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Give citizens a voice as well as a vote

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Geraint Talfan Davies

There is a growing ferment of ideas about the need to reconfigure our society in the wake our triple-whammy of tribulations: austerity, Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic.

There is also a welter of ideas about how to do so. Articles and books by the dozen are filling both the in-boxes of the interested and the bookshelves of the obsessed.

One of our active public intellectuals, Professor Laura McAllister, put a toe in the water last weekend with an article in the Western Mail’s Weekend Magazine that sketched a number of ideas and a few warnings. Since she is a professor at Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre, expect more. As someone who has played a part in almost every serious look at the future of government in Wales, she is someone to whom we should listen.

She believes that Welsh society is too tolerant of failure and needs to be ‘radically reconfigured’. But the core of her message was that radical change must come from below, and that for two reasons: first, government and public organisations are too conservative and, second, the public is too disconnected from political parties.

Instead, she believes we should try to harness the community energy that Covid has unleashed and “put the public in the driving seat through a more expansive citizens’ assembly”.

This raises two questions, not only what should we do post-Covid, but also how should we decide what to do? Of course, someone is bound to ask “Why a citizens’ assembly? Why do we need to confuse the issue with another forum for debate? Surely, we already have enough governments and parliaments.”

But we all know that the gulf between politicians and publics can be large. Cynicism about politics is rife, making democracies vulnerable to unscrupulous populists.

At the UK level the democratic process is arranged in order to find winners. Winners form governments. Governments govern and oppositions oppose. Our democracy is said to depend on this clash of views, although the adversarial nature of the confrontation often gets in the way of reasoned debate to an extent that is often a turn off for the public. In recent years the Westminster system has been under deep stress.

It was decided to elect the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments by a system of proportional representation partly to offset this tendency. But that has not been enough on its own. So, if a citizens’ assembly is not be confused with the Welsh Assembly – that we are now learning to call Senedd Cymru or the Welsh Parliament – what is it?

What is a Citizens’ Assembly?

It is not an assembly of the great and the good. A citizens’ assembly is a deliberative process in which a hundred or more citizens, selected at random to be representative of the population – in age, gender, class etc. – are brought together for a day or a weekend or a series of weekends, to hear evidence from experts on a set of issues, to debate and discuss and to come up with recommendations that can be put to government – a bridge between the people and the politicians.

It is a tool that is increasingly in use around the world, and takes various forms. Several American states have used the concept in different ways, often prompted by disaster: in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, in New York after 9/11. Several other states, too, have built on the American tradition of town meetings.

Germany began the use of ‘planning cells’ in the 1970s – using gatherings of 25 people to debate very specific things such as ‘future telephones’ and energy conservation. The planning cells idea has also been taken up in the Basque Country. In the 1980s the Danes began to hold ‘consensus conferences’ of citizens to discuss lay responses to technology questions. Citizens’ assemblies have also been used extensively in Canada and the Netherlands.

Closer to home, in 2018 when the UK government began talking of piloting citizens’ assemblies in England, 70 local authorities expressed interest. Eight were approved at a cost of £60,000 each.

In autumn last year the Scottish Government embarked on a six-month process that envisaged up to 130 citizens taking part in six weekend-long sessions. Only four sessions had been held before the remaining two were cancelled because of the pandemic.

And in Wales, the Welsh Parliament – rather than the Welsh Government – brought 60 people together at Newtown last summer for a weekend to discuss priorities for Wales. Plans by the Senedd’s Committee on electoral reform to follow this up with another event this summer had to be abandoned because of the pandemic, but it is intent on pursuing the idea.

The Irish experience

But on these islands it is Ireland that has seemed to take the Citizens’ Assembly concept most seriously, in a way that has had a spectacular political impact.

Following the 2007-08 crash that seemed to pose an existential threat to Ireland, a working group drawn from the university sector’s Political Studies Association began to explore the concept. By the time of the February 2011 Irish General election the two main parties, foreseeing a need for constitutional change, had committed to convening a citizens’ assembly, while Irish Labour wanted a Constitutional Convention.

In the summer of 2011 meetings were held in seven towns across Ireland to determine an agenda for the first ‘We the Citizens’ assembly that followed shortly afterwards – a necessary pilot, funded by an American trust, Atlantic Philanthropies, that had pushed the proponents of the initiative to be more ambitious.

That weekend meeting in a Dublin hotel discussed the appropriate balance between taxation and spending, property taxes, water charges, sale of state assets and student fees.

After the success of the pilot, a year later a Constitutional Convention was launched which met regularly until 2014. It was structured slightly differently, with 66 ordinary citizens joined by 33 MPs and an independent chair. Building on that experience a further Irish Citizens’ Assembly, this time without the politicians – because the key topic was to be abortion – was convened between 2016 and 2018.

The last of these, spread over two years, cost €2.35m. This included a small payment to each of the 100 citizens who took part, as well as the servicing of the 10 weekend-long meetings by the civil service. The plenary sessions, but not the groups discussions, were broadcast on a website.

It was as a result of these initiatives that Ireland voted in subsequent referendums to legalise abortion and to allow gay marriage – decisions that were previously thought to be almost inconceivable in a conservative, Catholic society. Ireland’s blasphemy law was also abolished. These changes are evidence of the capacity of citizen’s assemblies not only to take the sting out of issues usually deemed ‘too difficult’ but also to prompt much wider interest throughout society.

Professor David Farrell, a Dublin academic who led the charge on citizens’ assemblies, is clear about their potential: “Citizens’ Assemblies can move the needle of public sentiment, guide the minds of the political elite and allay citizen cynicism in politics and democracy, particularly in a moment of crisis.”

He is now advising the German-speaking region of Belgium which, last year, became the first place in Europe to set up a permanent citizen’s assembly alongside its Parliament.

 

What are the lessons for Wales?   

First, Wales needs more bridges between government and people, especially if the prospect of increasing the number of Senedd members from the present paltry 60 has been put on hold. If the established government of an independent nation feels the need for this enhanced connection then surely a younger legislature in a country with much more limited media needs it even more.

Citizens’ assemblies would not be there to challenge the authority of the Senedd, but to improve the quality of our representative democracy, to deepen its roots and to buttress it against corrosive cynicism.

Second, after a torrid three years in which the Brexit debate has split the country this could be a way of bringing the country together. Had citizens’ assemblies been built into the Brexit process across the UK at a much earlier stage, the debate might have been shorter, more reasoned  and less divisive. The one attempt, carried out by the Electoral Reform Society, produced a more nuanced view of Brexit than one might have expected.

The Senedd has put a toe into the water, but the question for us in Wales is whether we want to see this as a passing novelty or a permanent part of our democracy – a permanent expression of the engaged community that the pandemic has exposed for all to see. I believe it should, which is why I would be sceptical of Professor McAllister’s wish to rely on crowdsourcing the funding. Governments, too, must be committed to the process.

In the current circumstances there will be those who will see this as an unaffordable luxury. But let us not forget that Ireland went down this road in the middle of the cruellest economic circumstances. As its Constitutional Convention met, unemployment was at 14.8 per cent.

David Farrell refers to Churchill’s remark that “one should never allow a good crisis to go to waste.” That is true for us in Wales today.

Perhaps it is time to assemble a coalition of Welsh civil society to press the case – the IWA, the Bevan Foundation, the WCVA, the Wales Governance Centre and others. For instance, citizens’ assemblies would certainly be relevant to the Institute of Welsh Affairs’ current project on ‘Rethinking Wales’. But government, too, must be drawn in.

The first task of such a coalition would be to persuade all political parties, bar none, to make a bold commitment to citizens’ assemblies in their manifestos for next year’s Senedd Cymru elections. After all, what party is going to be willing to stand up in public, and say they are not interested in the opinions of the people who elect them?

Geraint Talfan Davies is the former chair of Wales For Europe.