Citizens’ Assemblies – why not ?

Victor Anderson takes a sceptical look at demands for Citizens’ Assemblies

Extinction Rebellion made a big impact on climate politics in 2019. Since then a combination of Covid lockdowns, internal disagreements, changes in the legislation on protest, and the unwillingness of most of its activists to keep on getting arrested, has led to its decline. Nevertheless, it successfully raised the profile of the climate crisis in UK politics, and amongst its other achievements it put a spotlight on the idea of Citizens’ Assemblies.

XR started with three demands:

  1. Tell the truth!
  2. Act now! (net zero by 2025, not 2050).
  3. Citizens Assemblies!

Extinction Rebellion put the idea of Citizens’ Assemblies on the political map for a lot of people. In June 2019 six House of Commons select committees commissioned a citizens’ assembly on climate. After six weekends in which a representative sample of UK citizens met to discuss and be informed about climate change, it produced a set of recommendations in September 2020. Since XR’s impact in 2019, the idea of Citizens’ Assemblies has kept on cropping up. For example, 75,000 people signed a petition to create one to sort out Brexit.

As with all such bandwagons we must be careful what we wish for. There are some examples of it working well. In Ireland, the law on abortion was liberalized through the use of a citizens’ assembly which was able to by-pass the institutional power of the Catholic Church. Citizens’ assemblies in British Columbia and Ontario recommended electoral reform, by-passing the vested interests of the larger political parties (although in neither case did the voting reform actually go ahead).

There is also a much larger category, which includes many different ways of going about things, known as ‘deliberative democracy’, which is essentially people sitting down together and discussing things, rather than engaging in a polarizing debate. This seems to me to be positive, and I agree that there are situations where citizens’ assemblies and deliberative democracy have important roles to play, testing out public opinion and hopefully coming up with innovative advice. It’s certainly been useful to convene local events where members of the public are faced with the facts of the climate crisis and the policy choices that may follow. However, there are some problems.

One issue, which is not an argument against citizens’ assemblies but implies the need for caution about claims made for them, is that what they recommend often hasn’t happened, as with the example of electoral reform in Canada, where their proposals were put to referendums and didn’t gain enough support.

A second problem is the confusion caused by the wish to claim that a group you approve of is itself a citizens’ assembly. A distinction has been made between a “People’s Assembly” called with a particular point of view in mind and a “Citizens’ Assembly” of randomly selected people with different views. But care is not always taken to make this distinction clear, and that of course devalues the representative credibility of the Citizens’ Assembly proposal.

Legitimacy is a problem. Basically any system of making decisions that is at all democratic only works because the losers on any particular point previously signed up to the rules that made the decision. This is why Trump contesting the 2020 election results is such a problem, but also why citizens’ assemblies may not work. They can easily lack legitimacy and consent. This problem arises particularly because of the need to provide expert input on complicated issues.

Another problem derives from complexity and interconnections. The climate is affected by, and affects, virtually everything. You can’t have a citizens’ assembly on the climate without thinking about food and agriculture, transport, energy of course, international trade, taxation, education, and almost every policy area within government. An assembly can recommend the outlines of policy, but taking everything relevant on board is a mammoth task so there would be a need for other bodies to check and scrutinise its work and delve into details. This makes climate unlike some other policy areas, as with the Irish abortion example, where a law can be changed without knock-on consequences for practically everything else.

Time is of the essence in the climate crisis. We haven’t got any left. The world is currently on course to go way beyond the 1.5 degree rise in average temperature widely regarded as the maximum “safe” level (even though of course we are already seeing much stronger than normal wildfires, hurricanes, etc.). Governments can act fast, Parliaments more slowly but also fairly fast. Next year we will have a general election and energy/climate policy could change overnight. If a new government decided, rather than using their own mandate to implement a policy change they had promised, to instead set up a citizens’ assembly, that would build in a delay of a few years, and of course the assembly might not recommend much useful at all.

The most obvious problem of course is simply that a citizens’ assembly might not come out with the right answers. It might or might not, it’s a gamble. The opinion polls suggest the public is split on climate issues, and this would be reflected in any representative sample assembly. Political activists are far too often subject to the “populist fallacy” that basically everyone agrees with us because our opinions are so self-evidently right. The randomly chosen assembly citizens may not share that view, and if they come out with a report saying not much needs to be done and we can just coast along until 2050, the advocates of the assembly will find themselves in a very difficult position. It would be far more straightforward simply argue for the policies we actually want to see, rather than hoping they emerge from a very unpredictable process.

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