The politics behind Sue Gray’s plan for ‘citizens’ assemblies’

It has been five months since Sue Gray began work as Keir Starmer’s chief of staff — in what amounted to her first foray into party politics. And in that time the former partygate investigator has established herself as a pivotal figure in the Labour leader’s inner circle.

Insider accounts, duly briefed to columnist Patrick Maguire of The Times, suggest Gray has developed a power within the Labour Party all of her own — but that which she deploys dutifully, and solely, to Starmer’s chosen ends. 

Consequently, commentators refer to the “cult of Sue Gray”, with the omnipotent operator credited as streamlining and professionalising Starmer’s political operation during a crucial pre-election period. More broadly, as a former mandarin, Gray at once embodies and performs Labour’s readiness for government — that is according to the Labour myth-making, at least. Her appointment was Starmer’s final, and most totemic, sop to Whitehall officialdom. 

But the “myth of Sue Gray” has begun to fracture in recent weeks. Her role in managing the crises that befall Starmer has placed Gray on the frontline of recent debacles — both over The £28 billion pledge and that of the Rochdale by-election. These episodes, characterised by various shades of indecision in LOTO, inevitably implicate Starmer’s “fixer”. Reports of a heavy-handed leak investigation conducted in the aftermath of The £28 billion climbdown hardly vindicate Labour’s “Gray myth” in any case. 

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And, today, Gray has once more found herself in the headlines — but this time, curiously, as part of an apparent policy blitz. The former Whitehall mainstay wants to devolve decision-making beyond and below the corridors she once walked into “citizens’ assemblies”.

The Times had the inside track, courtesy of Tom Baldwin’s upcoming biography on the Labour leader. Baldwin boasts that his account is based on “interviews with [Starmer], family members, close friends and advisers”; and Gray, while she has only worked under Starmer for a matter of months, is an important part of the equation. Speaking to Baldwin, Gray cited the “transformational” success of citizens’ juries in Ireland that had built consensus for constitutional changes including ending the ban on abortion and allowing gay marriage.

The idea to introduce “citizens’ assemblies” to deliberate on controversial policy is not a new one in British politics. Former Conservative MP Rory Stewart proposed such a body as part of his plan to solve Brexit in his doomed bid to replace Theresa May as PM. It also happens to be a proposal advocated for by a number of pro-constitutional reform organisations and, it would seem, Starmer’s glitter protestor at Labour conference last year. 

There is, therefore, potentially a strong prima facie case for allowing a randomly selected but representative group of citizens to hear expert evidence and advise ministers on policy. Simply put, such bodies could consider contentious questions that feature prominently in British political discourse — perhaps most pertinently that relating to how the burden involved in tackling climate change should be shared.

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Furthermore, as far as the politics of such a move is concerned, proponents would argue the policy doubles as an eloquent critique of Westminster over-centralisation and our confrontational mode of politics — both of which Starmer is said to eschew. Thus, on such controversial areas as housebuilding, devolution and House of Lords reform, Gray suggests, the “will of the people” could be leveraged over that of doubting MPs (and Lords) in tricky parliamentary showdowns. 

Still, there is remarkably little to get into in policy terms here. According to The Times report, Labour is in the process of “drawing up plans” — meaning there is no indication currently as to how citizens’ assemblies would operate in practice. There is no suggestion over how the party would ensure any such body is both “random” and “representative”; nor any hints as to how Gray would confront the manifold other logistical and financial challenges. 

But her comments arguably speak to more significant dynamics at play in the Labour Party’s policy laboratory, of which Gray — who is in charge of the party’s preparations for government — acts as a lead scientist. 

Indeed, put aside the oddity of the “announcement” (which one might reasonably expect to come from Angela Rayner as shadow levelling up, housing and communities secretary, or one of her junior team — such as Florence Eshalomi, who holds the democracy brief), and the plan is revealing as to Keir Starmer’s central dilemma as Labour leader. 

That is: how does Starmer hone a clear, inspiring vision of “change” without giving ground in the debate over fiscal restraint — into which Labour has recently ploughed so much resource? Or, more simply: how does Labour reconcile its purported desire to be radical with its fiscal stolidity, as demanded by its iron-clad “rules”? Sue Gray, who is reportedly tasked with dealing with such competing political strands, is, once more, on the frontline of this approach. 

It is no secret that Labour has a problem in this regard; indeed, Gray’s comments on citizens’ assemblies come mere days after the party ditched its £28 billionalbatross” in favour of a drastically watered-down clean energy policy. Starmer will recognise that by tacking tightly to the Conservative Party’s economic plans and messaging he risks foregoing the electoral windfall due to an opposition party in a “change election”. 

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A policy like “citizens’ assemblies”, simply, is designed to square this circle. It is intended to signal “change” while triggering limited consternation in the shadow Treasury. (Of course, one other way of looking at the policy is that Starmer has found of way of building a consensus for radical policy that could be one-day leveraged over his party’s purse-string holders). 

In this way, Gray’s “citizens’ assemblies” comments amount to a tell, don’t show approach to politics. It does not feature in any broader strategy, nor join-up different aspects of Starmer’s operation; it could reasonably be characterised as a sop to those who criticise Labour for not living up to its own mantle of “change”. 

This brings us to the inevitable political dimension of Gray’s “citizens’ assemblies” comments. For Labour’s commitment to sometimes-soppy, tell, don’t show politics comes with risks. Indeed, one consequence of Starmer consciously keeping his target “small” as Labour leader is that any signal — however subtle — that he might be enlarging it, is met with a torrent of Conservative criticism. And following Gray’s “citizens’ assemblies” comments, plainly, Tory apparatchiks sense an opportunity — and blood. The Twitter/X furore (which I have played my part in) is a clear sign of how our politics is progressing ahead of a general election later this year. 

Other critics who might be generally sympathetic to Starmer’s cause could posit that “citizens’ assemblies” are no panacea — but, rather, a complex and limited democratic tool that can be used well or badly, depending on inputs and much besides. 

More broadly, following reports that the Labour Party is watering down its offering on the House of Lords, what policies does Starmer have to test in a citizens’ jury, apart from housebuilding and devolution? It is easy to see how a “citizens’ assembly” project might be characterised as not a plan per se, but instead the negation of a plan.

The big risk for Starmer with his headline-grabbing approach to policy and communication — composed of sweeping promises on “radical” initiatives — therefore, is that it highlights the hollowness beneath. 

Josh Self is Editor of, follow him on Twitter here. is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.