Viewpoint: The significance of Parliament’s Citizens Assembly on net zero
By Dr Matthew Lockwood, Senior Lecturer in Energy Policy, SPRU
20th June 2019
The announcement today from six House of Commons Select Committees that they are to hold a Citizens Assembly (CA) on how we might achieve a pathway to net zero emissions is a major step. The move is clearly inspired by (and made under pressure from) the upsurge of activism on climate change – school strikes, Extinction Rebellion protests, the resurgence of the Green New Deal and the declaration by numerous institutions, including Parliament, of a ‘climate emergency’ (as well as a bit of encouragement from IGov’s Dr Becky Willis).
I would argue that the Select Committees holding a CA is particularly important in the UK context. Our first-past-the-post electoral system has long worked in favour of a two-party system with a high degree of political competition; in the words of political theorist Arendt Lijphart: ‘the Westminster model sets up a government-versus-opposition pattern that is competitive and adversarial.’ As a result, Britain has never done cross-party deliberation or negotiation well (as the recent Conservative-Labour Brexit talks showed). Under these circumstances, when it came to trying to get commitment to a long-term direction for climate policy, there was a logic to delegating key decisions to a more technocratic body, insulated from short-term political pressures. This was indeed the approach we took back in 2008 with the creation of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). There was cross-party support for the Climate Change Act, but a lot of this was due to David Cameron’s strategy at the time of seeking to ‘de-toxify’ the Tory brand through the climate change issue (remember ‘hug a husky’?) and was never as deep as is sometimes claimed retrospectively.
The CCC has done an impressive job to date, but it has always been limited in how far it can build any kind of societal consensus for action on its own, because of its remit and technocratic nature. It has relied on constituencies in civil society and business to build support for its recommendations, and indeed sometimes to press the government to follow the Act.
Now, with a step change in effort required by net zero, the limits of the technocratic delegation approach are really becoming clear. The Committee on Climate Change itself recognises this issue, with more public engagement forming part of its recommendations. That is why creating a space for public deliberation that is not just technical is so important, as IGov argued back in 2017.
But today’s announcement also raises some interesting questions about what is happening to the British political system. Support for the two main political parties is in long term decline, and we have now had coalition and minority government for seven of the last nine years. Since the European elections we seem to have slipped into a four-party system. British politics is beginning to resemble that of Continental European countries with proportional representation (PR) systems, even in spite of our voting system. One of the key aspects of politics under PR is the importance of parliamentary committees as arenas for cross-party deliberation, as demonstrated by American political scientist G. Bingham Powell. In the UK, it is widely recognised that Select Committees have become more independent and more influential since 2010, and the CA announcement is a sign of this new kind of confidence. Ironically, just as we may be leaving Europe, it seems our politics is becoming more and more European.