Citizens’ assemblies could help repair our toxic political culture

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The writer is chief executive of Demos, a think-tank

The next UK government will face a dizzying array of policy challenges. After the coming general election, ministers of any political persuasion will have to make tough choices and unpopular decisions.

And lurking behind the polycrisis — which encompasses everything from the impact of AI and the climate emergency to polarisation and broken public services — lies a deeper crisis: of faith in democracy. This has left electorates around the world searching for something new, for promises that are honoured and systems to trust. This has led to the rise of populism’s fraudulent claims that complex issues have simple solutions.

This deeper crisis is a symptom of our failure to make good policies. Citizens’ assemblies, which Labour has recently proposed for constitutional reform, devolution and planning decisions, can break the most intractable policy deadlock. In Ireland in 2018, a group of 99 citizens chosen at random sat down to debate abortion, ultimately leading to a decisive referendum and a historic change in the law. It is a perfect example of a policy that had become so divisive and stuck that people thought it was untouchable; but which a citizen-led democratic process unblocked.

Ireland may be the most well-known example, but there are now hundreds of others around the world. Citizens’ assemblies have been used to help decide net zero policies in France in the aftermath of the gilets jaunes protests, to think through affordable housing in Switzerland and to set a 10-year, £5bn allocation of funding in Melbourne.

Now, they could be coming to the UK, according to Sue Gray, Keir Starmer’s chief of staff. Subjects may include the seemingly insoluble question of what to do about the House of Lords. But the idea was met with the same objections as always. Namely that we’ll only hear from the politically over-involved “usual suspects” — in fact, assemblies are chosen at random, by sortition. That this is government by focus group — no, it’s a deliberative process, with citizens’ empowered to decide not just opine. And that the outcomes will be swayed by biased processes — not if they are independently run and based on fair, accurate information.

The objection that interests me most is the idea that citizens’ assemblies would undermine parliament — which is, at least partly, already composed of our elected representatives. But checks and balances are a feature of a democracy. And right now policymaking is limited by our political culture — on the one hand, partisan and divisive, with little shared space for consensus building; on the other, technocratic, timid and disconnected from voters.

Citizens’ assemblies do not replace parliaments — and certainly shouldn’t allow politicians to swerve accountability. But they could help forge a braver politics, in which parliament works with the public to navigate the trickiest questions, from the transition to net zero to migrants in the workforce, to constitutional reform and ethical debates, such as assisted dying.

There are three main benefits. First, a policy created with the input of those affected will have more legitimacy. Second, the simple act of bringing people together can strengthen citizenship and bridge divides — even for those who aren’t in the room. Third, it can help rebuild trust and repair the increasingly toxic relationship between electors and the elected. Demos will make this case in a white paper to be published this summer, setting out how, when and why citizens should be involved.

We need a collaborative democracy, starting with an honest approach to the complexity of the challenges we face — and the trade-offs required in overcoming them. Engaging citizens in policymaking can help us all find breakthroughs. And by building partnerships between citizens and governments, politicians will be better equipped to be bolder and to go further in addressing our collective challenges.

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