What Are Citizens’ Assemblies?

What Are Citizens’ Assemblies?

Brexit and Citizens Assemblies

I’ve seen a few mentions of Citizens’ Assembles in the current political ferment about how we might reach some sort of resolution of Brexit. The “Lady in the Yellow Jacket” tweeted about them after her contribution on Question Time. You can find that here. Here is what she tweeted later about using a Citizen’s Assembly:

Since then more references to Citizens’ Assemblies have approved in the media. Louise Caldwell has written about her experience of being a member of an assembly in Ireland. Two Labour MPs, Lisa Nandi and Stella Creasey have also written about assemblies and Stella Creasey included the option of setting up an assembly in a House of Commons amendment to Theresa May’s Brexit deal as a way to help find a way out of the current Brexit impasses at Westminster. (The amendment failed.) But this is part of why she is proposing one:

Like a circuit-breaker, citizens’ assemblies can disrupt the bad habits that have come to characterise Brexit: kicking issues into the long grass, placing party interests over the national interest and assuming the public are unable to cope with hard choices.

They don’t replace parliaments or offer politicians an escape from difficult decisions. Instead they reject binary choices – remain or leave, no deal or Norway – and allow randomly selected groups of citizens to explore options in an open forum and make recommendations about priorities to elected MPs, who retain the final say.

In a deadlocked parliament, this could be the one approach that could retain the trust of us all that the answers were fair, thoughtful and not predetermined. If, for instance, a citizens’ assembly recommended a referendum, it could also consider what the question should be, providing confidence that there was no attempt by politicians to game the system.

All in all people are picking up on the idea:

  • Gordon Brown, former Labour PM
  • Liz Kendall, Labour MP
  • Neal Lawson, Compass
  • See more here

So how do citizens’ assemblies work?

Brett Heddig set up the Sortition Foundation exploring how we can do democracy differently.

I took myself along to an event where Brett presented his ideas on Citizens’ Assemblies.. H started off by reminding us  of  how the Greeks did democracy. Democracy was about drawing lots from the citizenry and those selected then deliberated on whatever decisions were needed. They had a very neat bit of Bronze Age technology, the kleroterion, to produce the random selection! Of course it was only a random pick of those considered to be eligible. Women weren’t eligible. Or slaves. Or foreigners. Things have improved since then. A bit. 

Assemblies are very different from the parliamentary debating chambers that we’re used to

Brett made the point that we’re used to thinking of parliaments as a debating house arranged along party political lines and that we had to remember that a citizens’ assembly is a different thing altogether.

It’s entirely up to the assembly how it goes about its discussions. It can be done in small groups round small tables, with a facilitator for each group. The groups can rearrange themselves and the discussion can carry in different groups. (That reminded me of Conversation Cafes that I’ve taken part in.)

Small groups would help everyone to find their voice in the discussion because after all some people are more confident, more vocal than others. People can help one another to find their voice because that is in the interests of everyone, unlike in a party political setup. (Though I must say most party political politicians don’t seem to have any difficulty finding their voice! when you think about it, they’re probably self–selecting in that respect.) But by definition randomly selected citizens’ assemblies are most certainly not self-selecting for anything, so it will be important for the people in them to support each other. And again, that seems like it will help improve the working ethic of the assembly compared to our usual setup.

Who uses Citizens’ Assemblies?

They’ve been used in British Columbia and in Ontario, Canada, in the Netherlands, in Poland, in Belgium. (See here.) In the Republic of Ireland they have been used to make proposals to the Irish Parliament on questions that are particularly tricky for Irish society and hard to debate by politicians who are looking to be elected in the coming years. One such assembly looked at the question of same-sex marriage and recommended that parliament proceed to legislate in its favour. Which it has. They have a current assembly which has been asked to look at five topics over the coming year:  the question of abortion which involves amending the Article 8 of the Irish Constitution, the ageing population, fixed term parliaments, referendums and climate change. Lots of information on their Citizens’ Assembly Eire website

Can they help with Brexit?

Oh I’m sure that had we set up a citizens’ assembly to look into leaving or remaining in the EU, we would not now be in the almighty mess we are.

But I think that the possibility of us asking to delay Article 50 so that an assembly can be set up, have time to gather evidence, information, discuss, consider and make a proposal to Westminster has a smaller chance of happening than a snowball has of not melting in hell.

But I do see a real chance that we will use them in an independent Scotland. It seems to me that they fit well with the kind of civic society that we have here. And maybe we will even have a second chamber at Holyrood set up on those principles. For more on that see here.

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