Sue Gray and Citizen Assemblies

Before rejoicing that Labour is going all-in on citizen assemblies, it’s worth thinking about what was actually said in this morning’s Times (which I’ve now managed to read).

First, the story itself ( is a write-up of comments made to Tom Baldwin, who is writing a book about Kier Starmer. This is at best a kite-flying exercise. Most of all, it’s an author wanting a juicy story to trail his book. I respect that need, but it’s not a policy commitment.

Second, the content of what was said is underwhelming from a democratic innovation perspective. 

To start with, it’s high level and focused on just one approach. Citizen assemblies are a tool not a solution – a hammer that works for knocking in a nail, but won’t help you mend your glasses. Democratic innovation will need lots of different tools that work together, at scale, over time, not single-run single-topic events. The work that we are doing at Democratic Society on climate change in cities is a good example of how complex and long-term decisions need to be taken. 

What’s more, the citizen assembly hammer seems to be being waved to threaten civil servants and politicians – “Whitehall won’t like it”, which is the opposite of the point. If democratic reform is done well, for the right reasons, Whitehall should like it, because it will be a meaningful contribution to effective democratic governance. 

If we instrumentalise tools like citizen assemblies either by presenting them as a universal solution to wicked obstructive politicians, or using them to break down institutional opposition, then the whole cause of democratic reform is set back. 

And even then, a citizen assembly won’t reduce opposition to housebuilding if it is not part of a much wider and long-term democratic approach, in which councils have to be involved in shaping trade-offs and compromise. People opposed to a housing development are not going to be less opposed because a group they never met or voted for thought it was a good idea three years ago. 

I don’t want to sound negative. Institutionalising more participation in government is essential if we are going to make up the gap that has been created by the falling-away of mass party membership and the rise of a more individualistic politics. I’m glad that the Labour Party are taking democratic innovation seriously, along with many other social democratic parties across Europe including my own. 

But for those of us who care about democratic reform (and social democracy) our very commitment means that this is the time for scepticism. If reform is on the table, we have to make sure it’s done right, or we won’t get another chance.

So, for this reason, let’s be cautious in the welcome. Let’s not mistake a tool for a solution. And let’s be wary of celebrating a semi-announcement that treats citizen assemblies as an institutional bludgeon not as part of structural democratic reform.

(originally posted on LinkedIn)

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