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 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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We’re taking back control – but who’s going to wield it?

katie-ghose

Britain voted to ‘take back control’ from the EU, and Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech made the repatriation of power to Westminster a priority. But it is far from clear what kind of Brexit Britons want, nor how many of these powers will go to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland rather than the UK Parliament. Katie Ghose argues that with direct democracy on the rise, citizens’ assemblies would help people grasp the trade-offs at stake and have a voice in these monumental decisions.

Theresa May has now fleshed out her plans for Britain to leave the EU and become an independent, self-governing nation. With more detail emerging about the economic plan, it’s time to look at the democratic implications.

Serious thinking about democracy can all too often get left behind and the public shut out of these debates, as we’ve seen with English devolution. How our democracy actually takes shape after Brexit goes beyond the two-year negotiating window, and it has to mean the public will have a strong say. After all, given the focus on ‘where power lies’ during the campaign (summed up the powerful slogan ‘take back control’), it would be ironic if this wasn’t a priority.

Theresa May says the vote was about restoring parliamentary democracy by bringing back sovereignty to the UK Parliament. This is uncontroversial – after all, many people identified the issue of laws ‘being made in Brussels’ as part of a more general unease. But it is only part of the picture. The transfer will take place at the same time as the ongoing transfer of powers from Westminster to Scotland, Wales and NI, as well as devolution within England. In other words, it will happen just as power is shifting between and within the nations of the UK – with obvious ramifications for our Union.

People feel a physical remoteness from Westminster, Holyrood and the Senedd, but that distance is knitted into a growing anti-establishment sentiment. So now is an opportunity to capitalise on the positive political interest stimulated by the vote, and convert it into a sustainable mode of political engagement – with genuinely powerful citizens.

So the first question is this: what is the public role in shaping the form of Brexit?

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