Power to the people

Jim McMahon

If we want to show how Labour can make a lasting difference to lives, we need to look to the local

We know the power of people because we see it every day in our own communities. But too often people feel powerless to effect change in their lives because of the centralist way the political system works.

Labour can realise its ambition and be true to its core values by working to shift power from the privileged few and hand it to the many.  However, to do so effectively we must get our house in order. We need to agree a compelling new settlement and give a greater voice to the people we came into politics to represent.

I’ve been in parliament for approaching a year and now take responsibility for local government and devolution. It’s a role I relish and my sound grounding in local government will, I hope, help to shape a future offer for Labour. As a councillor for 13 years, the former leader of a large co-operative council and member of one of the most developed combined authorities, I have seen first-hand the difference that can be made by people like me and my neighbours coming together to make our community a better place.

Our work at a local and regional level should offer a platform for Labour to demonstrate what it can do in power. We should not see it as providing temporary cover while we wait to improve our position nationally; instead we should see it as an opportunity to rewrite the rules of the game completely.

I am proud of the difference I made as a council leader in Oldham. We did a lot to change the council not simply because budget cuts dictated so, but because we realised that to be accepted as shaping the future of our community, we had to win hearts and minds too. The tired model of command and control doesn’t work between central and local government and the same is true of local government and our communities.

And if the Conservative government claiming devolution and localism as their own wasn’t encouragement enough to take the lead on shifting power to our communities, we must also face the reality of Brexit. That includes taking a good look at where power sits, who makes the decisions and in whose interest those decisions are made.

Our communities have paid the real price of austerity and a financial crisis not of their making. The foundations of our society, built on good quality decent public services, have been undermined. As demand for children’s safeguarding and adult social care services grows, the shrinking budgets of our councils have meant that difficult decisions have had to be made.

Step forward Labour local government. Our local councils have always done great things. Creativity and innovation are the watchwords of localists. Even in a restrictive, centralising environment with less and less funding available, when it would be understandable to keep heads down and focus on managing decline, we have instead seen an inspiring spirit of enterprise.

And it hasn’t been small scale. Across the UK, 24 Labour-established fairness commissions have put Labour values at the heart of recovery. While the government chips away at the foundations of a fair society, it is Labour locally which is giving local people the protection they need. But more than that, up and down the country, jobs have been created, homes provided both to tenants and new homeowners and even in difficult times councils, particularly Labour councils, are leading the way and paying a real living wage. They have done this with one hand tied behind their backs. Much, much more could be done if we unleash the potential of our local government base.

When Whitehall was busy writing papers on reform and employing more researchers to explain away the real problems faced by our communities, local government has modernised at a rate which would make the SW1 crowd lightheaded.

Of course it isn’t right to write off Westminster and national politics as irrelevant. Members of parliament represent the same constituents as councillors and elected mayors do. Collectively, we set out our vision for a Labour Britain and when in government we are held to account to realise it. Even in opposition, we are duty bound to honour our vision and try to keep the government of the day as close to it as we can.

But power held tightly at the centre won’t achieve the change we demand for our communities. The scale of the problems we need to address is huge. We have seen rising inequality, as the problem of stubbornly low skills in the workforce has been coupled with weak local economies. Tackling this skills crisis should be central to our offer at a local and regional as well as a national level because we know how important it is for the next generation to have better life chances than the one before.

Then there’s housing. Successive governments haven’t built the homes we need and, as a result, we are spending billions in housing benefit to private landlords for often substandard accommodation. There is a role for the private sector here of course, but the lack of choice for people who need a genuinely affordable home has meant tenants are being exploited. And although some councils are doing their utmost to get new homes built, they need new freedoms, powers and access to funding to make a real dent in the housing crisis.

There’s much to do then, but in any discussion on devolution we must be open to the opportunities as well as the challenges. Rather than seeing devolution simply as a transfer of responsibilities, we ought to see it as an opportunity to redefine how we govern, how we grow our economies and how we deliver the best possible public services.

For if we don’t, the status quo will fail many. Put simply, it’s just not affordable. Our ageing population will mean an ever-increasing demand for services: by 2030 there will be a 51 per cent rise in the number of over-65s, compared with 2010. And those living longer will face significant challenges, with an estimated 80 per cent rise over the same period in those predicted to suffer from dementia.

Closer to hand, NHS England estimates that there will be a health funding shortfall of £30bn in just four years unless our approach changes. Local government will face a funding gap of nearly £6bn in adult and social care alone by 2020, according to the Local Government Association.

So where do we go from here? Examples from my home town give some pointers. In Oldham, the council has stepped in to fill the gap which existed in services to get people into work because national contracted providers were not meeting need. The council does not receive any central government funding  for this work but decided it was not willing to sit back while so many fell through the net. So it set up its own organisation called Get Oldham Working. In just two years, more than 3,000 people have been helped into work and a genuine partnership has been created with businesses, community organisations and public services working together.

When BHS closed and the shutters came down as Sir Philip Green sailed off into the sunset, it was thanks to Get Oldham Working that every employee who wanted a new job had one lined up.

But Oldham also knows to let go when other arrangements might be a better option and this was evident in the establishment of the Action Oldham Fund. It benefited from a transfer of charitable trusts and historic dowries held by the council, creating a fund of almost £1m for local groups to invest in long-term sustainable support for great community projects.

There is evidence elsewhere of councils showing how local interventions can work. In Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield, local authorities supported 57 per cent of young people into work or learning compared against just 27 per cent for those supported by the Youth Contract. Even more could have been done with greater control over welfare, transport and skills.

Aside from the crisis of public services and local economies, there is a crisis in our politics too – and there is almost certainly a link between the two. The EU referendum has brought us much to reflect on. People are fed up of having things done to them and of being let down by a system that isn’t designed for their benefit. They are sick of fighting for scarce resources and as much as the Conservatives have been successful at turning the poor on the poor, much of the blame is being placed on established politics.

This crisis in our politics has certainly excited the SNP which is pushing for a return to the ballot box for another Scottish referendum. With public support not in line with this demand, it is likely to be more of a negotiating position for further devolution of powers and fiscal autonomy.

As this push for more devolution continues, we must accept that the debate on how we govern and where power sits is evolving. We must accept too that if devolving power is good enough for Scotland and Wales, then it’s good enough for England too.

But rather than starting with new structures and positions, it is far better that we build on the established, tried and tested building blocks of local government. The real focus in devolving power to the local level should be values-driven. Our approach needs to be about local government putting grassroots community organisation at the heart of decision-making, supported by fair funding based on need with local government holding the ring on public services.

Not only would more power at a local level bring better decision-making, tailored public services and a more efficient use of money, but on top of that we could show the public that we’ve heard their message about politics and their lives loud and clear. People want control to determine their futures and those of their children and grandchildren. They don’t want things done to them nor are they willing to accept waiting patiently for a better tomorrow that for many simply doesn’t come. Let’s own it. Let’s give power to the people.

 Image: Lostintheredwoods

 

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