Why Theresa May should reach for her inner Pankhurst: time for a National Citizens’ Jury on Brexit

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    Ed Cox
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With the Prime Minister struggling to develop a workable mandate on Brexit and further calls for a second referendum, it is time we took inspiration from the Suffrage movement, reached into the democratic toolbox and found a better way to resolve this national conundrum.

There is merit and logic to the argument that we should put a series of Brexit options back to the general public through a second referendum.  Our own Chief Executive, Matthew Taylor, was one of the first to promote the cause most recently taken up by Justine Greening and he has further elaborated this idea. Downing Street has of course rejected this course of action as a last ditch attempt by Remoaners to make a swift U-turn. But for all the Prime Minister’s trials and tribulations with her party, what is perhaps being most laid bare is the fragility of a Parliamentary system addicted to whipping, behind the scenes deals and the kind of gamesmanship the public is baffled and horrified by.

There is a deep irony that the same people who loudly argue that Brexit referendum represents the democratic will of the people also seem most adept at deploying the dark arts of some of the most undemocratic features of our Parliamentary process and the most averse to running a further exercise to exact a direct democratic mandate. Claims that the 52:48 referendum result represents the clear will of the people are of course overblown, it doesn’t take a professional statistician to tell us that this is a very weak mandate albeit a winning one, but to castigate those who raise this concern as an anti-democratic elite betrays a warped understanding of democratic practice. 

Democracies flourish through their use of a wide range of tools. Voting for elected representatives - in our case a House of Commons – is a central feature of most developed nations and became the hallmark of nineteenth and twentieth century democracies around the world. These have depended on other democratic institutions including second chambers, a free press, the legal system, and different forms of civic education, all designed to refine and enhance decision-making. And at times these have required reinvention and reform, most notably the advent of universal suffrage brought about through the campaign and sacrifice of remarkable women exactly one hundred years ago.

In recent decades, more direct forms of democratic practice have been used as referenda have become cost-effective ways for governments to establish a more direct mandate for action. Participatory processes have also been tried to bring people closer to the day-to-day decisions that affect them. This ecosystem of democratic practice is essential to unlocking the wisdom of the crowd that many now see as the distinctive feature of democratic – as opposed to autocratic or oligarchic – systems that enable economic progress and social enlightenment.

As might be expected, different types of democratic decision-making are better made using different democratic tools. In 'our call to action on deliberative democracy', I have created a matrix to explore this proposition. It is my assertion that in the case of Brexit – a highly complex issue involving long-term implications for a very diverse population – direct democracy (a referendum) is the least suited tool to establish a democratic mandate at the outset. Furthermore, representative democracy with its relatively short-term time horizon and volatile politics also has significant limitations when it comes to taking such a long-term decision. We need a better democratic tool.

In recent weeks, stimulated by Matthew Taylor’s Chief Executive’s lecture and a new book by James Fishkin entitled Democracy when the people are thinking, deliberative democratic practices have been heralded as a missing tool from the UK’s democratic toolbox. And so they should. Deliberative practices come in different forms perhaps the most well-known being a citizens’ jury but they have a number of key features which lend themselves to resolving a challenge like our future relationship with the European Union far better than direct or representative forms of democracy can.

First, in order to ensure they create a mandate for action, citizens’ juries are representative. Whether drawn by lot or very carefully sampled, their virtue is that they can actually be more representative than an elected assembly. Consider, for example, the trust we place in criminal juries as being people like us taking decisions on our behalf. Citizens’ juries follow that same logic. A National Citizens’ Jury on Brexit, for example, could be carefully sampled to ensure 52 per cent of its participants voted to leave but it would also ensure that its members came from all walks of life, all age groups and ethnicities and all parts of the country, in proportion to their make-up of the general population. 

Second, citizens’ juries are truly deliberative: they weigh up the evidence with the express purpose of finding common ground. This is the very antithesis of parliamentary politics where opposing sides trade blows with a view to establishing numerical advantage. As with criminal juries, citizens’ juries typically meet over extended periods to weigh evidence and tease out opinion. They contemplate and consider options with a view to finding a common mind. Clearly, in the case of Brexit, the facilitation of a National Citizens’ Jury would be crucial but as we know, our civil service has been working diligently to identify options and their wider implications and it would not be impossible to identify an independent figure with some clout – as with a high court judge - to ensure the jury’s deliberations are full and fair.

Thirdly – and crucially – citizens’ juries must be commissioned and carry weight. While different democratic practices may suit different circumstances, it would be naïve to think that they all carry equal weight. Citizen engagement in such processes requires an understanding that their deliberation will be taken seriously – otherwise it is nothing more than a focus group. The excellent experiment carried out by our partner organisation, Involve, who actually held their own deliberative exercise on Brexit and proved just how mature and decisive public deliberation of the issue can be was only limited by the fact that it had no purchase on the political system. In the UK, Parliament still rules and so it must be that any national citizens’ jury on Brexit must come with the endorsement of the government at the very least.

So what then of the outcome an National Citizens’ Jury on Brexit might derive. In part this depends upon the question that is set: it may well be that the best approach would be to ask the jury to come up with a set of options upon which the whole nation would vote as Matthew Taylor’s recent blog suggests. It may be for them to identify a single negotiating position. Though few red-blooded politicians will get this, the outcome is less important than the mandate. The government’s problem now is that almost any negotiating position they might be able to accommodate in Parliament is fundamentally flawed by the time it reaches Brussels as negotiators there are well aware of the problems in its design. The outcome of a National Citizens’ Jury, endorsed by government or Parliament or a second referendum, would be almost impossible for the EU to resist as it would so obviously be the collective will of the people by its very design. Furthermore, a National Citizens’ Jury on Brexit, if constructed and conducted according to these principles, would also meet the express wish of those wanting political decision-making to be taken out of the hands of an elected elite and put firmly in the grasp of the people themselves.

It is not just Theresa May who is looking for a mandate, as a nation we need a democratic system that once again gives power to the people and takes decision-making out of the theatre that is our Parliament – elected or not. On Brexit, the defining issue of our times, we need the collective courage as a nation to dig deep in the democratic toolbox and once again become democratic pioneers. A National Citizens’ Jury, representative of the people, determined to find a common mind, and with the full backing of the government, could deliver Theresa May a mandate that none in her party nor in Brussels could resist and return the nation to the forefront democratic innovation, but to grasp it she must reach for her inner Pankhurst.

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  • Thanks for reading & responding to the posts Ed. Let's see what comes from the Zoom event next week. 

    There are many perspectives to incorporate into the design of a deliberative programme - geographic, demographic, psychographic, past voting behaviour (voted/didn't vote, voted leave/remain), current knowledge & preferences (Hard Brexit, Soft Brexit, Third Way), etc...but I'm sure - between us - we can come up with a design which is technically and tactically sound.  

    • Thank you for posting and responding my first comment which has external information that seems difficult to consider. This is my self contained advice to what I guess from your response can be considered as your theses: “There is merit and logic to the argument that we should put a series of Brexit options back to the general public through a second referendum.” Unless what follows is both necessary and sufficient, for example, If my guess is wrong, please clarify your theses.

      A series of options is about problem solving, which doesn’t work when dealing with a wicked problem, which in general hints for institutional innovations. I submit that a National Citizens’ Jury aiming for consensus is unable to innovate and here what’s needed is an electoral innovation, that many voters (not all) will love before they know they want it. So instead of wicked problem solving second UK referendum, my thought leadership opportunity emerged by applying heuristic systems architecting that resulted in the Bright Globalization North Star “fact of life” narrative for an interdependent world that most voters of all 28 member states of the EU might love. This is what I have been calling since May 2017 as “Grasping the opportunities.”

      That electoral innovation is about recognizing that the European Union has been getting less and less democratic into what I coined as the Dark Globalization in a world that has been getting more and more interdependent. Brexit was a response to the Dark Globalization for a world of independence instead of interdependence, which is my interpretation of (I didn’t coined it) DeGlobalization. Without an institutional innovation, a second referendum will only have the essential choices of the Dark Globalization and DeGlobalization, which is what I have been calling as “Wasting the crisis.”

      I know that a few management consulting firms of the European Union will try to do what I propose. However, I suggest that I must retain one of them to avoid what happened, for example, with the Reengineering the Corporation advice given by consultants that had a failure rate of about 75 percent.

      • Hi Joseantonio. Although it's been posted as a reply to my comment, I can see that you are quoting from Ed's original piece, and speaking to all, rather than responding to me specifically. 

        Yes, lots of options for deliberation & participation - and just having another referendum would not be learning from past errors. 

        • Dear Paul,

          Next is the text of the tweet without the shared image.

          Thank you! Yes I just saw in Paul's response "lots of options" ("Wicked" problems) which even in the dated May 2017 shared image "#GlobalDebout under Macron - four insights from this tweet conversation" all correspond to "Wasting the crisis."

          Broken link https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/reports/a-public-culture-of-economics …

  • It's great to see comments here. More deliberation & participation among Fellows should always be the top priority for The RSA in my view!


    Paul Settles suggests that "the composition of such a jury needs to be:

    - 37% Leave;

    - 35% Remain and

    - 28% Did not vote."

    This of course is one of the reasons why a single Citizens' Jury would fail. There would be a multiplicity of viewpoints on the composition.

    When supporters argue for a 'representative' jury, we have to ask 'representative of what?' And, technically, 'representativeness' does not live in a vacuum, it sits beside validity and reliability in giving us views that are reliable in representing the views of any defined population.

    We need an approach that is more robust and capable of 'representing' all the key viewpoints so we can converge to a solution without opponents easily picking holes in our methodology.

    Paul Settles also rightly points out the flaws in this claim:

    “The outcome of a National Citizens’ Jury, endorsed by government or Parliament or a second referendum, would be almost impossible for the EU to resist as it would so obviously be the collective will of the people by its very design.”


    I designed & facilitated a citizens' jury in 1991, and we've learned a lot since then about deliberative democracy. I've recently been involved in intensive deliberative engagement with citizens & customers on energy policy and how to price energy. 

    And I was recently called up for court jury service which was a fascinating experience, emphasising the differences as well as the similarities between the court jury and the citizens' jury. 

    Is there a forum for us to discuss in more detail what a suitable approach would be for a deliberative, participative Brexit solution?  

    • This thread seems to be a good place to start Paul. But let's see how much interest there might be in finding some other channel for debate.

  • Didn't we try government by focus group under New Labour? Isn't that how the people left behind first came to be left behind? 

    • Hi Stephen. It's a myth that there was suddenly 'government by focus group' under New Labour. All governments going back to at least Wilson used focus groups, and I worked for MORI in the 1980s when all the parties were using focus groups. 

      Focus groups are an established technique and they are just the messenger. It depends on how they are used. 

      We started using more deliberative engagement approaches, especially in the early 1990s, and we now have lots of tools in the toolkit, but methods should serve our goals not drive them. Strong leadership means using all the tools we have to listen to and involve citizens.

      'Government by focus group' has become a term of abuse for weak political leadership. It's not a criticism of the research or engagement technique. It's a criticism of the leadership. 

      A suitably tailored programme of deliberative engagement would enable leaders to find a path through Brexit, but it won't do their job for them! 

    • Thanks Stephen. There are significant differences between Focus Groups and proper deliberative processes like Citizens' Juries which I do address in the blog itself.

  • Interesting post, but fundamentally flawed I think in that you posit citizens juries weighing up evidence and coming to a 'common mind'. This ignores that politics isn't economics, or the natural sciences or something with an objective truth. Politics is a clash of ideas, of aims and of value judgments.  

    You propose a very economist approach to what is a political question. Were one to weigh up economic benefits of various next-step options, one might reach a collective or majority conclusion - but have you dealt with peoples ideas or beliefs in that process? No. You've asked a small number of people to weigh up possible future economic scenarios through modeling and - what? Ask them which is the least worst? Which is the best? Best for what and for whom? And what if mere economism wasn't of concern to many who voted? What then have you concluded on?

    I think the starting point for things like citizens juries is the idea that the masses as a whole are likely to come to the wrong decision because they are uninformed - far better to have a smaller, selected group to decide (which, regardless of how randomised you make a just ballot or how reflective of the populous in any scenario is exactly what's happening).

    In that sense, citizens juries differ to criminal juries - one recognises that the state, through an individual, should not allowed to try and condemn its citizens, but that our peers should and can; the other assumes our fellow citizens aren't well informed enough to make difficult decisions as a collective, and a smaller group of people would do a better job.

    What criminal juries get right is that, on balance, 12 heads coming to an opinion about the facts before them are better than one. Likewise, with this fundamental decision about how we are governed and by who, I'd run with the wisdom of the crowd. Both the criminal jury example you use to make you case (I think, falsely), and the EU referendum share the same positive thing in common: more heads thinking about a question and coming to an opinion are better than less.

    • Thanks Justine. I'm not sure my suggestion is entirely 'economistic' as you suggest. A citizens' jury could weigh up all manner of evidence - economic, cultural, even political - in order to come to a view on how we should progress. I'm sorry you seem to doubt the possibility of a randomised ballot coming up with a legitimate jury too. It is an interesting distinction that you make between criminal and citizens' juries - my wider point is that a deliberative process may allow for a better informed discussion than the yahboo 'debates' that we associate with binary referenda.

  • Current debates about various ways to remedy or strengthen democracy studiously ignore a fundamental element – exactly HOW can we be sure we make the best choice, openly and regardless of complexity?  None of us has ever been trained in the art of decision-making using a universal or de facto methodology which can be applied to any subject, involving any number of people from any walk of life (no matter how disparate their views), and which still makes the best choice, always.

    With the internet, we now have the platform for an all-inclusive society, far beyond the limitations of sortition.  Augment this with an innovative and unique App (*), freely available to all and beyond reproach (like www), to ensure that we, alone or jointly with (any number of) others, always make the best choice, on any issue, and in a universally transparent ‘language’.  Thus, every citizen would be suitably empowered to participate in any decision-making process thereby promoting unity and commitment.  Their voices will demonstrably be heard. And, transparency begets public accountability, a powerful, all-pervading, yet benign governor (sunshine is the best disinfectant).  Solid consensus or the prevailing adversarial, conflicting and distortingly emotive system?

    Democracy incarnate!  Government of the people, by the people, for the people at last.

    (*) “Informed Choice – ic!” about to be launched.

    • Thanks Michael - I look forward to seeing the App. Keep us all posted here.

      • Best way to 'see' the App is for it to be presented to you, because it is truly innovative and unique (as attested by Professors of Decision Theory) whilst widely-held fallacies also have to be debunked, like "right" and "wrong" decisions; they simply don't exist, who is to judge?

        I'm in London 9th August until 3rd September and will be available.  Rest assured, it will be time exceedingly well-spent..

        • Doubtful my two earlier emails reached you re 28/29th August presentation (spam snares?).  On the principal of overkill (ensuring the matter is deader than if we just kill!) anytime on those two dates would suit; please advise best time and location for you.