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.

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.