How would a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit work?

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  • Deliberative democracy

There are growing calls for deliberative democracy to be part of the Brexit solution.

In Parliament, Theresa May has floated the idea of establishing a “more formal forum within which it is possible to bring people together” as an “important element of the next stage of the negotiation”. 

Any consultation process would be strengthened if it included citizen deliberation, as MPs like Stella Creasy have argued. But any deliberation processes must be well designed to work effectively.  

The RSA’s research on deliberative democracy gives us an insight into how a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit would work.

How long would a citizens’ assembly on Brexit take?

Stella Creasy suggests that a citizens’ assembly could be completed in 12 weeks. This would be a squeeze. While it might be just about feasible, it is not good to rush these processes.

Within this time:

  • Parliament would need to pass a motion for a citizens’ assembly
  • a delivery team would have to be put in place
  • participants would have to be recruited
  • materials and speakers would have to be selected
  • the actual assembly would have to take place.

These are all necessary steps. Skimping on time would cut short the most important stage – the discussion and deliberation of citizens.

The idea of a citizens’ assembly is to allow people to think and then judge, not just gather up their raw opinions. The longer citizens are given to deliberate the better. Therefore, we recommend at least 18 weeks.

12 weeks would leave at most a couple of weekends for deliberation, if the assembly were to meet on consecutive weekends.

Adding a few more weeks would give the citizens time and space to consider the arguments and make more productive recommendations. The Article 50 extension allows for this extra time.

All meetings should be professionally and impartially facilitated to provide structure, make everyone feel included, and coax out people’s wisdom.

How would people be chosen to take part in a citizens’ assembly on Brexit?

A citizens’ assembly would resemble the UK in miniature: broadly representative in terms of gender, geography, ethnicity, education, and Brexit vote.

Members should be recruited through a ‘civic lottery’. Thousands of letters would be sent out to randomly-selected people at households across the UK asking them to attend. Then a representative sample would be taken of those who register their interest, so that the final group is a microcosm of the country.

All opinions would be heard – this gives citizens’ assemblies legitimacy but is also why they produce such insightful recommendations.

What would a citizens’ assembly on Brexit discuss? Is it just another way to have a second referendum or overturn Brexit?

The Brexit citizens’ assembly could advise on what we should do next: should there be a general election, a second referendum, or a change of the kind of Brexit the government is seeking?

A citizens’ assembly is not just a way to introduce a second referendum or overturn Brexit. The assembly could recommend whatever idea it thought was best. This might include anything from a referendum to a certain type of Brexit deal. We would need to see what people agree when they talk to each other.   

If Parliament votes for a second referendum during this Article 50 extension, a citizens’ assembly could be used to inform the debate.

In this case, the assembly could be completed before the second referendum campaign begins. The BBC could run and broadcast this assembly (as suggested in a previous RSA blog), or alternatively it could be commissioned by government. The assembly’s final report could be sent out in an official voters’ guide.

This would introduce evidence-based argument into the referendum campaign. This has long been a requirement for certain referendums in Oregon where it has been shown to improve voters’ understanding of the issue at hand.

The UCL’s Constitution Unit has calculated that a second referendum would take a minimum of 22 weeks to execute, which means Parliament needs to act quickly if it wants a referendum in this Article 50 extension.

If there is another extension and if Parliament votes for a second referendum, a citizens’ assembly could be used to help come up with the right question for a public vote.

But if those things don’t happen, then a citizens’ assembly would approach the question of Brexit with an open mind.

What power would a citizens’ assembly on Brexit have?

Citizens’ assemblies don’t replace Parliament. In fact, they help MPs to gain a deeper understanding of what the public thinks and – crucially – why people think what they do.

Citizens’ assemblies provide an evidence-based input to political debate which is free from political games.

The decision whether to accept or reject the proposals remains with Parliament, but we hope that recommendations made by ordinary citizens would have moral force and real clout.

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  • I can see the appeal of a Citizen's Assembly for a range of issues, but I fear that it is unlikely to solve Brexit because the issue is too emotional and positions are too entrenched. It would have been a good alternative to the original referendum, but we can't turn back the clock. As such, a Citizen's Assembly on Brexit may indeed come up with the best, most logical compromise position, but voters whose preferred option is not fully complied with (i.e. almost everyone) and the press will see it as lacking legitimacy, probably undemocratic (due to the arbitrary selection process) and possibly elitist (the will of the few, however selected, imposed on the many - ok for elected representatives, but not for those randomly selected).

    Given that all the arguments have been trotted out on both sides endlessly, I think the only real solution is to find a compromise that is selected by a majority of the people or their elected representatives. If Parliament is unable to do this, then a multiple choice vote based on first, second and possibly third preferences is surely the only possible way to heal the divisions in the country, probably along the lines proposed earlier in this thread by Peter Emerson.

  • Citizens' assemblies/juries/panels facilitating deliberative & participative democracy in Belgium - I hesitate to say "Europe showing the way"! Of course, it's just one of many countries experiencing this evolution.

  • A few years ago I came up with an idea for 3rd house of parliament (or second, if one if the Lords reached it sell-by date - oh, it already has!) to be called the House of Games. It would be a hierarchical system loosely based on postcodes. At the lowest level of the pyramid, each postcode (e.g. SS14 1TB) would nominate a member to speak on behalf of that area at the next level up (e.g. SS14 1 - links to map)  comprising all the individual addressed. 

    The next level would in my example be SS14 and have members nominated from the level below ... and so on upwards. The overall idea is that everyone lower in a hierarchy has the power to make their voice heard to the level above, and anyone above has the responsibility to report the views of those below.

    There is rather more to it than that, but the above describes the general idea of what is a hierarchical citizens' assembly.

    • Hi Richard. It's an interesting idea, although it sounds like an alternative form of 'representation' democracy, perhaps replacing a parliamentary chamber and countering the power of the party system. 

      One of the benefits of deliberative & participative democracy approaches like Citizens' Assemblies is having freshly-selected - usually randomly-selected - citizens for each issue. This can also challenge hierarchies of course, which are often anti-democratic. 

      Just wondering what other benefits (and drawbacks) you see for your idea.

  • In its deliberations, Ireland's Citizens' Assembly used a preferential points method of identifying the 100 citizens' consensus. Inter alia, it also recommended that future referendums should perhaps be multi-optional.

    The basic problem with Brexit is that the country tried to solve a complex problem - our relationship with the EU - in a binary vote. In February 2016, the de Borda Institute suggested that decision should have best been done in a multi-option referendum: EU, EEA or WTO.

    Majority voting is divisive.  The UK is now divided.  Like giving a whiskey to an alcoholic, a binary ballot (in parliament or a second referendum) would not heal the wounds.  But a multi-option ballot might.  So, ask the Assembly to choose, say, five options - New Zealand had a five-option referendum in 1992, and very successful it was too - and then let us have a preferential points system of voting. (NZ had only a two-round system). Better by far would be one round of preferential voting.  And if every voter states his/her compromise option, it should be possible to identify the nation's best possible compromise.  The methodology is called the Modified Borda Count, MBC, which (unlike a BC) caters for partial voting. At best, the outcome is the option with the highest average preference; it therefore includes every one (who votes), not just 52%.

    • One could say we have had the first round of such a system (we voted to leave rather than stay) and the next round should now be about the different options for leaving. I find it difficult to see how having a second round would make Remainers feel any more accepting of the first round.

  • It seems to me everything in the Brexit debate is a matter of opinion. There are few truths that deliberation could uncover.

    Will we be better off or worse off if we leave? Will we have £350m a week for the NHS, or a smaller amount, or nothing? Will we need a border in Ireland? Will we still be subject effectively to EU regulations, but with no say? Will other countries want to make trade deals with us? Will the Eurozone collapse? Will the EU want to have a common defence with its own army? Does the EU secretly want to continue with "ever greater union" to the point of creating an EU nation, or has it accepted that this is not the desire of its members? Will the EU become more democratic, and does it want to? Will Turkey join the EU? Will the EU suffer poor economic performance in future compared with other countries or groupings? Does Germany need to transfer money to the southern member states and will it ever do so?

    However many "experts" are interviewed on these topics by a citizen's assembly, they are all unknowable and just a matter of opinion. And those opinions are driven not just by what people objectively believe to be true but by their desire for the UK to remain or leave. I find it difficult to see that a citizen's assembly could get us any further forward than we are.

    If you are a Leaver, and a citizen's assembly came down on the side of Remain, ask yourself, would you change your view? If you are a Remainer and a citizen's assembly came down on the side of Leave, would you change your view? I suspect most people would not.

    • Hi Julian. Definitely lots of entrenched views & emotions. The polls show more than 80% of Remain voters & Leave voters say they would still vote the same way if asked that binary question again (as opposed to a Referendum asking a different question or questions), although that means 20% might shift. And I watched a Sky Forum where 'experts' gave 'rational' information and then an old fella said 'the day after the Referendum, I just felt free' - you can't divorce the emotion!

      But considering the potential role of a Citizens' Assembly raises a few questions, including:

      1) does it need to 'uncover new truths' or just help to map a practical, optimal route through the highly charged parliamentary fog?

      2) does it need to 'call experts' as Citizens' Juries and Citizens' Assemblies usually do (but don't have to), or just trust in a randomly-selected group of citizens to converge on a solution?

      3) what should the terms of reference be? For example, it could be left open (including Remain) or a Citizens' Assembly could be asked to map the best option for exiting the EU (ie Remain not an option)?

      I appreciate that some are against the notion of Citizens' Assemblies per se, and many have strong views about Remain or Leave when we ask about the EU. I'm just trying to avoid conflation. Maybe some Fellows support the use of Citizens' Assemblies but just not for Brexit? 

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