Labour’s plans to bypass democracy

Sue Gray’s ‘citizens’ assemblies’ would sideline confrontational democratic debate.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics UK

Sue Gray rose to infamy as the civil-service mandarin who, when appointed head of the Downing Street ‘Partygate’ probe in 2022, helped to bring about the downfall of Boris Johnson, a Tory prime minister who had been overwhelmingly elected by almost 14million voters. Remarkably, Gray was rewarded for her anti-democratic efforts last year by being appointed as chief of staff to Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour Party leader now widely seen as the UK’s prime minister-in-waiting.

In her powerful new job, Gray is exhibiting a similar disdain for democracy as she did when she effectively defenestrated Boris. She is drawing up plans to ensure that once the inconvenience of the General Election is over, and with Starmer hopefully installed in 10 Downing Street, Labour can run Britain through appointed experts, commissions and other unelected bodies.

Gray the backroom apparatchik raised eyebrows this week when she assumed the role of party spokesperson and announced that a Labour government would introduce dozens of citizens’ assemblies, as pioneered in the Republic of Ireland. The Times reported that these bodies of randomly selected members of the public would ‘involve the public directly in deciding contentious issues such as constitutional reform, devolution and where new houses should be built’. Notably, the list did not include arguably the most ‘contentious issue’ of all – namely, immigration. Presumably Labour doesn’t trust the British public to take the ‘right’ line on that one.

Gray boasted to The Times that her citizens’ assemblies would be ‘transformational’. She also assured us that her former colleagues at the top of the civil service would be aghast: ‘Whitehall will not like this because they have no control.’ The headline spelt it out: ‘Sue Gray announces citizen juries that will bypass Whitehall.’

Not quite. The truth is that Labour’s unelected citizens’ assemblies will be designed mainly to bypass not Whitehall, but Westminster. To take control not from the unaccountable ‘Blob’ of officials in government offices around Whitehall, but from the elected MPs who sit in the House of Commons within the Palace of Westminster.

In the Irish model, 99 members of the public, apparently selected at random, meet with one appointed mediator. It is not hard to imagine the assembly, when informed by ‘expert’ advisers and guided by the professional mediator, reaching conclusions that happen to coincide with the preconceived outlook of the Whitehall elites, which they could then present to parliament as a fait accompli.

Even if a citizens’ assembly was truly independent, should a report endorsed by those 99 unelected, unaccountable punters outweigh the opinions of tens of millions of voters? That would seem about as undemocratic as a House of Lords without the ermine robes.

Of course, no sooner had Sue Gray announced Labour’s plan for citizens’ assemblies than a backlash forced party leaders to distance themselves from the scheme and insist it is not formal policy. As a member of Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee, Luke Akehurst, put it, citizens’ assemblies are ‘a stupid idea’ because ‘we already have elected politicians who are put there by the public to take tough decisions’. ‘It is an abdication of responsibility to farm these out to potentially unrepresentative panels of people’, he said.

However, we shouldn’t let them fool us into believing that this was just some random, stupid idea dreamt up by a rogue operator. Gray is at the heart of Starmer’s Labour machine. So much so that, in the words of The Times, she is ‘in charge of the party’s preparations for government’.

Moreover, Gray boosted citizens’ assemblies in an interview about a new authorised biography of Starmer by Tom Baldwin. That book explains how the Labour leader himself hopes that citizens’ assemblies will ‘build consensus on issues often left unresolved because of the confrontational nature of politics’.

Somebody should remind Starmer (assuming the technocratic lawyer ever knew it) that ‘the confrontational nature of politics’ is what democratic politics is all about. A clash of competing political visions in a fight to the finish, ultimately decided by voters at the ballot box. Those divisions are the lifeblood of a dynamic democracy.

Starmer’s enthusiasm for replacing political divisions with a conformist consensus constructed in smoke-free committee rooms shows the dim view Labour takes of democratic debate. In the name of empowering random citizens, its plan would take power further away from the demos, the people as a collective force.

Despite the Labour leadership attempting a reverse ferret on citizens’ assemblies, the party’s other proposals for political reform are all shot through with the same contempt for democracy. As previously analysed on spiked, former Labour leader Gordon Brown has come up with a proposal to replace the unelected House of Lords – that bastion of anti-democracy in UK politics – with a ‘house of nations’, which could be at least as unrepresentative. (Even that suggestion for reforming the Lords has now been downgraded as Starmer seeks pre-election respectability.)

In the interview where she plugged citizens’ assemblies, Sue Gray also warned her former colleagues atop the civil service that other changes are coming. Labour would be ‘bringing outside expertise and experience into the heart of power’. In other words, more unaccountable experts to decree what is good for the rest of us, no doubt modelled on the overnight committees that did such a disastrous job of imposing and enforcing the Covid lockdowns.

Baldwin’s book on Starmer also outlines Gray’s ‘detailed plans for an independent ethics commission’ to oversee parliamentary affairs. Which might sound like a good thing. But we should know by now that any mention of more ‘ethics’ police in parliament will, in practice, mean MPs being held to account for their actions by faceless commissioners rather than voters.

For all her talk of change, however, Starmer’s chief of staff was at pains to reassure her fellow Whitehall blobsters that ‘I love the civil service’, which is led by ‘people with the right values’. Those being, of course, the values of the Labour leadership, rather than those held dear by the British electorate. Which is why, in the end, Gray and Starmer would rather put their trust in the technocrats.

The myth of Labour’s planned citizens’ assemblies is that they would ‘involve the public directly in deciding contentious issues’ (my emphasis). In fact, they would help to create an indirect system of power as an alternative to parliamentary democracy, by bypassing the ballot box.

If the Labour elites and their allies were truly interested in more ‘direct’ forms of democracy, they could give us more referendums on big issues, from migration to the House of Lords. But after the shock they received from the historic democratic revolt in the Brexit referendum – a political trauma they have never recovered from – that is the last thing we should expect from Starmer.

For all its imperfections, parliamentary democracy remains the nearest thing we have to popular democracy in the UK today. Reforms are needed – like abolishing the Lords. But any change should be about making the system more directly representative of the electorate as a whole, not less. And they should not be designed to reflect the ‘values’ of an unaccountable Baroness of the Blob who has never won a vote in her life, and yet thinks she has the authority to decide who governs Britain.

Mick Hume is a spiked columnist. The concise and abridged edition of his book, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?, is published by William Collins.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK


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