People power is the antidote to populism

People feel alienated and remote from politics.  The financial crash led to a decade of austerity.  Austerity has ripped the heart out of communities with the loss of shared spaces like libraries, pubs, youth and community centres.  Good jobs have been lost to automation.  Inequality has grown deeper even though the economy’s grown bigger because a few at the top have grown richer at the expense of everyone else.  People are angry because they’ve been unable to influence the changes sweeping away their sense of security, their sense of belonging, their sense of power over their own lives.  They’re left instead with a profound sense of loss. 

Whether you’re a former steelworker in South Yorkshire whose children now work in insecure, low paid jobs in call centres, or a black family in Croydon knowing that one in three young black people are unemployed right here on the doorstep of one of the wealthiest square miles on earth, you’re angry because you’ve come to feel there’s not much you can do about it.  Putting a cross on a ballot paper once every five years then surrendering to political paternalism isn’t enough.  In these circumstances, taking back control sounds good to you. 

And taking back control is what people voted for in the EU referendum.  The problem is, leaving the EU won’t solve the problem because being in the EU didn’t cause it.  Our politics did.  So we need to change our politics. 

We’re not just facing a loss of trust in politics, we are facing a crisis of liberal democracy.  Look around the world and we can no longer simply assume democracy will survive.  Democracy – where every adult has a free vote – has barely existed for 100 years even in this country.  Democracies are a minority in terms of how most countries are governed.  For most of the world’s history, and even today for most of the world, the default model of government is autocracy, or the strongman. 

Even in democratic countries, we see voters moving to the extremes.   In the US, Trump is a president like no other – disrespectful of minorities, the media, state institutions, even the law.  America’s president is disdainful of America’s allies but admiring of brutal dictators.  In Europe we see the rise of right-wing populist governments in Hungary, Poland and Italy.  In France, a neo-fascist won nearly a quarter of the vote in the first round of the presidential elections.  Vladimir Putin’s Russia invaded and annexed part of a neighbouring sovereign European state.  China – an autocratic dictatorship – is building its influence, hard and soft, around the world. 

How do we save democracy from the rising tide of autocracy?  It’s a question our co-operative councils are already tackling.  Because instead of giving up on democracy, we have to double down on it and make our system much more democratic by rebuilding politics around people and putting real power in people’s hands.       

We understand that people are more than units of production and consumption in a voracious economy that’s consuming our planet along with people’s lives.  We know that people are more than problems to be managed.  We understand the principles of citizenship, where people have individual rights but also owe duties to the rest of society in working for the common good.   Public policy too often ignores the fact that people are not problems to be managed but fully rounded human beings nurtured by families, relationships, community, a sense of belonging, and are given meaning by the work they do or the contribution they make.   

For co-operative councils, the litmus test is simple: if a policy gives the people affected by it more control over their lives we are heading in the right direction.  This has to be more than just giving people a voice.  On its own a voice isn’t enough – people also need the power to make their voice heard, because a voice without power is a cry in the dark. 

Rochdale have mutualised their entire council housing stock so the people living in it have a bigger say over their own homes.  Plymouth has set up a network of community energy co-operatives to generate energy sustainably and ensure the profits are ploughed back into the community.  Croydon is developing a community land trust that gives local people control over development in their neighbourhood.  Stevenage is pioneering community budgeting.  In Lambeth, the council has set up Black Thrive, to give the black community greater oversight over mental health services.   Newcastle has set up community-led work to tackle homelessness and financial exclusion.  There’s growing awareness that tackling adverse childhood experiences in the first months of life dramatically extends opportunity and success throughout life.  And co-operative councils measure social value, not just financial value, when taking decisions. 

The digital revolution is transforming our lives in so many ways, and there’s more we must do to harness that power.  Platform co-operativism is where groups create a shared a platform they can build services on – what an opportunity for councils to further empower communities.  In the new economy, one of the most valuable commodities is data.  But global corporations own our data and exploit it for their own gain often at our expense.  Does the answer lie in setting up a data co-operative where we all collectively own our data and can choose how it is used?  There’s a huge challenge that co-operative councils can lead on since national government won’t. 

This isn’t just a movement in local government any more.  Our party nationally is starting to understand the need to put power back in the people’s hands too.  Labour conference this year supported giving workers a proportion of shares in the company they work for, and backed the principle of community wealth-building.  After a period where Labour’s felt too much like a battle between the 1970s and the 1990s, we’re starting to see the shape of 21st-century socialism, and co-operative values are at the heart of it. 

Co-operative councils are not just reinventing public services, they’re in the frontline of the fightback against extremist populism, finding new ways to make democracy real and relevant, showing how co-operative values are not just the treasures of our history but the way we build a better future.

Steve Reed OBE MP

Honorary President of the CCIN & Shadow Minister Civil Society

@SteveReed

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