It’s time to get the public involved in Brexit

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 12th July 2017

The way people talk about ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ is enough to make you think they have always been at loggerheads – two irreconcilable opponents, fated to oppose each other forever and ever. But it’s not actually like that.

As we noted last year, there was huge overlap in what people wanted when they went to the polls on June 23rd last year – from Remainers wanting tougher immigration rules within the EU to Leavers wanting stronger workers’ rights. The binary nature of that ‘yes/no’ question though contributed to a divide.

But when big constitutional questions have created – or shone the spotlight on – rifts across the world, countries are turning to a very interesting model for closing the gap.

That model is the ‘Citizens’ Assembly’. Ireland’s Constitutional Convention, established to look at a swathe of constitutional issues, is what led to the legalisation of equal marriage.

Citizens’ Assemblies and similar approaches have been used across Europe and North America over the past decade, from electoral reform in British Columbia, to participatory democracy in Iceland rewriting the country’s entire constitution of following the economic crash.

It is a way of bringing people together to settle key policy and constitutional issues often associated with referendums.

Well, we’re bringing it to the Brexit debate. Leading academics and democracy campaigners are to hold a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit this September, in a bid to bridge the Brexit divide and ensure the public’s voices are heard in the process of Britain leaving the EU.

The ESRC-funded project will bring together a diverse sample of citizens to contribute to the Brexit process – and provide the first example of meaningful public deliberation on what form Brexit should take.

Citizens will engage in detailed and informed discussions to reach well thought-out conclusions, in a process organised by leading academics at the UCL’s prestigious Constitution Unit, in partnership with the University of Westminster’s Centre for the Study of Democracy, the University of Southampton, Involve and the Electoral Reform Society.

Over two weekends in September (the 8th and 29th) a diverse group of voters will learn about the options for Brexit, hearing from a wide range of experts and campaigners from all sides of the debate, and deliberate on what they have heard.

Crucially, the Assembly will then agree recommendations that will be written up in a final report and presented to key decision makers at a high-profile Westminster event.

The project has secured high-profile backing from across the spectrum – from Remain’s Chuka Umunna and Will Straw to Leave’s Bernard Jenkins and Suzanne Evans.

This has the potential to be a powerful force for unity – and giving a genuine opportunity to citizens on all sides to engage in the nitty-gritty, the deep policy stuff that seemed missing from this year’s election.

Though a process of ‘deliberation’ – informed and reflective debate – the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit will bring people together from both sides to find a positive way forward. It won’t be easy, but we know from other countries that it’s eminently do-able.

There is widespread agreement that the Brexit plans should respect and respond to public opinion – as demanded by both democratic principle and the need for broad public legitimacy. This Assembly is a unique and innovative way to gauge the opinions of citizens on the most pressing constitutional issue we face as a country.

Public involvement in major constitutional issues shouldn’t end on polling day. And it’s fair to say the real policy issues around Brexit were not given the space they deserved in this June’s election.

This project is an exciting way of allowing much deeper public engagement than what we saw last year – and letting voters truly influence the debate.

The idea there’s an unsolvable rift between ‘52 per cent’ and ‘48 per cent’ is a myth. We know given the chance to talk to each other and meaningfully engage in the issues, people have much more in common than many realise.

The project team already has a great deal of expertise in running similar assemblies – including conducting the UK’s first ever assemblies on local devolution in Sheffield and Southampton in late 2015.

We were blown away by the level of detail in which people were willing to talk about this quite technical democratic issue. And we have faith in the public that if they can do it on something like local devolution, we can have that similarly inspiring process for Brexit.

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