After the defeat of Theresa May’s Brexit deal in Parliament, most of the responses were familiar.
Extend Article 50, hold a second referendum or ‘People’s Vote’, change the backstop. But an alternative, less familiar proposal also gathered steam.
Stella Creasy MP tabled an amendment calling for a citizens’ assembly to break the Brexit impasse. The concept is not a new one - as anyone who reads Guardian editorials will know - and there has already been an example citizens’ assembly on Brexit run by University College London’s Constitution Unit. But the idea has not before enjoyed such open support in Parliament.
How would a citizens’ assembly on Brexit work?
The assembly would comprise a group of randomly selected citizens (Creasy suggests 250, which is rather large) who would meet over a series of weekends. They would hear evidence from impartial experts, before deliberating individually and in groups to arrive at a series of recommendations.
A citizens’ assembly could be tasked with choosing a route out of the immediate blockage. If the circumstances arose, it could alternatively discuss the terms of a second referendum and what it would ask. It could be used to determine the shape of our future relationship with the EU or indeed a process for healing the nation once it has withdrawn.
For its proponents a citizens’ assembly would be a perfect antidote to the polarisation and deceit that characterised the Brexit campaign, and an efficacious way of breaking the current logjam. For its detractors, it would be an undemocratic talking shop.
Everything is unpopular - explaining our Brexit poll results
Here at the RSA, as part of our Campaign for Deliberative Democracy, we commissioned a poll to gauge public opinion on the proposal. Support for the idea seems low with 38% against and just 25% in favour. (Opposition was higher among Leave voters.) But it is important to put this result in proper context.
What the polling results show, above all, is that every option is relatively unpopular. While there wasn’t significant support for a citizens’ assembly:
- only 34% said they’d prefer a second referendum to a citizens’ assembly
- only 29% said they’d prefer a general election to a citizens’ assembly
- only 31% said they’d prefer leaving the EU with no deal to a citizens’ assembly.
This suggests that in direct comparison with some of the alternatives being considered, a citizen’s assembly doesn’t fare too badly.
The results also show declining levels of trust in traditional political institutions, most of all in the Conservative and Labour parties, but also institutions like the civil service and the Bank of England.
But there is a major different between a citizens’ assembly on Brexit and other political institutions. While all voters are familiar with elections and referendums, the majority have never heard of citizens’ assemblies. Even fewer have witnessed one.
It is likely then that our polling results show a widespread misunderstanding about the citizens’ assembly process, with many assuming it is merely a focus group with too much power.
There is also a more abstract barrier to popular support. People have come to associate democracy exclusively with elections, even though this has not always been the case. In ancient Athens – the birthplace of democracy – democracy worked through ‘sortition’ (the random selection of decision makers) rather than elections.
Sortition, like elections, treats all citizens equally and the resulting group is representative of the population at large. Yet it is not easy to shift the habitual belief that democracy can only mean elections. 57% of people in our poll thought that a citizens’ assembly would be undemocratic due to its size.
Interestingly, those polled in Northern Ireland were among the most likely to support a citizens’ assembly on Brexit. This is perhaps explained by a higher level of awareness due to the successful National Citizens’ Assembly in the Irish Republic.
The results of the RSA poll seem to confirm the general trend that our confidence in the traditional institutions of democracy is being eroded, but the fresh ideas that might reinvigorate it also fail to command support.
There is a tendency for people to judge political processes based on their Brexit position. This has evidently been the case with opposition to the People’s Vote campaign and, perhaps unsurprisingly, also seems to apply to the idea of a citizens’ assembly on Brexit. Although such an assembly could make any number of recommendations, 43% of all those polled and 67% of the Leave voters thought that it would “betray the Leave vote from 2016”.
Supporting Deliberative Democracy – not a new Brexit deal
This highlights the basic difficulty of running a citizens’ assembly on the issue of Brexit.
Successful citizens’ assemblies require empathy, concession and deliberation – virtues that have fallen by the wayside in post-referendum Britain. Even if these habits can be cultivated in the assembly’s participants, the general public might well remain sceptical. In the aftermath of a vote for change, calls for reflection and consideration seem to many like disguised defences of the status quo.
Our challenge, as supporters of deliberative democracy, is to harness the growing enthusiasm for a citizens’ assembly while ensuring the process is assessed on its own merits – rather than as a surrogate for any specific Brexit outcome.
For this to happen, the assembly would probably need to command support from across the political spectrum. Ideally, citizens would have a clear understanding of the process and trust in its integrity, but that scenario will not be easy to create in the current time-frame.
Luckily, neither the deadlock nor the deadline – both of which fuel the vicious cycle of polarisation and disillusionment - are inevitable. With the political will, Article 50 could be extended for long enough to allow the national debate to cool off.
As Gordon Brown argues, a citizens’ assembly could be held during this time to stimulate conscientious, considered discussion that bridges partisan divides. The same dynamics of polarisation and mistrust existed in Ireland prior to the citizens’ assembly on abortion, but people from across the political spectrum engaged earnestly with the process and most judged the outcomes legitimate.
Restoring Faith in Democracy
Of course, there is no guarantee it would work. Perhaps the conditions are simply too hostile this time. But sooner or later, our politics must transcend its current divides. This will take creativity on the part of policymakers and a fair dose of humility all around.
We need to take stock of the last two years and embrace democratic reforms that empower and engage citizens. Citizens’ assemblies are a tried and tested method, but – as these poll results show – they are still deeply misunderstood.
The RSA's Campaign for Deliberative Democracy seeks to tackle this misunderstanding head-on and to advocate for ambitious initiatives that can restore faith in our democracy.
Populus interviewed a sample of 2082 UK adults aged 18+ online between 16 -17 January 2019. Of these, 57 were located in Northern Ireland.
Surveys were conducted across the country and the results have been weighted to the profile of all adults.
Populus is a founder member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.
Further information at www.populus.co.uk