Democracy, Devolution and Justice: Nick Plumb talks to Danielle Allen

Nick Plumb

Danielle Allen is in high demand. The Harvard professor of political philosophy, ethics and public policy moved our interview due to a last-minute meeting with a state legislator. In recent years she has led major pieces of work on the future of democracyand on the need for test-and-trace to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. Allen has thought and written on the future of artificial intelligence and has just published a major political philosophical work, Justice by Means of Democracy. The book lays out her vision for ‘power-sharing liberalism’. In the midst of all this, she ran for office in the 2022 Massachusetts gubernatorial race, though missed out on the Democratic nomination to eventual election winner, Maura Healey. Politics has been a constant feature of Allen’s life. She grew up in Southern California in the 70s and 80s into a politically engaged family. Her father, also a political philosophy professor, ran for the US Senate as a ‘Reagan Republican’ and her aunt for Congress for the ‘Peace and Freedom Party’, a little-known left wing party in the US. Allen fondly remembers heated debates between the two of them. Her work has influenced politicians across the political spectrum, with her Covid policies ultimately being enacted through an executive order by Donald Trump. All this is to say that her thinking doesn’t fall into neat, pre-existing boxes. 

Justice by Means of Democracy

So, what might an Allen-influenced programme for government agenda look like? Allen describes herself as a pragmatist and much of her work responds to the shock of big political moments of recent memory such as the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote. For Allen, this blindspot stems from the enduring influence of John Rawls’ thinking.

Rawls has had a bit of a renaissance in British political discourse of late, thanks to Daniel Chandler’s new book, Free and Equal. His thesis is that Rawls’ 20th century arguments, interpreted correctly, can provide a clear blueprint for social democratic parties in the 21st century. Rawls is the central reference point for Allen too, though she challenges his thinking, arguing it over-emphasises negative (freedom from) liberty over positive (freedom to) liberty, despite paying lip-service to the latter. This, in turn, leads to a neglect of the political liberties Allen holds so dear. Ultimately, Allen’s agenda is about making democracy much more responsive, representative and dynamic and ensuring greater parity of esteem between democratic and economic equality. This will involve changes to electoral systems and party selection processes to ensure our politicians, at all levels, look more like the populations they represent. It’s about ensuring people have many more touchpoints with the democratic system – “connecting policy development to community grounded processes” in Allen’s words. This might be through national citizens’ assemblies or participatory opportunities at the more local level. It’s also about bolstering civic capacity. Our Common Purpose – the final paper of the future of democracy work mentioned above – called for a national fund to support social and civic infrastructure, alongside these democratic reforms. Lots of this agenda has been partially taken up by a range of politicians, but it is always subordinate to economic questions. Allen’s unique perspective is that this reinvention of democracy is fundamental. Without this reinvention, she argues distrust and disaffection will persist and we will continue to be surprised by the decisions of the electorate. How could this line of thinking influence specific policy areas?


Allen has an interesting perspective on devolution, arguing that we should have a continuous, systematic process for reassessing which powers should sit where. Again, this is about seeing democracy as a constant, ongoing activity. Her view on devolution is informed by studying the Federalist Papers, the forerunners to the US constitution. “It was interesting to me how much time [the Federalist Papers] actually gave to justifying why different kinds of decisions would be sited at the federal level or the state level. [They] made it very clear that they didn’t take it at all to be the case that the way they were cutting it was permanent”. This is very different to the current deal-based devolution regime that exists in the UK.

The economy

On the big-picture view of the economy, Allen points to a productivist approach. “It’s not that redistribution doesn’t matter, it will always continue to matter. But you know, don’t just accept the inegalitarian economy and then keep patching it up with redistribution.”And how does the ‘power-sharing liberalism’ philosophy impact on individual economic policy decisions? “It is about prioritising policies that are actually empowering people in their civic lives, as well as their material lives. So it does, for example, lift housing up as a higher priority economic policy item than it might otherwise be. People can’t participate in communities that don’t have meaningful stability and housing, for instance.” Allen continues, “housing, transportation and good jobs become the top policy issues, when you focus on the question of the economy from a power sharing liberalism point of view.” Here, there are clear overlaps with Rachel Reeves’ conception of the ‘everyday economy’ – the “foundations of our economy, without which we could not enjoy healthy lives or strong communities.” In a 2018 paper, Reeves cites “transport, child care, health, social care, education, utilities, broadband, social benefits and the low-productivity, low-wage sectors of hospitality, retail, food processing and supermarkets” as the elements which make up the everyday economy. Allen also references the work of Elizabeth Anderson on worker power within business. Ultimately a power-sharing liberalism agenda is about broadening power out in a range of institutions, with the private sector firms a key site in which people feel disempowered.

Allen’s influence on Labour Party thinking 

Much of Allen’s work responds directly to the US political system. So, is it applicable in the UK? Marc Stears is a political theorist on the other side of the pond preoccupied by similar questions to Allen. The ex-Ed Miliband speechwriter has spoken – in this fascinating interview – about the briefings Allen provided Labour MPs in the early years of Miliband’s leadership. Today, perhaps due to her busy schedule, she spends less time speaking to fellow-travellers in the UK. Could this change as Keir Starmer continues to build his programme for government? The fact that Josh Simons, recently appointed Director of the influential Labour Together think tank, was one of Allen’s students until very recently suggests it might.Indeed, the pamphlet which laid out Rachel Reeves’ thinking on securonomics, much of it drawn from the US, was published by Labour Together. Allen’s contention is that policymakers have focused on issues of economic equality at the expense of democratic equality. Could her work help flesh out this flank of Labour’s thinking? As touched on above, when I ask Allen about the economic dimensions of her philosophy she cites the work of Rodrik, a thinker who has heavily influenced Reeves’ economic agenda. This points to a natural, but under-appreciated, synergy between economic and democratic equality. 

Is there a base for Allen’s thinking in the Parliamentary Labour Party? Anyone who has heard Lisa Nandy speak in recent years, will have heard a version of, “we need to focus as much on redistribution of power as redistribution of income”. She is surely the Labour MP on whom Allen left the deepest impression through those Miliband briefing sessions. However, Starmer – who of course entered parliament after this period – has also started to use rhetoric which suggests a sympathy for this type of thinking, most notably in his New Year’s speech where he announced the Take Back Control Bill. It’s also apparent that this is much less fleshed out than the party’s economic plans. 

The battle between deep thinking and day-to-day political cut and thrust 

The tension between satisfying immediate electoral priorities and the deep intellectual work political parties need to sustain them is not new. Marc Stears has reflected on the way traditional retail politics won out over the course of Ed Miliband’s leadership. The intellectual curiosity that had characterised the early years dwindled as the general election drew near. Much has been written about Keir Stramer’s lack of grand vision. It seems this is now beginning to change, whatever you might think of the ideas themselves. Mission-driven government. A new, more statist economic agenda, building on the approach taken by Joe Biden. Allen’s argument is that this economic agenda needs to be married with a serious programme of democratic reform. There are the makings of it, in the Gordon Brown Commission, the principle of ‘devolving decision making from Westminster’ in the Labour Party’s Missions paper, and the announcement of a ‘diversity tsar’ to remove barriers to enter politics. In the context of a looming general election and the cost-of-living crisis, there is a chance these issues are seen as fringe and that they fall back off the political agenda. Were Danielle Allen briefing the Shadow Cabinet again, I imagine she’d be the first one insisting they resist this urge.

Nick Plumb is a policy expert working on devolution and democratic reform. He is the author of the Beyond Localism substack, where this piece first appeared.