Author: Martin Yarnit
Citizens Assemblies are all the rage – but they should be complemented by constructive conversations involving thousands.
We don’t like the way politicians talk to us and to each other, the way they make decisions and the decisions they make. With trust in politicians rock bottom we need to build a new civic culture from the bottom up. We need to learn how to talk to each other, how to deal with tricky issues like Brexit or sex education in primary schools, how to find common ground and how to reach decisions for the greater good of all. When politicians are deadlocked or unable to make up their mind – twelve green and white papers and still no solution to the growing crisis of social care – an innovative solution is to set up a citizens assembly with a random cross section of the population.
Much of this sudden flurry of passion for deliberative democracy reflects the overnight appearance of Extinction Rebellion (XR) as a direct action force on climate emergency and its demand that ‘Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice’. Used to great effect in Ireland, where deadlock on abortion and gay marriage was overcome by a citizen assembly whose recommendations for reform were faithfully backed by Dáil Éireann, this new form of jury service is supported by six House of Commons select committees, the government’s National Food Strategy, a growing number of councils as well as a range of bodies including the Royal Society of Arts.1
Citizens assemblies, however effective they may be in breaking deadlock, are a necessary but not sufficient part of a new civic culture. For most people, they do not offer a part in the decision making process. That’s why we need ways of involving the mass of the people in tackling the seemingly intractable issues that face us on all fronts, from balancing cohesion and diversity to dealing with the climate emergency. That means creating opportunities for face to face constructive conversations in every village, town and city, as well as reforming and deepening our democratic institutions.
Communities all over the country are feeling their way towards a new definition of representative democracy involving citizens and local councils. In some cases, as in Leicester where the council is setting up a consultative assembly on climate change, the answer is a sounding board event, to complement the power of elected councillors. In others, like Herefordshire and Frome, a new breed of independent has taken the reins of the local authority, pledging to prioritise the common good over political loyalty. An increasing number of local authorities have signed up to the national network of cooperative councils, committed to listening to and involving local people in the management of services, and promoting volunteerism as a way of improving service delivery – as well as a response to austerity.
In Chesterfield, with the support of the RSA and Talk Shop, concerned citizens have come together to explore ways of involving the whole community – including children and the elderly – in the battle for zero carbon through the People’s Assembly. Clare Gage, a local resident who earns her living as a ceramicist, explained: ‘democratic engagement emerged as a high priority when we first met last July. People wanted to see well publicised structured conversations throughout the community about climate change, using community venues with trained facilitators’.
Although covering similar ground to the citizens assemblies mentioned above, the Chesterfield People’s Assembly (CPA) is different in two important respects.
It uses the same technique of deliberative democracy to reach decisions but its purpose is to draw together those who want action on climate change. In that sense, it is a mixture of local activists and concerned citizens rather than a carefully selected cross section of the local community as in Leicester. It is this approach that Talk Shop has developed through a series of 130 small events in towns and cities across England, run in partnership with local organisations which recruit the participants. On topics as diverse as Brexit, the future of social care – with the support of the RSA’s Catalyst fund - and the pros and cons of driverless cars, the Talk Shop format privileges the search for common ground and offers carefully balanced material for discussion. It also offers the potential for thousands, rather than hundreds, of people to take part in an adaptable, affordable discussion format.
There is a second difference between the Chesterfield model and conventional citizens assemblies: rather than being set up by a public body – a council or parliament – CPA is a bottom up initiative. That carries the risk that its conclusions can be safely ignored by the local council, although the fact that the council’s deputy leader met us beforehand and showed up on the day - as well as the local MP - suggests that the People’s Assembly has already acquired a degree of legitimacy.
The aim in Chesterfield is to involve an inclusive range of people in an action planning process so it is diverse even if not fully representative. Can it achieve legitimacy nonetheless? Time will tell. If they succeed and win local support, voilà, you have legitimacy.
Whether driven by concerned citizens acting independently or politicians struggling for a new democratic foothold, a wind of change is blowing through our outdated political system and it will gather strength regardless of the actions of the new government.
1. See the growing list of councils and others at https://www.involve.org.uk/resources/blog/news/keeping-citizens-assemblies
The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.
Talk Shop - Citizens Assemble © Martin Yarnit 2020.
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