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One, Two, Many Prestons

Success for Labour in this week's local elections could mean a lot more councils following examples like Preston and introducing transformative policy programmes.

With the media consumed by an endless debate over Brexit, the 2019 local election campaign has largely passed under the radar. But it could signal a quiet revolution for political and social policy in the U.K. At the moment, polls suggest a collapse of the Conservative vote. While the Lib Dems, UKIP and other fringe parties may also benefit, the likelihood is an increase in Labour-run councils. 

Under Corbyn, Labour has become a grassroots campaigning machine that turned the 2017 general election on its head in a matter of weeks. Two years later, there is no reason to think our activist base can’t do the same for the locals. 

There’s a lot to inspire Labour supporters. Since John McDonnell became the Shadow Chancellor he has been working closely with Labour councils around the country. Rather than sit in closed rooms, or publish focus-grouped policies, McDonnell and his team have been out listening to local Labour groups.

These groups, which have battled austerity for ten years, are the bedrock of our party and many have found sustainable solutions to social problems created and exacerbated by the worst local government funding cuts in history.

These range from creative and innovative council housing schemes in Islington and Doncaster to new licensing and incentive schemes for rogue landlords in Southampton and Wolverhampton; and from comprehensive support for families and young people in Wakefield and Derbyshire to food poverty action in Blackpool and Newham.

These examples exist only in pockets, but Labour has been busy translating them into national policy for its manifesto. Amidst all this, there is a not-so-quiet revolution, a broader economic policy that is being adopted by councils and other public sector bodies around the country — and not just Labour controlled ones.

In Preston, Labour has controlled the council since austerity began, and we have developed innovative approaches to fighting back. Dubbed the Preston Model by John McDonnell, our Community Wealth Building policy analyses where public institutions spend their money and enables local companies to bid for public sector contracts that many small and medium-sized enterprises historically have struggled to win. 

This approach has trapped an extra £70 million in Preston’s local economy in the last two years at the expense of multinationals. This, however, is only the first step, we plan to continue Community Wealth Building by encouraging the creation of more worker-owned businesses to fill the gaps where the local market is unable to provide goods and services to public bodies.

This is why Labour nationally has established a Community Wealth Building programme. When a large percentage of local wealth leaks out of the economy to London, or an offshore tax haven, those ‘investors’ are handed the power to decide when or if that money is reinvested. When that money stays in the locality for longer, that power stays with the community.

There are many other strands to Community Wealth Building that include the adoption of the Living Wage, support for responsible finance organisations like credit unions, the development of local currencies, food co-ops and municipal energy companies that cut multinational shareholders out of the chain. These offer a better deal for both communities and the beleaguered late-stage capitalist consumer.

In fact, the next stage of the Preston Model and the chief policy in the Preston Labour manifesto is an even greater challenge to the kind of capitalism that has run down so many towns and cities in this country. We are proposing the creation of a regional bank, with a co-operative ethos, that will lend to the many people excluded from the mainstream finance sector.

The expansion of cooperative culture takes time; but just as austerity was a comprehensive onslaught on state support networks created over decades, Community Wealth Building attempts to overturn the individualism of neoliberal policies and halt the corporatisation of every aspect of daily life.

At last count, the left-wing think tank the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (who have played a major role in developing the agenda) estimated that over 60 councils were undertaking various aspects of Community Wealth Building. 

The new NHS Plan talks about the value that public sector ‘anchor institutions’ can add to the local quality of life through their spending power. The Welsh and Scottish Assemblies are having serious discussions about it. Preston Labour councillors were even invited to Downing Street.

This has all taken place under a Conservative government hell-bent on destroying the capacity of the public sector to help people in need. It exists independently of central government, in fact acting against a government wedded to privatisation and outsourcing. 

Billions of pounds worth of public wealth and assets have already been repatriated to local economies, effectively democratising wealth and handing power back to local communities. Imagine what could be achieved if Labour win control of dozens more councils later this week?