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‘Starmer Should Ignore the Westminster Pearl-Clutching: Why Labour is Right to Look at Citizens’ Assemblies’

It’s time for politicians to show leadership and give away some power, writes Compass’ Frances Foley

Members of Parliament’s citizens’ assembly on climate change at their first weekend of discussions in Birmingham in January 2020. Photo: Fabio De Paola/PA/Alamy

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It’s become the cue for every citizens’ assembly advocate to down their drink whenever they hear a politico grumble ‘we have a citizens’ assembly – it’s called Parliament’.

This cry – whether from outlets like the Spectator or from keyboard warriors – can always be predicted whenever the prospect of a citizens’ assembly raises its head.

But a citizens’ assembly is a far cry from a system centred on political parties, where members are not demographically representative of the UK population, competition abounds, and individuals are whipped to hold the party line. 

In fact, the irony of this response, one steeped in party political culture, is that citizens’ assemblies represent an answer – even an antidote – to Parliament’s limitations. Randomly selected citizens, demographically balanced to be a mirror of the UK population are convened to reason collectively, to consider expert evidence and to have deep, thoughtful discussions which should arrive at complex, nuanced decisions for the long term. As such, they’ve been called ‘democracy under good conditions’.

So the news this week that Labour (via Chief of Staff Sue Gray) is open to introducing citizens’ assemblies for the biggest, most complex concerns of our time – housebuilding, House of Lords reform and devolution – should be applauded.

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As citizens’ assemblies have proliferated across the world – from Brazil to Australia to France – public awareness of them has grown too.

Dispelling the myth that they represent some kind of wacky democratic experiment, they have been credited with tackling some of the toughest political and ethical questions – such as abortion, AI, hate crime and nuclear power –generating balanced and often surprising solutions, and most importantly restoring a level of trust in citizens’ ability to find common ground.

They have established themselves as a tried-and-tested tool in our democratic arsenal. Those who believe they still have to prove themselves simply haven’t been paying attention. 

However, based on my research into their effectiveness in the UK, there are three important risks that the Labour Party must avoid if it is to conduct meaningful and powerful citizens’ assemblies.

The first is that they can fail when there is a lack of buy-in from the political body that sets them up. Politicians who commit to handing over a salient issue to a citizens’ assembly must prepare to receive their carefully crafted proposals, to respond seriously to them, and to involve citizens in the process.

It is right for leaders to have a view on the issues: they have been elected with particular principles and policies in mind, and they shouldn’t simply enact the proposals without scrutiny. But, unless and until they are prepared to cede a measure of control to the participants, and to promise to take action as a result, they risk doing more harm than good by alienating citizens and cementing a view that politicians don’t take citizens seriously. 

Secondly, Labour must think carefully about how the issues it selects for review – such as House of Lords and devolution – are deeply enmeshed in other democratic and constitutional dilemmas.

I spent a year trying to design a Constitutional Convention (a citizens’ assembly convened to examine constitutional issues) and one of the trickiest design conundrums was how to both limit the scope of the convention so it didn’t become unwieldy, while admitting how closely interwoven these questions are.

For example, questions about the upper chamber – particularly after former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s proposal for a Senate of the Region and Nations – lead to further questions about the status of devolution: how will the UK be carved up, how will regions be defined, and who will be able to represent them?

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And it is very difficult to address either House of Lords reform (with a proposed Senate elected by a proportional voting system) or devolution (which inevitably asks us to look at constituencies and representational imbalance) without looking square in the face of electoral reform.

This could be done through delicate sequencing of debates (the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK handled this admirably) or by looking at them all in the round at a Constitutional Convention.

Labour Together’s own polling in fact found that key Labour voters placed reform of the voting system as highest on their list of democratic reform priorities (citizens’ assemblies came second). It seems they may not accept it being shut out of the scope of a citizens’ assembly. 

Finally, there is the legitimate criticism that a citizens’ assembly involves a tiny number of citizens, no matter how representative, to make decisions of some gravity. To address this concern, and get more democratic bang for your buck, they should precipitate a lively national conversation about the topics at hand so that citizens across the UK feel drawn into the discourse.

This might look like a large-scale public event to kick off the process, coupled with a roadshow that toured the country, picking up proposals and taking the temperature across the regions and nations. It might sound expensive, but the opportunity for the entire country to participate in this democratic experiment would be invaluable, and would provide a sense of proximity to the citizens’ assembly process – making the longevity of its decisions more likely.

The advantages of going big would also present the chance for experiential political education around deliberative democracy more generally – to sweep away some of the misconceptions about citizens’ assemblies and plant a flag for future deliberative processes.

These benefits were seen in Ireland, with its series of citizens’ assemblies examining the constitution – from everything to the much-celebrated citizens’ assemblies on abortion and equal marriage, to those looking at women’s place in society and on climate change.

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What might have been a small-scale, contained process that only affected participants grew into a moment of national renewal in Ireland which addressed profound questions about its place in the world and the kind of country it wanted to be. Perhaps this is not what Labour has in mind – but there are many reasons why 2025 is an auspicious time to launch that conversation. 

If some of this sounds too ambitious, too big, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the crisis of politics is fundamentally a crisis of democracy. UK democracy is at a profoundly low ebb, with record levels of distrust and alienation, and a public ground down to believe that nothing really ever changes.

Citizens’ assemblies are not the only answer, but they embody a lot of what democracy needs: more citizens involved in taking power, demonstrating a different way of doing politics and making decisions, creating collaborative solutions to collective problems, and renewing their democratic faith in each other.

And while critics might rail on social media that citizens’ assemblies are an ‘abdication of politicians’ responsibility’, I would counter that the basic problem is that citizens don’t trust politicians. Much is needed to be done to restore this trust, but one of the first steps is showing that politicians trust citizens.

As a show of strength, confidence and investment in our democratic future, what could be more powerful than that? 

Frances Foley is deputy director of the cross-party group Compass

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