his palpable frustration with the status quo.

"Being objectively right is a consolation prize. The winners are those with the balls to dominate the playground-cum-jungle of unregulated mass debate. Passionate intensity beats self-doubt every time. Those who play dirtiest often seem to do best - and castigating opponents is a far more effective strategy than putting forward a coherent program of your own."


"If your power to influence a policy decision is vanishingly small, why waste time and energy bringing yourself up to speed? At a group level, however, this 'rational ignorance' makes public opinion a dangerously unstable force, ill-informed and capricious - and particularly vulnerable to referendums. We veer wildly but confidently from extreme to extreme as flaws in previously held positions belatedly become clear. Yet the political chancer who snatches a referendum victory when the pendulum of opinion is at its furthest point can claim the people's mandate ever afterwards."

To be sure, a well written polemic is great entertainment, especially when delivered with such passion and eloquence. Mr Askwith has a lovely turn of phrase and he doesn't hold back when the occasion calls for an outspoken point of view. But, in the opinion of this observer, he fails to make an interesting idea compelling. His prosecution of the House of Lords, his exposure of its flaws, is fierce. But his defence of the People's Chamber is thin by comparison. There is too much hearsay. There are too many opportunities for the skeptical reader to object. People Power is heavy on assertion but relatively light on substance. It is a sugar rush, but it lacks protein.

More accurately, and more fairly, People Power does half a job. There are two cases to be made if the idea of a People's Chamber is to gain momentum. Firstly, that we citizens can be trusted with real political power, that direct democracy would not be a disaster. And secondly, that it could be made to work from a practical point of view. If you were marking this book as homework you would award marks for the former but there would be red-pen comments in the margin regarding the latter.

People Power does a fine job of making we citizens look reassuringly competent.

"One frequent outcome (rarely encountered in the Commons or on social media) is that, following thoughtful discussion of the facts, there are statistically significant shifts in the balance of opinion among those taking part."

Indeed the high point of the book is Chapter 7, "The People's Chamber". It is well researched and well argued. The following passage in particular gets to the crux the matter. In terms of a chamber that is more concerned with the pursuit of progress than the maintenance of power, ordinary citizens are likely to do a better job than the Lords.

"The key point for the moment is this: however much our prejudice tells us that the average citizen, given a role in Parliament, would be thoughtless, feckless and ignorant compared with the average ermine-clad peer of the realm, the evidence suggests that, placed in contexts in which it is clear that their judgements matter, members of the public typically rise to the challenge. Studies that go far beyond the realm of politics (for example, by Professor Frank Keil, the Yale psychologist) have reinforced the three underlying points: that most of us, most of the time, are more ignorant than we think; that most of us, faced with a requirement to explain or justify our views, become aware of the gaps in our knowledge and, if the necessary information is available, rectify them; and that most of us, having done so, become less extreme in our views."

The people part of the equation can be solved. Solving for power is more tricky. The mechanics, the policies, the communication, the cultural shifts, and the infrastructure required to realise this deceptively simple idea are necessarily complex. People Power devotes a chapter to "Sticking Points", but it stops short of robustly addressing them. Maybe Mr Askwith is deliberately sparing with detail and data, lest too much explicit due diligence were to impede the rhetoric. I doubt it. It is more likely that the depth and the variety of expertise required to make the transition from polemic to White Paper is beyond him as a lone proponent of his idea, and beyond the scope of his book.

"But I do not want to get bogged down in the countless possible practical permutations. This is a blue-sky suggestion, not a technical blueprint. The fine details matter little until the broad principle has been agreed - and that will not happen until large numbers of people have been persuaded to think about the idea with an open mind. Could they be?"

Could they be indeed? If the first battle is about opening people's minds to the idea in principle, to what extent is that dependent on them believing in the idea in practice? It is a similar dilemma to that faced by the Yes campaign in the Scottish independence referendum. How to win over the people in the middle, whose hearts and heads come as a package deal? You need a pragmatic foundation on which to build a popular idea.

Maybe Scotland will beat Westminster to it and provide a working, national-scale prototype for a People's Chamber.

Common Weal, the Sortition Foundation and newDemocracy have collaborated to take the practical thinking required to put the theory into practice to the next level.

This review is intended as constructive criticism. People Power advances a great idea. It is a stirring read. Richard Askwith and his proposal for a People's Chamber deserve all the support they can get. The sense of urgency that underpins his prose is not misplaced. Nor is the plaintive coda to his brief acknowledgements.

"I also offer thanks, mostly posthumous, to all members of that generation whose sacrifices in the Second World War ensured that there was a democratic legacy in the UK for my generation to squander."

Amen to that.


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