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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser