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Artillery Row

Against stakeholderism

How ideas like “citizens’ assemblies” threaten democracy and effective policy-making

Labour’s hasty retreat on plans to introduce citizens’ assemblies is cold comfort for those of us who recognise that a Starmer government will be disastrous for British democracy.

On Monday morning, arch-mandarin Sue Gray revealed Labour’s plans to use a series of “citizens’ assemblies” to design policy on key, emotive issues like euthanasia and housebuilding. After the idea faced understandable backlash from across the political spectrum, the idea was hastily withdrawn within 24 hours, with senior figures within Labour condemning the idea.

Critics were right to point out that citizens’ assemblies serve as little more than a (horrendously unrepresentative) way for governments to give policies that they already intended to implement a sheen of legitimacy. However, we should not celebrate the Labour Party’s about-turn too enthusiastically. Gray’s announcement is not just concerning on its own merits, but because it reminds us that a Starmer government will be entirely beholden to anti-democratic stakeholderism.

What on earth is stakeholderism? In short, it is the most powerful influence on the Labour Party’s thinking today. It is the idea that a dense concentration of power in the hands of elected politicians is inherently dangerous — after all, what if those politicians get it wrong? What if the voters elect mad, bad, or dangerous people, who use that power to do terrible things?

The solution is to create a system of dispersed power, in which “experts” — like judges, regulators, and bureaucrats — exercise powers instead of politicians, and in which public opinion is discerned not through elections, but through dialogue with “interested stakeholders”, like charities, pressure groups, and “community leaders”. The former group guards against the excesses of elected politicians, while the latter guards against the whims of the public. 

The most pernicious of these stakeholders are the “community leaders” of whom the Labour Party is so fond — these are the self-appointed cultural leaders of Britain’s ethnic and religious minority populations, who wield enormous influence over the Labour Party’s thinking on immigration, integration, and foreign affairs. 

Even if an idea is popular, it will not be seen as legitimate by political insiders if it cannot win the approval of “experts” and “opinion-formers”

These are the stakeholders, whose influence is validated by a laundry-list of unaccountable institutions which now exercise authority over the way that our country is governed. In such a system, change is impossible without the assent of these latter-day “estates of the realm”. Even if an idea is popular, it will not be seen as legitimate by political insiders if it cannot win the approval of “experts” and “opinion-formers”. The citizens’ assembly is the ultimate form of stakeholderism, giving formal structure to the indirect, consensus-focused quasi-democracy preferred by the stakeholderists. 

Though we might argue that this intellectual tradition stretches back to Labour’s traditional support for trade unions, the idea blossomed under the New Labour governments of Blair and Brown. This was the golden age of the regulator and the quango, where judicial power expanded unchecked, and where the ancient constitution was reformed to deprive ministers of their power to take direct action. The creation of the Supreme Court, reforms to the office of Lord Chancellor, the independence of the Bank of England, the expansion of devolution — this is stakeholderism in action. 

These ideas were formed in deliberate opposition to the principles that traditionally undergirded Britain’s political system. Once, ours was a system in which an all-powerful Parliament was the only check on an executive which enjoyed enormous scope for action — in turn, this Parliament was accountable to the nation at large. Governments took ambitious, decisive action, and were either rewarded or punished by voters. Such a system places great responsibility on every individual actor. Get it wrong, and the country suffers. Get it right, and great leaders are empowered to do great things. 

This is a sharp contrast to the Blairite alternative, which is instead designed to disperse the power of individual actors as a means of reducing systemic risk. Ministers are less likely to “get it wrong” if their decisions are filtered by a succession of civil servants, experts, and judges — of course, they’re also less likely to take the kind of decisive action needed to tackle serious political challenges if they risk protracted institutional push-back. All roads now lead towards the safe, comfortable consensus that is slowly strangling our country to death. 

The failure of this Conservative government has ultimately been a failure to recognise the extent to which New Labour had changed the rules of the game. Ambitious ministers have been frustrated by the civil service and the judiciary at every turn, failing to recognise that radical reform will be impossible in a system that insists upon consensus and compromise. 

A Starmer government will make all of these things worse, relegating MPs and ministers to the position of “stakeholder managers”. Governments will justify their actions not by reference to their popular mandates, but by reference to consultation processes and expert endorsements. The most reliable way to affect change in such a world will be to petition stakeholders as mediaeval peasants might once have petitioned their local lords.

However, all is not lost. Those powerful, ancient principles — popular sovereignty, Parliamentary sovereignty, prerogative powers — are not dead, but dormant. They lie asleep beneath layers of grey, bureaucratic sludge, which accrue like sediment, growing thicker every year. 

If the Conservative Party ever wants to hold and wield power again, it must rediscover a love for those principles, and shake off the suffocating stakeholderism of the past thirty years. That will mean comprehensive institutional reform, and a willingness to once again accept risk as a feature of political life. Fail to do so, and Conservatives will find that, while they may hold power, they can never really use it. 

Get it wrong, and this byzantine system of dispersed democracy will become an inescapable fact of our political system. As George Orwell (almost) said — always there will be an expansion of bureaucratic power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling upon an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a committee of representative stakeholders stamping on a human face — forever.

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