The Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK – part of the Unit’s current research project examining attitudes to democracy in the UK – will meet for the first time this weekend. The project’s lead, Alan Renwick, here answers five key questions about what the Assembly will do, how it will operate, and why it deserves attention.
This weekend, 75 members of the public, from all walks of life and across the UK, will gather online to begin examining the question ‘How should the UK’s democracy work?’. This Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK is part of the Constitution Unit’s wider research project Democracy in the UK after Brexit, which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) through its Governance after Brexit programme.
1. What will the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK look at?
The assembly will focus on how people think democracy in the UK should work. What principles do assembly members think the democratic system should uphold in its design and operation? How do they think power within the system should be distributed – in particular, what roles do they think should be played by core parts of the system, including parliament, government, courts, and members of the public? And what behaviours do they expect from politicians and their fellow citizens?
A citizens’ assembly is designed to enable informed discussion, so we cannot cover everything – we have had to make hard choices. We can’t get into the detail of institutions such as the voting system or House of Lords. Nor will we address the territorial dimension of democracy – how power should be distributed between UK-wide and devolved levels, or what powers local councils should have. These matters would require multiple assemblies meeting across the country.
Nevertheless, the discussions and recommendations will be as relevant in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland as at UK level. The question of how democracy is best configured and practised applies equally in all these settings.
2. Why do these questions need attention?
Democracy works best when public confidence in its functioning is high. Yet confidence in the operation of the democratic system in the UK (as in many other long-established democracies) is low. Various surveys – including the British Social Attitudes survey and the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement – have mapped this problem over many years. But there has been little attempt to dig deeper into people’s thinking. The project will help fill that gap.
More specifically, recent events have put the democratic system under considerable strain. The Brexit process highlighted differences of view on the proper balance of power between parliament and government, the role of the courts, and what role referendums and other mechanisms for public participation should play. The COVID-19 pandemic raised many similar questions, such as how far government should be able to decide matters without direct parliamentary involvement. Scotland and Wales have both seen long-standing concerns about undue executive dominance in their devolved arrangements – which were cast in fresh light in Scotland earlier this year by the Alex Salmond controversy. Meanwhile, the executives in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are all committed to increasing public participation in policymaking, including through citizens’ assemblies.
The Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK will not get into the detail of all these matters. But we hope that its insights will illuminate the ongoing debates.
3. Why a citizens’ assembly?
Public attitudes matter by definition in a democracy. That is perhaps particularly so when it comes to the character of the democratic system itself: if the design of the system were left solely to people in positions of power, who inevitably have particular interests, there is a danger it might not serve the interests of the wider public.
But public attitudes of several different kinds are important. On the one hand, we should want to understand what people are thinking now, without any intervention such as a citizens’ assembly. This is where public confidence lies.
On the other hand, before we make important decisions, it is generally valuable to assess the options carefully. In an ideal world, democracy is responsive to informed and considered public opinion. Yet most people, perfectly fairly, spend little time thinking about how democracy works: rather, they focus on policy outcomes, and whether those advance their own values and aspirations. There is a danger, therefore, that people’s responses to pollsters’ questions about democratic processes will not reflect what they might think if they had greater opportunity to consider such matters. And people might well dislike the outcomes if we just followed such top-of-the-head opinions.
A citizens’ assembly can overcome that difficulty: it can show us what a cross-section of the population at large think once they have learnt about and considered the issues in more depth. At least on the surface, that can only aid informed policymaking.
4. Does a citizens’ assembly undermine existing democratic institutions?
Notwithstanding the previous point, it is sometimes argued that citizens’ assemblies could undermine the democratic process. Democracy requires elected representatives, who examine options and work out coherent overall policy programmes while the rest of the population prioritise all the other things in their lives. Citizens’ assemblies, the argument goes, undermine these elected institutions, to the detriment of the system’s long-term functioning. ‘We already have a citizens’ assembly’, it is sometimes said – ‘it’s called parliament’.
If citizens’ assemblies did undermine elected institutions, this argument would have merit. The fear is understandable, given that some advocates of citizens’ assemblies – such the Extinction Rebellion movement – appear in their rhetoric at times to be suggesting that such assemblies should replace parliamentary decision-making on some matters.
But few theorists of deliberative democracy agree that citizens’ assemblies should have decision-making power. Accountability is fundamental to democracy: unless decisions are made by the electorate as a whole, then those who make the decisions should be accountable to that electorate, which citizens’ assembly members are not.
Citizens’ assemblies are thus there precisely to assist parliamentarians and other policymakers in making considered decisions. Policymakers are often frustrated at being pulled away from evidence-based decisions by misleading or partial debates whipped up in sections of the media. With a citizens’ assembly, policymakers can gain a deeper understanding of public opinion – and can counter scare stories by pointing to the assembly’s analysis.
5. Will the recommendations of this assembly deserve to be heard?
That is the theory at least, and it has worked well in practice in a range of countries. In Ireland, for example, evidence suggests that citizens’ assemblies enabled thoughtful policy discussion on the previously vexed issues of same-sex marriage and abortion, thereby emboldening politicians to advance proposals where previously there was deadlock. But this all depends on how well a citizens’ assembly is designed and executed.
How the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK goes remains to be seen. But it is shaping up very well. We have four main reasons for feeling positive.
First, we have a fantastic Advisory Board, whose members span a wide spectrum of political persuasions, views on democracy, and personal and professional backgrounds. The Board has met three times so far, providing immensely rich feedback on our emerging plans. This ensures that the assembly addresses the key questions and does so in a way that is fair and balanced.
Second, we have recruited assembly members who are highly representative of the UK population. Working with the Sortition Foundation, we sent out invitations to 20,000 randomly selected addresses. From those who replied, we have sought to identify a final sample who are representative of the UK electorate in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, education, disability status, where they live in the UK, vote (or non-vote) in the 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2019 general election, and views on citizens’ role in democracy. While final numbers will remain uncertain until we see who logs on on Saturday, as things stand we are delighted to have hit nearly all of our targets.
Third, we are designing the assembly in conjunction with Involve, the UK’s leading experts on public participation, who will also facilitate the weekends. Such professional support is essential for a well-run process. Involve’s team of facilitators will ensure that all assembly members have the space to think for themselves, express their views, and be heard by others.
Finally, we will have excellent speakers at each weekend, whom assembly members will be able to hear from and put questions to as they explore different options and develop their own ideas. Some speakers will be ‘informants’ who offer balanced perspective on the issues, while others will be ‘advocates’ who present their own views. We will publish details on the assembly’s web pages after each weekend, including video of all the presentations.
In short, we hope that the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK will shed new light on vital questions. There is much to play for in the future shape of democracy across the UK. The Assembly should enable more informed and considered public discussion, yielding recommendations that will deserve close attention from policymakers and wider publics alike.
Democracy in the UK after Brexit is a project examining public attitudes to democracy in the UK today using two surveys and a citizens’ assembly – the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK. You can find more information on the project’s webpage.
About the author
Dr Alan Renwick is Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit and project lead of Democracy in the UK after Brexit.
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