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Gray’s Assembly: What are the prospects for Labour’s new frontiers in public engagement?

A month ago the erstwhile Civil Service inquisitor and party-buster Sue Gray, now Keir Starmer’s Chief of Staff, revealed that as part of the Labour party’s pre-election pitch plans were being worked on for citizens assemblies to deal with national issues such as constitutional reform, housing and devolution. Whilst citizens’ assemblies are enjoying something of a time in the sun, it was the first time anyone operating at the top tier of politics in the UK had advocated them as a solution to the problems of modern Britain.

Whilst the election is still not likely to happen until autumn, it would take a seismic shift in the polls for Labour not to be the presumptive next government, so far from being an idealistic declaration of intent, the proposals warrant consideration as to what such an assembly might look like, what the challenges would be, and whether this might herald further changes of approach to public engagement within the UK.

The example pointed to by Gray as the model for the Labour proposals was “The Citizens’ Assembly” in the Republic of Ireland, first established in 2016 and ultimately resulting in a constitutional amendment to permit regulation of abortion. The assembly has subsequently gone on to consider fixed-term parliaments, climate change and referendums.

It’s structured as a 100-member body (1 chair and 99 random citizens selected to be representative of Irish society). Participants are selected by a polling company, and paid expenses. The Assembly has a secretariat from the civil service, and meets on weekends to discuss the relevant issues, hear from experts and those with lived experience of the issue in question, before putting proposals to a public referendum.

It’s fair to assume that a UK version might look similar, but setting the endeavour up, let alone running it, might present challenges. Gray herself acknowledged that civil servants in the UK are likely to dislike the proposals, as they might represent a loosening of central political control, and in a political structure like the UK’s where there is a long tradition of a powerful Civil Service, that’s likely to bring with it concerns.

It’s not only the Civil Service that might have objections. After ten years of political warfare over a host of issues within, without and between political parties, the public may well be divided on the question of the benefit of such assemblies. Whilst some will welcome them as an opportunity to reshape politics and bypass unproductive political processes, others seem likely to object to the outsourcing of policy- and decision-making to random citizens, questioning whether politicians are merely trying to avoid accountability for making the difficult decisions.

That’s all before we get to the contentious issues to be considered by the assemblies themselves. Even were the issues to pass through a public referendum process, the pains of the Brexit referendum loom large in a society which has become significantly more polarised, and telling the voting public that the proposals they’re voting on were come up with by fellow citizens seems unlikely to ameliorate concerns that society will be dragged in one direction or another on controversial issues by a minority of the electorate.

Ultimately, the latter will come down to two things, the mechanisms of the assembly and the educative efforts around it. Whilst citizens assemblies are becoming more common and we see many words spilled over them in our work, it’s easy to forget that they are still very much a minority interest amongst the general population.

None of these problems are insurmountable, but they will take a lot of work to overcome. The Consultation Institute’s perspective towards citizens assemblies has always been one of cautious openness, though they have to be used in the correct way. The Labour proposals veer very much towards the ‘decision-making’ end of the spectrum (albeit with an intervening referendum) whereas tCI generally feels they would be better used as fora for options development, to produce a variety of options which can then be subjected to the usual decision-making processes.

So do the proposals signify a shift in attitudes towards engagement within the UK, or are they merely another sweetener for Labour to drop into a manifesto? It’s difficult to say. It will take a lot for the governing structures to loosen their grip on the policy-making process, even to the limited extent proposed here, and Labour may find that whilst these things are easy to say prior to an election, they look very different when sat in front of the levers of power. After thirteen years under one party however there’s certainly an appetite amongst the public to feel more engaged in an ever more distant-feeling politics, and this might be seen as a good way to bring people back to politics. Whether citizens assemblies will be the tool to bridge that gap remains to be seen.

It’s crucial for consultation and engagement professionals to conduct citizens’ assemblies up to best practice standards. Speak to a member of our team to explore how tCI can assist and support your projects.

Article by Stephen Hill

Stephen was formally the Institute’s Legal and Parliamentary Officer, though now spends most of his time playing with rockets and satellites. He retains a keen interest in issues of democracy and public engagement however and provides independent commentary on consultation current affairs and legal challenges.

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