OPINION: Why Green Party wants a citizen's assembly on climate change

Climate change protesters on the streets of Norwich

Climate change protesters on the streets of Norwich - Credit: Denise Bradley

Ordinary people who are fed up with “politics” are right.

We have a lot to blame politicians for – their short-termism, always focused on the next elections, their cross-party bickering and bawling in the House of Commons when what we really need is a grown-up discussion.

But, having spent a bit of time hanging around political types, I know that politicians are not bad people in themselves.

Of course there are some bad apples, but on the whole people go into politics wanting to make a positive difference.

But the party political system, especially one that is as winner-takes-all as our First Past The Post elections, fuels a culture where getting and holding onto power becomes the ultimate objective, and it’s the politicians who excel at winning votes, rather than improving people’s lives, that rise to the top.

It’s no surprise then that voter turnout is so low.

More than one in four people who are eligible don’t vote at general elections. In local elections, turnout often hovers between 30 and 40 percent.

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In Norfolk, just a third of people voted in the most recent elections. Not turning out to vote is often disparagingly termed “apathy” (especially in relation to young people) and blamed on laziness.

But as a local councillor (and I am very aware that I was elected on a turnout of just 41%) I spend a lot of time talking to people who really want to make a difference in their community but don’t see the point in voting because politicians are all the same, and what have politicians ever done for them?

The issues that people want, but don’t trust, politicians to deal with range from the extremely local like potholes or their neighbour who is causing antisocial behaviour, to the enormous challenges of climate change and insecure work.

Of course, the fewer people vote, the more politicians will fight viciously for the support of those who do, feeding a vicious cycle. But there is a way to break that cycle and give ordinary people a real voice. The idea of “Citizens Assemblies” – also known as sortitive or deliberative democracy – has blossomed in recent years.

The basic idea is that a random selection of people, weighted to be representative of the demographics of society, is chosen by lot and brought together to discuss challenges and what they want to see change, with the input of experts.

It might sound absurd to put our fate in the hands of a random bunch of people whose names are (not quite literally) drawn out of a hat.

City councillor, Jamie Osborn

City councillor, Jamie Osborn - Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2022

But we are quite happy to entrust the justice system to juries of randomly selected citizens. In a jury trial, the citizens, who have no vested interest in the case either way, listen to all the available evidence, listen to the expert judge, and then meet together to discuss and come to a consensus on the verdict. It’s the single most powerful way of preventing corruption and ensuring representation.

A citizens’ assembly would work very much the same way, just on a bigger scale. This has been trialled in Ireland, in Iceland, the Netherlands, Canada and elsewhere, producing policies on issues that elected politicians were unable to agree on such as gay rights, abortion, and constitutional reform.

The evidence from both large-scale and smaller local citizens assemblies shows that they tend to make progressive, practically useful recommendations. There’s no party politicking, no vested interests, no need to dissemble and try and win votes. A citizens’ assembly is a forum for grown-up discussions between people who are experts in their own experience.

That is why Green Party councillors at Norfolk County Council are proposing at a crucial council meeting this coming Monday that the council establishes a citizens assembly for Norfolk to produce recommendations on how to deal with climate change.

Climate change is the single most important challenge facing our county, and the most urgent, but deciding how to respond is highly contentious. Green councillors say we need to reduce the number of cars on the road – how do we do that in a way that doesn’t hurt people who need to drive? How do we phase out gas boilers from people’s homes in an affordable way? How do we encourage a change in diets away from environmentally destructive meat towards healthier, more sustainable food?

As a Green Party councillor, I have my own answers to those questions, and will continue to put them forward in the forum of the council.

But I know that no single party has all the answers, and I want to see ordinary people, not politicians, making the decisions on issues that will affect them.

A citizens assembly is the way forward – and if you’re sceptical, as you may rightly be, then have a look at how the process has worked elsewhere, and remember that democracy is not just about elections.

For most of the history of democracy within and outside the West, political engagement has been about gathering together groups of citizens where everyone has a say, not just those who’ve climbed the greasy pole.

It’s time to bring power back to the people. 

Jamie Osborn is a Green Party councillor for Mancroft Ward in Norwich