ESRC-funded project has backing from figures across spectrum – from Remain’s Chuka Umunna and Nicky Morgan to Leave’s Suzanne Evans and Bernard Jenkin.
Citizens from across the UK are taking part in the first ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ on Brexit this weekend in Manchester, in a bid to put voters’ voices at the centre of the EU debate.
The Assembly brings together randomly-selected members of the public, recruited in collaboration with pollsters ICM, and designed to be broadly representative of the country. They will hear about the options for Brexit, hearing from both academics and campaigners from all sides of the debate – and making recommendations for what Brexit should look like in the final weekend.
The process is organised by leading academics at UCL’s prestigious Constitution Unit, in partnership with the University of Westminster’s Centre for the Study of Democracy, the University of Southampton, Involve, and the Electoral Reform Society.
Over two weekends this month (the 8 and 29 of September), citizens will focus on choices relating to trade and immigration – including how these choices will impact the economy, jobs, public services, and sovereignty.
Pollsters ICM say they have been ‘stunned’ by the levels of interest from the public: “We were expecting low level commitment, but over half of our 5,000 sample were interested in attending, and over a thousand confirmed they could and would like to attend,” Martin Boon, Director of ICM Research said.
Assembly members will learn about the options for Brexit, hearing from academics and experts from all sides of the debate, and discussing their own priorities, hopes and fears. Their deliberations will lead, at the second weekend, to recommendations for what Brexit should look like – as well as what UK negotiators should prioritise now in the face of different potential EU bargaining positions.
It has secured high-profile backing from across the so-called ‘Brexit divide’ – including Stephen Kinnock MP, Bernard Jenkin MP, Chuka Umunna MP, leading Brexit campaigners Harsimrat Kaur and John Mills, Britain Stronger in Europe Director Will Straw, UKIP’s Suzanne Evans, and senior Brexit expert and academic Anand Menon.
The project is part of the ESRC-funded ‘UK in a Changing Europe’ initiative, and is the first example of deep public deliberation on what form Brexit should take.
The recommendations will be written up in a final report and presented to key decision makers at a high-profile Westminster event.
Dr Alan Renwick, Principal Investigator, said: “With backing from across the political spectrum, and participants from all backgrounds and viewpoints, we hope the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit will make a major contribution to advancing public discussion of this country-changing process.
“The Assembly is the first real opportunity for citizens on all sides to engage in depth with the major questions around Brexit, which were largely missing from this year’s election campaign.
“Public engagement in major constitutional issues such as this shouldn’t end on polling day. This project is an exciting way of building on the public engagement we saw last year – and letting voters influence the ongoing Brexit debate.
“The referendum last June decided that the UK will leave the European Union, but debates during the campaign and since have given voters little opportunity to formulate – far less, express – clear views on the form they want Brexit to take. This Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit is designed to fill that gap.”
Nicky Morgan, Conservative MP for Loughborough, said: “Leaving the EU will have a great effect on the lives of the British people, and I know from the conversations I have had that people want to have their say on the terms of our withdrawal and our future partnership with the EU.
“Whilst of course MPs are able to represent their constituents’ views in Parliament, it is important that the public also have an opportunity to learn more about the options for Brexit from leading experts and campaigners, and discuss their ideas with their peers. Therefore, I am delighted to support the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit.”
Suzanne Evans, former Deputy Chair of UKIP, said: “Now that the British people have voted to leave the European Union – a cause I have championed for many years – it is time to ensure that people’s voices continue to be heard.
“The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, by providing all the information people need without the spin, is an ideal way of doing this. I fully support this project and look forward to hearing the recommendations of this cross-section of British society.”
Chuka Umunna, Labour MP for Streatham and founder of Vote Leave Watch, said: “As the representative of the most ‘Remain’ constituency in Britain and chair of Vote Leave Watch, I am a firm believer in the benefits of a close relationship with our European partners.
“Rather than pursuing a recklessly hard Brexit, this government needs to listen to what the people want and a citizens’ assembly is a great way of doing this. I am happy to support projects like this that attempt to bridge the great divides in British society.”
Bernard Jenkin, Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex, said: “I was a long-term critic of European political and monetary union, and opposed Maastricht and the subsequent treaties on the basis that the EU lacked democratic legitimacy, transparency and accountability.
“This is why I am delighted to support this Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit – where people will be given a chance to discuss the best way for the UK to leave the European Union.”
The project team already has expertise in running similar assemblies – including conducting the UK’s first assemblies on local devolution in Sheffield and Southampton in late 2015.
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.