Report: Is a Citizens’ Assembly the solution to Brexit deadlock?

It was standing room only in a packed Westminster committee room when MPs and political thinkers met to discuss the practicalities of holding a Citizens’ Assembly last week. The meeting was hosted by Neal Lawson of Compass, a think tank dedicated to political unity, and saw Stella Creasy (MP for Walthamstow) and Lisa Nandy (MP for Wigan) make an impassioned and detailed argument for using this innovative process to break the current Brexit deadlock.

Parliament has been unable to find a majority in favour of any of the current options available to our country. Far from undermining parliamentary democracy, a Citizens’ Assembly could provide essential public input into the process as well as much needed legitimacy. The Assembly’s recommendations would be advisory, and supporters have different views on what the preferred outcome should be. The process would allow all viewpoints—including those who favour no-deal, some new deal, or a People’s Vote—to be considered and evaluated fairly.

The proposed Citizens’ Assembly would be made up of 250 people, intended to form a representative sample of Britain today. Professor Graham Smith, Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster and a specialist in participatory democracy, gave a detailed explanation of how the selection process would work. Participants would be chosen through “sortition”; essentially a “civic lottery” with weightings applied to ensure a mix of groups that reflects the country as a whole.

Professor Smith emphasized that three conditions are necessary for a Citizens’ Assembly to be successful: there must be significant political agreement on the validity of the process; there must be a clear and well defined mandate; and it must have sufficient time to complete its work. For Britain now, such an assembly would require cross-party support; an extension of Article 50 to allow for careful preparation; and a 10 week deliberation period over the current Withdrawal Agreement.

Examples were given of successful Citizens’ Assemblies worldwide. Canada, Poland, the Netherlands, Australia and Iceland have all dealt with controversial and apparently intractable problems using this device. Ireland’s recent use of a Citizens’ Assembly to prepare for the referendum on abortion is held up as a glowing success, with Irish citizens saying they felt it provided transparency and fairness. Emmanuel Macron, the French President, is rolling them out in an attempt to restore faith in the democratic process in the wake of the “gilets jaunes” demonstrations. The British government has previously held Citizens’ Assemblies on complex topics such as the future of social care.

The politicians present all believed that a Citizens’ Assembly could not just provide a way out of the current impasse over Brexit, but could also lead towards a new form of more participatory democracy. Caroline Lucas, of the Green Party, emphasised the fact that “left behind” Leave voters from the North East and “British values” Leave voters from the rural South West both felt that their concerns had not been heard by successive governments. A Citizens’ Assembly would help to reverse this sentiment, sending a strong message that the political class values public opinion on the country’s most pressing issues. Norman Lamb, a Liberal Democratic, concurred, arguing that any solution to the Brexit impasse must be viewed as more than a “Westminster stitch up”.

Lisa Nandy sees a Citizens’ Assembly as a way of breaking away from the false dichotomy currently on offer, where MPs have to choose between “inflicting economic harm or democratic harm” on the country. Social media and years of divisive campaigning have encouraged polarisation and left politics dominated by extreme views. We need to give a voice back to the reasonable majority and seek to find common ground.

Yesterday, Parliament could have voted for new democratic ideas to overcome the Brexit logjam, but Stella Creasy’s amendment on a Citizens’ Assembly was not even debated. If this could be a means to break the deadlock and to move British politics from its current obsession with who is winning or losing and towards a viable solution for the whole country, that is surely a great shame.

By Susie Hedegaard