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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.