Keith Sutherland

The problem with a Brexit citizens’ assembly

The problem with a Brexit citizens’ assembly
Text settings

The chaotic handling of Brexit and the despair of the chattering classes over the Trump presidency has undermined our faith in liberal democracy. Francis Fukuyama has now recanted his 1992 claim that the fall of the Soviet Union brought about the end of history, and free and fair elections are increasingly being seen as society's problem rather than the solution.

The disillusionment with electoral politics has led to calls for Athenian-style, randomly selected ‘citizens’ assemblies’. The Conservative leadership candidate Rory Stewart proposed a citizens’ assembly on Brexit as a bridge between the referendum and parliament, and a citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice is a key demand of Extinction Rebellion. As a result, letters inviting 30,000 households across the UK to join a citizens’ assembly on climate change were sent out last week by an alliance of six Commons select committees, chaired by Rachel Reeves. Unfortunately the devil is in the detail and, as will become clear, these proposals are nothing less than an affront to democratic equality.

While the idea of making political decisions by randomly selected bodies dates back to the nomothetai (law-making panels) of fourth-century Athens, its modern reincarnation started with a throwaway suggestion by political scientist Robert Dahl in 1989. Dahl recognised that the problem with mass democracy is ‘rational ignorance’ – as no single vote can change the outcome of an election, for voters it’s simply not worth taking the trouble to study issues in depth. The need for an ‘attentive’ public led Dahl to suggest that advanced democracies create a ‘minipublic’ consisting of perhaps a thousand randomly selected citizens. Its task would be to deliberate, for a year maybe, on an issue and then to announce its choices.

James Fishkin, one of Dahl’s students, established a ‘Deliberative Polling’ project to flesh out this back-of-the-envelope suggestion. Fishkin's idea was to poll a large representative sample of the population, and then engage them with policy issues through well-balanced information and advocacy, supplemented by small group discussions. Deliberative Polls have been undertaken in a number of countries for over two decades and have shown that a large ‘attentive’ minipublic can decide complex issues at least as well as politicians. Fishkin’s work also confirmed Dahl’s claim that a statistically-representative sample of the population would reveal what a well-informed majority of the population would think.

Unfortunately recent proposals for citizens’ assemblies have watered down Dahl’s original idea so much, that the minipublic would no longer represent the actual population. Typically, they involve groups of only 30 to 50 people, which clearly falls short of being in any way representative. Out of the 30,000 invitations sent out for Rachel Reeves’ climate assembly, only 110 will receive the golden ticket. Would you have any confidence in an opinion poll that relied on 110 volunteers?

Although the organisers of Deliberative Polls make sterling efforts to ensure that all those selected by lot actually turn up, refusal rates for citizens’ assemblies are in the order of 95 per cent. This, as Melanie McDonagh pointed out on Coffee House, leads to the overrepresentation of activists, partisans and political anoraks, leading to a biased sample – hence the enthusiasm of Extinction Rebellion and anti-Brexiteers for them. A truly representative sample would require mandatory participation, as with jury service.

Another complicating factor is that some people are more persuasive than others. This introduces randomness (in the pejorative sense), so the deliberations end up not reflecting the informed judgment of the country as a whole. Three simultaneous Deliberative Polls performed for utilities companies in Texas recorded wildly diverging outcomes because of the random ‘butterfly effect’ when small groups deliberate. Fourth century Athenian lawmakers aimed for consistency by distinguishing between elected advocates and randomly selected decision-makers. Only the former were allowed to speak, and the latter were restricted to ‘deliberation within’ followed by silent voting.

Another factor is that the ‘wisdom of crowds’ depends on there being a large number of independent judgments. In the classic experiment at a country fair, Francis Galton discovered that the average of several estimates of the weight of a dressed ox carcass was only one per cent different from the actual weight (1,198 lb). Recent experiments have shown this accuracy is diminished when decision-makers talk to each other.

My own Brexit proposal – published before the referendum – was to establish a judge-led public enquiry with the final decision taken by a randomly selected jury. In classical Athens important decisions required large juries (up to 5,001) and that would certainly be the case for Brexit. Advocacy would be provided by the official Leave and Remain camps (accredited by the Electoral Commission) and spurious and alarmist claims would be overturned under forensic cross-examination.

Although the losers would inevitably claim it was a fix, a large jury decision would accurately reflect the 52 to 48 per cent referendum result, as long as there was a sample size of at least 6,766. The losers might retort that the verdict of a huge jury also led to the execution of Socrates (implying that Brexit would be a similar miscarriage of justice). True, but the statistics show that another representative Athenian jury would have returned the same decision. And that’s what we mean by democracy (warts and all).

Public inquiries have, on the whole, a good track record – the Hutton Inquiry being praised for its balanced and open proceedings. The problem was the lack of democratic participation, as there was no jury to decide the outcome. The inquiry verdict (BBC guilty) was left to a Lord Justice who had cut his teeth in Northern Ireland’s jury-free Diplock courts and whose judgment some people believe may have been coloured by his apparent scepticism of the media.

My Brexit proposal was ignored at the time, but the recent enthusiasm for (faux) Athenian democracy is little more than an attempt by political elites to overturn popular decisions and to smuggle in draconian environmental laws under the cover of approval by ‘ordinary people’. As the Trojans found out to their cost, one should always beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

Dr. Keith Sutherland is a researcher working on the political potential of citizens’ juries at the University of Exeter