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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.