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Citizens’ assemblies go mainstream: a way to bring about radical change?

Citizens across the UK are convening to address issues such as the climate crisis and Brexit. Could they help to overcome political deadlock?

Citizens across the UK are convening to address issues such as the climate crisis and Brexit. Could they help to overcome political deadlock?

With faith in politics at a low point and concern mounting over the state of democracy and the planet, some governments and councils are turning to citizens’ assemblies for answers.

A citizens’ assembly is a form of ‘deliberative’ democracy, in which randomly chosen members of the public are brought together to engage in open, respectful and informed debates on specific issues.

Westminster and Holyrood plan to host citizens’ assemblies this autumn, with climate change on the agenda at the former and the latter focusing on Scotland’s response to Brexit. The Welsh assembly has already hosted its own citizens’ assembly, which asked “how can people in Wales shape their future?”

Camden Council in London, meanwhile, hosted three citizens’ assemblies on climate change this summer. Participants put forward 17 proposals for action, including installing solar panels on all available roofs, and car-free zones. The recommendations will now be considered at a council meeting.

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“The next step is to translate these areas of focus into the community-led action and borough-wide policies that are urgently needed to fight the climate crisis,” said councillor Adam Harrison, cabinet member for a Sustainable Camden. Devon, Sheffield and Oxford will also hold citizens’ assemblies on climate change.

“Embedding these new ways of doing democracy at the local level is extremely important because our current system of representation is very small,” said Michela Palese, research and policy officer at the Electoral Reform Society. “It’s a way of giving people at the local level a say on the issues that actually matter to them.”

According to Tim Hughes, director of Involve, a charity that campaigns for public participation, issues like the deadlock over Brexit have created an appetite for a different kind of politics.

“People recognise that a new form of democracy and a new form of politics is needed to tackle some of the complex and challenging questions that we face today,” he said. “Over the past few months, the number of councils committing to run citizens’ assemblies has been unprecedented – it feels like the tide has turned.”

It’s a way of giving people at the local level a say on the issues that actually matter to them

Another catalyst for this change has been the 2016 citizens’ assembly in Ireland, which helped break years of social and political stalemate over the issue of abortion.

“It captured people’s imagination about the role that a citizens’ assembly can play,” said Hughes. “The work of Extinction Rebellion in calling for a national citizens’ assembly on climate change has also helped to raise the idea up the public and political agenda.”

The format has its limitations, however. “[Citizens’ assemblies have] to start from a place where all sides recognise the need to build a consensus and at the moment, on Brexit, we’re not seeing that,” said Hughes from Involve. “It’s still a fight between ideologies.”

But building a consensus about what path the country takes after Brexit could yet fall to citizens’ assemblies, which have been championed by politicians from across the house, including Rory Stewart and Stella Creasy. “Slowly,” said Palese, “they are starting to become more embedded as a way of doing democracy.”

Image: the Welsh assembly held its first citizens’ assembly in July, photographed by National Assembly for Wales

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