Why Labour needs to keep talking about community power – vote winner or not

January 24, 2020   By Luca Tiratelli and Simon Kaye, NLGN

Lisa Nandy

If any main theme has emerged in the Labour Party’s leadership contest so far, it is community empowerment. Almost all the candidates have at least mentioned the importance of decentralisation as a path to improve the party’s electoral fortunes. Sir Keir Starmer, in a Guardian op-ed, said he would move to “break the grip Westminster has over our politics and put decisions in the hands of our communities”. On the Sophie Ridge on Sunday programme, Rebecca Long-Bailey promised to “shift power and wealth into our communities” who are tired that “decisions about their lives are made in Westminster”. Of course Lisa Nandy has said the most, with her Centre for Towns colleague Ian Warren specifically mentioning NLGN’s work on the Community Paradigm as inspiration.

We welcome any politician who seriously engages with this agenda. A programme of communitisation, democratisation, and localisation would have the potential to revolutionise public service delivery and to address the crisis of trust in our democracy and many of our public institutions.

Popular appeal?

Some commentators, reacting to the ongoing leadership race, have cast doubt on the electoral appeal of community empowerment. Do people really want to make difficult decisions about their public services, or would they rather outsource this effortful work to ‘the professionals’? If there is a genuine public outcry for more direct control, then why have previous rounds of devolution been so unpopular, and why have referendums on regional assemblies in the New Labour era led to them being rejected? Questions have also been raised about whether ‘listening to working class concerns’ about things like Brexit and immigration, and responding that what these people really want is deliberative forums, can really count as listening.

Meanwhile, another strand of criticism has been exemplified by journalist Chaminda Jayanetti, who took to twitter to point out that the funding for any public service – community-controlled or otherwise – can be subject to cuts, so community power isn’t any kind of silver bullet; and, worst of all, is “actually weirdly close to the whole Big Society schtick”.

Not the Big Society II

As this debate develops, we at NLGN have a few thoughts. First, there is a tendency in criticism of the community power agenda to conflate what people like us are actually calling for – a genuine reorientation of political authority that places communities in the driving seat – and a more generic localism or devolution agenda.

We actually agree that there is quite a lot to be sceptical about in the past practices of devolution: too often it has simply resulted in an additional layer of administration, representation, and bureaucracy, and one that often struggles to gain democratic traction, reflect the granular needs of communities, or achieve the central efficiencies of the core state. Devolved bodies also seem to have more difficulty with diverse representation of the public, as the Fawcett Society has recently pointed out. All of this, along with the cardinal sin of creating more politicians, understandably makes such moves unpopular.

We also don’t see much room for a rework of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ project in our proposals. These were representative of a reversion to an older ‘civic paradigm’ for public service delivery and social management, founded on the unrealistic expectation of what communities would do in response to significant defunding of their everyday services. While the ‘Big Society’ argument was right to question the transactionalism at the heart of so many of our everyday interactions with the state, it essentially remained a cover for public funding cuts.

A real reclaiming of control

What we are proposing is quite different. There is a reason why Vote Leave’s ‘take back control’ message was so powerful and seemed to achieve so much more traction within relatively impoverished communities – places which in practice tended to be net beneficiaries of EU spending. The Community Paradigm suggests that genuine control – and a deeper kind of civic flourishing – is achievable by bringing decisions closer to home, where they are more likely to reflect the settled will of a community (a hugely difficult ask for nation-scale government). This would not be about creating more layers of bureaucracy, but fewer; not about asking volunteers to step up, but reversing the assumption that everything useful is done for us by actors and institutions that are ultimately outside our control. We believe that this would both improve public services by making them more connected and preventative, and help address the crisis of trust in our public institutions.

For this to work, we must do much more than just pay lip-service with a few citizens’ assemblies. To break down the growing divide between the users and the administrators of public services will entail genuine community mobilisation, a concerted shift in the role of local authorities, and government legislation to create the space for all of this to happen – and ensure that it is protected. This is an argument about a long-term shift whose benefits will take time to emerge.

We would argue that some of the criticism that the idea of community power has received in recent weeks is missing the point. Community empowerment may or may not be a recipe for reinvigorating the electoral appeal of a political party, and even if it were, this would be a rather cynical reason to argue for it.

We suspect that many people would be surprised by the response of a neighbourhood or town that simply feels it is being listened to for the first time in a long while, but community empowerment is not a panacea: not for the challenges facing neighbourhoods or for the fortunes of the Labour Party. But it is our contention that community power is an idea worth fighting for on its own terms. We are thrilled that some politicians seem to be agreeing with us on this and we will work with anyone – from across the political spectrum – who can help us to address the UK’s status as the most centralised country in the developed world.

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