Citizens’ assembly launched on attitudes to democracy

A UK-wide citizens’ assembly looking at public attitudes towards democracy has been launched by the UCL Constitution Unit, which carries out independent research into constitutional change and the reform of political institutions.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK will meet remotely over six weekends from 18 September to 12 December 2021. It will explore what kind of democratic system people want in the UK, with members hearing evidence from experts, politicians and campaigners, and discussing the issues in depth among themselves.

The Assembly will comprise around 75 members, carefully selected to reflect the UK voting-age population in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, education, disability status, region, and political attitudes.

It will investigate what roles people think should be played by government, parliament, the courts, and the public, and what expectations people have for how participants in UK democracy should behave.

Assembly members will formulate recommendations on how democracy should operate, with the aim of informing debates about democracy among policymakers in governments and parliaments in all parts of the UK.

Researchers believe that a thorough review such as this is overdue. The Brexit process put UK democracy under much strain, with the proper roles of institutions and the public all strongly contested.

At the 2019 general election, all the major parties proposed reviews or reforms. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has further challenged how democracy operates. The Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK aims to encourage and inform these ongoing discussions.

Assembly members will hear from and question a wide range of expert speakers and discuss their thoughts with fellow members. The members will then build recommendations to the Citizens’ Assembly’s core question: How should the UK’s democratic system work?

Within that, some of the questions they will look at over the six weekends are likely to include:

  • What basic values should the UK’s democratic system uphold?
  • What should be the relationship between parliament and government?
  • What role should referendums play in the democratic system?
  • How much role should the courts have in upholding basic rules?

Speakers for the first weekend (18 & 19 September) include: Baroness (Shami) Chakrabarti, Labour peer; Baroness (Claire) Fox of Buckley, Director of the Academy of Ideas; Professor Anand Menon, Director of UK in a Changing Europe; Willie Sullivan, Director of the Electoral Reform Society Scotland; former Supreme Court Judge, Lord (Jonathan) Sumption; Gr á inne Walsh, Director of Stratagem; Dr Hannah White, Deputy Director of the Institute for Government; and Jeremy Wright QC, Conservative MP.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK is a central part of the Democracy in the UK after Brexit project. This also involves two population surveys on public attitudes to democracy in the UK, delivered in partnership with YouGov,  the first of which was launched in July 2021 and will be reported on in January 2022.

The results of the two surveys, together with the recommendations of the citizens’ assembly will offer significant and invaluable insight into public attitudes to democracy in the UK today.

Professor Alan Renwick, project lead and Deputy Director of the UCL Constitution Unit said:

"The UK’s democratic arrangements have been severely stretched by the process of Brexit and the experience of COVID. It’s time for a review, and it’s crucial that any such review engages the public. We need to explore deeply what kind of democracy people want when they have had a chance to think the matter through carefully. That’s what the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK will do."

The project’s Advisory Board comprises 20 highly experienced individuals from different political parties, professional backgrounds, and perspectives on democracy. One of them, the SNP MP and QC Joanna Cherry , said:

"To understand how the executive, the legislature and the judiciary might better function to serve the people, we need to know what people think. The findings of the citizen participation aspect of this project will be of great value to parliamentarians."

The project is led by the Deputy Director of the UCL Constitution Unit, Professor Alan Renwick, working with Professor Meg Russell, the Director of the UCL Constitution Unit, and Professor Ben Lauderdale, a leading expert on the measurement of political preferences.

The citizens’ assembly is being delivered in partnership with democratic participation charity, Involve. The Sortition Foundation led the process of recruiting assembly members.


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