To level up Labour needs to rethink power
Labour Together's editorials on the pressing issues of the day are based on the politics of Labour's Covenant. In this editorial we look at how power is changing and the opportunities and challenges this offers the next Labour government.
During the recent Tory leadership debate this week, one single question stood out. Audience members were asked to raise their hands if they trusted any politician. The whole audience sat silent, not one hand raised. In this silence rests a fundamental political problem for Labour. A problem that is the subject of our new report Power Now. Labour must answer this problem not just to win the next election but also to fundamentally reconstruct its approach to statecraft once in power.
As we’ve outlined in Labour’s Covenant, a transactional approach to politics will no longer work. It’s no longer simply a case of vote for me and I’ll do X, because people no longer trust that X will be done. In the absence of trust we need to start to rethink power, people’s experiences of power and the mechanisms of the state. It’s about more than just their experience of using a service. By making government services more responsive, investing in the interaction between citizen and state, power can reside closer to people’s lives. Democracy at its heart is about responsiveness - building a regular feedback system into government. Currently this happens every four years through a public vote, but what if we were to build deeper, more relational ways for citizens to feedback into our governance systems?
We need a covenantal approach to our politics which exist both within the state and beyond it. To achieve this kind of trust building, our systems of government need to get much more adept at working not just with individuals, but also with community groups, local government, civil society and institutions. Rather than imposing policy solutions from the top, it will need to facilitate conversations, collaborative action and shared problem solving, creating the consent and democratic authority for change. This means building in ways in which services can be codesigned. It also means devolution of decision-making to the lowest appropriate level and experimenting with new forms of democratic practice. Finally, it also means much greater transparency about how the government actually operates and where decisions are taken.
Because if we are to achieve levelling up it won’t be through a single transformation, driven by a top down Whitehall department but the careful stewardship of thousands of transformations all over our country. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of small organisations where people work collaboratively to create the lives they want to lead – through sports clubs, dance classes, book groups, gardening or volunteering in the environment. These kinds of groups make up the social fabric of an area and function like a “democracy battery”. They may not be explicitly political, but they hold the potential relationships that can be mobilised to generate power for joint action. For example, when a local football club funding is threatened, the community can organise quickly to save it, a form of collective action. Politics needs to be better at recognising these broader forms of democracy. Not everyone wants to attend political meetings, but a strong social fabric ensures the potential for empowered communities.
The way we work when we are self-organising is different to the way we work in bureaucracies. We start with an idea or a shared interest and it changes as we talk and think, laugh and drink coffee. We build a coalition around this idea or interest, working with people who we might not always agree with. We get involved because we care about solving the problem that needs to be solved, because it means something to our own lives or to our community. This also gives us a way to overcome differences which can become polarising in a traditional political environment. In community arenas, differences are often tolerated as shared interests are constructed in pursuit of a broader common goal.
This is likely to be the form of a national reconstruction in the modern age, based in local places. It’s how ideas like the everyday economy can become a reality. As Jess Prendergast describes in her work on “attachment economics” , in the reconstruction of places, you cannot segment the social reconstruction from economic reconstruction, and both involve the letting go of power.
But devolving power doesn’t mean we don’t also need a strong central state. To tackle large challenges like climate collapse and rebuild our national economy, the state needs to be stronger than ever. Levelling up will require national stewardship, mechanisms of accountability and measurement and our state will need to facilitate the sharing of learning, resources and experimentation across many different areas. Rebuilding our national economy will require an industrial strategy and strong protections for worker’s rights. Paradoxically, strong central funding and coordination will be needed to direct effort, to incentivise, regulate and maintain standards, while localised systems and networks may more effectively cultivate quality care services and sustain and support local economies, rooted in community and social infrastructure.
Similarly our state needs to be stronger in tackling newer forms of power. Over the past few decades, online platforms have become ever more powerful across many areas of our lives. From Twitter to Deliveroo, these platforms have disrupted entire societal institutions and processes. Facebook enables neighbours to organise litter picks and fundraise for local charities, but it also allows far-right conspiracy theories to spread. According to the TUC, 14.7% of working adults now work via gig economy platforms, compared to 5.8% in 2016. Airbnb is disrupting local housing markets as more landlords move away from residential to short term holiday lets. Tinder has 66 million active users each month and is the medium through which modern intimacy is navigated and millions of relationships are started. The scale and pervasiveness of online platforms across so many dimensions of our common life makes it essential to interrogate their power and how it operates. All too often the regulation of platforms takes place retrospectively, meaning that the harms caused by these new forms can go unchecked for some time.
If it is serious about levelling up and transforming this country, a new labour government will need to wrestle with these fundamental questions of power, who has it and where it should reside.
Read the last editorial 'Conservative failure has gifted Levelling Up to Labour' and the complete series here. To read Labour’s Covenant click here.