Citizen’s Assemblies

Mary Southcott explains Sortition and says Citizens’ Assemblies are keys to democracy

Abe Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people” was part of my upbringing.  I use the Gettysburg Address to argue for electoral reform and democracy.  Sortition takes “by the people” literally. The Greek historian, Thucydides, had Pericles say in his Funeral Oration: “It is administered by the many instead of the few; that is why it is called a democracy”.  People are chosen by lot, at random or the current manifestation of sortition, citizens’ assemblies. 

Citizens’ Assemblies (CAs) came to our attention when Ireland broke through the reluctance of Irish politicians to legislate to allow abortion.  Established in 2016, “We the people”, the name the Irish gave their constitutional convention, also dealt with climate change, fixed term parliaments, population ageing and referendums.  Why didn’t the UK have a Brexit CA before the vote? 

A chance meeting with a London Cypriot who worked for Involve led us to write a Cyprus CA which was sent to the United Nations Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP).  They seem wedded to the two men in a room, leaders of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot Communities, and top-down negotiations, which had failed since the island was divided half a century ago. Two referendums have followed.  Whenever one Cypriot Leader was in favour the other was not and they were all men. 

Cyprus bicommunal civil society, Cypriots’ Voice and others, tried to set up an Assembly of Cypriots who supported a settlement, a BBF, Bizonal Bicommunal Federation.  Under the umbrella, the Bicommunal Peace Initiative, United Cyprus, they make statements and organise demonstrations supporting initiatives in favour of opening new checkpoints. There was also the more academic ‘Eastern Mediterranean Think Tank’ with 12 Cypriots, three of them Turkish speaking. But the idea of a CA was not taken up in Cyprus. 

However, there is a new initiative launched with 36 Cyprus citizens, half Greek and half Turkish speaking, Cyprus Futures. The process of creating and agreeing positive scenarios has been used in various places before, in South Africa and Latin America.  The Cypriots involved in this process are chosen but not quite at random.  Cyprus does not have juries – pity.

Crisis’ International report on Cyprus came out.  I was in touch with Hugh Pope, author, reporter and speaker. He asked to have a copy of the Cyprus CA.  He was involved in editing his late father’s Maurice Pope’s book, the Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a New Model for Citizen Power. This gives us all the background to Sortition, challenges our ideas of democracy and makes us think.   

Labour was putting together its policy platform, which will be distilled into a slimmed down 2024 manifesto.  One suggestion was that CAs could be used to help construct a new constitutional settlement, as in the Brown Commission Report, but including voting system to ensure the other reforms work. We may need a UK Constitutional Convention as promised in previous Labour Manifestos.

The Pope book opens with a quote from Machiavelli: “the people as a whole is more prudent, more stable and of better judgement than a prince.” Most of us have at times observed that people “get there first”.  Politicians often need people to show them a route out of problems so they can step in and take credit.  The book goes on to explain how democracy by lot, depending on ordinary citizens’ common sense and diversity, could educate and spread in the body politics.

When Labour was thinking of replacing the House of Lords in the 1990s the idea of having an element chosen by lot did emerge.  When the first Plant Report came out it made the distinction between Legislative and Deliberative Assemblies, elected by first past the post and PR, a distinction I didn’t share.  We spent time defending the idea of juries which came under attack.   

The Irish CA came out of their Constitution Convention, which Labour was advocating for the UK in Manifestos past.  The Scottish Constitutional Convention came to form the “settled will of the Scottish People” which helped them win their 1997 Devolution Referendum.  There were then Conventions in many English regions until the disastrous 2004 Referendum in the North East, which those opposed to EU membership used as a dry run for the referendum they really wanted.  Wales, without any discussion, almost failed to win their referendum which set up their Assembly, now their successful Senedd. 

The book includes chapters on: Defining Democracy; Elected Representation; Broadening Participation; The Legitimacy of Juries; How Athens Excelled; In Defence of Randomness; Why All Citizens Deserve their Turn; A Democratic Utopia and Power from the People.  Pope the Elder’s Democracy backstory is a must read for serious advocates of a next paradigm of a New Politics. 

The Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a New Model for Citizen Power: Maurice Pope, Edited by Hugh Pope and Quentin Pope, Imprint Academic, P O Box 200, Exeter, EX5 5YX.


  1. The trouble with all such notions is that they depend upon a wave of (inevitably short-lived) enthusiasm of the many or long-term plotting by the few. They don’t provide accountable leadership or long-term solutions to intractable problems.

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