How ordinary people can break political deadlock in assemblies

Citizen’s Assemblies are in the news. Boris Johnson has set the wheels in motion for a Citizen’s Assembly on the Climate Emergency.

Tuesday, 12th November 2019, 4:50 pm
Meeting in Sheffield Town Hall
Meeting in Sheffield Town Hall

Sheffield Council have also promised to instigate one to help advise on the difficult decisions they will have to make to meet their goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030. This is a result of the campaigning of Extinction Rebellion who are demanding Citizen’s Assemblies to find sensible ways to tackle the climate emergency. When I first heard about them, I was sceptical. But the more I have read the more convinced I am that they are an important tool to help Governments make difficult decisions. Maybe if they had been used in the Brexit debate it could have avoided so much of the strife we have experienced.

So, what is a Citizen’s Assembly? Citizens’ assemblies are a form of participative democracy – a process in which ordinary people make political decisions. They have been used in Australia, Belgium, Canada, India, Ireland, Poland and the UK. In a citizens’ assembly, a group of randomly selected members of the public reflect on an issue of public concern. The aim is to bring together a cross-section of society. Participants hear from experts and stakeholders, ask questions, deliberate on policy options and make recommendations that shape government policy.

The process of selecting an assembly is a bit like selecting a jury. The assembly organisers use quotas to ensure that it is inclusive. Once members have been selected, the process includes four key phases: listening, learning, deliberating and deciding.

Successive UK governments have failed to respond to the growing crisis of climate change since it became a matter of public concern over 30 years ago. The electoral cycle discourages governments from tackling long-term issues like climate breakdown. MPs are lobbied by oil corporations, need good media coverage and choose their policies based on opinion polls. Politicians feel unable to propose the bold changes necessary.

A citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice will inform politicians of decisions that have been reached in a fair and informed way. This will help politicians commit to a transformative programme of action justified by the mandate they receive from the citizens’ assembly, reducing the potential public backlash at the ballot-box. Citizens’ assemblies are fair and transparent. Assembly members have an equal chance of being heard due to careful facilitation. All the information and materials given to the assembly members is shared publicly. This produces informed and democratically legitimate judgements.

Citizen’s Assemblies have worked well in Ireland. They have been used to break political deadlock on hot potatoes such as abortion, same-sex marriage and climate change. The assembly was a key factor in emboldening politicians to step up their response to the climate emergency. In 2018, an all-party parliamentary committee was established to consider the assembly’s recommendations. The committee’s report then influenced the Irish Government’s Climate Action Plan which incorporated many of the assembly’s recommendations.

On November 2 the UK Government announced a Citizen’s Assembly on the Climate Emergency. However, there are many problems. It will only be addressing how to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Waiting 30 years to reach zero net carbon emissions is a death sentence – it gives us a higher chance of hitting irreversible tipping points as the climate breaks down. The members of the Citizens’ Assembly must be presented with evidence as to why 2050 is inadequate. Currently, we’re on track for 4-6 degrees of warming, possibly in this century. Last time the planet warmed by 5 degrees, 96 per cent of sea life died .

This Citizens’ Assembly is only advisory, so the Government is free to ignore the recommendations. It needs more teeth! The Citizens Assembly must be based on climate and ecological justice. Poorer countries and people who are not well off in the UK must not be made to bear the costs of change.

Will there be a debate on the Assembly’s decisions? Will the new Government commit to implementing their recommendations? There are so many unanswered questions.

Meanwhile in Sheffield we wait for an announcement on a local Assembly.

What is clear is that the nonviolent direct action of Extinction Rebellion is forcing politicians to bring the climate crisis higher up the political agenda.