The local election results suggest we could have reached ‘peak-Nat’, but they also suggest Scottish politics could settle into a ‘nationalist v. unionist’ duopoly. That’s somewhat like Northern Ireland. And like Northern Ireland it leaves little room for Labour and makes progressive change harder to achieve.
Labour, and Scottish Labour, desperately need a new story to tell that will allow us to re-find our place in the forefront of politics, a place which is neither nationalist nor unionist. Understanding Brexit and seeking to protect people from the worst of its consequences could help us begin that story.
“A truly global Britain” is the goal Theresa May entices us with. As if somehow membership of the EU and all the trade agreements it has with nations around the world somehow made us less-than-global. Her vision, spelt out at Davos, seeks to strengthen “the forces of liberalism, free trade and globalisation that have had – and continue to have – such an overwhelmingly positive impact on our world, that have harnessed unprecedented levels of wealth and opportunity”.
This newly-energised Britain of hers will assume “a new leadership role as the strongest and most forceful advocate for business, free markets and free trade anywhere in the world.” In her speech at Lancaster House she said she wanted “to remove as many barriers to trade as possible”.
A world of global, open opportunity, a new golden age, awaits us all post-Brexit, it seems. And yet – at the Mansion House – she recognised that as a result of her lauded liberal globalisation the British people “see their jobs being outsourced and wages undercut. They see their communities changing around them and don’t remember agreeing to that change. They see the emergence of a new global elite who sometimes seem to play by a different set of rules and whose lives are far removed from their everyday existence.”
Opportunity for Britain, it seems, equals vulnerability for its people. With minimal “barriers” powerful outside players can seize their opportunity, undermining our control over our own economy and so exposing our vulnerability further. For a small country, like Scotland, by its very smallness and thus consequent powerlessness in the global marketplace, the effects of our vulnerability might easily overwhelm any opportunity we have.
Our vulnerability is all the greater because our performance in Scotland is already poor, in part caused by uncertainty surrounding the independence issue. Scotland’s recent economic performance tracked the overall UK level until the first quarter after the independence referendum of autumn 2014, since when GDP has been largely static at 5% over the 2013 base. The UK is now 8% over that base. The once-great resource of oil and gas is past its peak and with just one major petro-carbon plant in the country the whole of Scotland is vulnerable to any disruptive event there.
Other non-economic factors make Scotland vulnerable too. Our long term health inequalities show little sign of improvement, leaving too many in poor health, and our once-envied educational standing is in serious decline. We have one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world but our local government is weak and over-scaled, with, therefore, only marginal impact on the well-being of its citizens.
Increased economic and social vulnerability will be the result of Brexit. Feelings of increased vulnerability seem also to be the main cause of Brexit.
People no longer feel secure, no longer have faith that their children will be better off than themselves. Real wages, except for the privileged few, have not risen for nearly a decade; “jobs (are) being outsourced and wages undercut”. Zero hours contracts, freelance work and ‘self-employment’ are on the rise with all the uncertainty and vulnerability they bring. The security of house ownership is out of reach for most wage-earners.
Large international corporations, some larger than nation states, increasingly dominate how we live. They have no local loyalties and so undermine patterns of work, weaken structures of communities and flout national taxation. Not knowing what to do with their profits many of these corporations sit on large piles of cash, often making as much if not more profit from financial trading than they do from their core business. When finance rather than real production dominates the world’s economy it makes us all more vulnerable, as the past decade shows.
The response of conventional economics, believing money to the only measurement and markets, left to themselves, to be the best way to produce results, is to decry the role of government. Reduced public investment and diminished public services become the instruments of a vain attempt to ‘balance the books’ and ‘end the deficit’ for government.
Weak local government, big corporate dominance and mis-guided public sector reduction have all combined to endanger the livelihoods of the working people of this country, to undermine the supportive cohesion of neighbourhoods and to squeeze public trust in politics and communal action. The places people live have been changed beyond recognition “and they don’t remember agreeing to the change”; familiar local businesses close, public space deteriorates, strangers appear on the streets. More than that, the state is increasingly seen no longer as a protector in times of trouble but often a threat and a burden. The ‘bedroom tax’, the ‘rape clause’ and SATS tests all put pressure on individuals and families.
Meanwhile those with wealth live separate lives, out of touch with the struggles confronting most people. It’s no wonder people are angry. It’s no wonder they are prepared to blame whatever remote set of forces they are told to blame. No wonder that they will want to kick over the traces to get something to change, anything to change.
To families and communities that have lost control over their own destinies, “take back control” is the most potent of political calls.
That call is at its most disturbing over immigration. Immigrants, as we all know but rarely acknowledge, pick our crops, staff local business and care for our sick and old. But immigration – the presence of the stranger, the ‘other’ – is the perfect receptacle for feelings of vulnerability, loss and threat. Immigration is ‘uncontrolled’ meaning ‘we’re not in charge any more, someone else is making the rules’. Immigrants ‘take local jobs and undercut our wages’ meaning that workplace protection has largely disappeared, unions are weak, wages have stagnated and the respect and standing that came with a ‘proper job’ has gone. ‘The country is full up’ meaning the public sphere – from schools to hospitals, from housing to transport – is overstretched and under-resourced and where we live just doesn’t work for us the way it used to. ‘I’m not racist but’ means things are changing too fast, there is no longer a strong sense of who ‘we’ and ‘us’ are in this place, no one seems to care about MY self-respect, the sense of worth in MY community, and so every newcomer – their colour, their language – is noticed more, diluting that sense of OUR place. And so it becomes the Brexit call of ‘if only one of us were back in charge it wouldn’t be like this. We’d run our own country again’. Someone who understands us, speaks our language.
For the SNP this is familiar and productive ground. Scotland is not the more open, europhile country that its Remain vote perhaps suggested; it’s simply that the resentments and vulnerabilities were absorbed by the cry for independence a couple of years before Brexit came along. Replace ‘Brussels’ with ‘Westminster’ and the words ‘we’re not in charge any more, someone else is making the rules’ and ‘if only one of us were back in charge it wouldn’t be like this. We’d run our own country again’ take us right back to the Scottish referendum . (If only the SNP had thought of ‘take back control’ rather than ‘stronger for Scotland’ they might well have been onto a winner!)
Of course, leaving the European Union won’t ‘bring back control’. The proposition that somehow we had ceded control to an unelected body in Brussels was always a lie. But leaving could easily make things worse. Open for business as a “truly global Britain” will likely become ‘up for sale’ as yet more operators owned by foreign government run our transport, yet more foreign corporations supply our energy, foreign investors buy our houses and foreign companies own our companies. It’s already happening.
The story of the years, perhaps decades, that pre-dated the Scottish referendum and the Brexit referendum is, for the left and for Labour, a story of economic, social and political failure. The proper and necessary attention we paid to changing racial and gender identity somehow blinded us to changes in identities of class and place. The proper and necessary attention we paid to raising and using the revenues from then successful liberal economics to renew public services somehow blinded us to the need to also act as a bulwark against those same liberal economics. Instead of using the strong moral sense that founded the Labour movement to bind people together in common purpose we left ourselves constantly open to the charge of ‘broken promises’ by simply saying what ‘we’ would do for ‘them’ – saying how we would spend their money for them. Instead of being the voice of the voiceless in places of power we became the voice by which power spoke to the voiceless. And so when the chance came in two referenda, as the man in Sunderland said in June last year – “well, you’re listening to us now”.
Labour needs a new story about what makes us ‘us’. A story which which satisfies the need to bring back control without blaming the ‘other’. It is a symptom of our weakness that we find that hard to do, but it is, after all, the essence of our history – working people gaining control over the direction and betterment of their own lives.
So we have to begin again. The only place to begin is where people are every day; begin with what they feel about their lives living where they live, how their families and friends and workmates feel about it. Labour’s history tells us all politics is local – or at least starts there.
Then, knowing the anger, we should ask – what is it that eats away at the dignity and prosperity and sense of worth for a neighbourhood, a town and the lives of people in it? Why is it that there’s a feeling that things are falling apart in their immediate vicinity? And what would make those places – and their inhabitants – flourish once again?
We don’t ask those questions of ourselves. We don’t ask them of the people we’d like to represent again. If we did we’d be confronted with tales of the closures of local shops and businesses, mediocre new housing schemes, too much traffic in the wrong places, kids getting stressed at school, too far to travel for health care. We’d find that people are desperate to defend something about their lives and where they live that isn’t quite gone yet but they fear might be soon. And – nobody is listening. Hence Brexit.
If we did ask those questions, we’d find they weren’t answered by top-down policies like ‘a thousand more nurses’ or ‘ten thousand more police’ good that those things might be. We’d find they weren’t answered by simply opposing ‘austerity’ either; things were beginning to worsen before the deficit reduction story was spun. We’d find that it made no sense to claim that GDP is increasing or the numbers in work are going up. Who owns that extra GDP? What kind of worK?
The answers we want would arise from asking questions like ‘how do we find out how to care for and improve the health of this neighbourhood, where do we start and how will we make sure it continues to be what was wanted’? Or ‘how do we find out what kind of education would make this place prosper, how do we re-shape local resources to start realising that and how will we know if we succeed’?
Or how do we make this town job-rich in a way that can continue over generations? How do we restore and protect the special character the inhabitants of this place love? How do the voices of the people here get to make a difference? How do we take back control over our place and our lives in it?
The answer isn’t in our slogan for the past couple of years: ‘stop the cuts’ – that’s a top-down answer, an us-doing-things-for-you answer (though stopping public sector cuts is certainly needed). It’s not four more public holidays nor a million more homes. Gifts from politicians are no longer listened to. ‘Take back control’ is a bottom-up answer and that’s its power.
Can Labour develop its own ‘take back control’ story? Could we develop ways to rectify the vulnerabilities, heal the long-standing injuries, in people’s everyday lives that caused Brexit and then build ways to act as a bulwark against the vulnerabilities that will accrue as its result?
Could we, for instance decide we are deadly serious about creating ‘a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few’? That’s a serious take back control statement. It doesn’t work if, as now, we interpret ‘the many’ as one broad mass of people across the country whose needs only we politicians can interpret and fulfil. That creates dependence not empowerment. It ignores that word ‘community’ at the beginning. However, if power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many at a scale at which individuals can comprehend, use and exercise those things for themselves and their families and neighbourhoods then that is very different and hugely radical. It stands against everything neoliberal economics wants, everything the power-brokers of the few claim as theirs by right. It’s not what the Tories, UKIP and the Daily Mail would like, but it could resonate in towns and villages and city neighbourhoods.
Can Labour develop a vision of work, place and community that can speak to people who’ve lost their sense of belonging – to class, to place, to work and the status it brings? At a time when things that are meaningful to us are falling apart can we re-invent and take ownership of the social glue that will bind family and work and place and community back together again? Glue in the form of all that we value communally and can only properly provide collectively?
First a big focus – and then back down again – for which I rely on two economists.
Kate Raworth is re-shaping the story and the model of what economics should be if it is to sustain the planet and serve its people. She calls it ‘doughnut economics’.
There is a foundation which is the minimum we humans need to build a good life for ourselves and our communities. Raworth calls it the ‘social foundation’. It is what is necessary to meet the physical, social and political needs of individuals within a good society. And then there is what the ecosystems of the planet, upon which our lives are even more fundamentally founded, can carry. She calls it the ecological ceiling. Our present political economy is failing to provide the social foundation and is already overshooting what the planet can carry. There is a sense in her work which, if economics can be so organised to provide the social foundation, then there’s a much better chance of preserving our essential ecosystems.
Karel Williams and his colleagues at the Centre for Socio-Cultural Research have developed the notion of ‘the foundational economy’ in response to what they see as the failed experiment of the last four decades in promoting competition and markets in government. This foundational economy – the provision of essential goods like health, education, social care, water, energy, housing, refuse collection, transport, prisons and food distribution – constitutes by far the biggest source of employment in many towns and about 35% of the entire working population. And it is pervasively mis-managed by public as well as private sector providers because they seek the best value at each separate transaction, destroying the sense of mutuality and purpose upon which the foundational economy depends
If a way could be found to bring the foundational economy back into the public sphere, then to ‘re-territorialise’ it so that its focus and ownership were local rather than national or international, and then to ‘re-democratise’ it we would find the ‘common good’ could replace profit extraction as the guiding policy framework. This then is the beginning of story to take back control: to regain public governance of the local foundations of our economy, to re-entangle that economy in its locality and to put local people in control of it.
The story goes on to recognise that a local economy is housed, not in a blank open field, but in the physical structures of the locality – its buildings and streets and public spaces, its weather, its soil – which in turn affect the nature and quality of the local economy.
And it is a story which understands a local economy and environment exists too within the social institutions of its locality – its democracy, its information networks, its organisations. Local economy, local environment, local institutions all combining into a sense of whether the place in which people live their everyday lives serves them well or not
As the voters know, that doesn’t happen. Today those places are worn out, eroded, unequal, divided. Coming face-to-face with that reality everyday is what angers people. The places people live have been changed, damaged beyond recognition “and they don’t remember agreeing to the change”.
So, if our country and its people are to thrive, it is about Labour finding – re-finding – our new story of this place we call home.
Where to start?
It starts with the fundamental demand that the dismemberment of the state that the political right have been engaged upon for four decades is halted and that the common good and the collective voice, and therefore the state, re-assert itself. It continues with the basic understanding that expressions of collective voice and common good are at their most effective locally as part of everyday lives. And it knows that it relies upon power, wealth and opportunity being in both our hands – through the local state and the national state. It needs both hands to hold on to our rights and freedoms, to protect and defend our communities, and to mould and shape the future. It needs both arms of the state – local and national – to be of equal strength, with neither dominant over the other, with rights and roles guaranteed in law, holding each other to account. And it needs the functions and services of the state to be provided and governed at the level closest to the people who use them, close to home.
That is the great opportunity opened up by Scottish Labour’s initiative for a federal Britain. To find the right balance and relationship between national and local, each with a right to have their voices heard, each with their places in the constitution agreed and guaranteed.
The role of the national state – dispersed through parliaments in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast – is crucial in forming that new constitution, restraining special interests, providing the resources, bearing down on inequality, guarding and raising standards, building the national infrastructure, managing the larger economy and reforming our institutions. It is a challenge that the parliaments barely know how to face and will demand extraordinary political leadership.
The local state has been hollowed out over decades mis-rule from the centre and needs complete, first-principle renewal.
How do the people who live and work in a place take back control over their own future? How do they improve the health in that place, supply the educational needs, make it job-rich, sustain its character, shape its environment, renew its institutions? The answer is not in electing someone to a distant parliament and relying on its civil servants and managers to come down and achieve those things. It is by re-empowering and re-building the local arm of the state, under vigorous local democratic control, to return the foundational economy of towns, cities and shires across the country to local public and communal ownership and to provide those services of health, education and social security which are best provided close to home.
That is Labour’s place – neither nationalist nor unionist, but – if a word is needed – communitarian, socialist. Building a community, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, where, with the support of a re-invigorated state, both national and local, people have the power, wealth and opportunity in their own hands sufficient to grasp their own future together.
This is not the 1980’s ‘nationalisation of the commanding heights to the economy’ nor its current Corbyn version. It is not “for the many not the few”, as our election slogan now has it, but “in the hands of the many not the few” as our constitution says. That’s very different. It’s not top-down, statist. It stems from a different mutual, co-operative Labour tradition, holding tight to freedom and self-renewal. It is the socialisation of the foundational roots of the economy, upon which all else can be built.
The opportunities for transformational policies to protect, build and improve the lives of neighbourhoods, towns, cities and shires are many.
Local economic prosperity does not rely on inward investment from ‘come and go’ multinationals wooed by national agencies. It is about designing bespoke local policies which play to the characteristics of local economies and sustain local economic resilience in the face of Brexit-induced global pressures. The local foundational economy – from local buses to local waste collection, from local health services to local energy generation, from water supply to housing – can be brought back into the public sphere, locally, through direct municipal ownership and a variety of social franchises or mutual enterprise. Locally owned they can initiate a local multiplier effect by buying from local suppliers, as Preston Council is already doing in a necessarily more limited way. In the same way local businesses, seeing the benefit, can be encouraged to reciprocate by using local supply chains too.
Our public services of health, education and social security, driven as they are by national targets and national plans, are not serving their users and their communities as they should. The many negative outcomes of their failure drive public spending as ministers seek to rectify them. Housing policy must deal with failures in the housing market; health provision struggles against our failure to maintain the health of families, many sick with the diseases of poverty; schools, with too many children disadvantaged by family ‘failures’ again associated with poverty, slip behind standards in the rest of the world while attempts to ‘fix’ that with centrally imposed targets and methods causes stress and mental health damage to our children. Studies show up to 80% of what is done in local authorities today is driven by what is called ‘failure demand’.
Central control of budgets, targets and methods is not working well enough. Public services, part of the foundational economy, will be better provided if they are devolved to the local level where the governance of their provision can be in the hands of direct representatives of their users, where local people, assisted by professionals, will audit and guide what is done, where users and providers together will ‘co-produce’ their services. They will be cheaper because ‘failure demand’ will lessen. Imaginative collaborations, centred on individual or community needs, can only happen locally: perhaps local apprenticeship providers, job centres, FE colleges and social security funders together securing meaningful youth employment. The multinational outsourcing companies, loyal to their bottom line and distant shareholders, will no longer have a place.
That lively engagement and entanglement of the economy with its location is hard to make happen if the place itself is downgraded, disheartening, dysfunctional. And for much of Scotland, especially the older, smaller urban areas, that is the case. Our places are not as good as they ought to be. Almost all the professionals involved in making or re-making the built environment in Scotland , even he Scottish Government’s own Council of Economic Advisers, say that, by and large, the best and the average places in Europe are a very long way ahead of the best and the average places in Scotland. They work better for the people who live and work in them.
Things will change only if our thinking about local economic policy is entwined with our thinking about our local physical development and regeneration policies. Then local leaders can begin to discover how to:
• sustain existing local work, in the first place by the purchasing polices of local institutions
• find and exploit opportunities for new work — through ‘import replacement’ and ‘export’
• enhance the knowledge and work skills of local people and remove the personal barriers to working
• retain or provide low-rent local business premises integrated within the locality
• provide easy access to low-interest, small-scale risk capital
• ensure there is a deep concentration and mix of people and uses in neighbourhoods to support demand for local enterprises.
• provide the local internal connections between people through sustaining or providing local institutions and places for meeting and interaction
• sustain or provide good connections to the wider economy.
Regeneration of a local economy through policies like these will not happen through sitting back and waiting for some invisible hand to appear. They happen through coherent action by the public sector. That’s not possible at the national level; only the local state can do it.
The physical context of a place is made through the interaction of public and private institutions and interests, the state on one hand and the market on the other. At the moment the market is either strong or absent, the local state weak. So local democratic leadership needs a range of new legal instruments to allow the local state to effectively shape the market and there are plenty of practical existing examples throughout Europe on how to do this. New tools need to be provided to allow the provision of collective goods – the infrastructure of utilities, public transport, public realm and open space – in advance of development. These tools must include means to enable the local state to acquire at least temporary ownership of significant development sites. And greater upfront resources, perhaps acquired from later participation in site value uplift, could be put to use to enable local leaders, with their communities, to create effective plans that ensure development is for the common good. Lastly, new local public institutions can be devised to spread risk and enhance, even realise for the public good, the increased long-term value from creating successful places.
Our story about rebuilding resilience and prosperity in local economies and local places as a bulwark against the vulnerabilities revealed and increased by Brexit only makes full sense if we talk about how to sustain and enhance the social institutions in a locality too – its democracy, its information networks, its organisations, its culture. Because economy and environment can be sustained and changed only if the local institutions encourage leaderships to emerge to provoke those actions. That may mean public support for local independent media outlets, for new initiatives in local organisations, for communal co-operation for child care or building repair, for municipal banks and credit unions, evening classes and enterprise clubs, private sector tenants associations and public halls for theatre, cinema and the other arts. All of these contribute to social cohesion, to individual and communal well-being and to the stake people have in their own future.
This is a transformational agenda – but very few of all these actions to make people satisfied and proud to live in the the places they do can be done by the local democratic state today. Which is why our places fail and why people are angry. It needs a re-imagining.
It needs a wholesale devolution of power on the principle that everything should be done locally other than those things which must, by their nature, be done centrally. And more than that – it needs the creation, in Parliament, of a set of new local powers that enable and encourage real change. This sounds daunting but it is not: it is done all over Europe. And one of the fights that we have on our hands after Brexit is to continue, even to start learning from others in Europe how to do things better. Scotland is a good place to start that fight – we’re a small country with a strong sense of itself, with a first-hand knowledge of how devolution works and with local government that is already urging change.
Fundamentally, we need a reconfiguration of our state – and our minds – from the bottom up. It is the only way in which we can create a community where power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few; the only way on which we can learn the lessons of Brexit and protect our people from its consequences. I have not written thoughts about that reconfiguration – deliberately. It should be the people who shape that new constitutional future. That is why we really must heed CoSLA’s call last year for a people’s convention to re-make the constitution inside Scotland. We can add that agenda to the people’s convention we’ve already mooted to re-make the constitution inside the UK.
Britain is a slow sluggish country when it comes to change. We are happier with the certainties we discover in our island isolation and our great ability for nostalgia.
But, as Roberto Unger says, “Constitutional arrangements should hasten the pace of politics, the facility for structural change, as well as raising its temperature, the level of popular engagement in public life.”
Trevor Davies is a Fabian member and honorary professor in Urban Studies at the University of Glasgow. As a councillor he was Convener of the Planning Committee for the City of Edinburgh Council from 2003 until 2007.
This article was written after the local elections and before the Westminster general election.
He has relied on ideas from a wide variety of sources and in particular acknowledge Marc Stears at NEF, Liza Nandy MP, Polly Toynbee and David Walker, the late Jane Jacobs, Neil McInroy at CLES, the Fraser of Allander Institute at Stirling University, John Seddon of Vanguard Consulting, David Adams at Glasgow University. Kate Raworth of Cambridge and Oxford Universities and Karel Williams of Manchester University are named in the text. Image from https://www.kateraworth.com/doughnut/