Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Brexit: and a citizens' assembly to break the deadlock

A second referendum might well create yet further antagonism - as a San Francisco newspaper reports from Stoke-on-Trent:
Britain's most ardent Brexit city shows a country on the brink - SFGate

And as John Harris reports from Portsmouth:
England’s rebel spirit is rising – and it wants a no-deal Brexit | John Harris | Opinion | The Guardian

A way out might be not to 'give in to the political elites' after all:
Futures Forum: The people's voice and expertise > How democracy is about respectful discussion, not just voting

Ideas on 'deliberative democracy' are taking shape - already at local level:
Futures Forum: Citizens’ Juries could become the core of a revived local democracy
Futures Forum: Devolution for Devon and Somerset? >>> "instead, it must be a real process of deliberative democracy, with the ability for the public to change aspects of the deal which they want to be improved."
Futures Forum: The government's "civil society strategy" will not give people "a more direct role in decision making." > Rather, we need a real dose of 'deliberative' or 'participatory' democracy.

The UK might want to look to other parts of the world:
Futures Forum: Barcelona’s Experiment in Radical Democracy
Futures Forum: Brexit: and the case for more horizontal, collaborative and diverse networks
Futures Forum: Other ways of doing politics >>> "New experiments in democracy around the world are trying to take politics back to ordinary people"

And especially at how Ireland dealt with the really contentious issue of abortion law:
Futures Forum: Brexit: and how the Irish referendum's "deliberative democracy" countered fake facts
Futures Forum: Brexit: and the Citizens' Assembly for informed public debate

In 2017, University College London held a citizen's assembly:

Citizens' Assembly on Brexit  | The Constitution Unit - UCL - London's Global University

A couple of weeks ago, the Electoral Reform Society was pushing for another:
There’s a way through this Brexit gridlock which can unite the country – Electoral Reform Society

As were several high-profile figures:
Damon Albarn joins call for citizens' assembly to break Brexit deadlock | Politics | The Guardian

MPs are now coming out in support: this is from the Labour MP for Wigan: 

Lisa Nandy: Let The Public Back Into The Brexit Debate With A Citizens’ Assembly

Three years ago, the EU referendum result surprised many in Westminster and Whitehall who, for decades, failed to listen to voices from towns like mine. We cannot afford to shut the people out any longer. There is no route to a Labour government that doesn’t run through Remain-voting cities and Leave-voting towns, and no future for the country. Jeremy Corbyn rightly recognised that last week when he said: “Any political leader who wants to bring the country together cannot wish away the votes of 17 million people who wanted to leave, any more than they can ignore the concerns of the 16 million who voted to remain.” Every community in this country is home to people who are passionate supporters of both Leave and Remain. They must be heard. It’s time to reset the conversation and let the public back in.

Lisa Nandy: Let the public back into the Brexit debate with a citizens' assembly | LabourList

And this week, former PM Gordon Brown is pushing for it: 

A citizens’ assembly is now the only way to break the Brexit deadlock

Gordon Brown

Let’s extend article 50, and use 2019 to engage with the British people on the country’s future

Sun 20 Jan 2019 

‘Brought together in public hearings, a representative sample of 2016 remain and leave voters would engage with all the concerns that Brexit raises.’ Pro and anti-Brexit protesters clash outside parliament. Photograph: Scott Garfitt/REX/Shutterstock

Parliament must inflict a second defeat on the government – by voting next Tuesday to extend article 50 for a year. Not as a delaying tactic, but for a purpose: to enable a process of nationwide consultation and reflection. Key to this would be a series of citizens’ assemblieswhose thinking would then lead to constructive reconsideration by parliament of our relations with Europe, including the option of a renegotiation followed by a referendum.

The direct engagement of the British people is now essential in order to address the triple challenge of a government defying the sovereignty of parliament, an ever more divided country, and mounting distrust between parliament and people.

Power to the people – could a citizens’ assembly solve the Brexit crisis?

There is much talk of uncharted waters – but that’s where Britain is just now: in a rudderless boat with no compass, map, or even life jackets. And after a weekend’s work by the prime minister there will be no Monday miracle – just the dogged repetition of the familiar promises to tweak a deal already rejected by parliament, to beg her European counterparts to finesse her deal with what they have already rejected, and to return with the delusional and economically suicidal threat that “no deal is better than a bad deal”.

This is no way to deal with a political and constitutional crisis unparalleled in our history. We cannot now end the deadlock or rebuild national unity without repairing the breakdown of trust between the British people and the political establishment – and that cannot be achieved without involving the people as well as the politicians in finding solutions.

In a recent poll commissioned by Hope Not Hate, almost half of those surveyed agreed with the proposition that “Politicians clearly cannot decide how to resolve the issue of Brexit and the country is deeply divided – therefore it would be better to … pause the process and seek a consensus by gathering ordinary people together to discuss the options.”

Brought together in public hearings in each region, a representative sample of 2016 remain and leave voters would take time to engage, deliberate and then pronounce on all the concerns that Brexit raises: about immigration, sovereignty, the costs of membership, and other burning issues such as the state of manufacturing, the condition of our left-behind communities, and the rising child poverty austerity has imposed.

They will have time to range more widely than the binary choices that the current debate has allowed; and they will, I predict, offer wiser and more imaginative answers than an inflexible government and a deadlocked parliament can now deliver.

‘The Irish abortion referendum is evidence of the power and potential of citizens’ assemblies.’ Photograph: PA

And even if, as I fear, the closed and warring minds in the cabinet refuse to sponsor such public hearings – despite the views of Keir Starmer, John Major, Rowan Williams and many others across the political spectrum – then the Commons select committees, the mayors, local authorities and the Scottish and Welsh legislatures have the powers and the budgets to do it themselves on our behalf.

The handling of the Irish abortion referendum is evidence of the power and potential of citizens’ assemblies. It could have been a bitter and toxic debate dominated by extremists on both sides. But in part because a representative group – half initially pro-abortion, half against – talked the issues through, exploring differences, asking questions of experts and interacting with each other on their fears and hopes, they managed to defuse the controversies. And they found common ground between devout faith and resolute feminism in an outcome that astonished the world and that everyone accepted.

Critics say Europe will accept neither an extension nor another renegotiation. My 13 years’ experience of bargaining with European leaders suggests the opposite: that if we have a plan and a timetable resulting from this process, they will come to welcome it for its openness and realism.

To those who say another year of uncertainty would lie ahead and would be destabilising, I would answer that uncertainty is already sadly with us in every scenario. Even if there was a deal, we are only at the end of act one of this European drama: the withdrawal deal. Still to be addressed are act two – the transition; act three, the negotiation of our future European relationship; and act four, the renegotiation of our relations with the rest of the world. So we can approach the future either through more and more attempts at short-term fixes that fall apart under scrutiny, or by purposefully and constructively engaging in a systematic and structured national conversation to find common ground.

But any plan needs to be underwritten by a vision of a Britain that is capable of inspiring patriotic pride. Brexit, it was claimed, would reveal Britain’s strength. Yet the deal on offer has simply exposed our weakness: a Britain reduced from rule-maker to rule-taker, with – paradoxically – the very defenders of British autonomy having to accept that the fate of Northern Ireland is not only underwritten by the British-Irish treaty, but ultimately by Europe too.

The Brexit debate – once about what Europe is and is not – is now about who we are and what kind of country we aspire to be. And this should also now be an explicit part of the national conversation. Let the Brexiteers argue for their vision – that Britain is at its best and greatest standing alone and apart, sufficient unto itself and glorying in isolation.

There is, in my view, a more powerful, patriotic vision of a Britain at our best – as an outward-looking, internationally minded country for which the Channel is not a moat defending us from the world but a highway taking us to its every corner. And there can be patriotic pride in what we have achieved for and in Europe: leading in the defeat of fascism, drafting the convention on human rights, championing democracy in eastern Europe, and helping to make Europe the world’s most generous and effective contributor to international aid.

We have led before in Europe, and we can do so again. “Leading not leaving” was a slogan I suggested for the 2016 remain campaign – to remind people of the positive difference Britain makes in Europe, and Europe makes in Britain. Then, as now, people needed a hopeful vision of a patriotic future in which they could take pride. Project fear must give way now to project hope and project trust so that, having taken a more balanced view of our history, we can finally take control of our future.

• Gordon Brown is the UN special envoy for global education and a former prime minister of the UK

A citizens’ assembly is now the only way to break the Brexit deadlock | Gordon Brown | Opinion | The Guardian

The letters pages have been very positive: 

Transparency and fairness': Irish readers on why the Citizens' Assembly worked

Ireland’s assembly of 99 citizens found consensus on emotive issues – a model readers think could help the Brexit process

Guardian readers and Caroline Bannock

Tue 22 Jan 2019 
Comments 249

‘It is absolutely critical that people understand what it is they are voting for,’ said one reader. A voter in Ireland’s referendum on abortion on 25 May 2018. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

While the Brexit debacle rumbles ever on, several outcomes are on the table, including the possibility of a second referendum. Some, including this newspaper, have suggested that if a second referendum were to happen, a way forward could be for the UK to follow the model adopted by Ireland to try and break the stalemate over an emotive issue that had dogged its politics for decades: abortion.

In 2016 Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly was established by parliament to deliberate on a number of issues, including gay marriage and the eighth amendment that outlawed abortion. The 99 citizen members of the assembly were selected to be electorally representative and included people who were in favour of the change, some who were against and some who were undecided. The findings were published in a report at the end of 2017 and debated in parliament in 2018. Though the findings weren’t initially popular with the public, the result of last year’s referendum – 66.6% wanted to repeal the 8th amendment – was very close to the assembly’s 64% in favour of having no restrictions on termination in early pregnancy.

We wanted to find out from Irish citizens why they felt the assembly helped to bring about consensus. Here’s what some of them said.

‘It took the debate out of the realm of fearful self-interested calculation’

Dee, works in education, County Louth

Abortion has long been considered politically toxic in Ireland, with our elected representatives loth to touch it in case it alienated their constituents and risked their political careers. The Citizens’ Assembly took the debate out of this realm of fearful self-interested calculation and into a forum where evidence and experience could take centre stage. Interest in the workings of the assembly meant that the media could report on this evidence, leading to a better-informed public and lessening the hysteria that circulates around debates based on dogma. It led to a growing realisation that the 8th amendment affected people in a wide variety of ways even during wanted pregnancies, and revealed the chilling effect it had on medical professionals’ ability to provide necessary healthcare. The members of the assembly were faced with expert testimony on medical and legal matters but also testimony from their fellow citizens whose lives were deeply impacted by the 8th.

It meant that there was a long lead-in to the referendum during which debate was reasoned and detailed, before the inevitable agitation of the campaign itself. The fact that it was citizens who recommended the terms of the referendum and informed the proposed legislation introduced greater clarity, and meant voters did not just have to trust politicians since a representative body of their fellow citizens had carefully reflected on the matter and recommended these changes following significant education and deep reflection on the situation. I think the success of the Citizens’ Assembly is evidenced by the fact that the proportion in favour of repeal mirrored so closely the final vote.

‘The facts brought logic to an apparently intractable issue’

Derek, engineer, Dublin

I was initially very sceptical. The previous discussions on abortion were rife with emotion, and the country was very divided. I was dreading the decisive nature of what I thought was a cop-out. However, I was completely wrong. Issues were discussed logically and with complete transparency and fairness. The result was a revelation in many ways. The extreme for and against arguments were shown to be just that: extreme arguments. The plain, simple facts were what mattered and brought logic to an apparently intractable issue.

It is an unbeatable process. I think it would have helped the whole Brexit process had it been followed. However, Ireland had to go through years of hell to finally use it. A shame that our friends and neighbours did not follow it, but then a nation has to have its own learning curve.

‘It would have been irresponsible to hold a referendum without having proposed legislation’

Eve, data analyst, Dublin

The Citizens’ Assembly meant the discussion about our abortion laws was led by the people rather than politicians. It’s interesting to see international interest in it, as at the time a lot of people felt it was set up as a way of kicking the can down the road. An awful lot of people against the 8th amendment were calling for the assembly to be scrapped and wanted an immediate referendum. The sentiment was understandable but I personally felt it would have been incredibly irresponsible and undemocratic to hold a referendum on revoking the 8th amendment without having proposed legislation as to what would go in its place. It is absolutely critical that people understand what it is they are voting for.

A yes voter in favour of repealing the 8th amendment looks at a no supporter ahead of the referendum last May. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Crucially, a citizens’ assembly is non-partisan and so it creates a people-led discussion and understanding of an issue. I think this also helps create a debate that isn’t dominated by black-and-white mantras from political parties but a more nuanced discussion of the issue in question. Furthermore, politics can feel far removed from the average person and so the discussion and findings can feel far more relatable.

‘It got balanced and truthful information out among the people of Ireland’

Barbara, nurse, Dublin

There was no trouble accessing the assembly findings as every time they met, the national TV channel, the newspapers and online-only news forums comprehensively reported the assembly’s activities. Unless you chose to stick your head in the clouds, you could not avoid hearing or reading about the assembly. This was not done in an overbearing way, as initially the assembly met once a month, so you were content to tune in to update yourself. I feel this was very important for people who never would have considered voting in favour of abortion. It motivated young people to vote for a subject very important to them, and opened up debate among people in general. The greatest thing the assembly did was get balanced and truthful information out among the people of Ireland.

A citizens’ assembly has revealed itself to me to be a vital tool in a democracy – it takes the debating of a contentious issue right back down into the hands of people on the electoral roll. This is great as our politicians are so often tied into a certain viewpoint based on political agenda, party politics or personal gain. I feel a citizens’ assembly would be a very helpful tool in the Brexit dilemma.

‘Misrepresentation was not an option’

Anton, retired, Dublin

The assembly facilitated the presentation of a whole range of views and insights on the topic. The media coverage of presentations triggered a lot of discussion. Expert input at the forum informed public opinion and thus facilitated greater understanding of the issues at play in crisis pregnancies. For many, the revelation that abortion pills could be bought on the internet was a game changer. Clearly, women taking such pills without medical supervision are seriously imperilled. The realisation that abortion was already reasonably prevalent in our society led people to see that it is best for society to accept its reality and provide for safe provision under medical care.

The Citizens’ Assembly, with due thanks to its chair, provided a forum where the real story was told. The broad spectrum of experience, case histories and moral viewpoints was set out for evaluation and consideration. Misrepresentation was not an option, for proponents or opponents. There was no “bluster bus”. If there is a second Brexit referendum, it should be preceded by a citizens’ assembly, chaired by an experienced judge and supported by an expert team of fact checkers.

‘It helped me to listen, understand and develop empathy’

Claire Farnon, academic, Dublin

It felt very democratic. All sides were addressed. It very much helped me – not to decide as I already knew how I was voting, but to listen, understand and develop empathy for those who planned to vote the other way. The issue was a very complex and divisive one, and the Citizens’ Assembly helped the issue be seen from all sides. This is not a simple issue of right or wrong. Interpersonal discussions on the issue often became emotional, leading to them becoming deadlocked. The Citizens’ Assembly kept information flowing whether we liked to hear it or not. The fact that it was made up entirely of my peers, and that through the assembly we the voters were exposed to the thoughts and opinions of experts from both sides, very much helped to establish a belief that this was a vote of the people and that we were being given all the information available in order to make up our minds. We weren’t being preached at or lied to.

'Transparency and fairness': Irish readers on why the Citizens' Assembly worked | Opinion | The Guardian

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