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The Brexit lottery

Like all referendums, the ‘Brexit’ vote will be a lottery. Why not go the whole hog and take the decision by lot?

On June 23, Britain will go to the polls to decide whether or not the country should remain a member of the European Union. David Cameron’s in–out referendum on EU membership is, ostensibly, about finding out what the people want. But there is a better, and more democratic, way.

Britain has voted before on the question of EU membership but, judging from the press coverage, it seems many pundits and public figures are concerned that an emotional and uneducated public will give the ‘wrong’ answer this time. Back in 2013, and again in 2014, Peter Mandelson complained that the prime minister’s plans to go to the public on the matter were misguided.

Referendums are swayed by irrelevant issues, are “very blunt instruments” and the outcome would be “a lottery”, he said. In a sense, Lord Mandelson is right – the experience of countries like Ireland, where referendums are commonplace, suggests that they are often used to give the government of the day a kicking, rather than deal with the issue at hand. And yet a different kind of lottery could be more representative of public opinion than a referendum vote.

If one takes the prime minister’s claim that the decision is up to the people of Britain at face value, then the question is: how can the decision procedure be sharpened up? We need a more reliable mechanism to allow the people to make an informed decision on such an important issue as EU membership.

One option would be a public enquiry with a large representative jury selected by lot. Public inquiries have, on the whole, a good track record – the Hutton Inquiry being praised for its balanced and open proceedings. The problem was the lack of democratic participation, as there was no jury to determine the outcome.

The inquiry verdict (BBC guilty) was left to a Lord Justice who had cut his teeth in Northern Ireland’s jury-free Diplock courts and whose conclusions were coloured by his anti-media prejudice. The Leveson Inquiry can be criticised along similar lines, but its main flaw was the continental ‘examining magistrate’ inquiry protocol.

Although the press was on trial (again), there was no counsel for the defence and Leveson decided the outcome himself (with a little help from Hacked Off). How different both inquiries might have been if they had followed standard Anglo-Saxon judicial procedure – adversarial exchanges followed by a jury verdict.

Why not adopt this approach as an alternative to a referendum? There is nothing new about the juristic approach to policy-making. In 403 BC the Athenians, the inventors of democracy, established a system of legislative courts, and every new law had to run the gauntlet of adversarial debate in front of a jury of several hundred citizens selected by lot. The decision of the jury was deemed to represent the considered view of the entire citizen body.

Although Aristotle was hostile to democracy he praised this ‘wisdom of crowds’, concluding that, under the right conditions, ‘the many’ (hoi polloi) judge certain matters better than individuals or groups of experts.

The truth of his claim was demonstrated mathematically in 1785 by the Marquis of Condorcet in his ‘Jury Theorem’, which proved that a jury is increasingly likely to converge on the ‘right’ answer as its numbers increase (assuming balanced advocacy, secret voting and a minimal competence threshold).

And there is a wealth of modern research showing that the ‘cognitive diversity’ produced by large randomly-selected juries is the best way to decide important issues. Election, by contrast, selects people of similar backgrounds (lawyers, Oxbridge PPEs, and policy wonks) who are often victims of ‘groupthink’. But referendums, as Mandelson pointed out, are a shot in the dark.

Random selection generates a ‘mini-public’ that represents the entire population ‘descriptively’ – a sample of just a few hundred would proportionately reflect the age, gender, political leanings and socio-economic composition of the country. And this is not just a matter for classicists, political theorists and statisticians – Stanford University’s James Fishkin has conducted practical experiments with decision-making by citizen juries for over twenty years.

Fishkin’s ‘Deliberative Polls’ show that ordinary citizens can competently judge complex issues after receiving balanced advocacy and deliberating for a couple of days. The success of these experiments has led Fishkin to claim that “the microcosm offers a proxy for what would happen if everyone discussed the issues and weighed competing arguments under similarly favourable conditions.”

So why not just provide balanced information and advocacy to all voters before a referendum? The problem is ‘rational ignorance’: it makes no sense for voters to take the time and effort to inform themselves properly as their individual vote makes no difference to the outcome. Not so with a representative jury where every vote really does count.

Fishkin’s polls have mostly been advisory; the only time the results were automatically adopted was in China. In 2005 the Communist Party in Zeguo province commissioned a random sample of 235 citizens to decide infrastructure priorities. Even though the preferences of the citizen jury were radically different from its own, the party leadership implemented them, leading Fishkin to salute the Chinese for developing a new model of democracy that “may set an example for public consultation around the world”.

If we don’t want to be outdone by China in democracy, as well as everything else, we would do well to look seriously at these experiments, and it’s a shame we didn’t start with an issue as important as Brexit. Referendums can reflect poorly-informed preferences – much better to assemble a representative ‘mini-public’ and allow it to weigh the competing arguments on our behalf.

No doubt political jury service would be as tedious as its judicial equivalent, but those of us who don’t receive a jury summons can happily leave matters in the hands of our proxies, confident that the majority decision would have been the same if we had ourselves participated.

About the author

Keith Sutherland is a researcher on random selection in politics at the University of Exeter. His books The Rape of the Constitution? and A People’s Parliament are published by Imprint Academic.

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