Municipal politics and the revolutionary left

Danny Schultz reviews Paint Your Town Red, by Matthew Brown and Rhian E Jones, finding an interesting discussion of the possibilities of radical local politics. Despite this, how a municipal left politics relates to a wider revolutionary politics remains open.

Matthew Brown & Rhian E Jones, Paint Your Town Red, (London: Repeater Books 2021) 180pp, £10.99.

There is a strong history of municipal reform in Britain, dating back to the 1880s and earlier. Local government has done everything from the building of low-cost good quality housing to the development of parks and open spaces. These gains were usually won by a combination of increasingly well organised workers and the election of socialist officials, some even Marxists. It was a grand project at times and there is still a legacy of infrastructure and buildings which the left should be proud of.

But from 1980 onwards Thatcher, the Tories and capitalist interests relentlessly attacked those gains. In the periods of government by New Labour there was no real attempt to push back the Tory vandalism and to start the grand project once again. New Labour adopted right-wing ideas and pushed through cuts to social welfare, implementing yet more privatisation of public services. New Labour was far too much like Old Tory.

Since 1980 local government has facilitated far too much it should have resisted. Councils’ timidity and quivering in the face of ‘the law’ is matched only by a paucity of ideas and the foggy nothingness of local political imagination. Given this context, Paint Your Town Red is to be welcomed. It tries to shine a light into the fog and to present some alternatives to the one-track government mind of regeneration by property development, austerity, and constant attacks on the working class.

The book is several things at once; a description of community wealth building and democratic localism, an outline of how the Preston Model has been developed, case studies ranging from the London Borough of Newham to North Ayrshire in Scotland, a directory of resources and a guide to becoming a local councillor. Along the way it makes political criticism of central government and scatters bits of theory generally around the north-south divide and deindustrialisation.

Our story starts in Preston

Paint Your Town Red begins with the background to the ‘Preston Model’. The council had placed all its eggs in a single basket – the Tithebarn Shopping Centre. This grand shopping scheme, involving the global developer Lendlease, was going to ‘transform’ the town. The collapse of the Tithebarn scheme in the banking crisis of 2008 was in many ways an apocryphal event. It highlighted how a great deal of pressure from capitalists and their officials is for development-led regeneration. This means the endless construction of glass box tall buildings and a proliferation of offices, student accommodation, luxury apartments, shopping centres, and giant venues. Property developers, sovereign wealth funds, and oligarchs love this sort of approach because it centralises capital and can produce short-term super-profits. These are investments, not buildings for people or a community use.

With the collapse of the proposed £750 million shopping centre, Preston was forced to consider different options. One of the authors of the book, Matthew Brown has been a labour councillor in Preston since 2002 and leader of the council since 2011. He has the practical, learned experience of what goes on trying to deliver and manage services to many people over a large area. Preston has a population of 114,300 and a city-built up area population of 313,322. There are a lot of issues for a council to tackle, especially after so many years of neglect.

In 2011 the newly elected Labour council, with Matthew Brown as the leader of the council, decided to look at the issues with a different lens and began to consider community wealth building and democratic localism. These ideas had emerged in the US in the mid-2000s as a response to endemic poverty, unemployment, and endless problems in inner city areas. Local activists and communities began to create alternatives; the development of local, small, and socially conscious enterprises, worker-owned business, community land trusts and community banks. The two examples which gained most attention in Preston were those in Cleveland, Ohio, and Mondragón in Barcelona. Councillors became convinced that those projects worked and they could be made to work in Preston. The authors describe it thus:

‘Community wealth building supports democratic collective ownership of the local economy through a range of institutions and policies. These include worker cooperatives, community land trusts, community development financial institutions, so-called ‘anchor institution’ procurement strategies, municipal and local public enterprises, and public and community banking’.

The insourcing revolution

The advocates of the Paint Your Town Red approach have worked with the University of Central Lancashire to do research into what’s going on in the town and the wider county. It was discovered that public sector procurement was spending £750 m a year. A great deal of this was leaking out of the local economy to the benefit of tax dodging shell companies and global corporations. By introducing what is described as ‘progressive procurement’ much larger sums of public money are now being spent locally on buying goods and services for the people of the town. Procurement supply chains have been reorganised and local spending opportunities identified. The Preston Model has been designed to support local cooperatives and start-ups, to integrate them into gaps in the supply chain and therefore build them into progressive procurement.

In 2013, six of the local institutions that signed up for the effort to spent around £38 million in Preston and £292 million in Lancashire as a whole. By 2017 this had skyrocketed to £111 million and £486 million respectively. Contracts for school meals were broken down and won by suppliers using local farms.

This has been supported by ‘insourcing’; deliberately in opposition to the model favoured by the Tories (and far too many in the Labour Party) of privatising and outsourcing services. Where councils have pursued insourcing, they have claimed to save money and, in some cases, have been able to introduce increased wages. In Islington it is estimated that £400 million of contracts have been bought back inhouse, savings of £14 million achieved and better terms and conditions for 1,400 staff including the payment of the London Living Wage.

Anchors and sharks

A model of cooperative working has been developed involving what are described as anchor institutions. These are primarily the large public sector organisations such as hospitals and schools, as well as colleges and universities. They tend to have large workforces, large budgets, and spent large amounts of money. While they are subject to cuts and the impact of privatisation, they are less likely to be suddenly closed down in the way that factories and shops can be.

One of the targets of the Preston Model has been the loan sharks and high-interest loan companies which work, vampire-like, in working class communities. Payday loan practices make poorer people even poorer and then surround their lives with debts, threats, and humiliations. To counter these malicious operations, a Credit Union has been set up in Preston which at the time of the book’s writing had 850 members. It is worth drawing parallels with the origins of the Cooperative Movement in nearby Rochdale in the 19th century. Preston has also been involved with other local authorities in the northwest in creating a ‘people’s bank’ which is now operational. The book also references the creation of Community Land Trusts, as ways that local people can gain more control over the housing stock. Land is a powerful thing to control. Much in Britain is still owned by the Crown and what’s left of the aristocracy. Freeing the land from private ownership across Britain and making it available for communities would be a huge, revolutionary change.

For art and alive spaces

Paint Your Town Red also suggests a sensitivity to the problems the Tories have caused over the past 40 years. There is a conscious reference to the way that people feel about the town and how pride and liking for place can be improved. It is shocking to realise that the built environment, sense of place, and pride in towns and cities was probably much stronger 40 years ago than it is now. Too many people have become acclimatised to empty shops, dereliction, and the shoddy state of many public buildings to remember that it wasn’t always like this. The book acknowledges this decline and sets out some positive ideas to try to change these things.

The role of the arts has been considered and the council handed over some former offices to the Birley Arts Collective. Look around local high street where you live and consider how many of those empty buildings could be given over to artists or used as kindergartens or community hubs. Instead, because the drive for profit they are left to rot. None of these profit seekers bother to count up all the low-level misery and despondency such environments can cause.

Acting in local government

I found the ideas described in Paint Your Town Red to be interesting on lots of different levels and for a slim volume it raises plenty of questions. Its arguments and practice are from the left, with it pointing out that inequalities have risen in Britain, that some towns have been left to rot, and that there is a great deal of social exclusion and in-work poverty.

What is less convincing is some of the rather thin theory which is brought into the work. There is much discussion of deindustrialisation without any explanation as to what that means. It’s certainly the case that towns such as Newcastle and Sunderland no longer build ships; ship building has moved elsewhere in global capitalism Poland, Romania, South Korea and elsewhere. The number of manufacturing jobs in the Britain has dropped significantly but Britain still makes a lot of stuff – including a large armaments sector. What has happened in the past 40 years or so is an intensification of capitalism, an increase in the rate of exploitation, and hard attacks on workers rights. In several sectors – engineering, agriculture, construction – it is not deindustrialisation which has occurred but a shift from labour intensive to capital intensive production. This is a different theory and will lead to different conclusions.

The book talks a lot about austerity and the consequences. Walk around innumerable areas of Britain and the impact of austerity is clear to see. Empty shops, run down high streets, distressed housing estates, boarded up buildings. But this can be found in spaces across Britain, despite the book’s misjudged thesis that all the wealth is concentrated in the south-east. There is plenty of wealth in the north, and there is a lot of deprivation in the south. What matters is the character of its distribution across British capitalism – from the moorlands and deindustrialised towns to the city centre’s many spaces. This can only be partly explained by austerity; for a full explanation it’s necessary to examine how capital flows work and how capital has a concentrating, centralising, and polarising impact well before the Cameron government. There are wealthy towns in the north, and poor towns in the south. This needs a better explanation amongst the British left, to grasp our current conjuncture, especially as ‘Levelling Up’ reveals itself as another charade.

Revolutionary municipalities

Let us also remember that having the correct grasp of Marxist theory isn’t always a determinant of winning reforms and improving conditions for the working class. The interesting question is how revolutionaries should stand in relation to reform, and whether it is reform or revolution which is going to change the world.

There is thinking on parts of the left that nothing is worth doing other than building for a revolution. How that revolution develops and pans out is always surrounded by a lot of haze. The old story usually goes as follows: There is some sort of big strike, in which all the workers get involved and then Soviets are formed, just like in Russia. Then somehow sections of the army come over to the side of the workers, the picture becomes yet more hazier and suddenly socialism has been achieved, or at least the transition has started. What happens next we don’t talk about because, after all, Marx and Engels were against blueprints. But apart from a brief period in Russia the revolutionaries don’t have many cups in the trophy cabinet. The reformists meanwhile can point to the 8-hour day, the welfare state, pensions, paid holidays and masses of good quality housing for the workers. In England the these things were won by workers overwhelmingly dominated by reformist ideas who have looked much more to Parliament for change than their own powers. Even a close study of the history of socialism in England doesn’t produce any significant body of revolutionaries. What to do? Embrace reform, ignore it, or stand on the sidelines pointing out the many weaknesses and errors of that path?

Reformism does have its problems, and they are not just those of theory. Paint Your Town Red outlines how voting in Preston has been positive towards the council and the Labour Party. It’s an indication of something, but what exactly? A broad support? That’s to be welcomed insofar as there were aspects of Corbynism to be supported. However, too much is left unsaid and undone in Paint Your Town Red. There’s not much of an analysis of the Labour Party, the rather a large elephant at the core of the book, which still has a curious fascination for wider layers of the working class. The authors recognise the risks, and the fragility of the Preston Model. They seem to sense that the malignant power of capital is always with us.

There are deeper questions which is where Marxist theory becomes an indispensable guide. How do the public sector organisations which act as anchor institutions reconcile their role as employers? Schools, hospitals, local authorities can be difficult places for workers to exist inside. They are hierarchical, driven by general capitalist ideologies, and subject to many central government pressures. These organisations can be ‘brought on board’ to an extent but they will retain their own interests. The chief executives of such organisations can be smart people, but they have their own ideas, and they are themselves now within a managerial class of people. Senior management and rank and file workers have conflicting interests. The same type of contradictions exist within small medium enterprises and small family businesses. Where some have the power to hire and fire and to make decisions without regard to the people affected, then there are different and irreconcilable differences.

Here we begin to see some of the issues which separate the reformists from the revolutionaries. To what extent is the labour process and the organisation of labour changed? How much control do workers actually have, not just in terms of determining the conditions of work, but the practice of work and what is actually produced and why. These are essential issues and should not be ignored in the way Paint Your Town Red risks doing.

Nor should the very real risks of capitalist reaction be underestimated. In the 1920s the cities of Frankfurt-am-Main and Vienna set out on much more radical projects (with huge practical successes in housing, welfare, and education) than Preston. Each advance in reducing rents, increasing tenants rights, and supporting trade unions was met by suppressed anger and hate by landlords, property speculators and ideologists who believed the poor are poor because they don’t work hard enough. These types exist today too. The political gains in Frankfurt and Vienna were wiped out by a giant wave of reaction. In a way the past 40 years of Toryism have been a reaction against all the gains from around the 1880s to the 1970s. Is the left and the working class to be consigned for ever more to some partial victories, and then defeats, and then partial victories and defeats once more? It’s a war metaphor because it is a war; between classes and that must be kept in sight.

Ideas for a local left

Paint Your Town Red should be welcomed on the left. The ideas of community wealth building and democratic localism should be explored and the practical implications and consequences not dismissed out of hand. There will be plenty to be learned. Compared to the bland vacant-space of Starmer and his strange idea-less acolytes there are enough ideas in this book to blow most focus groups into outer space. But as the next general election nears, and if Starmer can increase his right-wing grip on the Labour Party, what will be his attitude to the Preston Model? The Labour Party has become increasingly authoritarian and intolerant. Might there be a danger to Preston from that quarter too?

We have no crystal ball. Compared to the banal nonsense from the top table of the Labour Party and the vindictiveness from the Tories, the Preston Model is trying to build a workable and meaningful alternative. But it carries many contradictions and tensions. Revolutionaries should welcome and support all reforms which are in the general interests of the working class, but we must not be shy in pointing out the contradictions and the inner tensions. It’s good to have more bread, but loaves are too easily stolen from us. Better to seize the bakery, farms and factories which produce them.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here