The Spectator

Citizens’ assemblies are a dreadful idea


Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour party is a government-in-waiting desperately searching for ideas. It says much about the leader of the opposition that arguably the biggest proposal he’s put forward comes not from him but from his chief of staff, Sue Gray. She, it seems, is enthused about the idea of citizens’ assemblies, and wants more of them to look into issues such as constitutional reform, devolution and housing. That is one step on from Tony Blair’s focus groups, with randomly selected members of the public placed one step closer to power and adopting the role of government advisers.

So-called citizens’ assemblies are not an extension of democracy but an attempt to subvert it

Gray points to Ireland as a model, but a citizens’ assembly has in fact been tried before in Britain. In 2019 one was set up by parliamentary committee as a sop to the protest group Extinction Rebellion, which had demanded a citizens’ assembly on climate justice. The hundred members were lectured to by David Attenborough and a number of academics and asked to respond to the loaded question: how should the UK meet its commitment to reach net zero by 2050? They were not consulted on whether this was a sensible target, and neither were any members of the public – the policy itself had already been set into law after being nodded through the Commons without a vote.

When the assembly produced its report the following year, Extinction Rebellion was far from happy. The randomly selected members, it turned out, were not all environmental activists, even if they were keen for the government to take action on climate change. They didn’t want restrictions on car use or any curtailment of their lifestyles – save for a tax on frequent flyers. Rather, they wanted technology to help. Not that the assembly could help anyone solve the multiple technological issues which the net-zero target raised. The assembly did not reveal anything that opinion polls were not already showing. The report was effectively just popped in a drawer and left there.

The main achievement of the experiment, as with similar initiatives in Ireland on abortion and gay marriage, was to reveal the shortcomings of the whole concept. You can pick assembly members to be socially and economically representative of the population, but that doesn’t mean they will bring with them any particular expertise or have any ideas. And, unlike elected politicians, assemblies certainly won’t have any accountability.

But it is what happens after the selection process that is especially worrying. The temptation for those who set up the assemblies is to try to manipulate them to elicit the responses that they want. There are the crucial questions of who decides what evidence gets put before the assembly and who is invited to address it. In the case of the citizens’ assembly on climate justice, the addresses bordered on instruction rather than explanation. It is possible to see the attraction for a government trying to push through an unpopular policy: gather members of the public together, make your case, support it with your chosen evidence and then fool them into thinking they are making an independent and reasoned judgment. But who makes sure that the opposing points of view are represented? It isn’t hard to imagine how vested interests would seek to muscle their way into the process.

So-called citizens’ assemblies are not an extension of democracy, then, but an attempt to subvert it. The very name is fraudulent, because we already have an assembly which is made up of citizens chosen to represent the public. It is called the House of Commons. The difference is that in the latter case it is voters deciding who gets to sit there and there is no higher organisation setting out the terms of debate.

Not everyone in the Labour party is enamoured of Gray’s idea. It is also unclear to what extent Starmer shares her enthusiasm. Luke Akehurst, a member of the party’s National Executive Committee, has already called the assemblies a ‘stupid idea’. There is a tendency for opposition parties to dabble in experimental forms of democracy only to lose interest when they find themselves in power – as happened with David Cameron’s efforts to promote ‘localism’.

But if Starmer really is planning to try to delegate decision-making to citizens’ juries, it does prompt the question of why is he in politics at all. Why can’t he take the more traditional approach to government, in other words, present the public with a manifesto bursting with ideas, then invite voters to support him and his party on that basis?

The election campaign hasn’t officially started yet. To judge by what we have seen so far, however, Starmer is an empty vessel with very little idea of what he wants to achieve in power. He has spent much of his nearly four years as leader of the opposition in the necessary business of dismantling the Corbynite infrastructure, but he has not shown us what he wishes to construct in its place. He seems to be trapped in his former career, approaching the job of leader as would counsel for the prosecution. Tony Blair, of course, shared Starmer’s professional background, but he did seek to inspire. In a Starmer government, it seems, we could end up with focus groups and not much else.