Can giving power to the people rebuild trust in politics?
Citizens Assemblies are putting decision-making in the hands of ordinary people. Newham has become the first local authority in England to launch a permanent citizen’s assembly – here’s what five people on the assembly thought of their new found power.
Newham Council’s citizens assembly is the first in England to be run permanently by a local authority. Image: Newham Council
Whether it be Brexit, Covid-19 or the climate crisis, trust in politicians and the leaders of today is widely considered to have plummeted in recent times. This week’s furious reaction to the national insurance tax rise is a clear indication of the disconnect between the ordinary person and those in power.
Citizens assemblies represent a new way to hand power back to the people. They see citizens selected at random from the population to learn about an issue, which they then debate and make recommendations upon. Although leaders still get to choose whether they act on the assembly’s findings, the purpose is to rebuild broken trust, boost transparency and redistribute power.
I wanted to be part of a global movement to reverse that diminishing trust
Mayor of Newham Rokhsana Fiaz
It’s an idea that has become a core to those looking to upset the apple cart, to change the status quo. Extinction Rebellion’s demand for a citizens assembly on climate and ecological justice has been a long-standing one.
The independence-chasing Scottish government, too, has been supportive of giving citizens their say. Scottish citizens have already held an assembly to decide the future path of the country and the country’s climate assembly ran between November 2020 and March 2021. More assemblies are on the way – first minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a citizens assembly on local government funding and council tax in this week’s Programme for Government.
But one council in England is going beyond the issue by issue basis for their own communication with residents. Newham Council became the first local authority in the country to introduce a permanent citizens assembly in July.
The idea, Newham mayor Rokhsana Fiaz told The Big Issue, was borne out of a need to reconnect local residents with both the council and the wider political machinations in Westminster.
“Residents would verbalise a theme to me in the ward that I represented that the council was so distant and removed from the aspirations, the desires, the needs of residents and there was a real sense of trust having been broken,” said Fiaz who was elected into the role in 2018.
“My experience of politics and as a citizen of this country, notwithstanding my role as a social activist campaigner and a politician over recent years has been conscious of the diminishing trust.
“That’s not only here in the UK, but the world over between governments and citizens, and authorities and people. And I wanted to be part of a global movement to reverse that.”
As well as boosting participation in democracy, citizens assemblies are also intended to boost wellbeing, bringing them in line with another campaigner trying to shake up the status quo – Big Issue founder Lord John Bird.
Lord Bird’s Future Generations Bill, like similar efforts in Wales and Scotland, is trying to banish short-term thinking in politics to tackle long-term issues like poverty and climate change beyond the five-year government cycles in place in Westminster.
It’s an acknowledgement that politics needs to change, according to Fiaz.
She added: “The bill that’s being promoted by Lord Bird is very much responsive to a general acknowledgement by both national government, different political parties, as well as local. There needs to be a different way in a different method and different pathways of involvement. But in a way, that’s just not a tick box exercise.”
Newham intends to become a “blueprint” for other local authorities with the permanent citizens assembly.
The council picked 50 residents from across the borough at random to focus on the question of ways to make the borough greener after the top came out on top in a public vote. The council and cabinet will give a formal public response to each of the assembly’s recommendations in the autumn.
Next on the agenda this winter is the ‘15-minute neighbourhood’ – the idea that everything a resident needs should be within 15 minutes of travel time, whether it be work, healthcare or leisure.
But how did the people feel about the summer’s citizens assembly in Newham? The Big Issue spoke to five people who sat on the assembly. Here are their views:
Constance Friedlin, architect, 45: ‘It’s readjusting the council to be closer to the people’
“I actually think we all need to contribute to what is going on around us. It’s my duty as a citizen. My background is German and because of our history, my parents taught me that someone who is not participating in democracy is supporting the right wing. Someone who’s not voting in an election is voting for the parties of the right. So that’s why I think it’s important to take part in such opportunities.
“I actually really enjoyed the citizens assembly. It was really interesting to get to know all these different people from different backgrounds, living in different situations and at different levels, or stages in their life. You got to know people you normally wouldn’t get to know. Yeah. That was really, really refreshing.
“I think it is quite important so the council know what the people are thinking and what needs to be done. And to be more engaged with the little people who are not so into politics they had lost touch with. Now they are readjusting themselves to be closer to the people who are electing them.”
Peter Curtis, 66, retired IT manager: ‘Whether the citizens assembly is a waste of time or useful depends on the council’
“The citizens assembly has actually improved my understanding of the council a little bit, because when you’ve seen several people behind the scenes you get a better idea of what problems they’re coming up against. And you understand the fact that they’re not just there because they want the job. They’re there because they want to do the job and that’s a big difference. So when I look at the council again I’m a bit more positive on what they’re doing.
“I think from the council’s point of view even if not very much happens because of financial problems they’ve certainly done themselves a big favor. I think on the whole the group itself was actually quite positive about the initiatives that the council has taken. But, strictly speaking, whether it turns out to be a waste of time or very useful, it depends upon what the council does with the information they’ve got.”
Sharmin Moncy, 35, working mum: ‘The citizens assembly is an opportunity to do something for my area’
“I’m a person who likes to have a new experience to meet new people and see what’s happening around the area. I didn’t expect to be selected but this is an opportunity to do something for Newham. I moved to this country in 2014 and I think this is an opportunity to see what they would like me to do for the borough. I’m a mum of two so I was thinking why not improve Newham for my kids if they are giving me the chance to speak up. I think other areas should bring in a permanent citizens assembly because in this way, all the people and all the citizens have the same feeling and choose to feel equal to others.”
Adnan Khan, 37, licencing manager Transport for London: ‘This is proactive, not reactive’
“The main reason I wanted to get involved was because it seemed like a democratic process of making my opinion count, to improve the area that I live in. It seems like it could also impact on how the council leaders are making their policies and how they’re prioritising what issues to focus on as they are calculating with the budget cuts from the central government.
“In recent years, we have seen even in other European countries where climate change has really affected people’s lives, even in places like rural communities. Having this process would enable them to have conversation before a disaster strikes and to put measures in place. It would be proactive, not reactive.”
Osman Mohamed, 44, customer search advisor, Transport for London: ‘A great opportunity to be part of the change’
“If I don’t use my own voice and speak up for myself then who will do it? Instead of listening to someone else, being part of the assembly is a great opportunity to be part of the change.
“To me, just seeing so many different people from different categories in life all talking about the same issue, the same problem, and deciding how to make change can only make the situation better for all of us.”
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