Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit: results and initial reflections

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit reached its climax yesterday. After two weekends of intense deliberation, the members voted on a range of options for the form they want Brexit to take in relation to trade and immigration. Their conclusions will surprise some, and they deserve detailed attention from politicians and commentators. Assembly Director Alan Renwick summarises these conclusions and reflects on the weekend as a whole. He argues that, while the Brexit debate is often presented in stark binary terms, the Citizens’ Assembly suggests that the British public are capable of much subtler thinking – if only they are given the chance.

In my last post on the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, I reported on a hugely successful first weekend of deliberations. In advance, we had, through stratified random selection, recruited a group of Assembly members who reflected the composition of the UK electorate in terms of age, sex, ethnicity, social class, where they lived, and how they voted in last year’s referendum (25 voted Leave, 22 voted Remain, and three did not vote). We had also developed a programme and set of briefing papers that had been vetted by our advisory board, comprising supporters of both sides in the referendum, as well as experts in balanced communication. At the first weekend itself, remarkably, every Assembly member attended. They showed immense dedication, working long hours as they reflected on their own views, discussed ideas with fellow members, listened to experts, and quizzed those experts in depth. The experts presented diverse perspectives, some emphasising the benefits of single market membership or immigration, while others pointed out the costs of high immigration or argued for the advantages of cutting free from the single market and customs union. Our team of professional facilitators from Involve did a superb job of guiding proceedings and keeping the discussions on track.

This time I can report on an equally successful second – and final – weekend. Attendance was again astonishingly high: every member but one (who was ill) returned. Once again, all (and I do mean all) were tremendously focused and limitlessly good humoured. Members naturally did not always share each other’s views, but they listened and spoke respectfully and genuinely. Our facilitation and support teams were again inspirational. It was a privilege to be there.

While the first weekend focused on learning, the second was all about deliberation and decision-making. We began on Friday evening with short talks and Q&A sessions with two prominent politicians: Graham Brady MP, chair of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, spoke for leaving the single market and customs union; Labour MP Kate Green advocated the opposite. Thereafter, there were no more external speakers. The weekend was devoted to the Assembly members, who reflected on what they wanted post-Brexit policy-making to achieve and then on which policy options they wanted the government to pursue.

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Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit: reflections on the first weekend

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit has just begun its work. The project’s director, Alan Renwick, here offers some initial, personal reflections on a highly successful first weekend.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit has just completed its first weekend of deliberations. As an earlier post explained, the Assembly is a gathering of people from across the UK who have been randomly selected to reflect the make-up of the electorate. They are meeting over two weekends to learn about options for the form Brexit should take – focusing on the issues of trade and immigration – discuss what they make of these options, and draw conclusions. Their proposals will be written up in a report and delivered to policy-makers in parliament and government.

We knew by the start of the weekend that we had prepared well. We had selected a hotel at Manchester Airport with good facilities, a central UK location, and ready accessibility by road, rail, and air. Working with ICM, we had recruited the Assembly members. As we reported last week, that recruitment process went astonishingly well, allowing us to hit our targets for representing different parts of the population. To help guide our planning, we had gathered an Advisory Board who were superb in both their wealth of knowledge and their willingness to give up their time for the project, including academics and campaigners on both sides of last year’s referendum debate and people whose job it is to give balanced information on Brexit.

In consultation with the board, we had devised a plan for the Assembly and prepared briefing papers that set out the key issues in a balanced and accessible way. We had engaged Involve – perhaps the UK’s leading experts in facilitating this kind of event – to develop and deliver the programme of sessions for each weekend. We had assembled a line-up of speakers with vast experience and a healthy variety of perspectives.

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Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit: how were the members selected?

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit – a group of citizens that will consider options for Brexit – meets for the first time today. In this post Alan Renwick, Rebecca McKee, Will Jennings and Aleksei Opacic explain the process by which members were selected to be representative of the UK electorate, both demographically and in terms of how they voted at the 2016 EU referendum.

Over two weekends this month in Manchester, the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit – a group of around 45 citizens – will meet to learn about, deliberate on, and make recommendations relating to the options for Brexit. As we set out in a previous post, the Assembly follows a well-established model for fostering quality public deliberation around major policy decisions. One key feature of this model is the process through which the members are selected. They are not elected or allowed to self-select. Rather, they must be identified through a rigorous process of random selection designed to ensure that – so far as possible for a group of this size – they reflect the diversity of the wider population. This post sets out how we have done that for the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit and what we can say so far about the results.

Basic principles

Our goal has been to secure a broadly representative sample of the population. The relevant population in this case is the UK electorate: the people who are entitled to participate in public decision-making in the UK. It is their views that need to be heard by policy-makers involved in deciding the UK’s approach to Brexit.

Achieving a representative sample is far from straightforward. It relies on careful planning and design, as well as reflection, long before an assembly takes place. The first step is to decide what it actually means to be representative of the population at large. This is normally determined through stratification: you decide in advance what proportions of certain groups must be included, or set minimum levels for people from each group. Past citizens’ assemblies in places such as Ireland and Canada have used various stratification criteria, including age, ethnic background, geography, social class, and employment status. Each characteristic can be treated more or less strictly, depending on the context of the assembly. All official citizens’ assemblies have required equal numbers of men and women. In Canada, which has specific issues with ethnic inequalities, assemblies have required minimum numbers of people from the First Nations.

The stratification design is only the first step. Next comes the process of finding people to fill the stratification quotas. We know very clearly that one potential method – allowing people to self-select into the assembly, doesn’t work. Those who opt in are usually very different from those who don’t, most notably in terms of their levels of political interest and participation: they are more likely to have an interest in politics and to be already engaged in political activities. Self-selection may also attract people with particularly strong views about the topic of debate. Additionally, they are more likely to be people with plenty time to attend: those without caring or childcare responsibilities, those who are older and retired, and also people who can afford to take the time off work. To avoid the major issues of self-selection into a citizens’ assembly, some method of random selection is required.

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The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit: design and purpose

The Constitution Unit is leading a team running a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, which will meet over two weekends, starting with the weekend of 8–10 September. The Assembly will consist of around 45 UK citizens, selected to reflect the diversity of the UK electorate. Alan Renwick and Rebecca McKee explain how the Assembly will work and what it is hoped will be achieved.

The Constitution Unit is leading a team of academics and democracy practitioners who will run a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit over the coming weeks. As the name suggests, a citizens’ assembly is a group of citizens who are chosen to reflect the diversity of the population at large and who gather to learn about, discuss, and draw conclusions on some aspect of public policy. The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit provides an opportunity to shed light both on public priorities for Brexit and on the value of deliberative exercises in a polarised political context.

How the Assembly will work

The Citizens’ Assembly comprises around 45 UK citizens who have been selected through a stratified random sampling process to reflect the diversity of the UK electorate. Perfect representativeness is unattainable in a group of this size, but the members closely mirror the wider electorate in terms of sex, age, ethnicity, social class, region, and how they voted in the referendum last year. We will shortly publish a more detailed account of the selection process on this blog.

The Assembly members will meet over two weekends, starting with the weekend of 8-10 September. This is relatively short for a citizens’ assembly: some past assemblies have met for as many as twelve weekends. But it allows a structured approach to considering the matters in hand. During the first weekend, the Assembly members will hear about the issues from a diverse range of experts with widely differing views. They will be able to quiz those experts and begin to consider their own reactions to what they have heard. Between the weekends, the members will have the chance to digest this material and perhaps talk it over with family, friends, and colleagues. They will then return after three weeks for the second weekend, when they will deliberate in depth among themselves on the options and what they think of them. In all of this, they will be supported by professional facilitators from Involve, who will have a crucial role in keeping the discussions on track and ensuring that all members can take part fully.

The topic of discussion is the form that Brexit should take. The Assembly does not attempt to reopen the question decided by last year’s referendum: the presumption is that the UK is leaving the EU. The goal is to deepen understanding of informed public opinion on the kind of relationship that the UK should be seeking with the EU after Brexit. Not all aspects of Brexit can meaningfully be discussed in two weekends, so the Assembly will focus on two issues of crucial importance: trade and immigration.

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The Independent Commission on Referendums: issues and early ideas

The Constitution Unit has today launched an Independent Commission on Referendums, to review the role of referendums in UK democracy and consider how the rules and practice could be improved. The Commission’s members represent a range of political opinions, with expertise extending across all major UK referendums of recent years. Alan Renwick and Meg Russell highlight some of the key issues that have led to the Commission’s establishment.

The Constitution Unit is pleased to announce the launch of an Independent Commission on Referendums. The UK’s recent experience of referendums has prompted various criticisms of their use and conduct. With referendums now an established part of UK democracy, a review of their regulation and practice is needed. The Commission’s twelve members – listed in full on its webpages – include two former cabinet-level ministers, four other present or former parliamentarians, as well as senior figures from the worlds of regulation, journalism and academia. With their immense expertise and experience, and supported by international research conducted by the Constitution Unit, they will be very well placed to develop constructive and thoughtful recommendations for the use and conduct of referendums in the UK.

We make no attempt in this post to prejudge what the Commission members might conclude. Rather, we highlight some of the key issues and concerns that have led to the Commission’s creation and prompted such distinguished individuals to take part.

When and how should a referendum be called?

The most fundamental question is that of when referendums should be called – indeed, whether they should ever be held at all. Recent referendums in the UK have raised many doubts. In Wales in 2011, some queried whether voters could reasonably be expected to decide on what many saw as relatively technical changes to the devolution settlement. Turnout just above one third of eligible voters suggested that public engagement was low. Two months later, voters across the UK were asked to vote on an electoral system – the alternative vote system – that few campaigners really wanted, primarily due to bargaining between the two coalition partners. In Scotland, the question of who should have the power to call an independence referendum has been and remains contested. Since the Brexit referendum last year, some on the losing side have vowed ‘never again’, and even some of those prominent on the winning side have suggested that this was a vote that shouldn’t have been held. In its recent report Lessons learned from the EU Referendum, the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) – chaired by arch-Brexiteer Bernard Jenkin – criticised the use of what it styled a ‘bluff-call’ referendum, initiated by the government on a proposal that it opposed in the hope of shutting down debate on the issue.

The UK currently has few agreed principles on when referendums can and should be held – parliament can, in principle, call a vote on anything it likes at any time by passing enabling legislation. In practice, some conventions have begun to emerge as to when a referendum is considered appropriate, and in 2010, the Constitution Committee of the House of Lords proposed a list of constitutional matters that might need to go to popular vote. Yet any such norms remain relatively weak.

So it is worth considering whether it would be desirable – and indeed even feasible – to stipulate more precisely when referendums should be held or how they should be called. PACAC suggested that ‘bluff-call referendums’ should stop, but is there any way of giving such an exhortation real-world weight? Many other democracies do specify the processes for triggering referendums much more tightly, and investigation of the options here will be important.

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British politics and what we’ve learned after the 2017 general election

Last month’s general election delivered the latest in a series of political surprises, with the Conservatives falling short of a majority when many had anticipated they would win a landslide. On 21 June the Constitution Unit hosted a panel of election experts consisting of YouGov’s Joe Twyman and academics Justin Fisher, Jennifer Hudson, Philip Cowley and Alan Renwick to reflect on what happened. Fionnuala Ní Mhuilleoir reports.

Although we have become used to political upsets in recent years the outcome of the 8 June election nonetheless came as a surprise to many, including the Prime Minister, who saw her majority disappear when she had hoped to increase it substantially. How did this happen? How did the Conservatives manage to lose the massive lead they held at the start of the campaign, and Labour out-perform all expectations? How did the pollsters do after they had failed to call the 2015 election correctly? And what does the result mean for the government’s position in the new parliament, and for Brexit and beyond? These questions were all discussed at a Constitution Unit seminar held on 21 June, chaired by the Unit’s Director Professor Meg Russell. The panel included YouGov’s Joe Twyman, Professor Justin Fisher from Brunel University and Professor Philip Cowley from Queen Mary University of London. Dr Jennifer Hudson and Dr Alan Renwick from the Constitution Unit completed the line-up.

Joe Twyman

Joe Twyman opened the seminar with a brief post mortem on YouGov’s 2015 general election polling, which had predicted that the Conservatives would be the largest party in a hung parliament. The Conservatives went on to win 330 seats, securing a small but workable majority. YouGov subsequently identified three problems in the 2015 polling process: the samples used by YouGov and other polling companies to measure voting intention were not representative; figuring out whether people will turn out to vote is challenging; seat estimation across 650 constituencies is inherently very difficult.

Twyman then described how YouGov has responded to these issues. First, it has invested heavily in targeted recruitment, spending more than £100,000 in the last year to identify and recruit the types of people who were underrepresented in YouGov samples between 2010 and 2015, particularly those who were not interested in politics. Second, YouGov has updated how it analyses turnout. Thirdly, it has also developed a new seat estimation model.

This seat model, as is now well known, correctly predicted a hung parliament. In the run up to June 8 YouGov faced trenchant criticism, both from established commentators and on social media. Twyman reflected on Paul Krugman’s statement after the US election results that economists and commentators ‘truly didn’t understand the country we live in’. Through the efforts of YouGov, according to Twyman, we do now understand the country we live in a little better.

Justin Fisher

Justin Fisher began his contribution by drawing the audience’s attention to how important lead time ahead of an election is for party campaigns. The national and constituency campaigns have merged, with national campaigns now supporting the constituency effort. Lead time gives parties more time to plan targeting, information distribution, spending and fundraising. In a normal election campaign the critical period is the six-to-nine months before the poll.

The snap election left no opportunity for such advance campaigning. One implication is that this is likely to have been a much less expensive campaign than usual. Another is a shift in emphasis in campaigning techniques from direct mail (which requires lead time) to face-to-face campaigning and e-campaigning, which require much less preparation time. Fisher stressed that the evidence needed to confirm these expectations is still being collected.

Though the 2017 election may have accelerated the shift to e-campaigning, Fisher argued that campaigning techniques were partly heading that direction regardless. He also warned of what he called e-campaigning myths. He debunked the myth that micro-targeting of voters had only just been invented: parties have gathered data from phone calls and indirect mail for years. E-campaigning, therefore, represents evolution rather than a revolution. A further myth is the claim that because parties are using e-campaigning it must be effective. In 2015, research found it to be electorally effective, but less so than face-to-face campaigning. This has yet to be examined for the 2017 election.

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The EU referendum, one year on: public debate

Today is the first anniversary of the EU referendum. To mark this the UK in a Changing Europe Initiative and Political Studies Association have published a collection of essays titled EU Referendum: One Year OnAlan Renwick‘s contribution, focusing on the continuing weakness of public debate around Brexit and how it might be strengthened, is re-produced here. 

This month’s general election was supposed to be about Brexit. In her Downing Street statement on 18 April announcing her intention to seek the dissolution of parliament, Theresa May spoke of little else. She suggested that, without an early election, her opponents would have both the will and the ability to disrupt her efforts to negotiate the best possible Brexit deal. The vote, she hoped, would deliver a secure majority for her favoured Brexit plan.

Brexit’s low profile

In the end, however, Brexit did not dominate. It was mentioned on average 580 times a day in the main UK-wide newspapers in the week following May’s statement. But that fell below 500 for the following two weeks, then below 400 for the four and a half weeks between then and polling day – dipping to just 155 a day in the sixth week of the campaign, immediately following the Manchester bombing. When the BBC’s Andrew Neil interviewed the Prime Minister on 22 May, his questions turned to Brexit only in the last few minutes. Interviewing Jeremy Corbyn four days later, he asked nothing directly about Brexit itself, though he did enquire towards the end about immigration. The other main television debates and interviews gave Brexit more attention, but still it did not dominate.

There were at least three reasons for this. One, as just suggested, was the unforeseen and tragic eruption of terror into the campaign caused by the attacks in Manchester and London. This inevitably shifted the agenda towards the terrorist threat. It raised deep questions about both Theresa May’s record on police funding and Jeremy Corbyn’s record of opposition to counter-terrorism legislation and seeming friendship with certain terrorist organisations.

A second reason was the spectacular misfiring of the Tory campaign. Conservative strategists intended to focus on one core message: that Theresa May, not Jeremy Corbyn, was the person to provide the ‘strong and stable leadership’ needed for successful Brexit. But the Conservative manifesto introduced controversial policies – most notably on social care – that distracted attention away from that core message. The Prime Minister’s forced u-turn on social care undermined the credibility of the message. Veteran election watcher Sir David Butler tweeted (sic) that ‘In the 20 general election campaigns I’ve followed, I can’t remember a U-turn on this scale’.

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