DIY pol­i­tics s

The joys of peo­ple pow­erer

The Guardian Weekly - - Front page -

This ar­ti­cle be­gan just over two years ago with an almighty row. In the spring of 2016, I went to South Wales. Per­haps you re­mem­ber that time: David Cameron was the UK prime min­is­ter, Ge­orge Os­borne was the chan­cel­lor and lead­ing re­main­ers thought the EU ref­er­en­dum was in the bag. What con­vinced me they were wrong was an ar­gu­ment with Gareth Meek.

Like most I’d met in this Labour strong­hold, he didn’t care what Jeremy Cor­byn and the unions said; he was vot­ing out. Why? “Im­mi­grants.” That was the rote re­sponse – ex­cept we were in the tiny vil­lage of Llan­hil­leth, where the only for­eign­ers were in­side the Daily Mail. Bar­rel-chested Meek had had a fac­tory job un­til he got in­jured; now he looked after the lo­cal min­ers’ in­sti­tute.

Truly, it was a kind of cathe­dral tow­er­ing over all the small houses: a so­cial club built by lo­cal min­ers out of their own subs in 1906. No govern­ment cash went into build­ing this place; it re­lied on the pros­per­ity and pride of its com­mu­nity. But the money had long since gone, and about 10 years ago the place had nearly died. The clues as to who’d pro­vided the funds to bring it back to life were the win­dows plas­tered with stick­ers of Brus­sels blue.

In a build­ing that had been saved by Europe raged a man who wanted to torch the EU. But his anger wasn’t di­rected at Euro­crats or at im­mi­grants. What filled him with fury was the Bri­tish govern­ment. Why? “They sold the coun­try out,” he said. “There’s noth­ing we own any more.”

I re­mem­bered the drive out here, past hills once black with coal waste, now a lush and de-in­dus­tri­alised green. In place of mass em­ploy­ment, you saw aban­doned build­ings amid ware­house units for one- and two-man bands: the bro­ken prom­ises of an en­tire po­lit­i­cal class. But how would leav­ing Europe help? “I don’t think it would make a lot of dif­fer­ence. But the dam­age is al­ready done. You ain’t go­ing to pull that back now.” Then a big shrug of ni­hilism.

You can see the past two years as Meek’s re­venge. The pow­er­less­ness that drove him and many oth­ers to pick Brexit has brought chaos on the allpow­er­ful. By try­ing to take back con­trol, he has robbed those at the top of the con­trol they thought they had. With only six months to go, the cur­rent UK prime min­is­ter Theresa May looks im­pos­si­bly far away from de­liv­er­ing the one thing that will de­fine her pre­mier­ship. Party lead­ers across the spec­trum are fight­ing to keep their MPs from mutiny­ing. And the sa­vants who didn’t see any of this com­ing now de­clare they don’t un­der­stand their coun­try.

This is a cri­sis of gov­ern­abil­ity such as Bri­tain has not seen for half a cen­tury. And it is the bit­ter fruit of the ex­trac­tive, in­ac­ces­si­ble econ­omy de­scribed by Meek.

Spread across Bri­tain are peo­ple and places united by a com­mon con­di­tion: they are largely pow­er­less. Their economies have been emp­tied out, their ser­vices cut to the bone, their in­comes un­der threat. The mar­ket dis­cards them; the me­dia ig­nores them; the state dis­re­gards them.

If the UK is to hold to­gether as a coun­try – which must now be an open ques­tion – the only way it will do so is by en­abling peo­ple and places to ex­er­cise power by and for them­selves. That be­lief lies be­hind the se­ries I have been writ­ing here for the past nine months. In the Al­ter­na­tives, I have sought to ex­plore what that demo­cratic, de­cen­tralised econ­omy might look like, by re­port­ing the ways peo­ple are al­ready do­ing eco­nomics dif­fer­ently.

I looked for ex­am­ples, not tem­plates. The first place I vis­ited in the se­ries, Pre­ston, is of­ten called a model for how it brings pub­lic spend­ing back home. Yet sim­ply to cut and paste what the coun­cil­lors and of­fi­cials and ad­vis­ers have done there may not work in an­other part of the coun­try with a crew that doesn’t have the same dogged­ness and heart. Be­ing an ex­per­i­ment should be a badge of pride, es­pe­cially now that Bri­tain’s eco­nomic model is bro­ken, and mis­takes are part of the process of dis­cov­ery.

In Liver­pool, I met res­i­dents of aban­doned streets who brought them back to life by de­vel­op­ing so­cial hous­ing. In Old­ham, school cater­ers in the poor­est town in Eng­land showed me how they feed their kids award-win­ning or­ganic meals. The city of Ply­mouth is build­ing an econ­omy of so­cial en­ter­prises and co-op­er­a­tives. Some of my in­ter­vie­wees are fight­ing aus­ter­ity, such as the com­mu­nity in Wit­ney keep­ing ru­ral bus ser­vices run­ning after cuts. Oth­ers are creat­ing new civic in­sti­tu­tions, such as Brighton’s Bevy, which is a pub, a com­mu­nity cen­tre and, for some neigh­bours, a life­line. These are dif­fer­ent projects with some­times

wildly op­pos­ing pol­i­tics, but across the se­ries they have some strong com­mon threads. First, roots: most of the pro­tag­o­nists live in worlds that, as VS Pritch­ett wrote of Rud­yard Ki­pling’s char­ac­ters, are “thickly neigh­boured”. Wit­ney’s An­drew Lyons jacked in a steady job with Stage­coach to help run com­mu­nity buses be­cause he hated the idea of pen­sion­ers trapped in their houses. Matthew Brown, now coun­cil leader of Pre­ston, took me on a pil­grim­age to see where Joy Di­vi­sion played.

These aren’t Mar­garet Thatcher’s atom­ised in­di­vid­u­als, nor are they Cameron’s bro­ken Bri­tain: they care enough about their homes and their neigh­bours to try to make things bet­ter.

Sec­ond, they are refugees from the fi­nan­cial crash. Most of our Al­ter­na­tives ac­tivists grew up in the decade-long shadow cast by Lehman Broth­ers. Mike Rid­dell of New­cas­tle-un­der-Lyme used to build shop­ping cen­tres – then went bust in the credit crunch. Oth­ers, who were at univer­sity dur­ing the euro­zone melt­down, or­gan­ised cit­i­zens’ eco­nomics classes – it was what they saw on the news that made them ques­tion their eco­nomics text­books. This isn’t a story of hard­ened cam­paign­ers bat­tling for decades; it’s a so­ci­ety thrown into an emer­gency of which it is still try­ing to make sense.

Third, ba­sics. Among the ur­gent needs served by our Al­ter­na­tives were de­cent food for chil­dren dur­ing hol­i­days and hous­ing. In 21st-cen­tury Bri­tain we are still deal­ing with 19th-cen­tury prob­lems. Politi­cians talk about au­to­ma­tion tak­ing our jobs, yet of 20 coun­tries ranked by the In­ter­na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of Ro­bot­ics, fac­to­ries in the UK are the least au­to­mated, be­hind Slo­vakia and the Czech Repub­lic. It is high time West­min­ster recog­nised that Bri­tain isn’t some Jetsons econ­omy – its is­sues are far more fun­da­men­tal.

Fourth, val­ues. Be it or­gan­is­ing commu- nity runs in parks, let­ting out an empty shop­ping cen­tre to char­i­ties and so­cial en­ter­prises, award­ing con­tracts to lo­cal busi­nesses rather than multi­na­tion­als: most of the Al­ter­na­tives chal­lenge how the mar­ket mea­sures value.

Fifth, par­tic­i­pa­tion. Many of the Al­ter­na­tives de­pend on oth­ers getting in­volved. These are noisy and en­er­getic or­gan­i­sa­tions. A con­fer­ence hall giv­ing du­ti­ful ova­tions to some dreary front­bencher they are not.

The Al­ter­na­tives are flour­ish­ing be­cause those at­tributes chime with so many peo­ple. East Kil­bride’s Novo­graf has gone from a pri­vate com­pany a cou­ple of years ago to be­ing 100% owned by its staff – an ex­ten­sion of the stake­holder prin­ci­ple out­lined re­cently by the UK Labour shadow chan­cel­lor John McDon­nell – and sales and prof­its are both ris­ing. Ply­mouth’s Nudge Com­mu­nity Builders have raised £200,000 ($262,000) in a com­mu­nity share of­fer­ing. And a few weeks after Pre­ston ap­peared in the Guardian, the Labour party launched a com­mu­nity wealth-build­ing unit to ap­ply its lessons else­where.

These achieve­ments are all the more re­mark­able be­cause they are hap­pen­ing against the de­fault set­tings of Bri­tish cap­i­tal­ism. It’s as­sumed that school-din­ner ser­vices will go for low-qual­ity volume sup­pli­ers, rather than do what Old­ham did with or­ganic meals. And getting these ideas off the ground is tough: Lon­don’s Mak­erspaces keep los­ing their premises to de­vel­op­ers of ex­pen­sive flats.

Two big shack­les hold in check the growth of more al­ter­na­tives. Eas­ily the big­gest is cap­i­tal: ven­tures such as co-ops strug­gle to raise the nec­es­sary cash. The hold­ers of cap­i­tal of­ten seek short-term re­wards, are un­will­ing to take large risks and have no place on their spread­sheets for so­cial pur­pose. When the com­mu­nity pub the Bevy be­gan, it barely had enough money to keep trad­ing – it was run­ning to stand still. And as Rob­bie Davison of CanCook points out, he has to beg for the kind of sums the City treats as loose change. When these en­ter­prises do find sources of cash, they of­ten find it comes at a cost to their val­ues.

Sec­ond, the over­whelm­ing cen­tral­i­sa­tion of the Bri­tish state can sti­fle de­vel­op­ment of bot­tom-up ini­tia­tives. Whether in Southend or Sun­der­land, it makes lit­tle dif­fer­ence: fi­nan­cial and po­lit­i­cal power is con­cen­trated in cen­tral Lon­don. The UK has among the low­est lev­els of rev­enue-rais­ing by lo­cal taxes in the OECD group of rich coun­tries. We lag be­hind Ire­land and Hun­gary. So if a city like Ply­mouth wants to de­velop a so­cial econ­omy, it has to do so on a shoe­string.

As a di­rect re­sult of these two fac­tors, there is not yet a crit­i­cal mass of pur­pose-driven ven­tures. There are more so­cial en­ter­prises than you might think – 100,000 of them with a to­tal of 2 mil­lion em­ploy­ees – but most are pretty small and con­strained. In places like Mon­dragon in Spain’s Basque coun­try or in north­ern Italy, the co-op­er­a­tive econ­omy is vast and can act as a nur­tur­ing net­work for new­com­ers. In Bri­tain, the equiv­a­lent scene is some­one hunched over a lap­top at 2am fill­ing in end­less grant ap­pli­ca­tions to prove to a doubt­less kindly bunch of peo­ple in Lon­don that they are do­ing some­thing of so­cial value.

Such se­ri­ous con­straints pre­vent our Al­ter­na­tives from be­com­ing main­stream. They block too many peo­ple from au­thor­ing a dif­fer­ent fu­ture for them­selves and their home towns.

I’d orig­i­nally planned to end this se­ries by June. Driven partly by the en­thu­si­asm of read­ers and of col­leagues, and partly by chanc­ing across other ex­am­ples of Al­ter­na­tives, I’ve kept it go­ing longer. But it’s im­por­tant now to broaden the fo­cus, to look at other as­pects of the ev­ery­day econ­omy. Many of the un­der­ly­ing themes, how­ever, will re­main the same.

A few kilo­me­tres from where Meek and I met in South Wales, and just over a cen­tury be­fore, Nye Be­van be­gan work min­ing coal. He was only 13 years old. Decades later, after be­com­ing min­is­ter of health to Cle­ment At­tlee and found­ing the NHS, he wrote about how his years at the col­liery shaped his be­liefs. “As a young miner … my con­cern was with the one prac­ti­cal ques­tion: where does power lie in this par­tic­u­lar state of Great Bri­tain and how can it be at­tained by the work­ers?” He wasn’t the only one ask­ing, but the the­o­rists were not work­ing long hours for small money or watch­ing their work­mates get maimed or killed in the course of duty.

“It was no ab­stract ques­tion for us,” wrote Be­van. “The cir­cum­stances of our lives made it a burn­ing lu­mi­nous mark of in­ter­ro­ga­tion. Where was power and which the road to it?” Over 100 years later, that ques­tion re­mains as ur­gent as ever.

The Al­ter­na­tives se­ries can be found at the­guardian.com/com­men­t­is­free/se­ries/the-al­ter­na­tives

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