Labour’s Take Back Control Bill needs to truly empower communities

January 17, 2023  

This article was first published by the New Statesman.

Keir Starmer’s Take Back Control Bill needs to truly empower citizens, writes Adam Lent.

Keir Starmer did something remarkable in his New Year’s Speech. He shifted the arcane and rather tired agenda of constitutional reform and devolution onto territory voters actually care about – having a direct influence over the decisions that affect their lives. By committing to a Take Back Control Bill, Starmer has responded directly to the extremely well-evidenced and widespread frustration that the vast majority of people feel ignored by government. This would effect “a huge power shift out of Westminster” and be designed to give people “control over their lives and their community”.

This is much-needed but it comes with a big risk: failure to deliver. There is a high chance – given the institutional mindset of government officialdom – that reform becomes merely a shuffling of powers from Whitehall to Town Hall with little thought given to the genuine empowerment of communities. If the Take Back Control Bill is to do exactly what it says on the tin, a Labour Government will need to inject some very fresh thinking into the legislation.

Fortunately, because of the work that many councils and public sector bodies are already doing in this area, we know the three headline shifts that enable a community powered approach to government. A Take Back Control Bill will need to make sure it incentivises and supports these shifts at national and local level.

If the Take Back Control Bill is to do exactly what it says on the tin, a Labour Government will need to inject some very fresh thinking into the legislation.

The first imperative is the opening-up of decision-making to much wider participation. The growing use of deliberative forums and other forms of citizen engagement across the world and in the UK is starting to reshape governance. Policies and plans are increasingly being developed in close collaboration with the people they affect rather than being decided upon behind closed doors and then imposed from above. But this is a change that could happen faster and reach further with serious support from the centre.

Second, is the acceleration of a fundamental shift in the delivery of public services. Visionary public servants have been chipping away at the standard model for years now. Rejecting paternalist mindsets that regard service users as ‘cases’ to be processed by professionals, they have adopted ‘strengths-based’ approaches which recognise that those in need of support bring their own insights and capabilities to any personal challenge. Many are setting this approach in a wider context by seeking out the insights and capabilities present in the communities of which service users are a part. This is Take Back Control at the micro level and it is having a transformative effect on the outcomes a service can achieve. It also proves Keir Starmer’s point that the Take Back Control agenda is not just a dreamy ideal, it also offers practical solutions to big challenges.

Visionary public servants have been chipping away at the standard model for years now.

Finally, and most importantly, there is the methodical culture shift many public services are adopting: moving away from the prevalent ‘we know best’ mindset towards one which fully accepts that change is always best done with people rather than to them. Again this is something a Labour Government should widen and accelerate. This is admittedly a strange idea for central government. Politicians tend to enjoy announcing big structural reforms rather than promoting culture change. But the latter is proven to be far more effective. There is much that a Labour Government can do: ministers should urge the shift in speeches and statements, appoint public sector leaders with a proven zeal for the new way of thinking and establish a fund to support culture change efforts. The Take Back Control Bill should also mandate a major revision of the mass of public sector regulations, contracts and targets that tends to reinforce the very top-down, paternalistic behaviours which disempower communities.

Too often when politicians talk of empowering local communities, they actually mean empowering local public institutions. The latter, of course, desperately need much more resource and power and any Take Back Control Bill must make radical devolution a reality. But if that is where Labour’s change agenda stops then the profound sense of agency and responsibility that Starmer clearly wants to instil across the population will not emerge. If Take Back Control is to avoid going the way of the Conservative’s ineffectual levelling-up agenda, Labour will need to think beyond the boundaries of normal institutional reform and turbocharge the imaginative change already happening on the ground.

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