Citizens’ Assemblies are suddenly all the rage. On the issue of climate change alone, citizens assemblies are being set up or planned in Leicester, Oxford, Sheffield and Camden, while six house of commons select committees have come together to announce one beginning in the autumn.
Much of this sudden flurry of passion for deliberative democracy reflects the overnight appearance of Extinction Rebellion (XR) as a direct action force on climate emergency and its demand that ‘Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice’.
To all these we can add the Chesterfield People’s Assembly (CPA) which held its first meeting at the end of July attended by 70 people ranging in age from eight to eighty. Chesterfield, with its 70,000 population, is a large market town renowned for being the home of George Stephenson, the railway engineer, and for being represented in parliament for many years by Tony Benn, the Labour Party radical.
There was a high level and wide ranging discussion during the course of the day which implicitly reflected the UN’s conclusion that
without coordinated and collaborative approaches at linking Climate Action and SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] programs in terms of national implementation strategies…any little gain made in one could easily be eroded by the inaction in the other.
The six areas highlighted by the Assembly for further work reflect this approach: democratic engagement, education, biodiversity, diet and food, Chesterfield tackles climate change- towards a local plan of action, making the change easier.
Although covering similar ground to the citizens assemblies mentioned above, the Chesterfield People’s Assembly is different in two important respects.
It uses the same technique of deliberative democracy to reach decisions but its purpose is to draw together those who want action on climate change. In that sense, it is a mixture of local activists and concerned citizens rather than a carefully selected cross section of the local community. There is a second difference: rather than being set up by a public body – a council or parliament – CPA is a bottom up initiative. That carries the risk that its conclusions can be safely ignored by the local council, although the fact that the council’s deputy leader met us beforehand and showed up on the day – as well as the local MP – suggests that the People’s Assembly has already acquired a degree of legitimacy.
If you visit the Involve website, involve.org.uk, you’ll see the amazing variety of initiatives that use deliberative processes. (Involve has emerged as one of the key centres of expertise and advice in this area.) Some require stratified samples and sortition but not all. One of the most notable successes of the new wave of deliberative democracy is in Ireland. After years of constitutional deadlock, the government set up a citizens assembly to report on areas ripe for reform. A representative sample of 99 citizens selected at random, chaired by a high court judge, sat on twelve occasions and concluded that there should be referenda on two hot potato issues: gay marriage and abortion legalisation. The referenda produced a yes vote in both cases, and the government carried out its commitment to legislate. (see this 16 min video)
Our aim in Chesterfield was to involve an inclusive range of people in an action planning process so it was diverse even if not fully representative. Can it achieve legitimacy nonetheless?
Frome’s Flatpack Democracy is the appropriate analogy. In that case, a self-appointed group of people in a small market town in the rural south west of England tested a hypothesis – that there is local support for a new way of running the council – by getting elected to do just that. They have evolved a way of working that eschews party politics in local government in favour of acting ‘as normal people would’ – by putting the interests of the town and its people first. In Chesterfield, another self-appointed group of climate change activists will develop and implement a plan. If they succeed and win local support, voilà, you have legitimacy.