Monday, 21 September 2015

8. SEPTEMBER 21st 2015: ‘A’ IS FOR....UM?

My Churchill Fellowship report “Property, Justice and Reason” is published here, by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. A slightly reordered version for academics is available at
If you want to discuss the contents of the report, you will find my contact details in the report.

It's been a momentous week since the election of a new Leader for the Labour Party. The negative reactions, both within the party and from other parties, and from the commentariat are respectively disgruntled and condemnatory. What they all fail to get is the message behind both Corbyn’s appeal in the UK, and the extraordinary success of another ageing socialist in the US Presidential race: Senator Bernie Sanders giving Hilary Clinton a terrible fright.

The message is that we want a politics that is about us, the citizens; we don’t want a politics about you, the politicians. We want you to represent us to the state, not use your position to represent the state to us. We can all question aspects of the policies of Corbyn and Sanders, but we cannot ignore what these two men stand for in the renewal of political life.

People voted for Corbyn primarily because they wanted Labour to realise that the way it does its business has to change. That’s a message for every political party and every politician.

So…more advice for Labour? Surely not…too much has been written already. Even so, I’d like to add one more idea. It’s sounds easy but, in fact, goes to the heart of what Labour needs to do: supporting individual and collective autonomy to achieve the wellbeing of all, for the common good.
Many Labour politicians understand political agency as being primarily about them; their own personal autonomy and capacity, and that of the professional political class, to bring about progressive change through their direct actions. They have strong role models in recent leaders of the party. These will, almost by definition, be technocratic fixes; often important and necessary, but unlikely to be about systemic and cultural change which requires the contributions of many.
They seem particularly blind to the idea that their agency in relation to some problems is limited, not least by time: the duration of political administrations and their own political trajectories. A good example is neighbourhood regeneration, which is the task of a generation, and needs to be accomplished primarily through the agency of communities and civil society institutions, which can carry through what individual politicians or even whole parties clearly cannot.
I have been working recently with a talented and resourceful estate community, who devised their own long term regeneration plan. It proposed a unique and innovative partnership institution to bring together the community, the council and wider civil society organisations. The estate has been in municipal ownership for 40 years, and is commonly regarded as the most challenged estate in a ward with the borough’s worst indicators of poverty, especially health and life expectancy. Yet, it has never had a strategic regeneration plan led by its owner, resourced with the financial and social capital for it to be carried out over a 20-30 year period, which is how long it would take.
The community offered the council the opportunity to build 170 new permanently affordable homes built, as infill on the estate; nearly five times more than the council itself had thought possible. Not unreasonably, the community wanted something in return; the opportunity for them to get the estate off its knees, where it had been for decades, and turn it into a wonderful place to live for the whole community. Just building new homes could  never be the whole story.
The community’s reward for their presumption in developing their own plan is to be condescended to, described as ‘willing souls’ in internal council emails, and publicly ostracised by their councillors. The council will take the housing gain offered by the community, but will do the regeneration ‘their way’ and to their timescale. It has taken them over two years from the publication of the community’s masterplan, to do nothing except argue over who is in control.
By way of explanation, the community’s plan has recently been criticised by council officers in the local press as requiring ‘too much autonomy’ for the residents. Excuse me? Can you have ‘too much’ autonomy? When did councils assume powers to determine how much autonomy we may have in our lives: that is we, the citizens, who perhaps unwisely but nevertheless freely use our autonomy to vote our fellow citizens into positions of power?
Sir Michael Marmot and every public health professional in the world will tell you that the lack of personal and collective autonomy is the greatest single risk factor to health and wellbeing. Undermining the autonomy of this community, its anchor organisation, and the people who have worked to sustain it, built up over two decades, as is now happening, is an act of political vandalism: the very opposite of the principles of the Labour Party’s own Policy Review.
De Tocqueville writing in Democracy in America in 1835 warned that “the parent state keeps its citizens in perpetual childhood. Its power is absolute, provident and mild; it is well content that people should rejoice provided they think of nothing but rejoicing.” That’s a warning that applies to all political parties. For example, the Chancellor is alleged to have claimed when introducing the Help to Buy policy in Cabinet in 2013 “Hopefully we will have a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. A brief and illusory pleasure for a very few...

But De Tocqueville also asserted that
“the health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens”; and many citizens of all ages are no longer content with the patronising 'the state knows best' attitude, or to be fed the bread and circuses of rising property values that are, in fact, impoverishing us all.

Citizens want to build homes that are genuinely and permanently affordable, related to what people actually earn, and want to take them out of the speculative land market, especially in London. Politicians should follow the lead of these brave and rational citizens, and support them to do something that the political class would never dare to suggest itself, even though the need for it is glaringly obvious.

Sweet Politicians, the ‘A’ word is neither Aspiration, nor Ambition, nor even Austerity...but AUTONOMY.
Courtesy Phil Reynes Colorado Indymedia