A future Labour government would be right to use Citizens’ Assemblies

Hannah Camilleri, Communications Officer

Posted on the 19th February 2024

This morning it was revealed in The Times that Sue Gray, Keir Starmer’s Chief of Staff and former leading Civil Servant, is considering the use of Citizens’ Assemblies.

Gray made the comments by referring to their successful use in Ireland to break deadlocks on divisive issues and political impasses.

So, what is a Citizens’ Assembly and how would they improve our democracy?

What is a Citizens’ Assembly and what do they do?

Citizens’ Assemblies are not a new concept and have actually been used in and around the UK for some time, including two, on brexit and regional devolution, which were supported by us here at the ERS.

Citizens’ Assemblies are usually made up of a representative group of people, put together like a jury, with a clear task to achieve by the end of it. The most well-known Citizens’ Assemblies were set up under the ‘Irish Convention on the Constitution’ between 2012 and 2014. They considered eight proposals which included allowing same-sex marriage and removing blasphemy as an offence under the Irish constitution.

A Citizens’ Assembly will have a set time limit to consider the proposals or plans, which will include hearing and learning of evidence from experts during the ‘deliberation stage’. In this stage, they have the opportunity to debate all sides of the argument and will reach more nuanced and informed positions on an issue as a result.

The conclusion of the Citizens’ Assembly will usually be to advise the Government on the direction that the general public would like them to take when deciding policy on whatever issue is concerned. Their conclusions are usually not binding on the Government of the day but are a way for politicians to really listen to the general public’s opinions and concerns.

Why isn’t Parliament enough?

Some argue that the House of Commons is a Citizens’ Assembly, as our MPs are elected by us, the Citizens, to represent our interests and legislate accordingly.

However, that isn’t quite accurate. A Citizens’ Assembly is not formed via elections like the House of Commons but put together like a Jury.

Thanks to this, participants in a Citizens’ Assembly aren’t bound by loyalty to political parties so they can make decisions and change their minds after hearing evidence. They can’t be pressured by a party with promises of future jobs, so can form a nuanced opinion freely.

On top of this, Citizens’ Assemblies are designed to include a more representative group of people. Members are typically paid for their time, and as they don’t meet every working day and have the freedom to choose their meeting times, those who have caring duties or busy professional lives are more likely to be able to participate.

Having to stand for election costs the average candidate £11,000 of their own money, putting a huge barrier in the way of a fully representative Parliament. Citizens’ Assemblies allow normal people the chance to get involved.

Would this improve trust in politics?

We know that trust in politics and politicians is low. YouGov polling shows that almost half of the population don’t trust our electoral system to deliver a result reflective of the British public’s views and over half don’t have confidence in the House of Commons, full stop.

We need to open the way for Citizens’ Assemblies and for further public participation in our democracy. To increase trust, voters need to see themselves in those making decisions. We don’t need to look any further than jury trials to see this principle working in action.

Trust is also a two-way street – if politicians want us to trust them, they should also trust our judgement and consider our opinions in a more direct way.

Public support is the firmest foundation for a policy. If the public is more directly involved in shaping the solutions to emotive and divisive issues, that solution will not only stand the test of time, but will dramatically improve the public’s trust in the government’s ability to deliver.

This is a way to make politics work better for us all, politicians and people.

Share your thoughts: Should we use Citizens’ Assemblies more?

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