Politicians from seven parties endorse citizens’ assemblies to combat democratic inequality and improve the quality of decision-making

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The Democracy Matters project, which ran two pilot citizens’ assemblies late last year, launched its report at Westminster on 13 April. The launch was celebrated with a panel discussion featuring representatives of seven political parties. John-Paul Saleh reports on the event which saw all of the politicians present voice their support for the citizens’ assembly model.

Politicians, members of the public, academics and journalists gathered in the Palace of Westminster on 13 April for the launch of the report of Democracy Matters, a project that ran two pilot citizens’ assemblies late last year. The report charts the project from its inception through to its completion and includes discussion of its findings and potential implications for constitutional reform. It is a must-read for anyone who is interested in democracy in the United Kingdom, and participatory politics in general.

The pilot citizens’ assemblies took place last autumn in two locations: Assembly North in Sheffield and Assembly South in Southampton. The project sought to encourage public participation in a time of increasing democratic inequality, using current developments in devolution as a test case for discussion. It posited that, in order to combat democratic inequality and improve the quality of decision-making, any new constitutional settlements or devolution proposals should build on deliberative discussions among citizens and between citizens and politicians based on information provided by devolution experts and advocates of different viewpoints.

The launch was celebrated with a panel discussion featuring the MPs Dominic Grieve (Conservative), Graham Allen (Labour), Tommy Sheppard (SNP), Jonathan Edwards (Plaid Cymru), and Caroline Lucas (Green), as well as Lord Tyler (Liberal Democrats) and Suzanne Evans (UKIP). The panel’s remarkable diversity offered a striking demonstration of cross-party support for the project and optimism for the future of deliberative democracy in the UK. Eight of the members of Assemblies North and South also attended and offered their insights.

All of the politicians present voiced their support for the citizens’ assembly model. Jonathan Edwards argued that the project revealed a sustained appetite for informed public debate, despite the common wisdom that the public wants little to do with politics. One of the assembly members later picked this up, suggesting that it is party politics in particular, rather than politics per se, that is the subject of derision.

Moreover, Dominic Grieve said that the assemblies were a valuable means of testing informed public opinion. He suggested that they are much better than opinion polls in this respect and therefore useful for politicians who want to take the public’s considered views into account. This point cuts right to the intention of the project: in addition to increasing public engagement, citizens’ assemblies may engage politicians to make better informed decisions.

Despite the cross-party support for the principle of citizens’ assemblies, the panel’s discussions also revealed a potential difficulty in turning this into reality: the speakers were often keen to highlight the outcomes they would like an assembly to facilitate.  For example, Lord Tyler and Caroline Lucas advocated strongly for the role future assemblies could play in bringing about proportional representation, while Suzanne Evans stressed their role in holding governments to account, echoing her concern about perceived lack of accountability in the European Union. Dominic Grieve argued for evolutionary not revolutionary change, whereas Graham Allen argued for an agenda of radical democratic reform.  Tommy Sheppard and Jonathan Edwards praised devolution and local politics. Whatever agreement there may be on the principle of citizens’ assemblies, such disagreements over desired outcomes suggest that consensus on the form and agenda of any actual assembly will be hard to achieve. Indeed, politicians with such strong views on desired outcomes may be reluctant to cede agenda-setting power to a citizens’ assemblies at all.

The members of the citizens’ assemblies who were present offered an overwhelmingly positive view of their experiences. Several expressed visceral dissatisfaction with the present state of democracy, but they saw the citizens’ assembly model as offering a promising path forward. Some said the project had transformed their views of the political process, and that their initial apathy had turned by the end to ‘incredible enthusiasm’. Although there were concerns that their deliberations had not affected the devolution discussions or settlements in their areas, one participant described the value of the act of participating in itself.

While showing the citizens’ assembly model to be effective in many ways, the project also identified difficulties that need to be overcome. The two most important were the representativeness of participants and the ability of the assemblies to influence political decision-making.

Regarding the former, the report acknowledges that the samples obtained for the assemblies were not in all respects representative of the local populations. There were particular problems in recruiting, for instance, younger people and those with dependants – who incidentally also happen to be those who report higher levels of disengagement with politics. The report authors indicated that they had gained useful insights through the project that would allow the recruitment process for any future assemblies to be improved.

Lord Tyler, echoed by Dominic Grieve, brought up the problem that decision-makers – whose time for deliberation is typically limited – do not always give assemblies sufficient attention. As Lord Tyler pointed out, previous, official citizens’ assemblies, as in British Colombia, while successful in themselves, have struggled to gain political traction. Grieve emphasised that, to gain such traction, these assemblies must not appear distant from politicians and must not be seen as citizen-only zones. At worst, MPs may perceive such assemblies as threatening, leading to further disillusionment on both sides. He argued it is crucial for future assemblies to provide an interface between the public and politicians to integrate during deliberations.

Even then, we must not expect the assemblies to lead to instant and radical constitutional changes, such as a move to proportional representation. Any big picture reform ideas – even those that appear at first to command consensus – may easily become mired in disagreement over detail. We ought therefore to be realistic and expect any possible change to take time and be complicated.

This view was echoed by Lord Blunkett, speaking from the audience, who contended that we must not get ahead of ourselves when looking to the future of citizens’ assemblies, particularly not equating a radical upsurge in democratic participation with PR. He correctly drew attention to the fact that it is the process of the deliberation, not necessarily the outcome, that is pertinent here.

In terms of the future of citizens’ assemblies, several panelists argued that they ought to be supported and funded by government. Graham Allen also highlighted Labour’s plans to convene an assembly. Despite the acknowledged difficulties, all present emphasised the value of taking this initiative further. One member of Assembly South summed up the mood, saying that he had become ‘totally evangelistic’ about citizens’ assemblies as a result of the project.

The Democracy Matters report can be read here.  Alan Renwick, Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, was a member of the Democracy Matters team and Academic Director of Assembly North.  He is one of the co-authors of the report.

About the panel

Graham Allen is the Labour MP for Nottingham North and was Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee from 2010 to 2015.

Jonathan Edwards is the Plaid Cymru MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr.

Suzanne Evans was Deputy Chairman of UKIP from August 2014 to February 2016.

Dominic Grieve is the Conservative MP for Beaconsfield and was Attorney General from 2010 to 2014.

Caroline Lucas is the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion.

Tommy Sheppard is the SNP MP for Edinburgh East and his party’s Cabinet Office spokesperson.

Lord Tyler is the Liberal Democrats’ principal spokesperson on constitutional and political reform in the House of Lords.

About the author

John-Paul Saleh is a Research Volunteer at the Constitution Unit.

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