Why the left should back community power

December 10, 2021  

Luca Tiratelli responds to the view that community power can be a way of cutting public services.

Is ‘community power’ being used as a justification for state retrenchment?

This is an argument that has been advanced in recent weeks by some left-wing thinkers and journalists in articles in Novara Media and The Guardian.

Both pieces respond to a recent publication – ‘Trusting the People: The Case for Community Powered Conservatism’, published by New Local and co-authored by 10 of the 2019 Tory intake.  

Both pieces echo points that were being made by feminist scholars like Miranda Joseph some 20 years ago: that the concept of ‘community’ is often simply as an imaginary safety net used to create the possibility for cuts to the state.

As an opponent of austerity and an advocate of community power, this contention strikes squarely at the centre of my worldview. Are two things that I consider foundational to my politics in conflict?

What is community power?

Community power is best understood as an ethos of public service design and delivery. It seeks to challenge transactionalism and paternalism, and recognises that people on the ground are always best placed to understand their own needs and conditions.

In place of traditional ways of doing things, community power seeks to create a public sector that is more preventative, more democratic, more localised and more focussed on people’s actual priorities.

Community power is also about recognising that there are some things that are simply beyond the capabilities of either the state or the market. In Rachel Shabi’s piece on mutual aid in The Guardian, she writes the movement was “plugging the vast holes left by a neglectful state”.

On the one hand, it is certainly true that ten years of austerity left Britain in a far weaker position from which to combat Covid-19 than would have been the case if we had invested in health services and the wider public sector since 2010.

However, as New Local’s research on mutual aid found, much of what the movement achieved, particularly in the early weeks of the pandemic, was simply beyond the capabilities of even a much better-funded state.

The granular knowledge that communities have about themselves – about where needs are and how they might be met – is simply not something that any version of the state can replicate.

Particularly when we are dealing in timescales of days and hours, as we are when we think of doing people’s shopping after they begin shielding. Fundamentally, in some instances, community power is necessary.

Size of the state vs nature of the state: Two debates, or one?

If we consider these principles and features of community power then, what becomes clear is that community power is not really concerned with how big the state is. It is concerned with what the state is like in the places where it exists, and how it feels to interact with the public sector.

A useful way of thinking about things is to consider what the opposite of them might be. And with community power, its opposite is neither austerity not social democracy. The opposite of community power is really technocracy, and the belief that certain people with certain skill sets know best and should get to decide things for the rest of us.

The fact that community power is not necessarily concerned with the size of the state is why when you begin to talk about bringing it about in practice, you get situations where you have Conservative MPs starting to sound like John McDonnell (as the Novara Media article points out).

You can support democratising and localising public services, regardless of the extent to which you believe public services should exist in all our lives.

This is why, I believe, there is no conflict between opposing austerity and being in favour of community power. They are two separate debates.

Accordingly, it is not surprising that we find community power advocates on both left and right, just as we find top-down, command-and-control technocrats across the political spectrum.

All of this means that it is true that some austerity supporters will also support community power, even if we at New Local argue that local government and the wider public sector should receive the investment they need because this ultimately benefits communities.

Furthermore, it’s true that in some instances, as with David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ (the problems with which New Local have discussed at length before), notions of ‘community’ may sometimes be employed cynically to justify cuts to the public realm.

However, I think it would be a mistake for the left to assume that that is what is going on every time a Conservative starts to extol the virtues of community ownership of deliberative democracy.

As others have argued, the left loses when it gets lost in the perhaps comforting fantasy that who they are up against are a bunch of 19th century classical liberals committed to shrinking the state above all other political or ideological concerns. Accepting that this is not always the case will be necessary for building up a more grounded critique of Conservative visions of community power.

Why the left should back community power

If there is a take home message here, it is this: judge community power based on what it is – not on who is talking about it.

New Local is building up an evidence base of the concrete benefits gained by giving communities control: better health outcomes, stronger resilience, improved trust; to name a few.

We also have scores of examples of where local people have taken ownership of buildings, spaces, public services – and are proving that they can create outcomes that the state and market could only dream of.

Challenging hierarchy, investing in preventative services so as to prevent negative outcomes occurring, giving people more say over the forces that govern their lives – these are all things the left should be right behind.

Thinking about how we might reform the public sector so as to bring these things about is an immense challenge – and we will welcome all who are interested in helping us do that work. 

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