Municipal Socialism

Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too by Mathew Brown and Rhian E Jones.

A review by Paul Wildish.

To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” – George Orwell

May saw the publication by Repeater Books of Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too. 168 pages of taut no nonsense text providing explanation, advocacy and how-to-do advice in support of community wealth building, often described as ‘the Preston Model’.

This is by no means the first book to discuss community wealth building as a progressive project for the left. It is preceded by Joe Guinan and Martin O’Neil’s The Case for Community Wealth Building (2020) and the Democracy Collaborative think tank’s co-founders, Ted Howard and Majorie Kelly’s The Making of a Democratic Economy (2019), both books eloquently making the case for democratic localism. However, Paint Your Town Red’s message is reinforced by coming straight from the horses’ mouth as it is authored by Mathew Brown, the Leader of Preston City Council in collaboration with Rhian E. Jones, founding editor of the New Socialist website, now editor of Red Pepper and a contributor to Tribune.

The book is a Tardis of ideas and implications for a new politics of the left, struggling to be contained with its 168 pages. Paint Your Town Red is a ‘think and do’ manual around which a platform of action can be formed, not only by radical left councillors but by activists engaged in the community and willing to do the hard work of forming credit unions, energy co-operatives and the myriad of other mutual aid group activities that can help support transformative change. The challenge for the left is to go beyond the warm words and sage nods of approval for working in the community and getting out there to build a community based movement for socialism not just a parliamentary party. This methodology of socialist action is not new, it just requires reinventing the mutualism and self-supporting organisation that was the sustaining commonplace of the labour movement in the early 20th century and giving it new life in the 21st.

Preston has demonstrated successively in both 2019 General Election and the May 2021 round of local elections that its Model has enjoyed popular local support. Where other conventionally staid Labour administrations have fallen to the Tory onslaught, Preston and those other town, city, metro and devolved administrations which have taken up community wealth building or foundational economy initiatives have remained stable, or even increased their vote. Salford, Manchester, North Tyne, North Ayrshire and the devolved administration in Wales have all shown that offering radical socialist economic alternatives pays off at the election box. Now that Mandelson and Blair are camped out permanently in Starmer’s ear, we can expect little recognition of Preston and the other Labour winners’ inconvenient triumph over the centre’s revisionist narrative. However, as Brown and Jones write, the community wealth building model is about “solving problems from below without permission from above”, which includes party leaderships as much as it is about circumventing obstructive governments.

How do you take back your city?

Community wealth building is based on the idea that to create more public wealth you should do as much as possible to stop wealth leaking out. In many towns and cities throughout the UK, there is a virtual conduit, sucking out the profits made by supply, catering and service companies like Capita and Serco and spitting them out in London and the South-East. In many cases this money may also be going abroad. If the money stays local, then it is ‘spent local’, generating more business and prosperity. To do this you need the cooperation of businesses and institutions with budgets for supply, catering and services.

In the book, Brown and Jones identify the components for a council led community wealth building strategy that is built on a key element: co-operation. Although Mathew Brown and his council colleague Martyn Rawlinson were the “initial architects” of the Preston Model, they insist –

“…it has never been the exclusive property of Preston City Council but rather a collaborative project shared between a whole host of people, groups and institutions.”

By initiating a local policy that involves the greatest spread of involvement by the community and its institutions to identify local realities and develop the means to provide solutions to problems, the likelihood is these initiatives will have greater success and longevity.

Anchor Institutions

The community wealth building model looks to work with public bodies and grounded businesses, the institutions that by virtue of their function are anchored to the community and not likely to abruptly move away for reasons of economic profitability. These are the city or town council itself, together with schools, colleges, universities, the fire and ambulance services, police and of course the local NHS. The council’s aim is to encourage them all to look at their budgets and agree to ‘spend local’ as far as they can, acting together and making commonly aligned progressive procurement agreements.

‘Progressive Procurement’

Progressive Procurement is the driver for developing a community wealth building strategy which must be led by the council’s example. Again, not a new idea and one being increasingly deployed by Labour councils not obsessed by deals with big developers. In this model the council seeks to source its resource and service needs from local ethical providers, according to the criteria it has developed. The keynotes of which would be: providing local employment and spending locally, paying the living wage, worker friendly management practice, recognition of trade union rights, the development of green working practice and the like. In return, the council is giving local firms, many of them likely to be small and medium enterprises, preferential access to fair tendering based not just on the lowest price calculation but also on the social value given back to the community.

The big budgets wielded by councils operating a progressive procurement policy, in concert with allied ‘anchor institutions’, provides the leverage to promote local wealth, community cohesion and social progress. It also has the long term potential of undermining the political power of the big service company lobby that through outsourcing has such a hold on government spending and provision. Wielded intelligently by committed socialist councils it is a powerful tool for the granular change that is noticed at the local level and much ignored by our parliamentary politics, ever seeking the illusory ‘big idea’ favoured by pundits and journalists.

‘Fill the Gaps through Co-operatives’

Where local suppliers are unable to provide the services needed then the council should “encourage, support and fund” new worker owned co-operatives to fill the gaps in the ‘anchor institution’ supply chains. This is the vital political element in the community wealth building model that looks forward to a participatory democratic ownership, embedded in the community, independent of government technocratic management or solely profit driven market objectives.

Of course, it is a broader front of engagement that is envisaged here, it is also about sustaining co-operative and worker owned enterprises with the accompanying infrastructure to sustain them. Alternative models of ownership must be supported by alternative forms of financing. Throughout the book examples and suggestions are made for how to set up credit unions, people’s banks, mutuals and the possibilities of town and councils coming together to set up regional infrastructure banks and where to go for help and advice.

‘Support the Whole Community’

For the model to work successfully, then the council and its collaborators must ensure the widest distribution of benefits accrued. This means working to strengthen employment practice and policy across the city or borough so that the disadvantaged areas are supported to gain access to jobs in the anchor institutions. Another key aspect is bringing back outsourced council and anchor institution services back ‘in-house’ so fairer working practices and better delivery can be monitored and insured.

‘Really Taking Back Control’

In a Guardian article in 2018, Mathew Brown asked us to… “imagine if every Labour city was setting up its own banks, supporting worker-owned businesses and credit unions? Imagine it. That would be our way of taking back control.” For despite its very practical and locally grounded how-to-do concerns the book looks to the development of new orientation for Labour policy and its ideological underpinning. This is not a revival of the municipal socialism of Morrisonian and Fabian managerial top down provision of good works and social welfare, this is an alternative imagining of modern socialism that was struggling to gain coherence and identity under the leadership of Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor McDonnell.

From 2017 to 2019 our socialist project was very much centred around the awesome possibility that a left led Labour Party was on the brink of state capture and could embark upon a democratic socialist transformation of neo-liberal Britain. This is no place to rehearse past events for, as the book recognises, we are back to answering that pressing question; what does the socialist left do to challenge capitalism in the absence of winning state power?

This book contributes to the thinking expressed in Labour’s Alternative Models of Ownership 2017 policy paper, where the workers and consumers are to be given more direct ownership and control of the key economic sectors that maintain public infrastructure and the commons. It proposes a model for pursuing that agenda under the feet of capitalism. It is the people themselves through their own initiatives creating socialist ‘facts on the ground’. These alternative models of public ownership, hopefully defended by those who have an investment in them, cannot be as easily sold out and privatised by incoming right wing neo-liberal governments as we have experienced.

Perhaps we might speculate that this emergent new community-based socialism owes more to Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid than Marx’s Das Capital, in that it does not rely on a crisis moment for capitalism and the winning of state power to pursue it. If we are to find the practical methodology of creating ‘participatory democratic socialism’, then this book offers some concrete answers for how it might be begun. Every socialist councillor should carry a copy in their bag.

– A shorter version of this review appears in the July issue of Labour Briefing.

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