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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Why a Labour government may champion citizens' assemblies

11 min read

With Keir Starmer’s right-hand woman Sue Gray causing a stir with her public support of citizens’ assemblies, Sophie Church and Sienna Rodgers explore why a Labour government might champion deliberative democracy

Eight years ago in Ireland, 99 citizens, chosen at random, gathered to deliberate on abortion. Until then, politicians had struggled to tackle the issue head-on and come to a resolution. In 2018 the results of that citizens’ assembly were approved by referendum, decriminalising abortion in a historic change to the constitution.

Sue Gray, Keir Starmer’s enigmatic chief of staff and the daughter of Irish immigrants, said the once socially conservative Ireland was almost “unrecognisable” after using citizens’ assemblies to tease out solutions to perennially complex issues. Speaking to Starmer biographer Tom Baldwin, she endorsed the assemblies as a tool for Labour in government in the United Kingdom and noted that the party leadership was already working up plans for their use.

“What I’m trying to do now in opposition is establish our way of working so we can walk in and start delivering,” Gray said. “Even so, there’ll still be some departments who’ll struggle with that.” The former civil servant added: “Whitehall will not like this because they have no control.”

If done well, citizens’ assemblies and other democratic innovations like this should complement representative democracy rather than replace it

Eyebrows were raised among Labour MPs and staffers; it is, after all, highly unusual for a chief of staff to go on the record and promote new policies. As one senior insider remarked: “It’s quite unusual behaviour for someone in the leader’s office – normally they’re seen but not heard. It should be the politicians floating this stuff.”

Unsurprisingly, the Labour Party rowed back on Gray’s comments just over 12 hours after they were first published. But by then the ball was already rolling, with shadow health secretary Wes Streeting chiming in with the suggestion that ‘policy juries’ could be used to discuss assisted dying. 

Why did Gray make the intervention? Some suspect it was to assert her authority against the “boys’ club” in the leadership team; others say she was simply stating something she sincerely believes to someone she thought was without agenda. 

According to another senior Labour insider, the latter explanation is the correct one. “I don’t think Sue’s comments were part of a thought-through, intentional intervention. She doesn’t really talk to journalists, and she speaks her mind.”

Regardless of Gray’s motivations, she has revealed that citizens’ assemblies are being actively worked on by Starmer’s team. With Rachel Reeves, now shadow chancellor, said to have been the driving force behind a joint select committee assembly on net-zero in 2020, the assemblies could be delivered by experienced hands. So, do these democratic experiments have a future under Labour? 

Miriam Levin, director of participatory programmes at Demos, points out that Labour’s backtracking from Gray’s comments was weak. “I don’t think they did row back terribly far,” she says. “They questioned it; they will rightly ask questions; they want to see why it is going to work, if it is going to work and want to know the proof – and I think that is entirely reasonable.” 

Fans of the ‘deliberative wave’ – as the OECD terms the citizens’ assembly movement – say giving the public the chance to debate the trade-offs involved in weighty topics such as constitutional reform, housing and assisted dying can rebuild trust in British democracy. 

“Any political adviser who’s thinking about what the future holds and how the party is going to govern needs to be thinking about all the possible ways that it can tackle the huge, huge crises that are facing the country,” says Levin, who was not surprised by Gray’s comments. 
“To me it’s completely right that she’s thinking about citizens’ assemblies as one of the tools that you could use to bring citizens into those conversations.” 

Other countries are implementing deliberative processes successfully. In Gdansk, Poland, assemblies have produced recommendations that were enacted and considered to be effective on, for instance, flood mitigation. In Taiwan, the government has embraced digital deliberative democracy via online platforms such as vTaiwan, where citizens discuss topical issues from Uber regulation to e-scooters.

Sometimes the Labour debate can be a bit facile. People just say they’re for or against them. What matters is when and how to use them

In the UK, citizens’ assemblies have been used by independent bodies such as the University College London’s Constitution Unit, which held one on Brexit in 2017, and by local councils, including Oxford. Other forms of deliberative democracy have also been put into practice, with the NHS setting up the NHS Citizen project and using policy co-design, inviting service users in to help improve care. Assemblies aren’t the only option available to government.

While 733 citizens’ assemblies have taken place worldwide to date, they remain experimental and therefore risky. When the former taoiseach Leo Varadkar resigned last month, some said citizens’ assemblies were partly to blame, as they had prompted two failed referendums – one concerning the constitution’s statement on the role of women in the home; the other on the definition of family – held shortly before his departure. 

David Farrell, politics professor at University College Dublin, attributes the “referendum debacle” in Ireland to a failure by the government to properly honour the findings of the citizens’ assembly.

“The government effectively rejected the wording that both the citizens’ assembly and the parliament had proposed,” Farrell explains. “The government just came with their own wording, and that was one of the big things where their referendum campaign came unstuck.”

Farrell says a similar error was made by the Macron government in France, which was accused of failing to bring the findings of a climate change citizens’ assembly into legislation despite having promised to do so.

Sue Gray (Credit: Ian Davidson / Alamy Stock Photo)
Sue Gray (Credit: Ian Davidson / Alamy Stock Photo)

Will Labour be looking at the Irish example with wariness? “I hope not. I really hope not,” sighs Miriam Levin. “I think the whole thing was badly handled and badly done.” 

Farrell, who has also advised on citizens’ assemblies in the UK, Ireland and Belgium, similarly hopes Labour will not let Ireland’s experience put the party off. “I guess there’s a risk because linguistically and historically we’d be a natural place to look at,” he says, adding that he hopes Labour will look to other examples abroad and “see the potential for citizens’ assemblies that could operate in all sorts of ways”.

There are citizens’ assembly sceptics who highlight failures closer to home, however. In 2019, Oxford was proud to become the first UK city to deliver an assembly on climate change. Participants concluded that private car use should be discouraged; the highly controversial policy of low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) followed.

Critics argue the Oxford assembly was used to secure a mandate for anti-car policies, which have since caused Labour political problems. As one unhappy local Labour source puts it: “It’s enabled us to turn all our safe Labour seats with large [proportions of minority ethnic and working-class voters] into defensive marginals against anti-LTN independents.”

Another risk to citizens’ assemblies was one acknowledged by Gray: the potential clash with Whitehall. Reflecting on the 2020 UK climate assembly, one Labour MP involved says ministers welcomed the findings but treated the exercise as a flash-in-the-pan experiment more than a new feature in our political process.

“They responded to it, but how well they implemented the outcomes of the report into their policymaking process, I’m not so sure,” the MP says. “I’m not sure how long it really stuck in terms of Whitehall decision-making.” 

According to Barry Gardiner, Labour MP for Brent North, citizens’ assemblies have failed to take hold in the UK due to the “arrogance of politicians” who do not want to see their opinions challenged. He hopes this attitude would shift if Labour were in power.

“A genuinely transformative Labour government would actually mean we are not about hoarding power to ourselves. We don’t want to control people. We want to free them up to live lives that are much more active and open and democratic. That’s got to be the mission of the Labour government. And it’s that, I think, that someone like Sue Gray has seen.”

But would Labour really give away power after waiting a long 14 years to win it back? This is the question typically asked by those who doubt Labour will really use assemblies for national policymaking, such as Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. 

“Governments are, for want of a better term, control freaks. Unless it’s an issue which is just too hot for them to handle but they know needs a decision, I think they would always prefer to retain control of the process,” Bale says.

“In some ways, that’s even more the case when you’re coming in and you’re worried about public spending and taxation. The fear might be that whatever is proposed might gain some kind of momentum and might force you into spending money that goes against the grain of the way you’re trying to present yourself – in other words, a safe pair of hands on the economy.”

Labour Together director Josh Simons queries the premise of that critique. “Is it giving away power? You’re not creating some sort of constitutional court that can stop the government doing what it wants,” he says.

“It can be a political way of making a decision that requires the consent of a certain group of people for the policy to actually work. The political opportunities that it opens up for the politicians are much more important than any enduring legitimacy it could get for that policy.”

Bale is not wholly convinced that it is possible to guarantee such political safety. “These things can spin out of control of those organising them. It would be brave to assume that you can get the outcomes that you necessarily want from a citizens’ assembly. And even if you do try to do that, you then risk accusations that you’ve rigged it.”

Some are concerned about how citizens’ assemblies could be used by politicians who want to distance themselves from difficult decisions. Conservative MP for Peterborough Paul Bristow responded to Gray’s support for assemblies by saying the idea “allows those MPs who are desperate to be liked to palm off responsibility”.

Suzanne Hall, director of engagement at King’s College London, says this view misunderstands citizens’ assemblies. “I don’t think it’s as much as fobbing work off on to other people or delegating. It doesn’t have to be one or the other; it’s not a binary choice. If done well, citizens’ assemblies and other democratic innovations like this should complement representative democracy rather than replace it.” 

Citizen assemblies

Barry Gardiner believes the assemblies would strengthen democratic processes at a time when the quality of debate in the House of Commons is declining. “The chamber of the House of Commons has ceased to be a chamber of debate,” the Labour MP declares. “I just think we’ve lost the art of discussion. We’ve lost the art of listening to each other.”

Assemblies, he says, would foster “a grown-up way of doing politics” as they resemble “the sort of society we should aspire to: one where rational, intelligent, serious people come together and accept that they have differences, but want to overcome those differences by learning more about each other’s position, perhaps more about their own position, and reaching a consensus”.

Choosing the right subject for assemblies is key to the debate. According to Sue Gray, the Labour leadership is exploring their use for constitutional questions such as UK devolution or on housebuilding. 

Gardiner is optimistic about their ability to help resolve the housing crisis. “What I’d love to see – oh my goodness would I love to see it – I’d love to see us talk about housing,” he says. “Why do we talk about building houses? Why don’t we talk about building communities?
“There’s no point in building houses unless you build the infrastructure to go with them… And yet the debate in Parliament is never about building communities. It’s always about the numbers of houses and whether they’re affordable.”

Graham Allen, a former Labour MP, and a well-respected voice as convenor of the Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy group, says there are “a lot of people” both inside and outside of Parliament pinpointing assisted dying as a suitable topic.

Josh Simons says the debate within Labour around citizens’ assemblies is often too simplistic. “A lot more thinking needs to be done about what they’re for and what kinds of things they need to be used for. Sometimes the Labour debate can be a bit facile. People just say they’re for or against them. What matters is when and how to use them.”

The Labour Together director suggests assemblies would be most useful for subjects that concern public health or behaviour where the policy solution only works if people comply, such as a smoking ban, whereas social care – proposed as an assembly topic by Wes Streeting – is perhaps better suited to a royal commission. 

Whatever the chosen topics, as a general election draws nearer, there is a sense of hope among advocates of citizens’ assemblies that – despite Labour slightly walking back Sue Gray’s bold comments – the time has come for their serious use at a national level in the UK. 

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