Rob Davidson

Citizens Assemblies: a powerful tool for Liberals - and Populists

There’s a buzz amongst Liberals and lefties of all types: Citizens Assemblies can fix our broken democracy. Green activists think an assembly will help stop Climate Change; the exciting, rebooted Social Liberal Forum wants a “Citizens Britain” with Citizens Assemblies built in to our future democracy. So-called ‘deliberative democracy’ is seen as a solution to the manipulated elections and referendums of recent years. But will Citizens Assemblies improve democracy or will they simply arm populists and ‘illiberal democrats’ with yet another opportunity for manipulation and control?

Lots of websites describe Citizens Assemblies and what they are good for. The basic idea is that you take a random bunch of people (citizens) and feed them “expert” opinion on controversial or tricky political subjects. Then you ask them what they think. The bold claim is that you get a better, more 'deliberative' answer - a better kind of politics.

Your favourite search engine will quickly find you several examples of assemblies in action but the main one will undoubtedly be the Republic of Ireland’s Citizens Assembly on legalising abortion. After a representative group of citizens deliberated over the divisive abortion issue, the government held a referendum and the people voted to repeal and replace the 8th Amendment of the Constitution that had previously criminalised abortion.

The abortion example sounds great - but it’s not often described with all the details.

In 2015, public opinion polls already showed a majority of the public in favour of decriminalising abortion, at 65%. The referendum in question took place in 2018 and showed a majority of 66%, so the Citizens Assembly reflected public opinion - but it didn’t influence it.

As far back as 1992, public referendums had allowed pregnant women to a) have information on abortion services in other countries b) travel to those countries while pregnant, effectively decriminalising abortion if you could pay the travel fare. The issue was ‘divisive’ but majority opinion was already clear.

The Electoral Reform Society suggests that “The decision to call a referendum was, in fact, based on the recommendations made by a panel of 99 ordinary people, who deliberated in a ‘Citizens’ Assembly’.” But that’s not accurate either.

Any change to the constitution required a referendum and Ireland had been holding such referendums for decades. The public were already behind the idea of decriminalisation and just needed to be asked. The government, by commissioning the Citizens Assembly, was effectively ordering a referendum itself because it knew what the outcome would be and it knew where that would lead.

At best, the Citizens Assembly was a fig leaf to help the government push its liberal agenda, something that shows the liberal power of these assemblies - but also the potential risk.

The Climate and Ecological Emergencies Bill is calling for a Citizens Assembly on the climate emergency. The activists’ campaign was launched just as the findings were published from the UK Government’s own commissioned “Climate Assembly.” What this shows is that you can have Citizens Assemblies and then you can have Citizens Assemblies. People will argue over who decides the topic, the experts, or even which group of assembly members legitimises this assembly as the “one true assembly.”

It is often helpful to consider, how would I feel if my opponent was doing this? The SNP is planning to hold a Citizens Assembly on Scottish independence. What do others think?

“The idea was a simple, elegant addition to our democracy – but the SNP has now stomped all over it, politicised it, and, made it look falsely like a propaganda unit.” – Neil Mackay in the Herald.

Oh dear: it seems like democracy can be manipulated and incorporated into the propaganda machine - even if it is ‘deliberative.’

The Republic of Ireland’s government used a Citizens Assembly to excuse the policy changes they wanted and the SNP are being accused of doing the same. In contrast, when researchers held a Citizens Assembly on Brexit, the UK’s pro-Brexit government ignored it.

But the problems go well beyond just rigging the question or ignoring the results when they don’t suit. We live in a time when oligarchs and their political allies are setting fire to our constitution and independent institutions, hiving tens of millions from public finances to bribe their own constituencies, openly acting unlawfully to save their donors tens of millions, spending unbelievable amounts of public money on polling public opinion, spending hundreds of millions of public money on pro-government propaganda, running their own fake news during elections, happily breaking election spending laws, and turning a blind eye when foreign powers interfere with domestic elections when that suit the current Prime Minister. How can anyone think that these oligarchs would not use Citizens Assemblies as part of their manipulation and spin efforts if they thought it was helpful?

As described above, governments can and do use these ‘deliberative’ tools to support their goals, and very quickly their opponents get upset at how that Citizens Assembly isn’t the right one or isn’t asking the right questions. With illiberal faux-democratic governments like we have in the UK, US, Hungary, Poland, and Russia, a Citizens Assembly is just a means for the government to reduce its propaganda targeting efforts from millions of citizens to around 100 or so: what a bargain!

There are plenty of other concerns about these ‘deliberative’ methods - such as the exclusivity of selecting people that can afford to take time off work or time away from family duties, the psychology of group pressures and conformity, or the outright snobbery that underpins the whole idea of ‘deliberative democracy’ (i.e. "if only people really thought about this they’d agree with me").

Whatever the hopes for Citizens Assemblies, there are plenty of dangers and pitfalls too. They are not a ‘purer' form of democracy, and are open to the same manipulation and spin as any other. We, as Liberals, must still focus on getting better politicians into power.

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