Respect and the city

Richard Hatcher sets out some ideas for how Respect could start to develop policy on the local government level. A version of this article will appear in the September edition of Socialist Resistance.

People see their city, their town, their borough, as a significant context for their lives – it shapes their lives in important ways, and they in turn try to influence and shape it, in the limited ways they can, to meet their needs. At the centre is the municipality, the council, as provider of public services, as employer, and as site of local democracy.

The implication for Respect is that wherever it is trying to build branches it has to have a political project for the city as a whole. (I’m thinking of Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol etc. London is a more complex case but the same principles apply.) In other words, it is more than taking up national issues locally, and more than doing local politics at the level of the ward or constituency, and it is more than taking up specific city-wide issues – a public sector strike, a campaign around a hospital or an Academy – as and when they occur, though of course we should do all of these. It is recognising that all of them need to be integrated into a full spectrum systematic and long-term city-wide strategy.

There are implications for Respect’s electoral work. When we stand in local elections, and where we get elected, we do not do so solely as representatives of and accountable to the voters in a particular ward or constituency. We stand for and are elected to the city council, which means we are involved in taking decisions, or taking positions on decisions, on city-wide policies, and are therefore politically (if not electorally) accountable to the whole city. Though the basic unit of building Respect might be ward or constituency branches, it has to be more than the sum of its parts at the city level. This is not a debate about where we build Respect – i.e. the extent to which we focus on the few areas where we have a chance of getting elected in 2010 – it is a debate about the politics we build it on. A political project at the level of the city is a key element in getting Respect elected, for two reasons. One, because it shows us as serious local politicians and Respect as a serious city-wide party in its political scope and ambition. Two, because many of the issues facing people in the wards and constituencies we stand in can only be addressed adequately at the city level.

That means we have to develop a programme at the level of the city which engages with the various concerns of social groups across the city. In part the programme will necessarily be defensive – against cuts, privatisation etc. But it also has to offer a different and inspiring vision of how the city could and should be. Without succumbing to illusions in ‘municipal socialism’, It has to put forward concrete demands and policies about what should be done now by the city council about such burning issues as transport, crime, youth provision, housing, childcare, urban planning, etc. Take transport as an example: the proposal in Manchester for a congestion charge. This is an opportunity not just to argue for our position (whatever it is!) on congestion charges but to put it forward as one element in a radical vision which might include free public transport in the city and free home-to-work travel paid for by employers. (These are two demands which LCR councillors raise in France – the former is actual policy in a number of cities.)

However, having the right policies is only half the answer. The other half concerns how we think policy should be made. Are we saying ‘just put us in the driving seat and we’ll steer the vehicle in a better direction’, or are we saying that we have an entirely different conception of how local politics should be done, one where the councillors’ role is to work towards empowering citizens through promoting deliberative democracy, collective action and popular self-management?

This aspect of our politics is very undeveloped, but it is crucial at a time when there is profound public cynicism about all political parties and about local government as a whole. This is a problem which Labour itself recognises, in particular because of low turn-outs in local elections and widespread voter cynicism. It is the theme of a number of recent government policy documents, most recently the ludicrously mis-titled White Paper Communities in control: real people, real power (DCLG, July 2008), which ‘aims to pass power into the hands of local communities, to encourage vibrant local democracy in every part of the country, and to give real control over local decisions and services to a wider pool of citizens’. All this is largely empty rhetoric and tokenism, but it is a debate which we need to have alternative answers to. (Academies are a case in point: no mention of them in the White Paper, but Sheffield City Council – Lib Dem – has at least gone as far as announcing that there will be a ballot of parents on any Academy proposal.).

The key principle of ‘doing politics differently’ is of creating spaces in each local authority area in which deliberative democracy can take place about policy issues. The exact relationship of this process of deliberative democracy to the forms of local representative democracy – in particular the city council – is a matter for discussion, and the balance of forces. It needs to be stressed that proposals for democratic participation should not be confused with notions of ‘social partnership’. They are ways of strengthening popular activity and providing a more favourable context for gaining support for radical policies. Their impact would depend not just on the power of argument and popular pressure but on their ability to count on popular mobilisation when necessary.

To give an example, in each local school system we should advocate what we might call an Education Forum. It would be open to all with an interest in education – parents, teachers, other school staff, school students, governors and citizens – though its decisions might be taken only by elected representatives of its constituents. Its purpose would be to discuss and take positions on key policy issues and develop an Education Plan for the local system of schools and colleges. In that context it would discuss and vet significant distinctive policies which a school or college decided it wanted to pursue, in order to decide if they posed problems for social equality and justice in terms of their impact on other schools, thus democratically ensuring local diversity within a common general interest.

One well-known form of local popular participation is ‘participatory budgeting’ (PB). Radical in Porto Alegre, it has now been coopted in a de-radicalised form by Labour in its document Participatory Budgeting: A Draft National Strategy – Giving more people a say in local spending (DCLG March 2008) and in the White Paper Communities in control: real people, real power. Every council has to delegate some funding powers to local neighbourhoods. But radical PB is very different. Its defining feature is that it enables the construction of a collective city-wide general interest out of particular local community interests through a process of deliberative democracy. This is a practical demand here today. There is an interesting example from the LCR in Paris, where tenants on a number of council housing estates held meetings on each estate to draw up priorities for the housing department to implement. They then elected a delegate for each 10 tenants present who met, looked at evidence, and worked out a list of agreed priorities across the estates, which the housing department then drew up a budget for, got it ratified by the tenants, and implemented (see article by Picheral in Critique Communiste 185, December 2007).

What does all this mean for Respect? It needs to do 4 things:

1. Recognise the need for a city-wide political project, including implications for the role of councillors and local elections.

2. Develop in each area a vision for the city, comprising critique of the capitalist city, defence of what is worth defending, and radical alternatives concretised in credible demands for today.

3. Couple that with a vision of doing politics differently, based on deliberative democracy, popular mobilisation and self-management, and again concretised in specific credible demands and alternatives for today.

4. Set itself the medium-term task of gearing itself up to work in this way by developing its own expertise, trying things out, and systematically sharing experiences and ideas across the country.

Richard Hatcher

July 2008

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