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Revitalising democracy: The case for citizens’ assemblies in the UK

Labour’s proposal to give citizens more say in how the country is run was quickly shot down by critics. But is it the future of democracy?

The public are perhaps in a better position for consensus-building than our elected politicians. Photo: Getty

In 21st-century Britain, to describe democracy as the optimal system for national government has become almost a truism. A progressive country must surely be ruled by the people, for the people.

Yet when the news broke of Labour Party plans to give British citizens a greater voice in the governance of their country – through the implementation of citizens’ assemblies – storm clouds quickly gathered. 

Within 24 hours, as right wing publications frothed with outrage at the absurdity of involving everyday people in politics, Labour officials were prompted to deny that the proposals were official policy, with a member of the party’s National Executive Committee going so far as to disparage it as a “stupid idea”, given that we already possess elected representatives. 

But in a global atmosphere of febrile and increasingly polarised politics, it is clear that representative democracy in its current form has left many people feeling not just unrepresented, but disillusioned. The answer to this dilemma is not to double down and resist change; rather, we must evaluate how we can grant even more power to everyday people. 

And to learn how, we should look to our European neighbours.

While the concept of citizens’ assemblies is relatively ancient, modern momentum gathered behind the idea after the notable success of a test case in Ireland in 2016. Irish society had for decades been locked in a toxic debate on the legalisation of abortion, with politicians unable to make headway in resolving an issue that aroused passionate and bitter emotions on both sides. 

In an attempt to break the deadlock, 99 members of the public were randomly selected to serve in a Citizens’ Assembly in which they would listen to a range of expert views and scientific evidence on the question. After five meetings in which the group learned, evaluated, and deliberated in depth, a recommendation was issued in favour of legalisation. 

In stark contrast to the fevered rhetoric in the public sphere, public observers commented on the “reasoned and detailed” nature of the debate and the advantages gained when “voters did not just have to trust politicians, since a representative body of their fellow citizens had carefully reflected on the matter and recommended these changes following significant education”. Following the Irish lead, ad-hoc citizens’ assemblies have sprung up in multiple countries across Europe including France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. 

In 2019, Belgium went even further, setting up a permanent participatory system in one local region. The Ostbelgien Citizens’ Council comprises randomly selected members of the public and has the power to set up and choose topics for debate by multiple citizens’ assemblies, as opposed to politicians setting the agenda. Building on this regional success, the Belgian parliament this year voted through a bill to roll out the system nationwide. 

But, despite their increasing popularity, participatory forms of democracy often attract virulent criticism. As the party backtracked last week, Luke Akehurst of Labour First argued that it would be “an abdication of responsibility to farm [policy decisions] out to potentially unrepresentative panels of people with no specific knowledge or accountability”. 

An obvious counter to this is that our elected representatives are not experts in their field either – the UK cabinet currently features a former insurance lawyer as head of the environment department, while the science minister’s pre-parliamentary career was as a marketing exec for WWE wrestling – but this misses the point. A crucial component in the effectiveness of citizens’ assemblies is that participants are given access to detailed expert information and relevant data points to aid an informed and collective decision-making process. 

To pit the role of the everyday citizen against that of experts is therefore a false dichotomy; rather, public decision-making can, and should, be interactively informed by scientific advice. In such an environment, significant consensus can be found even on contentious issues. 

Far from the febrile debates you may have witnessed between Just Stop Oil campaigners and some popular breakfast television hosts, the Irish Citizens’ Assembly on solutions to climate change reported remarkable levels of unity among its participants by the end of the process, with 80% stating that they would be willing to pay higher taxes on carbon-intensive activities; 92% advocating for prioritising spending on public transport over the development of new roads; and 96% in favour of the government aiding the electric car transition. 

This is a far cry from the wilfully pessimistic vision of the public as 
an uninformed or angry mob concerned more with local potholes than petrol emissions, or even, say, a highly charged referendum campaign full of privately funded propaganda, emotive imagery, and plain untruths plastered on the sides of buses. 

In fact, the public are perhaps in a better position for consensus-building than our elected politicians, who are obliged to think foremost of their future electability rather than taking a dispassionate view on what is best for society. 

Nevertheless, European citizens’ assemblies are not without their flaws. Despite its huge positive impact on the debate around abortion, the first assembly in Ireland consisted of only 99 participants, and subsequent iterations across the continent have typically involved similarly small-scale recruitment.

While citizens’ assemblies clearly do give a voice to some of the population, we have not yet witnessed a redistribution of mass political agency. 

A second shortcoming is the lack of true legislative authority: the majority of citizens’ assemblies in Europe today are restricted to producing recommendations, with the federal government retaining full veto power. 

Consequently, despite the overwhelming consensus formed on climate change policy in the Irish Citizens’ Assembly, no legislative change has yet resulted; additional proposals on lowering the voting age were also blocked by the government. 

This problem is not unique to the Irish system: a recent Citizens’ Assembly in France voted 75% in favour of the legalisation of assisted dying, yet Emmanuel Macron backtracked on his subsequent promise to put a bill to parliament. The upshot is that without both scale and true legislative power, citizens’ assemblies run the risk of becoming glorified focus groups; a gimmick for politicians to use when it suits their purposes.

It is clear then that participatory democracy must become ever more ambitious if we are to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Beyond ad-hoc assemblies to advise on the most contentious issues, deliberative decision-making must become the core of policymaking from the local level upwards, and it needs the power to follow through in law.

While there is a long way to go, the EU has recognised the vital need to throw open the doors and welcome its citizenry into politics if it is to counter the anti-democratic rhetoric of the far right. By contrast in the UK, a century of mass suffrage has left us complacent. It is easy to forget that electoral representation is just one of many possible forms that democracy can take, and that political progress means the constant evolution and improvement of our systems as well as our laws. The Labour Party may be likely to win the next election, but the democracy it will inherit faces many more existential threats than when they left office in 2010.

To counter these ill winds of authoritarianism, Britain must learn that the answer is more democracy, not less.

Lucy McCormick writes for the Guardian, Tribune and the New Statesman 

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