How Labour will give people the power to shape their own services

The trick is to understand where communities are at their strongest and most energetic and build capacity around them.

This week Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas set out the purpose and mission of the next Labour government: "get power to give that power away". How we achieve it matters as much as our ambition to do it.

Boxed in between a market that sees us only as consumers and a state that is too often dehumanising and inflexible, it’s clear that change is long overdue. At a time when resources are scarce in the economy, they are abundant in our communities. Passion, energy, empathy and creativity exist in spades, if only we could see it.

But after four years of cuts which have placed the greatest strain on communities and families least able to bear it, the message that we’ll hand power to people to do things themselves may seem impossible to those who are struggling to stay afloat. They need to know that this is not "politics on the cheap". We recognise that some communities don’t currently have the time, resources or confidence to organise, challenge and create change. Last year research by Civil Exchange showed how, since the "big society", the most deprived areas of the country have fallen further and further behind. The "big society" was based on an entrepreneurial business model, where the state got out the way and communities thrived. The message from Civil Exchange is that they don’t - especially where help is most needed.

There is an inequality in people’s experiences of wielding power and changing this takes time. There are brilliant examples, like the Unicef Rights Respecting Schools Programme, which shares real power with children from the age of 5, allowing them to participate in shaping and running their own schools and learning by doing.

Investing in communities to help build their own capacity doesn’t mean bringing in clever people from Whitehall to set up forums and networks, as the government has done, on short-term contracts. From Wigan to Walsall, those relationships and community groups are already there. The trick is to understand where communities are at their strongest and most energetic and build capacity around them. In Wigan you might start with the grassroots sport clubs which are strong, thriving and have reach across local communities. It’s a big leap from running a football league to taking power back and using it to manage your own cancer care or shape your local health service and there are different ways of bridging it. One approach is through community organisers, like anti-fascist charity Hope Not Hate, which uses a network of grassroots organisers to build capacity to fight racism and fascism across communities.

There are other ways too. In Lambeth, the Young Lambeth Cooperative gives local people the power to make decisions about how their youth services are run. The budget is held in a community trust and services are commissioned by its members with support from the local Council. This is more than localism. Just as power can get stuck at national level, so too it can sometimes get stuck at local level. As Lambeth has shown, to give more power to people sometimes, you have to take it away from local and national government, or you have to push it downwards and give the frontline professionals tasked with helping people the power they need to do it. There are many people who need and deserve help and support to make decisions and manage their own care. Children in care, for example, frequently say decisions are taken without thought to the reality of their lives. They don’t want to make huge decisions by themselves; they want the support of an adult they trust. But just as they don’t currently hold power to make decisions, nor do their social workers. They need access to budgets across health and social care and real power to make decisions.

The lesson of these diverse examples is that they succeed because they recognise the colour and texture of life in different communities. Trying to impose one model squeezes the spirit and energy out of people and communities. As Jon Cruddas told the New  Local Government Network, our job is to help people shape things themselves in response to the needs of their own local communities.

This is so important because too often we hear people’s experience of both market and state is uncaring, unresponsive and inflexible, from incomprehensible computer-generated letters to poor service and lack of redress. Giving people the power and ability to shape services will stop us working in silos, ticking boxes and ignoring the things that matter to people most. Business developments that take no account of the wider impact on the community, a care system that drives a coach and horses through the relationships that sustain children at the time they need them most. The answer is to give children-in-care councils, patient forums and residents associations the power and ability to shape those services around the things that matter to them.

It’s not easy to do but it couldn’t matter more because it’s built on the idea of human potential, replacing a deficit model which focuses on people’s problems with a positive model which focuses on people’s potential.

Lisa Nandy is shadow for minister for civil society and MP for Wigan

Ed Miliband delivering his speech on banking reform at the University of London last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Lisa Nandy is the MP for Wigan. She was formerly Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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