Sue Gray and Citizen Assemblies

Before rejoicing that Labour is going all-in on citizen assemblies, it’s worth thinking about what was actually said in this morning’s Times (which I’ve now managed to read).

First, the story itself ( is a write-up of comments made to Tom Baldwin, who is writing a book about Kier Starmer. This is at best a kite-flying exercise. Most of all, it’s an author wanting a juicy story to trail his book. I respect that need, but it’s not a policy commitment.

Second, the content of what was said is underwhelming from a democratic innovation perspective. 

To start with, it’s high level and focused on just one approach. Citizen assemblies are a tool not a solution – a hammer that works for knocking in a nail, but won’t help you mend your glasses. Democratic innovation will need lots of different tools that work together, at scale, over time, not single-run single-topic events. The work that we are doing at Democratic Society on climate change in cities is a good example of how complex and long-term decisions need to be taken. 

What’s more, the citizen assembly hammer seems to be being waved to threaten civil servants and politicians – “Whitehall won’t like it”, which is the opposite of the point. If democratic reform is done well, for the right reasons, Whitehall should like it, because it will be a meaningful contribution to effective democratic governance. 

If we instrumentalise tools like citizen assemblies either by presenting them as a universal solution to wicked obstructive politicians, or using them to break down institutional opposition, then the whole cause of democratic reform is set back. 

And even then, a citizen assembly won’t reduce opposition to housebuilding if it is not part of a much wider and long-term democratic approach, in which councils have to be involved in shaping trade-offs and compromise. People opposed to a housing development are not going to be less opposed because a group they never met or voted for thought it was a good idea three years ago. 

I don’t want to sound negative. Institutionalising more participation in government is essential if we are going to make up the gap that has been created by the falling-away of mass party membership and the rise of a more individualistic politics. I’m glad that the Labour Party are taking democratic innovation seriously, along with many other social democratic parties across Europe including my own. 

But for those of us who care about democratic reform (and social democracy) our very commitment means that this is the time for scepticism. If reform is on the table, we have to make sure it’s done right, or we won’t get another chance.

So, for this reason, let’s be cautious in the welcome. Let’s not mistake a tool for a solution. And let’s be wary of celebrating a semi-announcement that treats citizen assemblies as an institutional bludgeon not as part of structural democratic reform.

(originally posted on LinkedIn)

Tram lines 20/2/24

Josephine Quinn has a new book coming out on civilisation thinking and the “West”. I was already looking forward to it but this article in the FT (no paywall) has made me look forward to it even more.

Not so much reading as admiring, a beautiful 1930s hand drawn map of Harlem nightlife during the Harlem Renaissance.

There aren’t enough cross-language-divide political interviews in Belgian political life, so I enjoyed reading this long one with Jean-Luc Crucke (Les Engagés) in De Morgen.

Vijfhoek 2/2/24

I did not know that this was in the Marolles … and I guess I can’t be blamed since it closed before the Second World War and since then has been a furniture store. [NL but with photos]

Did you know that Brussels is a hub for Dutch language rap, and other music? I didn’t, but Bruzz told me all about it. [NL]

The new exhibition Popcorn at MiMA in Molenbeek is a tonic on a gloomy day. 15 artists, mostly Bruxellois, with paintings and sculptures filled with bright colours and high tones. Open until May and free with a MuseumPass.

Tram Lines 18/1/24

Railway lines and red lines as Jon Worth assesses the chance of new services through the Channel Tunnel to compete with Eurostar. Summary: don’t hold your breath.

Bruno De Wever, the historian, is retiring and has a long interview in De Morgen. He reflects on family and politics, but it’s interesting that he sees both N-VA and his brother as being on the horns of dilemma as to whether to ally with the mainstream parties or with the far right at regional level after next year’s elections. He’s more hopeful than a lot of people are about the future of Belgium, while also saying that he wouldn’t shed a tear if it disappeared. [NL]

The broadening of the idea of “Classics” to a wider view of ancient cultures and where we come from is a very good thing. Emily Wilson writes in Prospect about how AI and digital imaging are giving the Sumerians their chance to shine

The Democracy Disruptor NextDoor. Long read about how the localised digital platform that promises more authenticity can help political bad actors. 

Quelle doctrine pour les gauches européennes? Four people on the political (centre-)left discuss the future strategies available to progressive parties. [FR]

Tram lines 17/1/24

This interview (Pointe) with ballet dancer and choreographer Brett Fukuda (declaration: partner of a colleague) gives interesting insight both into the creative process and the life of a ballet dancer.

Just before Christmas, I missed a short new paper from two of the academic experts in the failed Parliamentary Commission on the Colonial Past. It is worth a read, not just to understand why after intensive work the Commission ultimately was wrecked on the issue of apology and reparation, but also for its discussion of what history means in this context.

Research shows that under no circumstances should you “do your own research“. Not in itself surprising if you’ve ever talked to anyone who told you to do your own research.

Vijfhoek 14/1/24

Good interview with Bas Devos, the director of the new film Here, set in the marshy north east corner of Brussels, where the urban region meets the platteland. [NL]

Tom Moylan of Restless Brussels wants you (international resident of Brussels) to go and vote. And so do I.

Knack covers the new plans for the Noordwijk/Quartier Nord. I’m largely positive about the idea of (re)creating a better mix of work, life and commerce – but the starting point of towers and broad boulevards is hard to change. [NL]

Radio-télévision Bruxelles 6/1/24

🎬 Past Lives – the second recent Korean film with a migration story at its heart. Nora moves from Korea to North America aged 12, leaving behind a school sweetheart. 12 years later they find each other online. 24 years later, they meet again in New York. A beautiful film about migration and missed connections.

🎧 The Theory of the Leisure ClassIn Our Time looks at the work of Thorstein Veblen, who worked during the gilded age of the US.

Lasagne and chips

Fuzzy federalism meets lukewarm localism in Labour’s democracy review

Belgians often refer to our “institutional lasagne”, meaning the confusion caused by multiple different levels of regional and local government, collaborating and sometimes competing over the same territory. Reading the report of Labour’s “Commission on the UK’s Future” I can see the UK heading in the same direction.

By jules / stonesoup – Mum’s lasagne, CC BY 2.0,

At the heart of the problem are two structural challenges, which the report fails to solve. One is almost impossible, the other merely very difficult.

The almost impossible problem is the status of England. Too large to be just one element of a federal state, its identity too strong to be broken up into federal regions, England makes comparison with other federal states pointless. To imagine it in the German context, you have to imagine that Germany is four states – Berlin, Saxony, Hesse and everything else. The “everything else” is England. 

I don’t have a solution to this problem, and neither does the report. But not having a solution means that its constitutional recommendations are stuck halfway between knowing that new UK structures are needed, and an inability to describe those structures except in the vaguest terms.

The very first recommendation is for a new constitutional statute, which is in itself a good idea. But the report’s draft of it describes the UK as “a group of nations, peoples and places and [sic] which have come together in a shared Parliament at Westminster to provide together what can be better provided together than separately.” 

So, is the UK “we the nations” or “we the people”, or even “we the places”? The idea of only doing together what we can’t do better alone is confederalism (a term that in Belgium is associated with separatism). But the Labour Party clearly thinks that most things are done better together, so all the talk further down the document is of solidarity, co-operation, and so on. This sounds very familiar to those of us involved in conversations about EU reform and, sure enough, recommendation 2 is for what in Brussels would be called subsidiarity – a legal duty that decisions should be taken as close as possible to those affected by them. 

The attempt to design around the England problem is also obvious in the proposals for new pan-UK co-ordinating mechanisms. At the top would be an Assembly of Nations and Regions, that would replace the House of Lords, and which would “ensure that the powers of the devolved administrations are always respected by central government”. This is not to be confused with the Council for the Nations and Regions, which would replace Joint Ministerial Committees, or the Council of England which would act as a talking shop for English local government, or the Council of the UK which would bring together the devolved administrations and the UK government, (but not the Council of England). Those familiar with Brussels may be feeling another tingle of recognition. 

Maybe the size of England makes all these co-ordination and collaboration bodies necessary, but other than the Council of England, which fills a gap, many of these bodies seem to be pointless if there are no arguments, and toothless if there are. Moreover, they add complexity to the UK level of government, which is only made worse by the fact that the report isn’t able to consider simplifying the structural mess of local government in England before empowering it. 

Today’s English local government arrangements look like an explosion in a think tank archive – bits and pieces of reforms lying around all over the place, relics of old initiatives, no-one quite sure what structures go where, and underneath the chaos, mostly buried, the 1974 Local Government structures of counties, districts and metropolitan authorities. 

The report’s remit explicitly excludes local government structural reform1, but without it, the devolution that is promised goes to vague structural coalitions – “bottom-up” but “with shared planning and cooperation”. This feels like a good way of creating lots of meetings for local government officers, but a bad way of creating predictable and simple institutions with which business and citizens can engage. 

There are good ideas in the local government sections of the report – a simpler structure for local funding, some (minimal and conditional) fiscal powers, and bringing the existing local economic partnerships into greater democratic control under local partnerships – but the promises of devolution and respect are less convincing for being delivered to the local level in general, rather than to specific bodies. 

Local empowerment is often set in the context of clusters of research and innovation, “helping innovators and entrepreneurs sow thousand of seeds … and releasing the energy of a new generation of startups and growing companies”.2 Although there is a faint whiff of 2005 in this – and in the phrase “double devolution” which comes up a few times – this is not in itself a bad thing. However, I think it is at least arguable that a cluster- and startup-based development model goes against the ideas of reducing inequality that are found elsewhere in the report. 

Take the Oxford-Cambridge Arc. It’s acknowledged in the report as a potential high growth area. Localism would suggest that if local authorities are happy to build into that growth potential, then both local communities and the country as a whole will benefit. But there is no guarantee that local voters will see it that way, and even if they do, not everywhere can be the OxCam Arc. By definition, clusters concentrate activity, and pages of positive language about British ingenuity can’t conceal the reality that most parts of the country will not be in high growth clusters. Research and innovation activity are likely to be less productive for not being part of European research structures, but here and elsewhere, Europe is mentioned only as a geographical expression. 

So where is the growth for the rest of the UK? I’ll leave aside the issue of moving civil servants out of London, which is unlikely to make much of a difference. There are positive noises about skills and scale-up funding outside London, which would help, but here, not for the first time, localism and central ambitions clash. A national but local industrial policy is promised. A British Regional Investment Bank will have regional in the name, but the centre guiding its remit. Fiscal devolution will be gradual and conditional. We can safely say the centre will be in control, at least for a while to come. 

As such, it is going to need to hold responsibility for the promises it makes. The report proposes the creation of a set of entrenched social rights – not a bad idea in itself, though the drafts in the report are too detailed – and says that they will apply to all public services. What does that mean for local authorities, already struggling to cover high need social services for those without resources to pay for themselves? Are they able to meet constitutional guarantees on housing provision? Guarantees that no person is left destitute? “Further detailed work would be needed” on mechanisms for legal challenge, says the report. If these rights are going to mean anything, citizens are going to have to be able to challenge on them – and local public services are going to need the resources and flexibility to deliver them. 

The proposals for devolution around skills, transport and economic regeneration are all interesting, and if all were used in a place it would have a stronger and more coherent set of powers around development. However, once again the structural lasagne comes in. Wokingham Borough, Richmond Yorkshire and Greater Manchester are all going to have different approaches and interests – not least in terms of their development ambitions.

It is assumed in the report that local people want a thriving and prosperous economy, with good local services – and I’m sure that is true in the abstract. However, as we know from the current row on housebuilding targets in Parliament, there is a risk that devolution fragments decision making and empowers oppositional minorities over broader groups. One way to turn up the volume on the quieter voices would be to use deliberative approaches that bring in citizen juries or assemblies. It’s therefore disappointing that the only nod to this possibility is a lukewarm reference to participatory budgeting and citizen deliberation near the end of the list of recommendations.

There are other recommendations here that I won’t treat in detail, around the civil service, MP second jobs and the ethical framework. Many of them are sensible reforms, but a selection of sensible reforms is something of a disappointment at a stage in the political cycle when we are probably at peak radicalism. 

I would have liked fewer kites, flown higher, in this report. As it is, there are good ideas in it, and a lot of good intentions. The UK will want to focus on innovation and high-growth industries, as will every other European country. Devolution is good, as long as it doesn’t create inequality. Where the report falls short is in setting out a clear, simple structure where citizens and businesses can involve themselves to make their community and their country work. As it stands, it looks like we’re getting a double helping of lasagne. 


p. 75


p. 59

Cameron’s heartfelt plea for Europe

“Because the truth is this – we are in a global race today and that means an hour of reckoning for countries like ours. Sink or swim. Do or decline.”

via Cameron speech to warn on economy – UK News – News – WalesOnline.

It’s not quite sink or swim (Britain will not sink beneath the azure waves) but the changing shape of geopolitics is one of the strongest arguments for European integration. Funny sort of place to make that argument, at Conservative conference…

May madness

Here’s the Guardian on Teresa May’s rumblings about renegotiating EU Freedom of Movement rules:

It had been thought there was little momentum to review the free movement of EU workers on the basis that it is such a central pillar of the EU’s founding principles. But May believes there are reforms that could be made in part to reverse previous European court of justice judgments that have in effect redefined free movement as available to citizens rather than merely workers.

(from Theresa May considers curbs on EU migration)

Sorry, what? Teresa May wants to block people who aren’t working – like Tory-voting retired inhabitants of Spanish coastal resorts – and allow people who are – like Polish plumbers?

Surely (if you believe that Britain is threatened by evil mudbloods) you want to keep the Poles out while letting the Brits go anywhere and do anything, like the rulers of Europe they rightfully are?