Citizens' assemblies: what are they, and could one end the Brexit deadlock?

Westminster is sometimes the last place you would expect radical innovation to happen. Our parliament buildings, crumbling into the Thames and in dire need of a makeover, serve as an apt metaphor for how our political processes are creaking under the pressure of Brexit. But change is in the air.

Three MPs - Stella Creasy, Lisa Nandy, and Caroline Lucas - are leading the charge, backed by colleagues from across the political spectrum, to  calling for a 10 week extension to the Article 50 period in order to run a citizens’ assembly on Brexit. They argue that since both politicians and the public are so divided about what to do next, a citizens’ assembly (you may also have heard this referred to as a citizens’ convention) could work side-by-side with MPs to deliberate on the issue and come up with a proposal for what happens next.

A citizens’ assembly... could not only help end the Brexit deadlock by bringing the public into the heart of our politics to work alongside MPs; it could also introduce new ways of doing politics into British democracy.

A citizens’ assembly has real promise. It could not only help end the Brexit deadlock by bringing the public into the heart of our politics to work alongside MPs; it could also introduce new ways of doing politics into British democracy - which, let’s face it, is in need of a reboot. So here’s what you need to know about citizens’ assemblies, and why Unlock Democracy is calling on MPs to back the proposal and have a debate about a better way of doing politics.

First things first, what is a citizens’ assembly?

Stella Creasy MP, Lisa Nandy MP, and Caroline Lucas MP join Neal Lawson (Compass) and Prof Graham Smith (University of Westminster) to discuss the proposed citizens’ assembly on Brexit (Westminster, 23 January 2019)

Stella Creasy MP, Lisa Nandy MP, and Caroline Lucas MP join Neal Lawson (Compass) and Prof Graham Smith (University of Westminster) to discuss the proposed citizens’ assembly on Brexit (Westminster, 23 January 2019)

A citizens’ assembly brings together a demographically representative group of people to deliberate on an issue.

Working side by side with politicians, a citizens’ assembly creates a consensual environment where members of the public are given a mandate to discuss a defined issue (or set of issues). They work together to make recommendations based on their discussion, which usually takes place over a few weekends. As part of the assembly, participants are given information on the issue presented by experts from all sides of the debate, to help inform their discussions.

If you want to find our more we recommend Involve’s handy explainer on citizens’ assemblies.

How are members of the citizens’ assembly chosen?

Members of a citizens’ assembly are chosen through sortition, or a ‘civic lottery’. Think of the initial selection like jury service, where citizens on the electoral roll are randomly chosen.

From an initial and big group chosen from the electoral roll, an assembly is formed making sure that overall, the group is demographically representative of the UK as a whole.

The assembly should ‘look’ like the UK, which is why it is sometimes known as a ‘mini-public’. That means participants are balanced so the group has the same age, ethnicity, and gender, proportions, as the UK as a whole, and proportionate representation from the nations and regions. For a Brexit citizens’ assembly, that would also mean the group was balanced to reflect the results of the EU referendum.

What’s the point of a citizens’ assembly? Isn’t that doing MP’s job?

Citizens’ assemblies have been used by democracies around the world for over 30 years, and there’s plenty of evidence to show how well they work. They have been successfully used by democracies like Canada, Germany, the USA, Australia, and the Republic of Ireland, to deliberate on tough issues ranging from the voting system and social care, to abortion and housing.

Professor Graham Smith of the University of Westminster has emphasised that citizens’ assemblies have a strong track record of delivering on complex and contested issues. Peter McLeod, the founder of the Canadian organisation MASS LBP which regularly runs citizens assemblies and citizens’ juries across to help policy-makers work out tough issues, has also highlighted how deliberative democracy is particularly helpful when there is problem that politicians on their own cannot solve.

The Citizens' Assembly on Social Care, run by Involve, brought together 47 randomly selected English citizens over two weekends to consider the question of how adult social care in England should be funded long-term.

A good example of how citizens’ assemblies can help politicians and the public navigate through highly contentious issues is the citizens’ assembly on the 8th amendment of the Irish constitution, which took place in 2016 and 2017. This preceded the 2018 referendum on abortion in the Republic of Ireland. Citizens with opposing views came together over 5 weekends to discuss this highly emotive subject, and find common ground and propose recommendations to the Oireachtas about what legislative changes should be made. The conclusions reached by the assembly - where 64% agreed that termination of pregnancy should be lawful - very closely mirrored the final referendum result, where 66% voted ‘yes’ to repealing the 8th amendment.

Citizens’ assemblies don’t aim to take away from or undermine the duties and responsibilities of politicians. Rather, they compliment the work done by our elected representatives.

Crucially, citizens’ assemblies don’t aim to take away from or undermine the duties and responsibilities of politicians. Rather, they compliment the work done by our elected representatives. They enhance our democracy by providing a space for citizen feedback within, rather than outside of, existing political processes. A good example of this was the 2017 citizens’ assembly on social care. Run by Involve and commissioned jointly by the Chairs of the Health Select Committee and the Housing, Communities, and Local Government Committee, this assembly brought citizens right into the heart of the policy-making process to work through the complicated and pressing issue of social care provision. The assembly looked at how social care is provided now, through a largely privatised model. They looked at the tough policy questions politicians were facing - should the government fund social care fully or partially? How would this be funded? - and came together to recommend a way forward.

Why do we need a citizens’ assembly on Brexit?

Both politicians and the public are completely divided over Brexit. Rather than getting closer to reaching a consensus, we are being driven further apart from each other as opinions on both sides harden. As a nation, we are being driven apart and our democratic processes haven’t managed to find a route forward.

The task at hand is to accept where we are - torn apart by a complex and divisive issue - and look for ways of doing democracy better, so that we can get out of this state of political paralysis.

Even between the amendment proposers there is disagreement about what their preferred outcome for Brexit is - Caroline Lucas wants a further referendum, whereas Lisa Nandy does not. What they have in common is a genuine desire to bring the public and politicians back together to have a dialogue about what we collectively want for our future. In doing so, they are willing to hand the question over the public for deliberation and accept that their personally preferred outcome might not get chosen.

This is not a case of politicians dodging blame or ducking responsibility. As Lisa acknowledged at an event hosted by Compass on the prospect of a Brexit citizens’ assembly, “parliament is divided because the public is divided”. The task at hand is to accept where we are - torn apart by a complex and divisive issue - and look for ways of doing democracy better, so that we can get out of this state of political paralysis..

Where do we go from here?

The debate is taking place on Tuesday. If you want the citizens’ assembly proposal to get airtime then you need to write to your MP and ask them to co-sign the amendment so it has enough signatures to get picked for debate.

If the amendment gets selected for debate, then this will mean a discussion about a citizens’ assembly can happen.

It doesn’t matter how you voted in the referendum, how your MP voted in the referendum, and whether or not you both agree. At the moment, we’re all stuck in a gridlock with no clear way out, and one clear step in the right direction is to have a conversation about how we can do politics differently.

A citizens’ assembly could be the start of opening up our politics for good, not just for Brexit. It could show how democracy can work differently, and that politicians and the people - of all different beliefs and values - can work together rather than in opposition to come up with solutions to challenging questions that has left our democratic processes in tatters.

So write to your MP now and ask them to take a chance on a well tested model that could bring politicians and the public together to find a route forward.

Sarah ClarkeComment