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.

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The dog at the end of the lead may be small, but in fact what I’m walking is a hound of love

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel.

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel. I seem to have become a temporary co-owner of an enthusiastic Chorkie. A Chorkie, in case you’re not quite up to speed with your canine crossbreeds, is a mixture of a chihuahua and a Yorkshire Terrier, and while my friend K— busies herself elsewhere I am looking after this hound.

This falls squarely into the category of Things I Never Thought I’d Do. I’m a cat person, taking my cue from their idleness, cruelty and beauty. Dogs, with their loyalty, their enthusiasm and their barking, are all a little too much for me, even after the first drink of the day. But the dog is here, and I am in loco parentis, and it is up to me to make sure that she is looked after and entertained, and that there is no repetition of the unfortunate accident that occurred outside my housemate’s room, and which needed several tissues and a little poo baggie to make good.

As it is, the dog thinks I am the bee’s knees. To give you an idea of how beeskneesian it finds me, it is licking my feet as I write. “All right,” I feel like saying to her, “you don’t have to go that far.”

But it’s quite nice to be worshipped like this, I have decided. She has also fallen in love with the Hovel, and literally writhes with delight at the stinky cushions on the sofa. Named after Trude Fleischmann, the lesbian erotic photographer of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, she has decided, with admirable open-mindedness, that I am the Leader of the Pack. When I take the lead, K— gets a little vexed.

“She’s walking on a loose lead, with you,” K— says. “She never does that when I’m walking her.” I don’t even know what that means, until I have a think and work it out.

“She’s also walking to heel with you,” K— adds, and once again I have to join a couple of mental dots before the mists part. It would appear that when it comes to dogs, I have a natural competence and authority, qualities I had never, not even in my most deranged flights of self-love, considered myself to possess in any measurable quantity at all.

And golly, does having a dog change the relationship the British urban flâneur has with the rest of society. The British, especially those living south of Watford, and above all those in London, do not recognise other people’s existence unless they want to buy something off them or stop them standing on the left of the sodding escalator, you idiot. This all changes when you have a dog with you. You are now fair game for any dog-fancier to come up to you and ask the most personal questions about the dog’s history and genealogy. They don’t even have to have a dog of their own; but if you do, you are obliged by law to stop and exchange dog facts.

My knowledge of dog facts is scant, extending not much further beyond them having a leg at each corner and chasing squirrels, so I leave the talking to K—, who, being a friendly sort who could probably talk dog all day long if pressed, is quite happy to do that. I look meanwhile in a kind of blank wonder at whichever brand of dog we’ve just encountered, and marvel not only at the incredible diversity of dog that abounds in the world, but at a realisation that had hitherto escaped me: almost half of London seems to have one.

And here’s the really interesting thing. When I have the leash, the city looks at me another way. And, specifically, the young women of the city. Having reached the age when one ceases to be visible to any member of the opposite sex under 30, I find, all of a sudden, that I exist again. Women of improbable beauty look at Trude, who looks far more Yorkie than chihuahua, apart from when she does that thing with the ears, and then look at me, and smile unguardedly and unironically, signalling to me that they have decided I am a Good Thing and would, were their schedules not preventing them, like to chat and get to know me and the dog a bit better.

I wonder at first if I am imagining this. I mention it to K—.

“Oh yes,” she says, “it’s a thing. My friend P-J regularly borrows her when he wants to get laid. He reckons he’s had about 12 shags thanks to her in the last six months. The problems only arise when they come back again and notice the dog isn’t there.”

I do the maths. Twelve in six months! That’s one a fortnight. An idea begins to form in my mind. I suppose you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out what it is. But no. I couldn’t. Could I?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism