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Now & Next: How to restore trust in politics – in partnership with The Economist

Posted on 10 December 2020

Trust in political leaders across the world has been in decline, but some argue that an Ancient Greek idea is the key to transforming the relationship between people and politicians. Are citizens assemblies and a deliberative democracy the route to renewing trust in politicians and political structures?

See Trust Matters for further information.

Democracy is facing a crisis of trust.

This is a fraud on the American public.

And populations are increasingly polarised.

So could the answer be to reboot an ancient idea?

We can change the nature of the relationship between citizens and politicians.

Shirley Islam is helping to shape the future of Scotland from her garden in Glasgow.  She is part of a radical but simple project which brings ordinary people closer to the political decision-making process.  Shirley is a member of a Citizens’ Assembly, a group of around a hundred people picked at random but designed to be a cross-section of Scottish society.  With the help of experts and facilitators the group is tasked with discussing pressing issues and passing their recommendations on to the Scottish Government. 

Shirley Islam

The main aim is to come up with a vision statement to make Scotland better. 

First of all the conversation guidelines.  So, you will all have a copy of those brought to your table. 

That’s something to think about when thinking about how you can redesign and improve the Scottish tax system.

Members have met in person four times since 2019 and are now gathering online during the pandemic.  So far they have considered reform of drug laws and taxing wealth to create a greener economy.

We as a country want to try out a new way of doing politics, doing things differently through informed and respectful dialogue.

Citizens’ Assemblies are part of what is known as deliberative democracy.  Matthew Taylor is a leading global advocate, he has advised two former British Prime Ministers and he argues this kind of political engagement could be the key to reversing the decline of trust in politicians.

Matthew Taylor, Former Political Advisor

The fundamental issue of trust is only going to be overcome if we can change the nature of the relationship between citizens and politicians. 

Shirley Islam

I’m being heard, I actually do have an avenue to ask the right questions that are important to make Scotland better.

Matthew Taylor, Former Political Advisor

The way in which deliberation increases the confidence of its participants, increases their respect for people with different opinions and tends to make them feel more responsible for making sure the world is a better place.  These are wonderful characteristics and a million miles away from representative democracy that tends to make people feel more disempowered, more angry and less sympathetic to people who have to make difficult decisions. 

Such gatherings could be an antidote to the increasingly polarised political climate.

Matthew Taylor, Former Political Advisor

The adversarial nature of representative and democracy, politicians shouting at each other, caricaturing each other, evading questions, pandering to their own increasingly unrepresentative grassroots, it’s ugly. 

If you look at a deliberative process, a process in which ordinary citizens are sitting round a table listening to each other, proper facilitated, openly questioning their starting point, going on a journey, reaching a different view and nearly always being able to find consensus, it’s a process that makes us feel good about ourselves. 

Many people feel they have little influence in the political process.  Deliberative democracy could give voters an edge.

Professor David Farrell, School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin

Our job effectively is once every four or five years to vote in an election to keep the rascals out if we think that they should be kicked out and then we retreat back into our daily lives and wait for the next time we are asked to come and vote.  That’s a very passive role for a citizen and what citizens need more of is more voice in between elections. 

Citizens’ Assemblies are nothing new, they are an ancient Greek idea coming back into vogue.  Over the past ten years, the OECD has recorded a notable increase in the number of deliberative processes among member countries and the EU and there is evidence that this is succeeding in giving people more influence over policies made by politicians.  Of 55 cases analysed by the OECD, three-quarters of public authorities implemented over half of the recommendations made by citizens.  In just over a third of cases, they implemented all of them. 

The issues that you will discuss over the coming months are beyond party politics.

One country is often cited as the poster child of this democratic innovation in politics.  Ireland’s widely acclaimed Citizens’ Assembly on abortion legislation formed in 2016 is considered to have helped its largely Catholic citizens find common ground on a highly polarising issue.  After hearing from 25 experts and reviewing 300 submissions from members of the public and interest groups, 87% of people on the Assembly agreed Ireland’s abortion laws were unfit.  The Government subsequently agreed to the recommendation of a national referendum.  Two-thirds of the electorate voted in favour of abortion rights. 

It's a monumental day for women in Ireland.

Professor David Farrell, School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin

The Citizen’s Assembly held the hands of the politicians, galvanised them, encouraged them because what politicians admitted to was they were listening to the voice of ordinary… informed, ordinary citizens and if that is what ordinary citizens felt needed to be done then they were prepared to go down that road too. 

Yet Citizens’ Assemblies are not a silver bullet for troubled liberal democracies.  Some processes have been criticised for not fairly representing the population at large and the biggest challenge to more meaningful change in the future remains the reluctance of politicians to embrace this model of democracy on a broader scale.  Advocates say that unless politicians actually accept the idea of relinquishing some more powers, there is a risk of further public disenchantment.

Matthew Taylor, Former Political Advisor

When I worked in Government I tried to convince Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown’s team to do it and I had initially enthusiasm for it until the point of which I pointed out to them that they couldn’t control the outcome of the process.  I think when politicians hear about deliberation, they often think it’s about them giving up power.  I’d say to them, the biggest constraint on your power as a ruling politician right now, is the public doesn’t trust you.  Actually, deliberation will give you more power because real power lies in having citizens on board.  This is only going to really shift the dial if politicians demonstrate over and over again that these processes do have an influence on the policy outcomes.  I hope we’ve reached a stage of a kind of tipping point now where the question is not will deliberative democracy become a more intrinsic part of our democratic systems but when and how.

Emma Hogan, Deputy Briefings Editor, The Economist

Hi, I’m Emma Hogan, Deputy Briefings Editor at The Economist.  If you’d like to learn more about Citizens’ Assemblies then please click the link to my article opposite and if you’d like to watch more Now & Next series, then please click the other link.  Thank you very much for watching and please don’t forget to subscribe. 

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