10 December 2019

CASE FILE • THE RULES

People power

When representative democracy met direct democracy in the Brexit vote, our politics ground to a halt. Is there another way?

By Hazel Sheffield

Linnet Drury is only 16 and already she has made history. On the first day of the first citizen’s assembly on climate change in the UK, Drury stepped up to give a speech. A climate activist with experience campaigning for the school strike and for Extinction Rebellion, Drury had been asked to speak for seven minutes to the 44 Oxford citizens who had been selected to represent the city.

“I said we have to do everything in our power to fight this injustice,” Drury says. “I wanted to empower them and make them feel like they could make a difference.”

It was the first of two weekends in autumn 2019 dedicated to the citizens’ assembly: a first-of-its-kind democratic process on climate change in the UK in which carefully selected representatives would decide if Oxford should seek to achieve net-zero carbon emissions before 2050 – and if yes, what trade-offs people were prepared to make.

Participants heard from 27 expert speakers setting out the scale of the issue. Each had been paid an honorarium of £300 for taking part. Trilokesh Mukherjee got his invitation in a letter through his door. “It was a pleasant surprise,” he said. “I didn’t know anyone else there but even those complete strangers had enthusiasm to spend their weekend discussing this stuff.”

A citizens’ assembly is a form of deliberative democracy: a process in which ordinary people debate and decide on a question of policy or reform in a structured process considering the costs and trade-offs. It can be used to find a way forward on an issue that has ground to a halt, such as access to abortion in Ireland. It can also be used alongside the representative democracy that is embodied in the UK political system and the direct democracy of referendums, that have fallen out of favour since the Brexit vote.

“A lot of people’s arguments for deliberative democracy is that it’s superior to direct democracy because it’s giving them the space to think through the options, rather than just valorising their existing opinions,” says Riley Thorold, an assistant researcher at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). “Deliberative democracy is saying: ‘We can empower people to give considered opinions and they will feel more empowered as a result’.”

And suddenly, it is everywhere. As well as the Oxford assembly, other councils, including Cambridge and Camden have been using citizens assemblies to make headway on contentious local issues from improving air quality to climate change. The Labour Party has been pushing for a citizens’ assembly on Brexit. Parliament is sending out 30,000 invitations to a national citizens’ assembly on climate change – although it has faced criticism because it is only advisory and not binding on government. Extinction Rebellion has made citizens’ assemblies third on their list of three core demands, right behind saving the planet, in the belief that deliberative democracy is the only way to deliver the urgent changes needed.

Graham Smith, professor of politics at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster, can’t believe his luck: “I’ve been working on this for 20 years and for the first 19 years no one cared!” He puts their sudden popularity down to the present political climate. “This seems to me to be an idea for our times, if we see our times as characterised by polarisation and unpleasantness,” he says, “it shows that another away is possible.”

Smith traces the current trend back to 2016 and two events: first, the deliberative process of the Irish assembly, which decided the wording of a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment banning abortion. Second, the blunt implementation of the EU referendum which, he says, has “split the nation ever since”.

Supporters gather at Dublin Castle for the result of the Irish referendum result in May, 2018

Graham Allen is the former Labour MP for Nottingham North and used to chair the constitution committee in parliament. He is another long-term advocate of democratic reform who suddenly finds himself in vogue. In August, he was one of a group of cross-party MPs, including Vince Cable, Caroline Lucas, Dominic Grieve, Tom Watson and David Davies, that signed a letter in support of a “Citizens Convention” to reform democracy in the UK.

“Our democracy has stopped evolving,” Allen says. “When people like you and me were fighting the progressive battle to extend the vote, we had a clear cause. […] What we need to do next is to engage citizens in a non-tribal way, which is the problem with parliament and party politics. Deliberative democracy is the antithesis of all those things.”

Since the Irish assembly, deliberative democracy has become much more widespread. Linda Doyle, Extinction Rebellion’s citizen assembly co-ordinator, first heard about the process when Clare O’Connor, a personal friend, joined the Irish assembly. Doyle learned from O’Connor about the diverse people invited to take part. “This meant that people could look to the citizens’ assembly and think: ‘there is someone in the assembly of my age, gender, from my region and of my educational level, and so if I was in the citizens’ assembly, if I learned from experts and discussed with my peers, I would probably come to a similar recommendation’,” Doyle says.

When Doyle joined Extinction Rebellion in January, she discovered that a citizens’ assembly was one of its key demands. “The magic is the random selection, the diversity of people who very often aren’t professional political operatives,” Smith says. For the assembly called by the government on climate change in November, the process has started with a mail-out of 33,000 letters to households around the country, with 20 per cent directed at the most deprived neighbourhoods where facilitators say they are less likely to get a response.

Problems arise when the assembly is not representative of the demographic. “The whole point of a citizens’ assembly as far as I’m concerned is so that the whole population are represented and have a voice,” says Richard Pantlin from the Oxford Citizens Assembly Network, who acted as an advisor for the Oxford assembly. “We live in societies that are divided and hierarchical. If we have a representative making decisions for us that is not representative of the population, it’s very difficult for them to make decisions that represent everyone, even if they act with good will.”

Part of the challenge of recruiting a representative sample is the communication effort before the event, a process that also raises the profile of the citizens’ assembly and enhances the extent to which it is representative. In Oxford, the quota for young people was 13, yet only five were recruited, whereas 81 per cent of the participants had a higher education qualification, which is likely to be a higher proportion than for the Oxford population as a whole. “It should have felt like the golden ticket!” says Zuhura Plummer from Oxford Extinction Rebellion, who also advised on the Oxford assembly. “In the end, we got an overwhelming vote for [net-zero to be achieved] faster, but I think we got that because the sortition was not that well done.”

Diane Beddoes is director of Deliberate Thinking, which consults and supports on deliberative processes. She says people are motivated to participate in lots of ways other than by payment, which is designed to compensate people for their time. “They might be interested in the topic, or curious about the process, or fancy a few weekends away from their kids, or want to visit a new area of the country.” Once they are in the room, the atmosphere tends to be fun, but also very focussed, she says.

O’Connor, who took part in the Irish citizens’ assembly on abortion, remembers one of the things that stood out to her from the process was how seriously they were taken by people in power. “It felt like everyone recognised what a huge responsibility this was and took the task at hand seriously,” she says.

All of the people I spoke to for this piece emphasised one critical element of deliberative democracy: time. For Allen, deliberative democracy is a kind of “slow-cooked democracy”. “This is about people having a coffee and working through it in a friendly way. Being nice to each other,” he says.

Smith says the model needs to be carefully handled: “People are rushing to citizens’ assemblies as the answer to a problem when they haven’t figured out what the problem is. Abortion is a yes or no issue, but on climate change, citizens should be offered option A, B or C relating to transport if they’re going to have decarbonisation by 2030. I’m not sure that work is being done… You only need a few poor processes to discredit the model.”

O’Connor says in some of the citizen assembly processes members found it “near impossible” to retain the amount of information that was presented to them. The truth was some ended up wanting to revert to a representative process. “I remember the general feeling in the room at the time was that the experts, not us, should be the ones advising the government on action to take on such an important issue,” she says.

But when they are at their most effective, the deliberative process can not only make huge political headway on divisive issues, but transform the hearts and minds of people taking part. The experience had such an impact on O’Connor that it has prompted her to switch careers. “What I learned from the assembly changed my career trajectory,” she says. “I’m currently studying a MSc in climate change.”

Portraits Tom Pilston for Tortoise

• This article has been corrected to make clear that it is parliament, not the government, that has instigated the citizens’ assembly on climate change.