Municipal socialism is working in Preston
On May 6, the UK staged its biggest democratic outing since the disastrous 2019 general election. On what has been dubbed ‘Super Thursday’, local council elections were combined with mayoral polls municipal and regional and elections for the decentralized assemblies of Wales and Scotland. Labor also chose that day to hold a by-election for the vacant UK parliamentary seat in Hartlepool, a small seaside town in the north-east of England.
The May 7 headlines spoke uniformly about the continuing, if not accelerating, collapse of the Labor vote, but when examined in detail, the results are more mixed. While the elections were indeed abysmal for Labor in much of the country, they did much better in some areas and worked very well in some rather specific places.
The mixed performance of Labor was driven by two key dynamics. The first reveals the rewriting of the political map of the United Kingdom as the changing class composition of the country produces new divisions that manifest themselves geographically. In short, Labor has done better in areas of the country where populations are growing and younger.
The second dynamic shows the importance of giving meaningful political expression to people’s lives. While the official Labor campaign was devoid of politics and relied heavily on flag gestures, the party succeeded where incumbent Labor regimes offered practical left-wing localism.
In this light, the true story of the elections could be told through the different fortunes of a large city in the North and a small town in the North. Labor’s loss of the parliamentary seat of Hartlepool for the first time in sixty-three years contrasts with the results of Preston, a town in the north-west of England, where Labor retained their ten seats, maintaining firm control of the local council. It is therefore fitting that Matthew Brown, the Preston Council Chief, has co-authored a book with Rhian E. Jones, outlining and developing what has come to be called the Preston Municipal Policy Model.
Paint your city red begins by telling the story of Preston’s adoption over the past decade of an innovative development model. During the 2010s, conservative and coalition central governments imposed severe austerity on local council budgets, a process for which councils subjected to these cuts were subsequently blamed. Worker-controlled Preston had to operate in the same harsh economic environment as the other councils, but found ways to weather the tide of austerity – and even begin a process of economic transformation.
Over the past three decades, the standard model of urban development has focused on attracting large developers, usually from outside the city, to take the lead. Large amounts of land and public assets have either been ceded for next to nothing to boost private development or simply sold to raise desperately needed funds. Preston’s advice has since 2011 turned the tide, a change brought about when the fallout from the Great Financial Crisis caused a £ 700million flagship mall to collapse.
In the process, Matthew Brown, supported by a handful of sympathetic advisers, began to explore alternative development models that would be less dependent on the whims of foreign investment. They drew on the community wealth creation experiences of Cleveland, Ohio, as well as the vast network of worker cooperatives around Mondragon in the Spanish Basque country, which in turn led to working with two think tanks, the Democracy Collaborative and the Center for Local Economic Strategy (CLES).
The approach derived from this research begins with the ostensibly unsexy topic of local public markets. This means both sourcing products and services locally – thus stopping the drain of money from the local economy – and raising standards among local suppliers, for example by insisting that they pay a living wage.
The goal is then to identify “anchor institutions” that cannot move in search of cheaper labor, such as the local hospital and university, and persuade them to follow guidelines. similar supply. Where no local supplier exists, the council facilitates the development of employee-owned businesses and worker cooperatives to fill the void.
It was from this base that Preston began to undertake a more radical overhaul of the local economy in a more cooperative and democratic direction. As the model has developed, ambitions have multiplied, with projects to accelerate the growth of the cooperative economy by building a favorable ecosystem, in particular by creating a regional cooperative bank to provide financing. .
The authors are clear that Preston’s example is not a one-size-fits-all, and the book includes a discussion of similar experiences and approaches. The Welsh Decentralized Assembly, for example, has made a commitment to the basic economy in which sustainable access to basic goods and services takes priority over consumer-led growth. While many factors played, and it remains to be seen what changes this will actually precipitate, it is no coincidence that the Welsh Labor Party fared much better than its English counterpart in the May 6 election.
The second half of the book turns into a practical guide to implementing not only community wealth creation, but also a range of institutions from credit unions to community land trusts. According to the authors, this suite of policies and approaches provide the tools for specific iterations of what they call “universalizable localism”.
Preston’s prominent success opened up the larger question of how the UK economy could be transformed by alternative development models – of various kinds. Small-scale experiments with economic democracy proliferate, but since Corbynism’s defeat, we lack a scaling-up strategy across the country, a theme the book mostly avoids.
The main narrative of Labor’s defeat in the 2019 and 2021 elections, and the explanation for why some deindustrialised areas in the North and Midlands have turned to the Tories, is that Labor has ‘lost the working class’ . The truth is more complicated. Although Hartlepool and Preston are both deindustrialised towns in the north of England, their demographic trends are very different.
Hartlepool’s population is shrinking and aging dramatically as young people go in search of work. Hartlepool has a high proportion of retired homeowners who experience relative personal economic security mixed with deep dissatisfaction with their town’s declining fortunes. It is this cohort, in alliance with retired owners in the richest regions of the country, which forms the nucleus of the new conservative base.
Preston looks quite different. The population is growing, and with the city’s university and good transport links, it has, on average, become much younger over the past forty years. It is the precarious, predominantly urban, young populations excluded from home ownership who have left the UK and many other parts of the world in recent years.
Preston’s model is sometimes cited as an example of how the new political and geographic divide can be bridged. As Andrew Cumbers, professor of regional political economy at the University of Glasgow, has argued, “New socio-political coalitions and identities around economic democracy are essential to foster a broader narrative of individual economic rights, public participation and open justice for all groups in society”.
Yet it is still unclear what community wealth creation and the broader agenda of economic democracy would look like in a region like Hartlepool. How to implement economic democracy in areas with an older population and property owners, or perhaps more directly, the vast expanses of the country where the municipal authorities are indifferent or even hostile to a community wealth creation approach?
To understand how we cross the new divides in which the class experience is shaped by age, asset ownership and different work experiences, we need to understand how these divides were created in the first place. The new conservative social base is not the simple product of aging. It is the end result of a forty-year project to reshape the material interests and political outlook of this constituency. The key to this was the privatization of public assets, including the sale of social housing.
The area of economic democracy, in which the tradition of community wealth creation lies, has been at the center of the preoccupations of the British left in recent years precisely because it contains the promise to reverse this process and reshape the interests in a more democratic and collectivist direction.
How could other UK municipalities develop Preston’s democratic ownership model with this revamp of interests in mind? One step would be to start developing meaningful channels and forums for popular participation in local government, and to do so without repeating the post-democratic or post-political tendencies that have characterized many previous governance efforts beyond government. ‘State. This means starting to explore decentralized modes of economic development.
In practice, this could involve what we have called Public-common partnerships (PCP), in which independent projects of common ownership and governance of assets form chains of mutual self-reinforcement. This in turn allows them to develop their own participatory development plans for the territory, ultimately inviting local authorities to a partnership.
To be clear, this is not an argument to further reduce public institutions in favor of a politically ambiguous concept like community power. PCPs could well be characterized as an interventionist approach to economic programming in which public institutions with sufficient resources (both in terms of funding and capacity) are better placed to act.
Indeed, the next phase of community wealth creation could follow Erik Olin Wright’s vision of the erosion of capitalism, in which he described using the state “in such a way as to maintain spaces for the construction of emancipatory alternatives with a wide range of initiatives from below to fill these spaces”. Democratically governed assets should be the key to this vision.
This means maintaining an important role for the state to the extent that it can help enable such initiatives, while allowing this role to be complemented by a largely democratic and participatory policy that empowers communities.