Cooperation must be at the heart of Labour's renewal

Councils are already implementing a model that could revolutionise public services nationally.

The next Labour government will face a double whammy of rising expectations, with less money for public services and welfare provision. If we want to protect people who rely most on public services, we will need to do differently with less. If we try and do more with less, we will fall flat on our faces. Different with less can work if we give more decision-making power to the people and communities who use those public services, because they have a direct interest in making sure services are as effective as possible. Whatever the amount of funding on offer, empowering people and their communities creates better outcomes. Labour councils around the country are already putting this idea into practice, and it offers a model that can be extended right across public services nationally.

Many council or housing association tenants are dissatisfied with the standard of housing management they live with. Repairs are done late and to a poor standard. Housing officers can be dismissive and slow to respond to requests for help. Anti-social neighbours are left unchallenged. These things happen because the tenants themselves have no direct control over the people providing the services. But this changes when tenants elect local boards that appoint the housing managers, or in cooperative housing schemes where everyone living on an estate has a share in owning it. Estates like Blenheim Gardens in Brixton which is run by an elected resident management organisation, or Coin Street Housing Cooperative on London’s South Bank, show that when tenants are in control, services improve faster.

As we grow older we rely more on social care and home help. For someone who’s lived their life independently it can be a frightening experience to suddenly be told who will come into your home and when, what you will eat, when you will be bathed, and even when you will go to the toilet. With care staff under intolerable pressure normal human interaction is reduced to a perfunctory minimum and the older person’s own preferences are barely considered. This is no way to treat someone towards the end of a lifetime of hard work and self-reliance. This situation can be turned round by setting a budget for the older person and letting them choose, with professional advice, the help and services they would prefer. Take this a step further and let people combine their budgets in ‘micro-mutuals’ of service users and you put real purchasing power in their hands, forcing providers to offer services that better meet their clients’ needs with higher standards of care and support tailored to each individual.

Some inner-city housing estates suffer high levels of violent youth crime. There are estates in parts of London where the majority of young people are involved in gangs that carry knives and guns and involve themselves in drug dealing, robbery and assaults. But there are also examples of initiatives that successfully steer young people away from harm. On the Myatts Field Estate in Brixton the community took action itself, using their own understanding of the problems in their own neighbourhood and making use of their own ability to reach out to the young people getting involved in gangs. They set up a range of activities including informal mentoring, sports, dance, cookery, even trips to other parts of London to open their young people’s eyes to the positive alternatives available to them. Over three years they got 80 young people out of gangs and steered their lives back on track – a rate of success dramatically more successful than the council’s own youth interventions despite having only a tiny fraction of the resources. This demonstrates the power of community leadership, so in Lambeth we are setting up a youth services trust owned by local people that will support each estate to identify and bring in the services and activities that will make a difference to their young people. This isn’t about turning amateurs into professionals, it’s about putting the professionals under the control of the people who live with the problem. There are safeguards to make sure no one section of the community can exclude any other, but instead of fighting the system to get the change they need the community can use their energy to fight the problem.

Public services become more effective when the people who use them are in charge. By shifting power to service users we create a partnership of equals that leads to genuine cooperation between providers and the people they serve. The result is better services and more resilient communities. Over twenty Labour councils are working together as part of the Cooperative Councils Network to pilot new approaches like these across all our services. By empowering people we can give them back the power to change their lives. We cannot continue locking vulnerable people into dependency by taking away their ability to influence the things that are done to them. We live in a highly diverse society, and we cannot meet such a complex pattern of need if we seek to control everything from the centre. But this agenda is not just about changing Britain, it’s also about winning back support for Labour. People want public services that meet their needs better, and they want more control over the decisions that affect their lives. Change is never easy, but if we refuse to change we will get stuck in a cycle of salami-slicing services that will leave people in despair. We recognise there is no bottomless pit of money – times are hard, and if we pretend otherwise people won’t vote for us. So we need to show we can do things better for less by putting the resources of the state under the control of the people who rely on it.

Lambeth was a by-word for what went wrong with Labour in the 1980s. Today Lambeth, alongside other Labour councils, is building a new agenda based on empowerment and cooperation that can help shape Labour’s renewal in the 2010s.

 

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The hidden joy of charity shops

Mary saw her colleagues at the charity shop every day, but she didn't tell them she was sleeping on the 31 bus.

Camden is a bric-a-brac kind of place – market stalls, blaring music, occasional offers of weed. But the back room of the Sue Ryder charity shop on Parkway is immaculate, with hooped petticoats waiting to be steamed and crockery stacked neatly on the shelves. I’ve come to talk to the shop’s manager, Oya, and one of her volunteers, Mary*, and they are waiting for me with milky tea and chocolate-chip cookies.

Mary is nervous. She is afraid of having her real name printed. “It’s shaming to tell you my story but I believe if I tell people at the right time, good things will happen,” she says. Now in her fifties, she arrived in Britain four years ago from Italy, without friends or savings, having left her husband. The jobcentre gave her an Oyster card and told her to volunteer at a charity shop to improve her English. “So we put her on the tills,” says Oya. “That’s what we do with anyone who gets sent to us to learn English.”

But Mary had a secret. She couldn’t find anywhere to live, so every afternoon, when she finished her shift at the shop, she would go to the jobcentre and laugh and joke with the staff there to cover up the reality that she didn’t have anywhere else to go. When the jobcentre closed, she would ride the 31 bus through the night, from White City to Camden and back again. It was the best way to stay warm. Then, every morning, she would arrive at the shop early, brush her teeth in the staff bathroom and change into fresh clothes – washed in a friend’s hostel room. No one else knew.

The charity Crisis calls people such as Mary “the hidden homeless” and says that it is almost impossible to estimate how many of them there are in Britain today. Most homeless people don’t qualify for accommodation in shelters but eke out their time shuttling between friends’ sofas, insecure rented accommodation, bed and breakfasts or sleeping rough on the streets.

Eventually, the shop manager – Oya’s predecessor – asked Mary what was wrong and her story tumbled out. Between them, with help from the jobcentre staff, Mary found a studio flat and moved from volunteering on the tills to working at a nearby convenience store, where she is now a supervisor. Both she and Oya have to stop to reach for tissues while telling me this story. “Sue Ryder is my family,” says Mary. “Sometimes I want to cry but there are no tears left. And Allah would be angry if I dared to cry now, with all that I have.”

Despite having a paid job, Mary still volunteers at the charity shop on Friday mornings. She leaves at 3pm to work the evening shift at the convenience store. She and Oya are firm friends outside work. Mary brings in home-cooked lasagne for Oya and her daughter – “She says, ‘Eat some tonight, freeze the rest for Ella’” – and Oya invites her round and cooks her Turkish food on Friday nights. “She’ll say working here saved her life,” says Oya. “I’ll say I made a friend for life.”

The reason I’m here is a selfish one. Volunteering for a charity is the perfect antidote to a culture that can often feel mercenary, cynical and ruthlessly individualistic. I wish more people did it. I’m also here because in December, I wrote a piece defending charities from accusations that many do not turn every penny of donations into outlay on their projects. But running charity shops requires upfront investment – on electricity, rent and wages – so it’s too simplistic to demand that all the money they receive should go straight back out of the door.

That article prompted the management of Sue Ryder, which operates 457 shops with 12,000 volunteers, to get in touch and invite me in. Some of their volunteers, like Mary, need to learn English and other skills before they can get a paying job; some are serving prison sentences; others are youngsters sent unwillingly by their schools for work experience. (Jackie, who now manages one of the charity’s shops in Aberdeen, had previously been imprisoned three times.)

Not that everything is rosy in the charity shop back room. Oya says that some people use them as a “dumping ground”. I tell her that I once read a story about a donation of tights that had a used sanitary towel still stuck to the crotch and they nod: “We had that.” Oya is very proud, however, that the store “doesn’t smell like a charity shop”.

As well as providing jobs and raising money, stores such as this one provide a useful social barometer. There are around 9,000 charity shops in the UK and their number rose 30 per cent in the five years following the financial crash of 2007. Since then, the economic downturn has increased trade significantly. Last year at the shop in Camden, the number of donation bags increased by 52 per cent and takings went up by 8 per cent, yielding a net profit of £65,000.

In Camden, close to chichi Mornington Crescent and Primrose Hill, the donations can be eyewateringly expensive (recent finds include a £1,200 clarinet and a £980 Prada handbag), while the cheapest brands stocked are Marks & Spencer and Next. “More people are charity shopping,” says Oya. “And not the people you’d expect. They’re suited and booted. Sometimes they’re famous.” Mention is made of an EastEnders actress spotted in the store.

Because of her work, Oya has been invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace on 12 June and naturally she is taking Mary. A trip to buy hats is coming up and their enthusiasm is infectious. Here in the back room of a north London charity shop, as the three of us – a Turkish-British Muslim, an Eritrean-Italian Muslim and plain old white agnostic me – drink milky tea, I feel the most British I have all year. These guys really love the Queen. And they love being friends. Stepping out into the sunshine, my overwhelming feeling is: maybe we’re all going to be OK.

*Her name has been changed

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster