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Local citizens’ assemblies could break our political deadlock

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Commentary on the decision to scale back deliberative democracy pilots.

Last summer, ministers announced genuinely exciting plans for piloting ‘deliberative democracy’ across the UK.

The plan was to use a series of citizens’ assemblies to engage people with politics, tackle complex and contested topics, and break through local political deadlock.

Councils leapt at the opportunity to do democracy differently, with seventy local authorities expressing an interest. Eight experiments were given the green light, with local authorities given £60,000 each to run them.

Waltham Forest LBC sought to involve residents in seeking solutions around hate crime. Barking & Dagenham LBC proposed an assembly to look at regulating the use of bailiffs in the borough. And the Greater Manchester Combined Authority planned to use an assembly to look at the development of transport priorities across the city.

Drawn from longstanding ideas about the power of random selection, combined with institutions such as juries, citizens’ assemblies offer a deliberative and participative form of democracy. They’re popular all over the world – in Ireland conventions on the constitution and citizens’ assemblies led to the referendums agreeing to legalisation of same-sex marriage and broader access to abortion.

It all shows that even on the seemingly most-divisive issues, voters can come together and unite around key principles.

Panellists are selected to be broadly representative of the wider population, accounting for demographic characteristics such as gender, age, ethnicity and social class. The goal is for the members to engage in serious and informed reflection on the topic at hand, discussing and deliberating the issue before making recommendations.

At a time of overwhelming distrust in politics and an apparent breakdown in the machinery of democracy, the local initiatives – backed by central government – sent a powerful message. There’s another way: to let voters work through this.

So it was dispiriting to learn in the Times this week that the government plans to shelve all but three of the proposed local citizens’ assemblies agreed last year – keeping only the least controversial projects on the table. That defeats the power of a citizens’ assembly.

The apparent motivation for scrapping the schemes is revealing. One government source put the change of position down to “deep-seated fears about giving the public a greater democratic voice”.

Put simply, the government is running scared.

Today we find ourselves in a ‘constitutional crisis’ over Brexit – with MPs with opposing views seemingly unable to come together and find a way forward in the national interest. Day in, day out, voters see politicians arguing across the aisle and failing to find consensus on many of the big issues of the day.

We need to be innovative in finding solutions to the problems we face – from education funding to social care, or council cuts to climate change. Citizens’ assemblies are a way to bring people together to discuss and debate to find solutions.

They offer a less adversarial forum than existing political spaces where people work together to explore the common beliefs, not line up to argue for their differences. And departing from the vitriol of elections, these properly-facilitated, informed debates ensure respectful conversations and learning.

Recent polling shows over two-thirds of people do not feel represented by politicians. When faith in politics is so low, it’s surely time to look at new ways of breaking the deadlock.

At the Electoral Reform Society, we have called for a citizens’ assembly on Brexit to encourage in-depth discussions and understanding on the UK’s future relationship with Europe. Indeed, we’ve seen a glimpse of how it might work: a 2017 trial citizens’ assembly on Brexit which we co-ran showed that passionate leavers and remainers can work together. Who knows what would have happened if it had official government backing?

The 50-strong assembly was endorsed by a range of high-profile figures from across the Brexit divide, including MPs Bernard Jenkin (Con), Nicky Morgan (Con) and Chuka Umunna (Lab), showing real buy-in from across the Brexit spectrum.

And now, as we edge nearer to the 29 March exit, using a citizens’ assembly to break the Brexit logjam has been supported by MPs Lisa Nandy (Lab) and Stella Creasy (Lab), while former prime minister Gordon Brown has argued for the need to “talk to the people” through a series of nationwide consultations on what Brexit should look like.

From the local level to the national, we know that citizens’ assemblies work. Yet at the time our centralised system is being exposed as inadequate, the government is bringing the hammer down on a positive alternative to broken Westminster politics.

Rather than cancelling the local citizens’ assembly plans, the government should be expanding them and letting truly deliberative democracy flourish.

Darren Hughes, chief executive, Electoral Reform Society

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