When the people spoke

Observations on citizens' assemblies

Alan Milburn, Labour's election supremo, recently argued that citizens should no longer just be consulted; they should "get the chance to decide". And politicians in all major parties now profess commitment to active citizenship and democratic renewal.

But can it really work? Developments in the Canadian province of British Columbia suggest it can. British Columbia has a first-past-the-post electoral system. Should it ditch it and adopt proportional representation? The provincial legislature randomly selected 160 members of the public to form the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform with the power to decide.

The assembly members were given a year to consult and deliberate with their fellow citizens. Their final report proposes that the province should indeed adopt proportional representation. The government of British Columbia is now obliged to hold a referendum in May. For good measure, the assembly has "fine-tuned" the wording of the question.

This assembly is the first of its kind in the world, though another Canadian province, Ontario, has now set up a similar body to consider its electoral system. Uniquely, politicians in BC voluntarily gave up some of their powers and handed a major decision on a politically sensitive subject to "ordinary" people.

Not only that, but the subject was about as complicated as any political subject can be, thus giving the lie to the argument that direct democracy can work only with very simple questions. Contrast the assembly's performance (its work was done in less than a year) with Britain's prolonged and still incomplete attempts at Lords reform.

The assembly shows what can be done when decisions are taken outside conventional party politics. It also teaches us a thing or two about how to run a commission. Bodies involved in British inquiries, invariably made up of establishment figures, are always vulnerable to charges of bias and cronyism. Yet no one could make this charge against the citizens' assembly, which was chosen - in keeping with ancient democratic principles - by lot.

The assembly members congratulated politicians for keeping their noses out of its proceedings.

Clearly, not all decisions can be handed to an assembly, but the British government needs to get into the habit of asking itself: "Is this one we can hand back to the people?" Why not set up a citizens' assembly to resolve finally the issue of Lords reform - with which our supposedly admirable political system has struggled for nearly a century - or even to decide the future of pensions?

Guy Lodge is research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research

The chair of the British Columbia citizens' assembly will speak at the Canadian High Commission, 8 February