Taking back control: Preston shows the way

‘Preston shows how communities can have genuine political agency.’ Preston town hall and the Harris Museum and Art Gallery. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

JVL Introduction

Preston is a leave-voting part of Labour’s now crumbled “red wall”. But Labour retained the seat there by a healthy margin.

Why? Because Labour’s radical council, led by Matthew Brown, gave people hope – democratising its public institutions and involving the local community in its decision-making at all levels of the city’s economy.

Phil Jones explores how this has been accomplished.

This article was originally published by the Guardian on Mon 13 Jan 2020. Read the original here.

Look to Preston for an answer to Labour’s – and Britain’s – woes

Labour’s radical localism in Preston has transformed the city, and given people the political participation they crave

Since Labour’s resounding election defeat in December, it has become something of a truism to say the loss of its “heartlands” was many years in the making. Across the north and Midlands, the slow burn of mine closures and deindustrialisation left a decisive void in the party – not only in an economic sense, but also politically.

As industry vanished so did the local unions, working men’s clubs and labour societies that once offered working people genuine opportunities for democratic participation. Brexit filled this space, offering people a version of the sense of identity, inclusion and control that Labour has since failed to create: some argue that the party’s attempt to replay and therefore counteract the referendum may have lost it the “working-class” vote for good.

Yet this breezy homogenisation of the north and Midlands fails to take in the complex geography of Labour’s defeat. Why the party continues to thrive in some seats in the midst of heavy defeats elsewhere has barely been covered – a detail surely more important to Labour’s recovery than the endless self-flagellation encouraged by many politicians and commentators.

Take Preston, a leave-voting bloc of the party’s now destroyed “red wall”, and a crumbled bastion of the “left behind” north – only this wilfully simplistic story does not hold. Under the guidance of the radical Labour councillor Matthew Brown, Preston has democratised its public institutions and invited people to participate in decision-making at all levels of the city’s economy. And guess what? Labour held the seat by a healthy margin.

Although Labour’s share in Preston dropped a little from 2017, it retained much of the vote recovered under Jeremy Corbyn and was still higher than at any other point during the 21st century, while other Labour strongholds in Lancashire such as Heywood and Middleton turned blue for the first time – the culmination of a decline that began in 2005.

In so many ways, Preston is indicative of the seats lost by Labour this election. After Margaret Thatcher came to power, the city could only watch as deindustrialisation tore through its democratic fabric. Consolidated under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s cosmopolitan, big city brand of Labourism, the party’s growing obsolescence soon became apparent: between 2001-11, Preston saw a stark decline in Labour’s share of the vote.

Extending autonomy to local institutions, devolving decision-making to the grassroots, cultivating engagement in civic life at the local level – what would this look like on a national scale?

Then, in 2011 – abandoned to austerity by the coalition government – Preston council decided to undertake a radical experiment, now known affectionately as the “Preston model”.

The concept, based on the idea of community wealth building, has sought to create a collective and inclusive economy kept in the hands of the city’s inhabitants. Through worker co-ops, public enterprise, community land trusts and public planning initiatives, Preston council has not only jumpstarted the city’s economy, but turned a place emblematic of the ravages of neoliberalism into what one study calls “the most improved city in the UK”. These positive economic results translated into a boost at the ballot box for Labour at the 2015 election, and by 2017 the party had returned its share of the vote to the highest point since 1997

This should give pause for thought. Perhaps it wasn’t simply the nationalist tenor of Brexit that galvanised such ardent commitment from leave voters, but the sense of participation instilled by the vote itself. Labour can blame its loss on nationalist sentiment, rising populism and a hostile press – all of which have no doubt played an increasing role in British politics over the past four years. Or the party can focus on what Brexit continues to reveal: a gulf in political participation waiting to be filled.

While Brexit fills this gap in only the most superficial ways, Preston shows how communities can have genuine political agency. Extending autonomy to local institutions, devolving decision-making to the grassroots, cultivating engagement in civic life at the local level – what would this look like on a national scale? This is the question that Labour must answer over the next five years.

Crucially, Labour does not need to be in national government to make this happen in towns across the country – it just requires bold local councillors who are willing to venture into new territory. Not only does Labour still run many local administrations, but further cuts under Boris Johnson may actually offer an incentive for councils to move to the direct and radical forms of localism that Preston has pioneered.

If continued austerity makes radical local government an attractive option, then the climate crisis makes it an urgent necessity. To stand a chance of mitigating disaster, a green industrial revolution can’t wait for a Labour government in five or 10 years; it must begin now in local communities. This would involve, for instance, the development of communally controlled renewable energy, which would allow people around the country to fully partake in the green movement as opposed to being bystanders.

It will be no mean feat to revitalise a culture of participation in the places which have been left to build their futures from the scrapheap of 20th-century capitalism. But this is what Labour must do – or face decades in the wilderness as the right continues to capitalise on the alienation and despair that led so many to vote to leave the EU.

While constituencies all around them were being lost, Preston remained red in December because, as one Labour councillor said, the city is genuinely taking back control. Preston shows that where Labour cultivates participatory democracy it can still win – it must now do this on a far larger scale.

Phil Jones is a research affiliate at the Autonomy thinktank

In the first episode of our new mini-series, Aditya Chakrabortty speaks to Preston city councillor Matthew Brown about his alternative approach to keeping wealth in the local economy

In 2011 Preston hit rock bottom. Then it took back control

Comments (3)

  • Mary Davies says:

    We have a lot to learn and emulate from the exciting Preston model.

  • Stephen Mitchell says:

    The state of the Northern towns and cities is not the fault of Labour Governments. The Tories have been in power for most of the last 40 years. They have hammered the people there. Everywhere there are crises, yet the people vote for them. The same applied in the 1930s. The Tores won the 1935 election in a landslide even though more than 10% of the workforce were unemployed. There were 150 deaths every day from the effects of malnutrition during that period. Nye Bevan is quoted in Micheal Foot’s biography of him saying that “even the unemployed voted for their unemployment”. What is it about the English working class that they vote time and time again for those who torment them? Bevan used to refer to the English as “bovine”. Rather apt.

  • Emma says:

    This gives me hope.It would be good if Labour can repeat this example across the country where it holds seats.It shows what difference a labour approach can have and that Labour can bring hope to the lives of many people and places when it is given the chance and it has some control.

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