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Home Opinion Labour’s citizens’ assemblies could be a great opportunity or a huge disappointment
Democracy • Participation • Engagement

Labour’s citizens’ assemblies could be a great opportunity or a huge disappointment

Claudia Chwalisz - 22 October 2015

There is potential for Labour to devolve power away from the party machine, but new structures must not become a talking shop for a self-selected sample

Labour’s new shadow communities and local government secretary Jon Trickett has announced that the party will organise citizens’ assemblies to “explore how politicians can be made to work for everyone in Britain.”

Fitting within Jeremy Corbyn’s theme of ‘doing politics differently’, these assemblies will apparently be about engaging with ordinary people, who are not “pale, male and stale, with professor before their name and CBE after their name”.

In principle, this is an admirable idea. Disillusionment with the political class has been a large factor in fuelling Ukip’s rise and popularity, and has likely been a source of Corbyn’s surprising leadership victory.

Ipsos Mori polling for my recently published book The Populist Signal shows that 68 per cent of people in Britain think the current system of governing Britain needs improvement. Among Ukip voters, this goes up to 83 per cent. Green and Labour voters are equally favourable to change, at 77 and 73 per cent respectively. The most popular suggestions for how this can be achieved? Giving citizens more of a say in how decisions are made and less ‘spin’ in political communication.

The polling also highlights that only 31 per cent of people feel like their voice counts in the decisions taken by local politicians. At the national level, this falls to 21 per cent. The fact that many feel that our representative democracy is not functioning to its truest potential is a symptom of a greater malaise. It is no wonder that Corbyn’s attempt to move away from the traditional top-down, elitist way of doing politics resonates with many. (To be fair, the idea of citizens’ juries and devolving power to citizens was first championed by Liz Kendall in the leadership contest, though perhaps this was less audible in the midst of Corbynmania).

With citizens’ assemblies, Labour has an opportunity to tap into an underutilised resource – the inherent richness of society. It is no secret that the well-educated and the best off dominate in political life, whether it is by voting, protesting, campaigning, signing petitions, or community organising. Political inequality is as rife as economic inequality; the two are correlated.

But few details have emerged about how these assemblies will be organised or run. How they are designed will make the difference between them being a gathering for far-left ‘Corbynistas’, reinforcing each other’s views, and a truly open deliberation between people of all backgrounds. Deliberation, after all, is the process that comes before making up one’s mind.

There are pockets around the world where democracy is being reinvented with citizens’ assemblies, as inspired by ancient Athens. At that time, both rich and poor were afforded a place at the governing table, where citizens were chosen by random selection to participate. Slowly, politicians today are coming around to the idea that involving ‘ordinary’ people in political decision-making is to society’s benefit.

In Flanders, Belgium, the minister of culture has a citizens’ cabinet, comprised of ordinary people to advise him on policy.

In the Netherlands, randomly selected G1000 citizens’ assemblies have been transforming local government into a collaborative effort between the elected and their communities. There is now consideration for expanding this initiative to the regional level.

On the other side of the globe, Australians have been organising randomly selected citizens’ juries, community panels and even a citizens’ parliament. The initiatives have given ordinary people a voice on issues ranging from town planning, energy generation, electoral reform, cyclist safety, infrastructure renewal and even planning a 10 year, $4bn budget for the city of Melbourne.

These cases and others highlight that we can indeed govern ourselves better. There is strong evidence that bringing together a group of diverse, randomly selected individuals can in fact lead to better decisions.

There is also demand for this kind of active, deliberative political participation in the UK. In the Ipsos Mori polling for Policy Network, 54 per cent of all respondents said they would participate in a randomly selected citizens’ assembly on local issues. The highest levels of support are among Scottish National party voters, with 89 per cent willing to participate. The SNP are currently tapping into this feeling with a more participatory government, just like George Osborne with his northern powerhouse devolution agenda. Labour quite rightly needs to catch up.

The risk with the citizens’ assemblies proposed by Trickett is that they will be prone to the pitfalls of any civic engagement activity that allows for self-selection. If it is only the already engaged who participate, the result will be a poor reflection of society’s views.

The assemblies’ intended impact is also unclear. In my research, the most successful cases are the ones where people involved are afforded real power and a genuine voice.

Will these assemblies focus on narrow, specific issues? If yes, what kind? Will they feed in directly to the party’s national policy forum? Or will they be given a blank sheet?

If the Labour front bench wants to truly open up the party to the people, perhaps another way of doing so would be to introduce random selection of party members into the national policy forum and the national executive committee. Today, this is where policies are validated and the party’s direction decided, but it is still a closed process, dominated by the party elite.

There is a huge potential to devolve power away from the party machine. But if these citizens’ assemblies are merely a widescale consultation, keeping intact the centralised party structure with no direct links to Labour’s policies or behaviour, then disappointment surely looms.

Claudia Chwalisz is a senior policy researcher at Policy Network and a Crook public service fellow at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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