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Politicians Can't Agree On Brexit - Give The People A Say

13/07/2017 13:27
Emma Espejo via Getty Images

All through the night last Sunday, the wires were hot with the news that Theresa May was preparing to 'relaunch' her premiership on Tuesday morning. In a remarkable volte-face from her position in April - when she criticised the Opposition for 'jeopardising' the preparations for Brexit - May would make a plea for unity and cross-party collaboration. In the end, her speech fell rather flat, shorn of the radicalism that had been trailed at the weekend. The PM did still, however, find room to call for opposition parties to "contribute, not just criticise" to government policy.

Whether or not this appeal was a ploy for political protection, the need to find consensus has never been greater. The government has a difficult legislative programme to get through Parliament before the UK leaves the European Union in 2019 and, with the slenderest of majorities, it will need all the help it can get.

First, it will have to pass the Great Repeal Bill. This will be no walk in the park. Labour have steadfastly refused to support the government's proposals for months, arguing - with some justification - that it would be undemocratic to give the government the extensive "Henry VIII powers" required to make the Repeal Bill effective. The Tories will have to work hard to build a consensus around their approach.

Secondly, the government will need to nurture support for the Exit Deal it negotiates. This will set the terms of the UK's exit from the European Union, including the future location of EU bodies currently sited in the UK, the controversial 'divorce settlement,' the rights of EU citizens in the UK, and vice versa. It will also set the terms of the transition from single market to whatever comes next, a matter of priority for UK and EU businesses currently trading across borders.

There is deep and unyielding division over what this should look like, but if consensus cannot be built, the Exit Deal will not pass the Commons. To avoid the cliff edge, it would make sense for the Conservatives to collaborate with other parties throughout the negotiation process.

Cross-party consensus will not work
Fortunately, this seems likely to happen. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have already called for a cross-party negotiating team to be established, and there are a number of established ways to make this happen. However, any form of cross-party collaboration will only partly heal the wounds opened up by Brexit, for two main reasons.

Firstly, cross-party collaboration is not a blueprint for sustainable consensus. Once negotiations are complete, the incentive for parties to collaborate will be much diminished, as each seeks to position itself for the 2022 election. In the event of an early election, collaboration will collapse even faster. This is why Jeremy Corbyn has refused to endorse the Prime Minister's appeal for unity: he hopes to force and win an election in the autumn.

Even supposing cross-party cooperation did continue beyond 2019, it would still be unable to solve the underlying issue. The cleavage down the middle of British society is at least partly because the current crop of political representatives do not fulfil their most fundamental purpose - representation. According to the most recent estimate, 73% of Parliament voted for Remain, as against 48% of the electorate. MPs are also far more likely than the general population to have attended private school, to have been to university and to hold liberal views on important matters such as immigration and the death penalty. Building consensus in an essentially homogenous group does very little for society as a whole. The UK needs to find another way.

Let the people have a say
One of the most striking revelations from Lord Ashcroft's post-referendum survey, released in July last year, was that 64% of Leave voters believed their vote would make little difference, a depressing statistic both reflective of and incongruous with the desire to 'take back control.' A lazy Remainer might be tempted to dismiss this as "yet more evidence that Leave voters were clueless." But that would be to miss the wood for the trees.

Disillusionment with British politics goes deep, spanning the entire political spectrum. In 2017, some 53% of people claim an interest in politics, but only 32% think that their involvement is effective and only 31% are satisfied with the way the system works. In 2015, YouGov reported that 53% would like to have more involvement in Parliament; just 7% felt they had any.

These large swathes of the population need to be re-engaged with politics, as a matter of principle and as insurance against the danger of resurgent populism. One way to do this would be to run public consultation exercises, designed to collect the views of normal people and apply them to post-Brexit policy-making.

But such exercises are too often used as means to market policies which have already been agreed in Whitehall. All too often they descend into politicised 'show trials' like the French debate on national identity in 2009, which was seen on the left as a political ploy by President Sarkozy to bolster his support among right-wing voters in the upcoming election. Most importantly, in traditional public engagement, the citizenry is divorced from the decision-making process - they influence but do not determine policies.

Trial by jury
A more promising option would be to create a series of 'Citizen Juries' empowered to both debate and decide upon post-Brexit policies. Citizen Juries were used by the New Labour government in the 2000s to help inform policy on controversial questions like GM crops. But these were poorly managed and descended quickly into the same kind of 'show trials' as traditional public consultation. Done properly, Citizen Juries could reinvigorate broken Britain without compromising the quality of decision-making.

In a Citizen Jury, small groups of roughly 12 people meet to discuss policy issues in a structured manner and reach consensual agreement - exactly the kind now advocated by politicians from all parties. The theoretical potential of these discussions has been elaborated for several decades, since they were first trialled in the USA in the 1970s. Now, however, psychologists have proven their vale experimentally. Numerous studies show that face-to-face contact is the best way to foster cooperation between different groups: each side demonstrates verbally and visually that they are willing to cooperate, which in turn encourages the other side to compromise and find the middle ground.

Moreover, consensus can diffuse from juries to the wider population. Nina Eliasoph, in her book Avoiding Politics, shows that, despite their public reticence to engage in political conversation, American participants in organised debates become increasingly engaged with politics in private. Running Citizen Juries in the UK could also produce this spill over effect.

In practice, two important caveats apply. Real consensus can only be found when a diverse body of people are invited to participate in the jury: it would be essential for Brexit Juries to draw from Remainers, Leavers and those with a diversity of backgrounds in between. The process must be inclusive.

Equally, the juries need to be beyond repute. Any sense that the decisions they make had been unduly influenced by politicians of any flavour could invite the kind of populist anger that juries are designed to address, lighting the powder keg of an already-unstable British political system. The Genetics Forum of 1999 carefully avoided this issue by setting up a panel of stakeholders to oversee the jury debate. This made it difficult to doubt the findings of the jury, when they criticised two of the stakeholders. Similar stakeholders panels could be arranged for Brexit.

Where do we begin?
If Citizen Juries are to be adopted, they should focus on resolving two outstanding areas of policy. Once the Great Repeal Bill has been activated in March 2019, the government will have the freedom to repeal and replace regulations and legislation as it sees fit, working within the framework of its relationship with the EU. The Conservatives - elected to deliver Brexit alone - should not be allowed to do this. The issues involved are too sensitive to leave to party politics. Citizen Juries should be set up to build national consensus on these matters: workers' rights, environmental and consumer protection.

Juries should also be used to settle controversial areas of policy, over which the UK will gain significant control, regardless of the deal it concludes with the EU. Immigration is the most important of these. Work by British Future has shown that the members of the public are willing to discuss immigration constructively, but recoil from doing so for fear of being labelled a bigot. This further underlines the case for Citizens Juries, which would be able to debate the issues without the counterproductive influence of social conformity.

There are real issues to be discussed here - values to be traded off and prioritised - but a Parliamentary elite comprised of university and privately-educated liberals is not best-placed to do this. The rallying cry of 'take back control,' which inspired so many voters, will not be realised within the constraints of our Parliamentary democracy. More ambition is required. In the 18th century, Britain's Parliament redefined modern democracy; in the 21st, it can do so again.

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