Ed Miliband was right in his Progress speech to draw attention to the low turnout in the recent local government elections and the increasing public disconnection with politicians, the political parties and much of the political system. He was also right to call on The Labour Party to reconnect through adopting stronger links with local communities. One of his advisors was quoted in The Observer as saying that politicians have to address issues like “dog shit” on pavements. This is correct. However, the new community politics have to be about more than keeping the pavements free of canine excrement – important as this is.
Any renaissance in popular engagement with politics will have to be addressed in a number of levels. Macro international and national economic policies matter as much as those based on the local neighbourhood or street. Public service reform and the quality of the NHS, education, policing and transport must be addressed perhaps even more than street cleaning. Progressive taxation, welfare reform and redistribution of wealth, income and power are essential for any progressive political revival. The economy, employment and opportunity are important “stupid”.
However, if the political leadership especially in The Labour Party only speak about the big national issues they will be ignoring the immediate and legitimate concerns of many of their potential supporters. People are worried about and have aspirations for the families, their friends, their neighbours and their neighbourhoods as well as their country. These worries and aspirations have to be addressed at local and national levels.
They feel isolated and distant from decision makers. Often these decision makers will be political leaders in town halls and not just the ones in Whitehall or Westminster. This is one reason for the low turnout in local elections.
There is much strength in the argument that goes along the lines of “people will not vote for councillors and mayors if they feel that these local politicians have little power – this having been sucked up into Whitehall or transferred to unelected local bodies.” However, simply devolving more power, authority, responsibilities and finance to local government – welcome as this would be – will not be enough.
For many years, many in The Labour Party and those of us committed to local government have regarded local authorities with their elected councillors and mayors as the sole source of democratic representation and legitimacy in a locality. In many ways this is a correct assertion given that there are regular elections even if the participation in these elections is low. Local government is the only source of constitutional democratic legitimacy in local areas and consequently rightly should provide community leadership seeking to influence and shape the actions of others in the public and business sectors. It can and should speak for local place with central government; and local politicians should put place and its residents above national party loyalty. However, if to assume that only local councils and councillors can and do represent local people would be a mistake. It could further alienate many people from the political system.
Community groups, voluntary organisations, faith groups and co-operatives have voluntary members. They usually speak for and serve their members and the wider community. They can contribute to capacity building. They often provide services that are not commissioned or funded by the public sector. They may be able to reach and engage sections of the population that are marginalised by the statutory sector; and they may have their confidence in ways that the public sector does not. They are often willing to challenge orthodoxy and authority.
Of course, there not all community groups, voluntary organisations, faith groups and co-operatives are effective, representative, inclusive and democratic. Some are too dependent on the public sector for funding and direction; and others are too focused on the interests of a self-selected minority at the expense of the majority.
The voluntary and community sector can complement public sector financed services but not substitute for them. The current Government seems intent on misunderstanding this and to cutting much needed funding to the sector. This is wrong and progressives should resist such policies.
Most local authorities work with and support their local voluntary and community sector. In my experience, too many local authorities and councillors see the sector as a provider of services – whether state funded or not – rather than as the voice of communities, neighbourhoods and groups within the wider society. They are uncomfortable and sometimes resistant when a community or voluntary group challenges a council’s political or managerial decisions. This is mistake and further can damage local political credibility. And this is not to argue that councils and councillors should not challenge back when they disagree with an alternative opinion. In challenging back they must be coherent and explain why – and above all show respect.
If we are to see a resurgence of local and national political interest and action by greater numbers of the population politicians are going to have to show more respect for the voluntary and community sector; to work voluntary and community groups at local and national level; to devise new forms of local governance and popular engagement which embrace community groups as well as councils; for councillors to work with community organisers and not to ignore them; and to share the democratic space.
The history of The Labour Party is a history of community, voluntary action, local voluntary collectivism as much as it is about a big state. However, to argue for a renewed focus on community and the voluntary sector is not to argue against a big and critical role for the state – both local and national state – for many progressive objectives require effective government with a capital “G”.
Ed Miliband has rightly called for a political and democratic renaissance. This has to include a new partnership with community groups, voluntary organisations, faith groups and co-operatives based on mutual respect; shared agendas; and respected differences.
This agenda should belong to the progressive left and we should not allow it to high jacked in the name of the “Big Society” and/or those pursuing a smaller state and less public services.
John Tizard is an independent strategic advisor and commentator