Let it go. (Photo: Ted Viens/Flickr)
Show Hide image

Politicians have to stop pretending they have the answers - and start helping people find their own

Devolution of power is Labour's next great mission.

Right across the country Labour councils, local communities and grassroots organisations are showing how they can do better with less while remaining true to their values. In our publication, Let It Go, we interview six public service innovators to learn the lessons their experience offers more widely. 

Oldham Council leader Jim McMahon has set up an ethical care company.  Shunning the race to the bottom seen in the private homecare market, Oldham’s new social enterprise listens to what its clients want then shapes services to deliver it.  Users now receive longer visits at times they choose and satisfaction, he says, is ‘very high’ both among service users and workers.  They key to Jim’s success is to stop pretending the politicians have all the answers and ‘just listen’ to the people on the frontline. 

On the other side of the country Jayne Moules runs Newcastle City Council’s families programme.  The project supports families with high levels of anti-social behaviour or criminality and low levels of achievement to do better.  Instead of dozens of different and uncoordinated interventions by different teams of professionals, Jayne’s team first wins the family’s consent to seek to change then works with them to coordinate support.     

It’s a dramatically more successful approach that, says Jayne, has led to a radically different way of looking at public services.  She explains that it’s “not about delivering a percentage increase in this, that or the other, but it was actually individual families that needed to improve outcomes.” 

What Jim, Jayne and other innovators like them understand is that involving the people you are trying to help allows you to do better even with less money around.  The one resource that’s still in plentiful supply is people’s own insights into the services they use and knowledge of the problems in their own lives.  It’s a resource we don’t tap into enough, and it has the power to transform services from housing to health to home care. 

This is the new politics of empowerment, but for politicians it means learning to listen and let go.  Instead of pretending we have all the answers, our job is to help people and communities find their own answers.  Giving people more power helps repair our broken politics because it by-passes politicians and puts citizens in the driving seat.  Giving people – especially the most vulnerable and socially excluded – more control over their own life helps them become more self-reliant and uncaps their aspirations. 

Labour will share power out, not hoard it at the centre, and do things with people not to them. This new approach is not the old-style state control but moves beyond New Labour’s choice agenda too.

The choice between two bad options is no choice at all.  What people need is the power to insist on services that meet their real needs, to prevent problems instead of trying to fix them afterwards; to do what actually works. 

Britain suffers from an inequality of power.  The rich have always had the power to choose the services they want to use.  Now we have to reshape public services to give that power to everyone else too.  It’s the way to make public services more efficient and effective, make our communities stronger, and fix our broken politics. 

Steve Reed is MP for Croydon North and Liz Kendall is MP for Leicester West. 

Getty
Show Hide image

Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.