From referendums to citizens’ assemblies: does democracy need a makeover?

Sunday 3 November, 10:0011:30, Auditorium 2Battle for Democracy


Whatever one’s position on Brexit, it is undoubtedly the case that the EU referendum engaged a large number of people in politics again. Many commentators have suggested this shows the power of direct-democracy methods. Could Brexit and the wider debates about the future of Europe give us a chance to employ new methods and reimagine how democracy works in the twenty-first century?

For inspiration, many have looked back to the direct democracy of ancient Athens, with a slew of new proposals involving sortition – the practice of drawing lots to assign citizens to important positions. Less technically, many have also praised the Athenian, and later Republican, traditions of thinking in terms of a citizen’s responsibility to the community – suggesting that in some sense we have a duty, not just a right, to vote.

One method inspired by ancient Athens has been the citizen’s assembly, a form of deliberation which is said to produce more consensual and wide-ranging agreement than the combative style of Westminster politics. For example, in June, the Tory leadership hopeful Rory Stewart echoed many others in calling for a citizen’s assembly to solve the Brexit impasse. A citizens’ assembly was also used in 2016 before Ireland’s referendum on abortion, allowing for a consensus to be reached on an issue that can be deeply divisive.

Another innovation could be to use social media to allow voters to engage more directly with policy debates and democratic decision making, something used regularly by the Five Star Movement (FSM) in Italy and something touted by the Brexit Party as a way of developing policy beyond a no-deal Brexit. As the manager of FSM’s online platform, Davide Casaleggio, has argued: ‘Direct democracy, made possible by the internet, has given a new centrality to citizens and will ultimately lead to the deconstruction of the current political and social organisations. Representative democracy — politics by proxy — is gradually losing meaning.’ Can digital tools be harnessed for political change without succumbing to the well-known downsides of social media?

While such debates about the form democracy takes have been going on for a while, Brexit and European crises certainly give them a fresh impetus. What should we make of these suggestions for democratic innovation? Should we welcome some experimentation and the chance for wider engagement in politics? When many decry ‘hoodwinked’ Brexit voters while demanding a second referendum, is democracy itself now viewed with scepticism? And, perhaps most fundamentally, is there anything more democratic about consensual decision making or eschewing representative politics?