Municipal Socialism- Lessons from UK Local Government?

In today’s post Neil Barnett reflects on the theme of his presentation at the Municipal Socialism conference hosted by CURA in June 2018.

Firstly, a note about this intervention/ contribution to the debate. Given the stimulating nature of the debate at the Municipal Socialism conference, what follows focusses little on the actual history of what could perhaps be called ‘municipal socialism’ in the UK. As the italics indicate, the extent to which the programmes of Labour Councils from the ‘gas and water’ municipalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to the ‘New Urban Left’ of the 1980’s should be seen as ‘municipal socialism’ is open to question. I will leave that debate aside for now. In the context of municipal activism occurring around the globe at the present time, in which neo-liberalism and austerity are being contested by a widening variety of forms of protest, contestation and experimentation with alternative organisational forms, it may seem somewhat parochial and introverted to be focussing on Local Government in the UK, and in particular trying to draw lessons from the municipal past. Focussing on state institutions may, to be blunt, appear to be somewhat unexciting in this context. Municipal local government, of course, is not the same as municipalism, nor does it capture the rich variety of municipal politics and its unique position in challenging neo-liberal hegemony. Also, given the new and evolving forms which urban alternatives now offered, what is the point of looking back at what, at first glance, are ‘old fashioned’ state-led interventions?

So, I’d rather focus on quickly considering some responses to the questions posed above and reflect on the usefulness of local government to a progressive project- to what extent does this institution of the state offer any radical potential? Firstly, it is the case that ‘municipal socialism’ has re-appeared as a focus of debate in the UK due to interest in ‘the Preston Model’, that Council’s adoption of Community Wealth Building, and a Corbyn-led Labour Party’s deliberations on local government’s place in delivering a new economic model. Also, globally, from Jacksonville to Barcelona, questions have been posed about how, when and indeed whether, left activism should engage with local state institutions, what happens when they do, and the extent to which they can be used to deliver urban alternatives.  In each case, local or state governments are delivering progressive outcomes.

I would argue that, whilst much of our interest has, quite rightly, been on alternative forms of organisation and their potentialities, we are too often prepared to focus attention anywhere other than some of the obvious places- like local government. There are many reasons for this- its failure to deliver on promise in the past- particularly in the UK; its role as an agent of the centre- a model of state-led, top-down and (arguably) out- dated interventionism; its complicity in delivering austerity. Whilst it is recognised that there are opportunities to work within and against the state via local government, essentially it tends to be viewed as having limited emancipatory potential.

However, we can gain from looking back at municipalism as delivered by local governments in the UK as they bring to the forefront questions and dilemmas concerning the delivery of socialist alternatives; we may now pose these in different language but they remain essentially the same. We (on the left) raise them time after time, but seem reluctant to address in practical terms. These concern, amongst others, the dialectical relationship between prefigurative experimentation and the realism of delivery, how to move ‘beyond the fragments’, and the institutional arrangements and scales should be used to deliver ambitious social and economic change in practice.  We are lead to these dilemmas, but we often stop there, perhaps because they are by their very nature irresolvable, the answers unknown, inevitably evolving, but also, in my view, because addressing them in practice means engaging with the less interesting and mundane reality of administrative/ institutional design for delivery.

The renewed interest in Preston and local government’s role in municipalism is therefore interesting at this time, as it indicates, at least, the potentialities of local government. Previous attempts to offer alternatives from a municipal/ urban base may have ultimately met with defeat, as Jonathan Davies has pointed out, but they achieved things along the way, and left some progressive legacies-including, in the UK, a nascent, National Health Service. Preston Council has itself, of course, implemented the austerity required of it since 2010, doing its best to protect the most vulnerable (a pragmatic, ‘dented shield’ approach), whilst also being radically experimental and progressive. Other Labour Councils have done the same, though not all would accept the ‘municipal socialist’ label.

An incoming Labour government will have to start somewhere. Many areas without vibrant ‘alternative economies’ will need to be helped with state-led equalisation of resources- channelled, presumably via local (or regional?) state institutions. Questions will need to be addressed about democratic accountabilities, scales of operation/ delivery, and central-local divisions of responsibility. If we value local experimentation/ alternatives, what if localities choose to pursue some which are not the ‘right’ ones? Interesting questions, which can be met with a variety of responses- but these are the meat and drink of administrative reform, and inevitably, we bump into them again and again.  These dilemmas do raise historical precedent, of course, in reminding us of the uncertain attitude towards the ‘local’ in UK socialist thought- from the self-governing utopias of Robert Owen to the central administrative designs of the Fabians.

Finally, one lesson which we can take from history is that, of course, place matters. Prefigurative alternatives in Preston will take time to establish themselves as resilient alternatives in Preston, let alone Bolsover, for example. Looking back, the ‘gas and water socialism’ of the early twentieth century was not simply a question of monolithic state intervention, but in each case informed by the unique politics of place, promoted by civil society activists, non-conformist churches, and the co-operative and labour movements in each area- Glasgow being different in emphasis and approach to say, Leeds. Later, amongst the New Urban Left, Liverpool was quite distinct from London. As a Council, the GLC perhaps did more than any to ‘connect the fragments’ in a new, less state-centric way, but London had many unique characteristics which facilitated this. Municipal socialist alternatives will, as ever, depend on the capacities and opportunities offered in each place, and leave questions as to how to engender radical alternatives where such opportunities are less abundant. For these reasons, amongst others, local government within a national framework of priorities remains necessary and we should bring it back in to the centre of any pragmatic consideration of ways forward.

Neil Barnett is a Senior Lecturer in Public Policy in the Faculty of Business at Leeds Beckett University.

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