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22 February 2024

Labour's citizens' assembly plan is to be welcomed – but more is needed to rebuild trust

Suzanne Hall

It could go some way to addressing widespread dissatisfaction with day-to-day politics

Crowd of people

“True democracy is citizen-led!” shouted Yaz Ashmawi as he invaded the stage during Sir Keir Starmer’s speech at the Labour party conference last year, covering the leader in a handful of green glitter.

Shortly after, a new group called People Demand Democracy issued a statement calling for a “House of Citizens” that would force politicians to listen to people, create meaningful change in the economy and fix inequality.

At the time, more attention was paid to how Starmer dealt with a difficult situation than what was being demanded of the party. Yet less than six months later, and despite some back tracking from some sections of the party, it seems Labour might be taking calls to listen to the people seriously.

This week Sue Gray, Starmer’s Chief of Staff, suggested that, if elected, a Labour government would run citizens’ assemblies to determine policies – including on contentious issues such as devolution, where new housing should be built, and constitutional reform.

According to the Times, the hope is that this approach can help “overcome the country’s institutional inertia and build consensus on issues often left unresolved because of the confrontational nature of politics.”

Wes Streeting, Shadow Health Secretary has backed the proposal, while Douglas Alexander, Labour’s candidate for East Lothian, has long been an advocate for these approaches. At an event hosted by the Policy Institute last year, he spoke about how “politics is not a spectator sport” and deliberative approaches, including but not limited to citizens’ assemblies, are just one way to better involve the people in decision-making.

More thinking like this is to be welcomed, because there are clear signs that the current model we have is not working. Our World Values Survey analysis shows it’s not that we have a problem with democracy in principle – around nine in 10 Britons think it’s a good way of governing the country, up from around three-quarters two decades ago. Instead, it’s democracy in practice – how we experience politics and government on a day-to-day basis – that’s the problem.

Only one in six are highly satisfied with how the country’s political system is functioning right now – half the proportion who are dissatisfied. Or, if you look at it another way, we’re on a par with the people of Russia on this measure.

With its roots in ancient Athens, deliberative democracy is the theory that political decisions should be a result of fair and reasonable discussion among citizens. Processes like citizens’ assemblies do this by bringing together a diverse group of people, often randomly selected, to listen to credible and balanced expert information. Giving them the time to debate the issues and trade-offs with one another in facilitated discussions can lead to more legitimate outcomes and more engaged and informed participants.

One of the most successful – and certainly one of the highest-profile – examples in recent years has been the Irish citizens’ assembly on constitutional reform, which paved the way for the referendum on abortion. The people listened to the recommendation made by assembly members and voted for change. But there have been countless other deliberations and dialogues run on issues as diverse as human genome editing, assisted dying, democracy and the climate crisis.

And there’s interest in these approaches too. A survey by UCL’s Constitution Unit found that while awareness of citizens’ assemblies is generally low, when they were explained to respondents, half said they would support having them as part of how the UK decides difficult political issues, compared with around one in six who were against.

This is going to be one challenge: communicating the enormous potential of these approaches and being clear on what they can and can’t do, and when they should and shouldn’t be used, will be key if they’re to help build trust in our political system. Which is why some of the tone of the reporting on Labour’s announcement was so disappointing.

Citizens’ assemblies won’t “bypass Whitehall”, and neither will the civil service be “losing control”. Concerns have also been raised as to whether they will pave the way for “consensus laundering” or be used to give politicians cover when making unpopular decisions by giving the outcomes the veneer of public support.

These are legitimate risks, and it will be essential that, if Labour's proposal is taken forward, the party learns from the lessons of those who have been working in this field – in academia, in local authorities, and in the commercial sector in the UK and abroad – and take on board good-practice examples, which are readily available. Because when done well, they confer legitimacy on tough decisions that affect people’s lives – because the public can look at these processes and see that someone like them had their say.

Many organisations all over the UK are grappling with the huge opportunities afforded by these approaches, and much good work is being done. Perhaps most hopefully, thousands of people up and down the country are giving up hours of their time (and if properly incentivised, as they should be, then not just the usual suspects with time on their hands) to come together with others from different backgrounds and with opposing points of view, to get informed about complex issues, to deliberate respectfully with one another, and to make decisions for the common good.

And while there are certainly improvements we can and need to make about how we design and run these events, they represent a tried and tested way that we can revitalise our democracy. In 2024, more than 2 billion people will go to the polls – a process that will further expose the fault lines that exist in relation to the health of our politics. That’s why it’s time to start thinking about how we do democracy differently. The OECD has referred to it as the “deliberative wave” – catch it while you can.

Suzanne Hall is Director of Engagement at the Policy Institute, King’s College London.

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