Stella Creasy is the Labour and Cooperative MP for Walthamstow. Debbie Abrahams is the Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth.
Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. As Parliament enters the No deal, Prime Minister’s deal, Norway, Canada, People’s Vote, extend Article 50 merry-go-round once more, we hope to convince readers of ConservativeHome there may be a better approach. Specifically, of the lessons that Ireland’s abortion debate offers – and about the role that a Citizen’s Assembly played in informing their parliament’s decision-making, and which could now save us all from delirium.
Concerns that there is an inbuilt advantage to any one political party, social class or indeed region, have dogged our representative democracy for decades. They have led to many suggested solutions – whether these be electoral reform, boundary reviews or even mandatory deselections.
Direct democracy through referendums on hot topics such as Europe and voting reform was supposed to improve democratic engagement – yet lofty ambitions of echoing Athenian state ideals, in which every one of its 30,000 citizens could speak and vote, lie in tatters following the reality of the reaction of many to the Brexit vote and its legitimacy.
Less well-known is that alongside its big debating forums, Athens also had a panel of 500 citizens, chosen by drawing lots, to oversee the everyday affairs of the city. Sortition – the practice of random selection to put people into such positions of power – wasn’t just used in ancient Greece. Italian republics such as Venice and Florence also used it instead of elections to choose those who ran these city states. It is the same process our court system still uses to select a jury.
For the avoidance of doubt, we are not proposing solving Brexit by randomly selecting members of the public to replace the current crop of MPs – though faced with prevarication in Westminster, some may feel that the suggesiton is tempting. Instead, we want to learn from what other Parliaments have done when faced with difficult choices and stubborn politicians. This is why we have tabled Amendment H, calling for a Citizen’s Assembly to be convened on Brexit which would report back within ten weeks with its recommendations on how to end the current impasse.
Sortition is at the heart of the authority of a modern Citizen’s Assembly. As with Athens, a civic lottery would be held to identify a long list of thousands of people. Then, controlling for geography and demography – as well as checking there is no innate bias to either remain or leave – a panel would be drawn from this of 250 people who reflect the dynamics of British society. Unlike MPs elected to represent their communities, these people would not be there to be the decision makers, but to give their opinions and help to inform debate. They would be multiple fresh pair of eyes. With expert help, the panel would then be asked to identify what their priorities and perspectives are regarding the quagmire around the EU withdrawal act.
Unlike public meetings or BBC Question Time audiences, where those who can be bothered to turn up or have the confidence to speak dominate, sortition is a scientifically robust process that means a citizen’s assembly is a truly randomly selected jury. Elected representatives and political employees would be excluded, thus even removing the spectre of a CCHQ or Labour regional plant trying to skew the outcome – no doubt to everyone’s relief.
All the evidence given from all sides of the debate, questions asked and deliberations undertaken would be made public. Participants would remain anonymous during the process itself, so that they can deliberate freely without being hunted down on Twitter.
MPs, not the panel, would retain the final say on whether to accept their priorities. Through reasoned and open format, this is a process that could stop the many bad habits Westminster can encourage – from hiding party political advantage behind virtue-signalling or kicking the can down the road for fear of opinion polls.
Ireland, Canada, Australia, Iceland, Poland and the Netherlands have all used citizens’ assemblies recently to adjudicate on a wide range of issues: from climate change, nuclear waste disposal and presidential term limits – and then inform the decisions that elected representatives made on all of these. Faced with the prospect of more of the same shambles for weeks on end in Westminster, we believe that Parliament should take a leaf out of their book. We are asking MPs to sign our amendment to the Prime Minister’s motion not in order to force a vote on whether to run one, but to show the Speaker that we wish for parliamentary time to consider these techniques.
Never has dēmokratia, the idea that the people hold power, been so tested in Britain. It was one form of direct democracy – that of referendums – that has led us to this point. Now is the time to ask if another – sortition and a citizens assembly- can offer lessons that might lead us forward. Aeschines argued the value of open debate and deliberation was that “truth is strong enough to overcome all human sophistries.” The truth is if we want to restore democracy in the minds of the people, we have to look not just how we deal with Brexit but how we deal with the British public.