Labour must take community empowerment seriously for a ‘take back control’ strategy to work

By Colin Miller & Matter Scott 

In his New Year speech Keir Starmer said that in its first year in power a Labour government would devolve ‘sweeping powers to local communities’ through a ‘Take Back Control’ bill. This speech echoed themes explored in the Brown Report and the work of Lisa Nandy, most recently in her book ‘All In’. 

Each argues that community empowerment should be an essential element in Labour’s appeal to disaffected voters, along with a wider strategy to improve the political and democratic health of the country. 

But so far these ideas lack any real content, and do not confront how community empowerment can become a reality.  

These discussions reminded us that twenty six years ago, as community development workers, based in Southeast London and Brighton along with many other colleagues,  we poured over New Labour’s Social Exclusion Unit Policy Action Team reports. These reports contained ideas and proposals that were far more ambitious than anything currently being proposed. If Labour’s ‘Take Back Control’ strategy is to mean anything, this will need to change as we head toward the election.  

When Labour was elected in 1997 a swathe of policies followed, such as the New Deal for Communities, Sure Start, and the Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy. In fact community empowerment remained a consistent, but largely unsung, theme during its period in office culminating in the publication of the ‘Community Empowerment White Paper’ in 2010. On publication the then Home Secretary Hazel Blears said it was a historical moment akin to the Chartists movement. 

Some of us involved in the Compass Winning with Communities report were also involved in the development of the White Paper. Sadly though, the few of its ideas that had been implemented were promptly swept away when the Tories took power and replaced it with the so-called ‘Big Society’.  Ironically, the vacuous ‘Big Society’, which disappeared almost instantly after the Tories came to power, received far more press interest than anything Labour had previously done.     

This historical context is important because the idea of empowering communities is far from new and it is far from easy to achieve. In thinking about Labour’s renewed commitment to community empowerment we need to be aware of a couple of things: 

  • When it comes to community empowerment the rhetoric almost always exceeds reality 
  • We must avoid making repeating mistakes by learning from the present as well as the past.    

Our report, Winning with Communities, was produced with the latter in mind. The group behind it was an amazing collection of people with very different roles, experiences and perspectives. It included community activists, a former government minister, the leader of a large London Borough, academics, the CEO of a large city-based voluntary organisation, and community practitioners. Through a series of lengthy and searching conversations we shared our experiences and insights. Our aim was to identify what we believe works and what gets in the way of empowering communities. 

From the off it became very apparent that despite our different roles, we shared many of the same frustrations and concerns, particularly around the negative impact of organisational and political cultures. All too often there was a yawning gap between what appeared to be sincerely held commitments to community empowerment and the reality. All too often a lack of trust and a continuing desire to control dominated how local authorities functioned. 

We concluded a key issue was the sometimes toxic and coercive isomorphism in some local authorities. To combat this, we must develop strategies that will enable communities to function and make decisions for themselves and have an independent but equal voice. 

Therefore Labour’s Take Back Control bill must, at its heart, be concerned with establishing a structural and political environment that will allow this to happen. It must also develop a basic framework, outlined in our report, providing the necessary resources and encouraging systemic change. 

Whilst our conversations took place sometime before Keir Starmer’s New Year speech we were pleased that he and others recognised that the Brexit slogan ‘Take Back Control’ really meant something to the swathe of communities that rejected Labour in 2019. The slogan had concrete meaning because these communities felt they have never had any control. 

We entitled our report Winning With Communities because we believe that Labour’s appeal to the electorate must be based on the recognition of this critically important truth. This also has potential electoral appeal in these and other areas. 

But Labour also needs to recognise a hard truth. Many of the communities who felt they had no voice or control were governed by Labour local authorities for a very long time.

Communities cannot be magically empowered by Westminster; empowerment will require the active support of local government backed up with the necessary resources, tools and powers. But this cannot happen unless, at the same time, the given tendency towards control freakery of many local authorities is addressed. 

In her book ‘All In,’ Lisa Nandy argues that there needs to be a rebalancing of social forces, unions, councils, and communities working together. As group member John Denham learned during his time as a minister in the last Labour government this is easier said than done. A key reason why some of the flagship policies of the time struggled was because of the tendency for power to be sucked upwards rather than pushed outwards to community groups and residents.  

If Labour is to be true to its word, it needs to recognise these are fundamental issues, and that the tendency of national and local government towards control freakery is embedded into the system. This can only change if communities are given the power, through resources, support and training to function as independent, self-confident and powerful voices. 

If successful, Labour will also benefit in the long term  because maybe, just maybe, the party will also build its power from the grassroots up. 

A daunting task, no doubt. But we believe that the recommendations in the report, based on hard experience of the group members, will provide a solid foundation for a successful strategy.