XR: the case for deliberative democracy

Climate Assembly UK begins this weekend. It’s a good start, says Alex Bradbury, but does not meet XR’s third demand for a Government-commissioned Citizens’ Assembly

Image by Lambeth XR.

‘Extinction Rebellion needs to find ways of reaching the people who think we’re some sort of weird cult.’

This remark, made by a member of the Extinction Rebellion (XR) Citizens’ Assembly Working Group, is met by a spontaneous flurry of jazz hands from everyone in the small Kings College London meeting room. No, we’re not all frustrated musical theatre performers; waving ‘jazz hands’ are used in XR, and other activist groups, to express agreement during a group discussion. I can’t resist pointing out the irony of our reaction – we’re all agreeing we need to be less cult-like by raising our hands in unison and waving them about. Everyone laughs, but it strikes me that this points to a deeper challenge in our work.

There are people who feel excluded by XR’s culture, but the democratic process we want to promote aims at radical inclusion. After all, we’re calling on the government to create and be led by a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice – a process that would put national decision-making in the hands of ordinary people from all walks of life. So it seems to me that reaching more people is actually about making a better case for something we are already calling for.

Most people with only a passing acquaintance of XR know that we are calling on the government to firstly declare an emergency, and secondly to halt biodiversity loss and reach net zero emissions by 2025. But many don’t know much about our demand for a Citizens’ Assembly. This is a randomly selected group of people from across the UK who will learn in-depth about the climate and ecological emergency, work through their differences, and determine how we get to net zero greenhouse gas emissions in a socially just way.

Perhaps the most well-known examples of Citizens’ Assemblies are those that took place in Ireland in recent years. They paved the way for long-overdue reforms on topics such as abortion, gay marriage and even climate change. But there is also a large-scale assembly on climate with unprecedented powers taking place in France right now – initiated by President Macron in the wake of the Yellow Vest protests. In fact, there’s been a global groundswell of interest around deliberative democracy over the past couple of decades. From Australia to Poland, groups of randomly selected residents have been helping determine policy for years.

Democracy beyond the ballot box

Academics, activists and even some politicians are cottoning on to the idea that democracy doesn’t have to stop at the ballot box. But they face an uphill struggle in convincing the wider population. A 2018 Pew Center survey conducted across 27 countries found that 51 per cent of people were dissatisfied with how democracy was working in their country. People still firmly believe in the idea of democracy – the trouble is, we usually have quite a narrow experience of what that can mean in practice. For most, it starts and ends with elections.

We’re trapped: we don’t like the system we currently have, but we have trouble imagining anything beyond it. This is where Citizens’ Assemblies come in; they directly address some of the limitations of electoral politics.

Although we call it representative democracy, our parliament is far from representative demographically. Only 34 per cent of MPs are women, as opposed to 51 per cent in the population at large. For ethnic minorities, the figures are 10 per cent and 16 percent respectively. What’s more, elections incentivise politicians to focus on issues that will help them get re-elected. This means thorny decisions in areas such as climate change are more likely to be kicked into the long grass. MORE

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