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Politics

The Jury System Proves the People Can Be Trusted With Real Power

One of the earliest and longest running daytime TV shows clocking up 879 episodes between 1972 and 1984 was Crown Court. Set in the fictional city of Fulchester, later to be the home of the Viz comic universe, the 23 minute episodes broadcast by ITV in the early afternoon slot showed fictional cases played out by actors in a real court room but in front of members of the public of whom the jury were comprised. Reality TV in nascent form some might say. It was wildly popular as it as it showed the stresses and strains of delivering justice in late 20th C Britain.
jurysimpsons
 
The jury system has been around in Britain since the time of the Saxons, but it was the unsung monarch Henry II who formally set up twelve men juries that are familiar to us today, mainly to sort out the fraught issue of land ownership in the 12th Century. He probably got the idea from crude forms of the system that existed in ancient Greece and were refined by the Romans.
 
The phrase, “Twelve good men and true” was first used by 17th century English poet Thomas Randolph. When reflecting on the death penalty he wrote, “”I had rather… have his twelve neighbours 12 good men and true, condemn him to the Gallows.”
 
There it is. Pure democracy being employed to resolve highly important and existential matters. An echo from 500 years ago Randolph is categorical that given the life and death nature of justice he would much rather put his trust in his contemporaries, however ill educated, than the authorities. 
 
However is of interest to note that one of the main worries expressed by those against female suffrage was the issue of jury service. In 1915 one such Massachusetts committee commented, “Jury duty for your wife or your daughter is almost unthinkable. Yet it will be part of her legal duty as a voter.” 
 
Women gained the vote across the pond in 1920 and a good job too, as we would now be staring down the barrel of a Trump Presidency if just chaps were entitled to cast the ballot. A poll conducted last week by the Public Service Institute had Clinton ahead by five points. But here’s the thing. America is riven by division regarding class and race but now we can also add gender to this toxic brew. Amongst men Donald Trump is up by 11 but Clinton leads by an astonishing 33% points with women. Granted this poll was conducted before the infamous “Gropegate” tape emerged but numbers are still amazing.
 
UK democracy received a much need shot in the arm due to the two referendums in 2014 and 2015 respectively. Turnout, especially in Scotland was up on routine elections and the reduction of the voting age north of the border showed 75% of 16 to 18 years olds made the trip to the polling station. This compared with just 43% turnout amongst 18-24 year olds, the youngest age group eligible to vote in the 2015 General Election.
 
One key reason for the increased turnout was that, for once the majority of people casting a ballot actually felt that their vote meant something and could be an instrument to change things. In 2001 for example, only 29 out of 651 Parliamentary seats changed hands despite the Labour Party haemorrhaging 2.5 million votes. This meant that in just 4.45% of constituencies voting changed anything. And in 2016 the Tories were returned to power with a majority when only 24% of the eligible electors voted for them. 
 
How can this ludicrous situation be justified? We routinely mock other countries such as Russia regarding so called elections, when our own produce nothing like what the voters asked for.
 
The answer lies in the historic co option of power by the elites who only concede ground at the last possible moment and then try to spin that it was their idea all along. In 1867 for example, Tory Prime Minister Disraeli was forced by huge demonstrations across the UK to introduce a second Reform Act extending suffrage to working class urban men, and in our own era we hear Theresa May moving the Tories away from Austerity partly in response to public disquiet over food banks and benefit sanctions.
 
This idea of change felt its full force in the June EU referendum. For anyone living outside the political bubble the result was never in doubt. In the North it was only Public Sector workers that kept the Remain vote respectable as the full wrath of those whose lives were irrelevant to both the Corbyn Islington Set and the Cameron Eton Old Boys was unleashed. Andy Burnham hit the nail on the head when he said that the Remain camp needed to make the campaign more about Hull and less about Hampstead. 
 
Another case in point regarding the winds of change was the Labour Leadership contests over the last year. On both occasions we saw unusually high engagement from those generally on the margins of politics. Once again due the nature of the election everyone knew their vote made a difference. But due to the disgraceful behaviour of an influential and vocal minority across the Party these new members have not engaged as they become aware that Labour are happy to take their money whilst giving them zero input on policy. But that’s a whole other story……
 
Meanwhile back in the real world of failing small businesses, zero hours contracts, a trashed NHS and a lost generation of 18-30 year olds what now for democracy?
 
Let’s go back and visit the time of our old mate Henry II. Land ownership in Anglo Saxon times was well known for its emphasis on common ownership and this dominated over private tenure. However with the coming of the Normans in the mid 11th Century things changed. In Europe wealth, and therefore power was measured by how much land people owned. 
 
William the Conqueror and descendants therefore were under pressure from those Norman allies who had helped then vanquish the Saxons to reward them with land and the people who lived on it. The Feudal System was born. Because land was held in common it was a synch for the Monarch to simply carve things up. But by the time of Henry II (1133-1189) things were out of control. It was impossible for civil servants in London to rule on petty disputes over who owned the corner of a field in Cumbria and the danger of the locals sorting things out with violence was a threat.
 
So, perhaps for the only time in English history the centre ceded real power and decision making to local people. Instead of the impractical method of each and every dispute being arbitrated by the Monarch it was decided to appoint Juries comprising of 12 local men to resolve these problems. 
 
The astonishing thing regarding such a radical move was the trust that the establishment placed in ordinary citizens to do the right and just thing.  And we still do this today where the whole future of individuals rests in the hands of 12 of their peers.
 
This is counter to current thinking where the liberal elite demonise working class people and cast them as feckless, selfish and disinterested members of an underclass that the rest of society should avoid at all costs. 
 
The concept of the great unwashed has always been around, but as Owen Jones shows in his 2011 book, “Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class” the elites have taken it to new lows over the last 20 years or so. Yet not one single politician or commentator would dare to propose that the Jury System be ended due to mass stupidity or for a lack of trust in their decisions. When miscarriages of justice do occur it is, ironically, usually due to establishment cover ups, or manipulation of evidence by the police. This subject is covered by Jones in his 2014 book, “The Establishment and How They Get Away With It” pertaining to subjects such as Hillsborough, the Stephen Lawrence Murder and the killing of a newspaper seller by a Metropolitan Police Officer.
 
If the people can be trusted with the law then it’s not a leap of faith to think that maybe, just maybe we may be given the opportunity to really govern ourselves?
 
Parliament and Westminster is seen as the be all and end all of democracy. But increasingly over the last 30 years it has proven itself to be completely out of touch and as Neil Kinnock might have put it (or not), “irrelevant to the needs. A place where half baked ideas become resolutions…. And it’s all about how you played the game”. But I would actually start with the arena that really matters to most people; the workplace. 
 
The Attlee Government elected by a landslide in 1945 is rightly lauded for its programme to nationalise key industries and utilities in the wake of World War Two. The conflict had produced the unintended consequence that a control and planned economy worked in terms of increased productivity, rising wages and improved safety. 
 
Therefore instead of returning industries such as the coal mines to their previous owners who put profit way above even basic safety (in 1934 266 pitmen went unpaid for the second half of their shift at Gresford Colliery in North Wales because they had been killed earlier in the day; one of these men was my sons great grandfather) the Labour Government kept hold of these assets and set up the National Coal Board and run the pits for the people. The fatal error was simply replacing the owners with Government men in suits whose remit was always, when push came to shove about the bottom line; profit.
 
Undoubtedly things improved for the workers both financially and with better working conditions but the 1966 Aberfan mining disaster gave the nationalised industries a nasty wake up call. 144 people died when on 21st October a colliery debris tip collapsed into a nearby primary school. The subsequent inquiry found massive culture of negligence by the NCB and an attempted cover up by its Chair, former Labour MP Alfred Robbens. It was discovered that the local NCB management simply ignored as a matter of routine the legitimate concerns of miners at the coalface. This culture was found across the NCB estate of pits. The private mine owners had been replaced by a form of state capitalism. 
 
Pressure came from the politicians to announce profits and increased productivity. This was passed down the line resulting in the men underground facing unnecessary danger and their pay packets being stretched in the name of efficiency. This watchword finally resulted in the enormous act of self mutilation when John Major out did whatever Margaret Thatcher did by destroying the industry in the name of efficiency. We burn the same amount of coal in 2016 as we did in 1984. Go figure.    
 
Instead of trusting the workers to organise themselves and do the job and working for the good of the community measuring productivity to reflect that, the post war consensus just implemented a different form of the same capitalist model. Hence there were no roll backs of nationalisation until Thatcher. Indeed the Heath Tory government nationalised firms such as Rolls Royce and the shipyards with little criticism as it was simply following the cross party consensus on how to deal with failing companies.
 
Industrial democracy is not a new fangled thing. It forms the basis of the Co Operative movement and its political arm the Co Operative Party. Attending their regional and national conferences the delegates produce wave after wave of brilliant ideas for worker run services from libraries to Premier League football clubs and is very reminiscent of the way things were attempted to be done in Germany at the turn of the last century when trade unions were strong. But they threatened the establishment and were squashed; such a fate would befall any such upsurge of democracy in a modern setting.
 
Similarly the Labour Left leadership putting forward a programme of nationalisation, something which consistently polls well, even with Tory voters. But unless this programme is implemented as part and parcel of a post capitalist economy any such efforts will be futile. Their ideas are just repackaged state capitalism as practised in that workers paradise Germany. 
 
That’s why we need a new Party to galvanise people into action for real change, where they feel they really count. You can be the biggest political Party in Europe but if you are irrelevant to the lives of working people it amounts to very little in the end.
 
The NHS is a prime example which cries out for worker led democracy. There is so much unnecessary waste that it’s actually now no longer funny. The refrain from staff, “just let us get on with it!” is often heard, along with, “They haven’t got a clue!” when referring to Government the few grotesquely renumerated Trust managers. Elected Ward and Practice managers would be a massive step in building trust and confidence in the way that health services are delivered along with elected Boards comprising of workers, trade unions, patients and local residents. Then if and when avoidable slip up occurs there is a direct line of responsibility which is open and transparent.   
 
We have been tantalisingly close to success. I can hear the anguished sighs just waiting to be exhaled but…… 1960’s Soviet Union and East Germany outstripped economic growth in West whilst providing their people with a cradle to grave of not just welfare, but sports clubs, orchestras, art, cheap canteens, socialised housework and other benefits. “You weren’t free to travel”, but how many workers on zero hours contracts have this luxury? 
 
The oil crisis of the early ‘seventies, plus the inherent flaws of Stalinism which could never be eradicated put paid to this short era of “Red Plenty” (a 2011 book on the subject by Francis Spufford) demonstrates the potential of a post capitalist world where the 99% replace the 1% in charge.
 
As for Parliament itself and elections in general we need to start with localisation, giving decision making powers to residents at street level. The dog shit and recycling bins issues impact much more than who Boris is meeting tomorrow. This is something the Lib Dems grasped in the 1990’s and noughties until Nick Clegg got a whiff of those red leather ministerial boxes. 
 
Look after things at local level and the grassroots upwards local momentum (sic) will carry us to a brighter future of a Parliament as wonderful and diverse as we are.
 
Think of the Jury system next time someone disses the working class as not fit to make decisions. BREXIT will rear its ugly head but if you don’t like the result blame those who asked the question and then proceeded to patronise the people and treat us as stupid lobby fodder for Nigel Farage.  
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About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.

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