Citizens’ Assemblies, once championed only by weirdos and misfits, are all the rage. Barely a month goes by without one of these radically representative bodies making headlines somewhere in the world.
There’s an assembly on democratic reform in Germany, an assembly in Glasgow and Edinburgh on “Scotland’s future direction”, an Irish assembly on gender equality. At a local level, we’ve had assemblies on congestion in Cambridge, on air quality in Kingston, on town centres in Dudley. There have been big assemblies on constitutional change in Iceland and Mongolia, assemblies on air quality and flood mitigation in Poland, assemblies on waste management in Australia. In Belgium, there is a whole party, Agora, whose only policy is to get a permanent Citizens’ Assembly incorporated into national politics.
Since 2016, when an assembly in Ireland opened the way to a resolution of the nation’s long-running quarrel on abortion, the idea has moved rapidly into the mainstream. And now, hot on the heels of a Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat in France, a panel of ordinary British citizens is convening in Birmingham for the UK Parliament Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change.
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It’s easy to understand the enthusiasm. Millions of voters have lost faith in the political classes who represent them, scorning them as a scheming elite who are in it only for themselves. Parliament’s authority has declined accordingly. Yet the behaviour of those same disillusioned voters has done little to inspire confidence in more directly democratic alternatives. Instead, thanks to social media, we listen daily to their clamour, loudly insisting that their voice be both heard and obeyed, yet scorning such niceties as examining evidence, mastering detail, considering alternative viewpoints or entertaining the possibility that they might be wrong.
In this tempestuous climate, Citizens’ Assemblies can bridge the gap between representative and direct democracy — or, if you prefer, between parliament and people. A randomly selected panel of ordinary citizens, weighted to be as representative as possible, cannot be dismissed as elite. It’s the down-to-earth “us”, not the out-of-touch “them”.
On the other hand, an assembly with a specific brief to deliberate, discuss and consider evidence, informed by experts and given time and space to focus on the matter in hand, is unlikely to display the mood swings, malleability and shallow, ill-informed certainties of raw public opinion.
The assembly now opening in Birmingham brings together a newly emboldened British public with the most pressing issue of our time. As a result, it’s the most high-profile Citizens’ Assembly the UK has seen. (My apologies to Scots who disagree.)
Commissioned last June by six Commons Select Committees, the UK Parliament Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change has been organised by Involve, the Sortition Foundation and mySociety, with expert academic input from, among others, the UCL Constitution Unit. It has 110 members, distilled from an initial 30,000 people chosen at random from the electoral roll. Its brief is to come up with suggestions for fair ways in which the UK can meet the Government’s legally binding target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. It runs until March and reports in April.
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I ought to be delighted. These are two causes close to my heart. I’ve been orchestrating coverage of the dangers of climate change for decades, in a succession of senior editorial roles at the Observer and the Independent. Over a similar period, I’ve repeatedly argued that we need a permanent Citizens’ Assembly in parliament, to replace — or at least to supplement — the House of Lords; in 2018 I devoted a whole book, People Power, to that proposition.
More recently, I was one of many people (the others were far more authoritative figures than me) who called for a Citizens’ Assembly to drain the toxicity and dishonest populism from the Brexit “debate” and secure genuine democratic consent for a prudent way forward. Those pipe dreams came to nothing. But now we actually have a well-funded Citizens’ Assembly, addressing a major issue with the backing (up to a point) of Parliament. Perhaps, after all these years, this idea’s time has come.
Yet instead of rejoicing, I feel a strange foreboding. The exercise is obviously worthwhile, and the organisers’ credentials are impeccable. If it all works well, it will capture public imagination, change attitudes and help safeguard our futures. But what if it doesn’t?
I can barely put my finger on the reasons for my pessimism. I think I feel that, somehow, issue and format sit uncomfortably together. Citizens’ Assemblies work best with questions about what’s right and what’s wrong; questions to which there are relatively few answers. Abortion: yes or no? Brexit: hard, soft, revoke or second referendum? These are big, limited, clearly differentiated choices, which cannot be satisfactorily resolved by representative politicians because of the strength of public feeling and the stridency of demagogues and interest groups.
Delegate such choices — fully and publicly — to a Citizens’ Assembly, and the shouting stops. Self-styled champions of the people lose their mandate. The power of the people is vested in the Assembly. And — since the Assembly’s proceedings are deliberative and well-informed, it’s easy to believe that the people mean what they say (in contrast to the off-the-cuff answers usually given when public opinion is consulted).
This tends to have a healing effect. Assemblies are fallible but, like the jury system, they’re visibly fair. We may disagree with their conclusions; we don’t feel cheated by them. And that’s the whole point: not what the conclusion is, but the fact that, having been reached, it commands democratic consent.
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Could this Assembly give democratic legitimacy to painful, necessary policies that would otherwise be controversial? I hope so, but there’s a good chance that it won’t. The mandate delegated to it is minimal. The public may lose interest. Parliament may well ignore its recommendations. If so, it will have been little more than a focus group.
Its proceedings will, even so, be fascinating, especially if the deliberations result in significant shifts in opinion. But you could have said the same about the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit that UCL’s Constitution Unit organised in 2017 — and that had zero impact on what we actually did about Brexit. Perhaps Parliament’s involvement means that the Climate Change Assembly will make slightly more noise. But enough noise to make it impossible to ignore? I’m not convinced of that.
With a bigger, simpler question (e.g. “Is this an emergency or not?”; and “How big a danger do we face?”), perhaps there might have been a greater chance of a big, simple, resounding answer to resolve a national argument. In this case, however, the big question has already been decided: zero emissions is our goal and 2050 is our deadline. The Assembly’s job is to choose tactics, not strategy; to deliberate about how we get there, not where we’re going.
This feels the wrong way round. Usually, electorates express broad preferences, then leave it to their chosen representatives, helped by highly-trained civil servants and specialists, to make them happen. The harder the problem, the more important the specialists become. We wouldn’t convene a citizens’ assembly — would we? — if an epidemic of Chinese coronavirus was out of control across the UK, or an enemy invasion was imminent. Nor, arguably, should we do so with climate change. When national survival is at stake, you call in the experts and worry about the electorate’s consent for the details later on. And what we need now is for more of our finest minds to be thrown at the problem, not for the whole question to be sub-contracted.
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Meanwhile, you don’t have to be a climate change denier to wonder if prioritising the elimination of the UK’s carbon footprint is necessarily the best way to safeguard our futures. (What about putting the same effort and resources into a drive for radical green technologies, or into a plan for survival in a much hotter world?) And you don’t have to be a paid-up member of Extinction Rebellion to wonder if 2050 is perhaps too relaxed a deadline. As a nation, we still haven’t really agreed our response to such big questions, and the Citizens’ Assembly will bring us no nearer to doing so — unless it’s such a spectacular success that it Government is finally forced to prioritise the climate emergency.
I hope that it is a spectacular success: partly because I admire those who have made it happen, but mainly because, if it isn’t, we’ll probably just carry on as before. Climate change will be marginalised, as lacking political valency; MPs will use the assembly to defend themselves against charges of inaction; the drive to give Citizens’ Assemblies a bigger role in politics will fizzle out; and all those ordinary people who bought into the idea that we all had a role to play in policy-making will conclude — rather like participants in Emmanuel Macron’s “Grand Débat” exercise this time last year — that they were really just playing at helping to determine their country’s future, while the real decisions continued to be made elsewhere.
“People Power: Remaking Parliament for the Populist Age” is published by Biteback