20 February 2024

Citizens’ assemblies are gone for now, but don’t hold your breath


One danger of a Labour government potentially returning is that there isn’t very much money to spend, and as a result it will start looking for other things to do – including tinkering with the constitution.

While Tony Blair managed to wreak huge damage during New Labour’s heyday, Sir Keir Starmer’s position is quite different. Constitutional change might cost peanuts in cash terms, but it can consume a lot of time and political capital he might not have to spare.

Thus, the reports that he is backing away from Lords reform following sharp warnings from Labour peers about the impact this will have on his legislative agenda, and the alleged coolness of the Shadow Cabinet towards Gordon Brown’s grandiose proposals to completely redesign the British state.

Yet over the weekend it looked as if Labour might have stumbled on another woeful innovation: citizens’ assemblies. Or, as Sue Gray apparently dubbed them, citizens’ juries. The arch-mandarin, now installed as Starmer’s chief of staff, apparently touted these as a way to ‘bypass Whitehall’ and achieve consensus on such thorny issues as devolution and Lords reform. 

This had not, apparently, been signed off by Labour HQ – and within 24 hours, Labour was officially distancing itself from the policy, not least because its own activists were demanding to know why Gray, and not Starmer, was apparently announcing party policy.

While the retreat is welcome, it is no guarantee that the idea won’t be revived if and when the pair are safely ensconced in Number 10. If nothing else, it could be a way to kick thorny constitutional policies, which greatly excite parts of the bubble but never the voters, into touch for a few years.

There is also an obvious populist (although it’s never called that when progressives do it) angle to getting the politicians out of the way and involving ordinary people, so-called, in the policymaking process.

At least this is the claim made of citizens’ assemblies (and presumably juries). But they do no such thing. In fact, they represent a big step backwards from the entire point of representative democracy, which is that voters can delegate the business of politics to MPs and hold politicians accountable for the conduct of government.

As I noted in an earlier piece, an assembly (or jury) suffers a huge defect compared to the House of Commons or any elected chamber, however deficient these might sometimes be: it exacerbates the imbalance of power between the popular element and the official one.

Ministers, regularly reshuffled, already struggle to bring sprawling departments under political control, having to learn from scratch in each new post what the civil servants know like the back of their hand. But they are at least experienced politicians. Likewise, MPs on select committees serve for years, and have the chance to gain experience conducting their own investigations.

Randomly-selected people do not have this baseline level of experience, and would thus be highly dependent on the officials tasked with facilitating their work. (As if Gray ever really intended to bypass ‘Whitehall’; ‘Westminster’ is another matter.)

Second, without the mutual support provided by parties there is no guarantee that even a politically diverse assembly would actually see all positions fairly reflected in its deliberations. Say what you like about the adversarial style of the Commons, but it is a safeguard against groupthink.

But the representational challenges actually run deeper even than that. Just like consultations in every other part of British life, an assembly will almost certainly end up as a playground for a self-selecting fraction of the population that is highly engaged with politics.

Consider Ireland, the example Gray cited in her interview. There, invitations to join this or that assembly are sent out to 20,000 randomly-selected residents. Those that express interest are sifted so that the final 99 person assembly is broadly representative of the country in terms of gender, age, geography, and socio-economic factors.

At first glance, this might seem fair enough. But several problems quickly present themselves.

First, the invitations are issued to residents, not citizens. This makes the assemblies something of a misnomer, but if applied here it would also mean giving a privileged position in the political process to people who aren’t part of the political nation. (Given Labour’s previous flirtation with breaking the link between citizenship and voting, this can’t be ruled out.)

Second, the actual randomisation only occurs at the point of the original invitation; it does not apply to the final group. Unlike actual jury service, for which any citizen can be called up, the Irish process trawls 20,000 prospective applicants but only actually chooses from whatever proportion actively volunteer to take part.

That immediately sorts for the motivated and the time-rich, especially as assembly members are not properly paid (a €500 gift voucher is offered ‘in recognition of their civic contribution’) and are expected to attend every meeting, which in practice means giving up a number of weekends and travelling to and from the venue.

It’s the same story on the other side of the process. Instead of the assembly convening and considering its course of investigation, external organisations and members of the public are invited to send contributions before the 99 are even selected. This again skews the process in favour of established campaigners and lobbyists, just as normal consultations do.

The idea that citizens’ assemblies (or juries) represent a way of involving ‘the public’ in politics was always facile: a hundred unelected people, even if perfectly demographically weighted, cannot and would not be a stand in for the nation; voters are no less able to send their views to existing public consultations and inquiries as to an assembly.

But in practice, these bodies lack even whatever legitimacy a genuine jury, actually randomly selected from the citizenry, might provide. It is thus no surprise that in Ireland to date, no citizens’ assembly has arrived at a conclusion that shocked Dublin’s political elite; Gray’s would not do so either.

By only recruiting volunteers – and improperly paid volunteers at that – it naturally selects for the activist minority, which is plenty engaged in politics already, and dresses them in the borrowed feathers of ‘the people’. 

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.