Society is facing challenges on multiple fronts.
The last time this country faced comparable challenges it was emerging from the Second World War, and it was Clement Attlee’s Labour government that was tasked with finding the answers.
Today’s Labour leader – Sir Keir Starmer – rightly recognised this in his speech in Birmingham to begin the year. Attlee’s government met the challenges of the day by forging a new social contract underpinned by the state caring for its citizens from cradle to grave, through the founding of the modern welfare state and our National Health Service. But what was lacking in Starmer’s speech, and in much of Labour’s wider agenda, is a recognition that today’s challenges require a new response.
The state of course still has an integral role, as we saw through the successful vaccine rollout. But real, lasting change will come from the bottom up, through the power of our communities. When the pandemic struck, it was not the state that held communities together. Local people took the lead and did it themselves, supporting neighbours, working together with councils and adapting quickly to respond to the crisis. Growing support for community power marks a shift in the terrain of our politics, one the Conservatives have begun to occupy. So far, Labour is missing in action.
A bigger society?
It is almost too easy to be sceptical about the Conservative’s ‘levelling up’ agenda. To paraphrase Starmer’s retort to his critics at Labour Conference, slogans don’t change lives. While we await the Levelling Up White Paper, the right has started to make movements to occupy this new political battleground.
The Budget and Comprehensive Spending Review showed the government’s recognition of the importance of social infrastructure, while the appointment of Michael Gove, Neil O’Brien and Danny Kruger to the new Department for Levelling Up shows serious intent. These figures provide a mix of a proven track record in reform alongside a real interest in community-led change. A recent report from the New Social Covenant Unit with the think tank New Local presented an in-depth articulation of community-powered conservatism an agenda which was reinforced by the number of events on similar terrain at Conservative Party Conference.
Criticism that this community-powered conservativism is just a cover for austerity has some merit given the experience of the Big Society. However, without its own community-powered agenda, Labour cannot convincingly criticise centre-right proponents of those ideas.
Speaking in Birmingham, Starmer was eager to tell the country how Labour was now a patriotic party, extolling the virtues of, “Our high streets, our community centres, our places of worship, the spaces we share”. In other words, our social infrastructure. There is an opportunity for Starmer to build on this rhetoric, as he began to in his speech to the Fabian Society Conference, putting community at the heart of the nation’s health and wellbeing.
The Conservatives have acknowledged the powerlessness many people feel (as the Vote Leave campaign did before them) and have staked this government’s future on succeeding at ‘levelling up’. Yet the public are confused about what this really means and the perennially delayed White Paper looks set to fall short of genuine community-led change. If Starmer’s Labour wants to show that it is a patriotic party, it must trust the people to exercise the power they hold but cannot act on and present a progressive alternative to community-powered conservatism that delivers on levelling up.
Power to the people
Power to Change’s work has shown that if you give communities power and resources, they are best placed to confront the challenges society faces. Starmer recognised this when he wrote that, “Community, family and country are not conservative or backwards ideas – they are the building blocks of strong societies.” Starmer’s Labour Party can back this up by meeting the Tory’s community-powered conservatism with its own distinctive community-powered politics that boldly tackles national – indeed international – issues with a local focus.
Community power can complement Labour’s preference for a more active state, one that enables and supports people to make progressive change in their neighbourhood alongside well-funded public services. Crucially a Labour approach to community power, while recognising the differences in each local area, must be cognisant of the need to alleviate not entrench existing inequalities.
What might this approach look like? Labour should be exploring a Community Power Act, and let people take back control, for real – not just in the places where money and power already lie. It should be supporting communities to take charge of their assets, like pubs and leisure centres – the places where people of all backgrounds come together. It should make the case for new models of ownership to emerge across the country that form the basis of a new economy powered by communities and people not distant, private companies who do not always understand the places they serve.
Rather than sceptically viewing community power as a means to cut local government by stealth, Labour should view it as the beginning of a new, innovative partnership between communities and local government on an equal footing.
Failure to put forward its own case would represent a missed opportunity for Labour to seize the politics of the moment and challenge the Conservatives. To avoid this, Labour must face the challenges of the day and put communities in charge to unleash their power. Starmer has done well to steward Labour through a fraught period after one of its worst general election performances. Now is the time to put forward a vision of how, practically, the Party will govern. Working side by side with communities is the place to start.