One of the things that struck me most on the Moral Maze on Wednesday was how short the time was. It is hard to get across nuance in answers that last just seconds. So today I made some space to address some of the arguments in more depth. And in particular to look at the points made by Michael Portillo and Anne McElvoy towards the programme’s end. 

For those who missed the episode - and yes it was pre-recorded so I got to watch the football - it focussed on this week's events on Brexit. It questionned whether they mean that our political system is broken. I was asked to talk about methods like citizens' assemblies and the contribution they could make to our democracy. You can listen to the programme here

Now to the panellists' arguments. 

Argument one 

Let’s start with a quote from Michael Portillo:

“Well I don’t think one needs to spend very much time or very much money finding out that people would like things to be free like social care. And I’m afraid that I find this almost infantile. It’s just so much to misunderstand what politics is about. Politics is about making choices. Not everybody wants tax to go up infinitely, some people want to be able to keep some of their own money to spend on their own things. . […] So to get a group of people together who simply want to say that they’d like to have free social care I think advances us not at all.”

It is true that on the Moral Maze the only thing I said about the Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care was that it recommended that social care be free at the point of use. However, that is very far from the only thing that the Assembly concluded. 

In fact, the central point of the Assembly was to decide how social care should be funded. Its participants were faced with exactly the choices that politics is all about. Should social care be free at the point of use and therefore publicly funded through higher taxes, or should it be paid for just by those individuals who need it? If it should be publicly funded, what should the mechanism be - inheritance tax, council tax, VAT, income tax, social insurance? Is inter- or intra- generational fairness more important? If it is paid for by individuals and their families, should there be a cap on how much individuals pay or should wealthier individuals pay very substantially more than less wealthy ones? And so on. 

You can read the Assembly’s clear, consistent and bold recommendations on all these points here. To give a taster, they suggested that social care is paid for through a new compulsory social insurance scheme payable by those aged 40 onwards, a general increase to income tax and/or an earmarked increase to income tax.

Where Michael is right is that not everybody wants tax to go up infinitely. The members of the Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care were representative of the English population not only in terms of demographics (age, gender, ethnicity, social class, place of residence), they were also representative in terms of their attitude towards whether the state should be large or small. In fact, there was a slight skew in the recruitment here, meaning that Assembly Members were slightly more in favour of a small state compared to the English population as a whole. This makes their decision that social care should be free at the point of use and therefore publicly funded through higher taxes even more interesting. To invert a phrase of Michael’s, I would argue that it advances us very much indeed. 

It is also worth noting how useful the Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care was to the select committees that commissioned it:

“If we are to ensure that the social care system of the future is sustainably funded and provides the high-quality care that people deserve, then any proposals must command not only a political consensus but also the support of the public. The views of those that took part in our citizens’ assembly have been vital in informing our thinking ….” 

– Clive Betts MP, chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

Many of the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care are reflected in the committees’ report - a report which committee members from across different parties felt able to unite behind. On an issue that has been as politically fraught as this one, this is no small feat. And it is one of the outcomes that citizens’ assemblies often achieve. They are excellent at opening up political space for a solution to issues that have become politically impossible. A vital contribution to our democracy. 

Argument two 

Anne McElvoy also expressed some concerns, albeit smaller ones. 

“Well I think it [the Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care] came up with some quite interesting ideas, I think it was more like a research project than anything else. And also the kind of people who are going to get involved in this are by definition atypical.”

“Look I just want to say one thing, I don’t mean to say it’s useless. I don’t want to talk down to it. I’m just saying I don’t think it’s the answer because once you’ve got all that data you can just look at it. You still have to go back into a big democratic process otherwise it’s not democracy.” 

Let me start with the point about it being a research project. Citizens' assemblies and methods like them do find out information. They explore the informed views of the public on key decisions facing our society. But I see this as a strength, not a weakness. These decisions - whether they be the shape Brexit should take, how to fund social care, what to do about climate change, or housing, or pensions - are going to affect people’s lives significantly for many, many years to come. Surely what the public would like to see happen is absolutely crucial input that politicians need to take into account when making their decisions. 

The problem has been how to do it. Opinion polls are not useful in this regard. They tell you people’s gut reaction to a question. But they don’t introduce people to the full complexity of decisions and their consequences beforehand. Nor do they usually tell decision-makers what people would trade off if they can’t have, for example, free social care and lower taxes. Methods like citizens’ assemblies that are now increasingly being used around the world don’t have these problems. They are an invaluable tool for decision-makers and offer the public a greater say over decision-making. 

It is this last point that distinguishes citizens' assemblies from research processes. When assemblies' are commissioned by parliaments, governments or public sector bodies they are a form of democratic engagement. They enable people to input directly into the decisions that affect their lives and make the trade-offs that are at the heart of our politics. 

Anne’s next point was that people who take part in these processes are by definition atypical. Let’s look at the participants of the Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care. They were, as I’ve already said, representative of the English population in terms of age, gender, social class, ethnicity, place of residence and attitudes towards a small and large state. They were also paid an incentive to attend the Assembly. This was partly to reward them fairly for the time they were giving up, but also to ensure that people who weren’t interested in the Assembly in and of itself were prepared to come along. Not so atypical. 

It is perhaps also instructive to compare these Assembly Members to politicians. Let’s look at MPs at Westminster. Of those elected in 2017, 68% were male, 92% were white, 98% were over the age of 30, 29% were privately educated and 23% went to Oxbridge.1 It is often the case that new democratic innovations are held up against standards that our current system does not meet. 

Anne’s final point was that methods like citizens’ assemblies are not the answer because you still need a “big democratic process” around them. At base, I think this is a question about what problem we’re trying to solve. 

Two key issues with our current political system are that decision-makers are struggling both to take decisions on key topics and to unite the country behind them - this week’s events on Brexit being very much a case in point. This contributes to people feeling like the system doesn’t work for them. And it helps fuel a lack of trust in, and a sense of alienation from, what people see as the political elite. 

If these are the problems, then processes like citizens’ assemblies are the answer. All across the world, they are helping to open up political space for solutions to be found - from social care in the UK, to abortion in Ireland, to budget deficits in Melbourne. And people accept their results. This is true of people who directly participate in the assemblies, who say that their conclusions were arrived at fairly no matter whether they agreed with them.2 It is also true of people who haven’t directly participated: people see Assemblies’ decisions as having the same or more legitimacy as decisions taken by politicians alone.3 In fact there is evidence from research around participatory budgeting that compliance with decisions improves if people see that they have been heavily informed by people like them.4 

Anne is, of course, right that citizens’ assemblies are not usually the ultimate decision-making body. They are often linked to representative decision-making or, sometimes, referendums. But why is that a problem? Why rip the system down and start again, if you can achieve a radical improvement in performance by adding to what’s already there.