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Citizens’ assemblies for Sidmouth/East Devon?

  • by JW

“They are a way for politicians to really listen to the general public’s opinions and concerns.” [Electoral Reform Society]


It’s clear that we need to be looking at ideas such as sortion, participatory democracy and engaging people in the political process – because the current way of getting more of us involved in the issues is seriously lacking.

One specific notion is the Citizens’ Assembly. This has already been tried out, as the (non-official, though) national citizens’ assembly on climate change. And, indeed, the question has been asked as to whether Devon needs a citizen’s assembly on climate change.

And it featured on Radio 4’s look at The Week in Westminster earlier today:

After Keir Starmer’s chief of staff suggested Labour could make use of citizens’ assemblies to decide on contentious issues, Sonia brings together Louise Caldwell, who took part in the Irish citizens’ assembly on abortion, and Joe Twyman of Deltapoll, who has helped run such assemblies in the past

Following this announcement, unfortunately and inevitably the current debate over citizens’ assemblies has become very politicised – with the Spectator simply urging us to Say no to Labour’s citizens’ assembly; the Conservative Home website saying that an arch-mandarin like Gray must know that citizens’ assemblies only enhance the bureaucracy’s power; and the Times dismissing this, as Citizen Keir’s second-hand assembly idea sets a new record for U-turns.

In the other corner, the Byeline Times says that ‘Starmer should ignore the Westminster pearl-clutching: Why Labour is right to look at Citizens’ Assemblies’.

However, from the less partisan, there does seem to be a qualified welcome.

Ipsos says citizens’ juries and assemblies are welcome – but there is much to consider in their implementation. The Civil Service blog feels that the public is ready for citizens’ assemblies – civil servants should embrace this. And the Electoral Reform Society believes a future Labour government would be right to use Citizens’ Assemblies:

This morning it was revealed in The Times that Sue Gray, Keir Starmer’s Chief of Staff and former leading Civil Servant, is considering the use of Citizens’ Assemblies. Gray made the comments by referring to their successful use in Ireland to break deadlocks on divisive issues and political impasses.

So, what is a Citizens’ Assembly and how would they improve our democracy?

Citizens’ Assemblies are not a new concept and have actually been used in and around the UK for some time, including two, on brexit and regional devolution, which were supported by us here at the ERS. Citizens’ Assemblies are usually made up of a representative group of people, put together like a jury, with a clear task to achieve by the end of it. The most well-known Citizens’ Assemblies were set up under the ‘Irish Convention on the Constitution’ between 2012 and 2014. They considered eight proposals which included allowing same-sex marriage and removing blasphemy as an offence under the Irish constitution.

A Citizens’ Assembly will have a set time limit to consider the proposals or plans, which will include hearing and learning of evidence from experts during the ‘deliberation stage’. In this stage, they have the opportunity to debate all sides of the argument and will reach more nuanced and informed positions on an issue as a result. The conclusion of the Citizens’ Assembly will usually be to advise the Government on the direction that the general public would like them to take when deciding policy on whatever issue is concerned. Their conclusions are usually not binding on the Government of the day but are a way for politicians to really listen to the general public’s opinions and concerns.