Labour will give people the power to shape their communities

Faced with austerity and a crisis of public confidence, we need to get money out of Whitehall and down to communities where it can be used to best effect.

The communities in which we all live and work are facing enormous social, economic and demographic changes. It’s going to be harder for councils to keep services going, let alone cope with rising demand for social care as the number of older people increases, because they are bearing the brunt of the coalition’s austerity. Councils are having their government funding nearly halved and the poorest areas have unfairly been hit the hardest.

What this means is that we have to change the way in which public money is spent on the things we all value and rely on. We need to get money out of Whitehall and down to communities where it can be used to best effect. And we need to devolve to councils and groups of councils (like the combined authorities and city regions) more powers over transport investment, planning, skills, and finding jobs for the long-term unemployed. This is one of the ways in which we can radically change the way in which England is run to make it a much less centralised country.

But perhaps most important of all, we need to do this to address the crisis of confidence, and alienation there is in our politics. The global economic crash came as a great shock, we have a cost of living crisis, and parents think about pensions, housing or the environment and wonder whether the future for their children will be better than the life they have enjoyed. Many people feel that too many decisions are taken too far away from them.

And that’s why the only way we are going to rebuild confidence in the power of people working together to create something better – the thing we call politics – is to give people the power to do precisely that for themselves.

For too long, we have fallen prey to consumerist politics – people demanding of government and then sitting back to wait for things to happen. The changes I want to see are based on the idea of contributory politics – it’s up to all of us to put something in because by taking responsibility we can take back power over our own lives.

And that’s what Labour’s One Nation idea is all about. Reform of the market to tackle the cost of living crisis and vested interests. Getting finance to encourage and support innovation and a longer term view. Pushing power down to communities so that people locally can build the homes they need, tackle the payday lenders, and generate renewable energy. England’s big cities are already leading the way on this and showing what can be done – a wonderful antidote to gloom and despair.

At the end of this month, Jon Cruddas and I are organising a Policy Review symposium that will bring together council leaders, MPs, members of the shadow cabinet, policy makers, academics, and those working in the third sector to discuss all this and more. 

At a time when money is tight, how exactly are we going to change the relationship between central and local government, social institutions and the market?  How do we reorganise our public services around people, households and places rather than administrative structures? And how do we tell the story of what this will make possible? These are the questions informing our policy making so that we can win the election in 2015 and provide the groundwork for a radical, reforming government.

Hilary Benn is shadow communities and local government secretary, and MP for Leeds Central 

Ed Miliband speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Hilary Benn is shadow foreign secretary, and Labour MP for Leeds Central.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.