How Newham Is Building Community Politics

Newham's Labour council is leading one of London's most creative responses to Covid-19 – pursuing Community Wealth Building, living wage jobs and free school meals even amidst a wave of Tory cutbacks.

The Covid pandemic has brought into sharp focus the devastating extent of poverty and inequality in Britain today. In Newham, we felt this acutely last spring, when we became—for a period—the borough with the highest Covid-19 death rates when deprivation was accounted for.

Local authorities have been on the frontline of the fight against Covid. For many Labour councils like ours, a decade of austerity and the consequent pressures on our public services has meant the challenges remain colossal as we progress into another year, while evidence that Black, Asian and other ethnic minority people were disproportionately affected by Covid has shown that racism, health inequality, poverty, and job insecurity are pervasive factors.

The government’s plans for the easing of restrictions, announced recently, will still require local leadership that offers hope in response to the inequities of Covid-19. In the coming weeks and months, this could not be more important. We still face the challenge of variants, community transmission, vaccine access, and long-term economic downturn.

Despite promising to fund whatever was needed for the Covid-19 response, the government has abjectly failed to do so, leaving many of us facing ever-greater pressures on our services while we work flat-out to support and defend our communities. Week by week, we have seen the impact of government policies on our ability to fight the virus: the long erosion of employment rights, for example, forces many people to choose between keeping safe and putting food on the table.

Imagine waking up exhausted, with aching bones, a high temperature, and a cough you can’t shake. You know what it’s likely to mean – but for many, taking a Covid test and confirming those fears means losing pay or even their job. While boroughs like ours are working to increase testing to drive back Covid—including for those without any symptoms at all—the lack of decent sick pay and job security undermines those efforts. For people already struggling to get by, self-isolation will push them further into debt.

This terrible dilemma isn’t the result of one rare abuse of power. This is the experience of many people in insecure jobs across the country. Our own research reveals how the biggest obstacle to self-isolation is the fear of unemployment: some 76 percent of respondents to our survey said that a guarantee that they wouldn’t lose their job would make them more likely to isolate. This is only one of many challenges.

Councils Against Covid

Taking leadership as a Labour authority has therefore become more urgent, and we must forge strategies which defend our communities through Covid and beyond. I was elected on a clear platform to address inequality and poverty, and in early 2020, Newham Council launched its Community Wealth Building and Inclusive Economy strategies. These responded to austerity, and to the Tories’ broken economic model, which was failing local people.

We knew then that government policy could not tackle the deep economic inequalities facing Britain. It was up to Labour in power to step up at a local level to stop our communities from being left behind. This approach has been shared by other local authorities across the country, which provide innovative solutions and alternatives, and ultimately, leadership for the Left.

When Covid struck, our response and recovery strategy, ‘Towards a Better Newham’, was shaped by this approach. This was vital, as it quickly became clear that communities like ours would be worst affected. We rooted our response in partnerships with community and faith organisations, trade unions, and local businesses, and the council led a whole-community mobilisation.

The innovation borne of these efforts—a food network, community health champions, our #HelpNewham network, Youth Empowerment, and much more—will last beyond this crisis. While the government is paying lip service to ‘building back better’, we’ve already started.

Economically, Newham has been among the hardest hit local authorities in Britain. We have 11,000 people unemployed, and 27,000 of our residents rely on benefits for some or all of their income. This figure has increased by an astonishing 240 percent since the start of the pandemic, compared with 167 percent in London. We also have 33,000 residents on furlough – 3,000 more than the next highest rate in London.

We celebrate the fact that we are the most diverse Local Authority in the country, but the disproportionate impact of Covid has been felt by our residents, as evidenced by the recent Resolution Foundation and the Runnymede Trust reports. Supporting everyone, but particularly those likely to be disproportionately impacted, means that addressing health and race inequality must be integral to our response.

The dire predicaments our communities find themselves in—be that low-paid, insecure work, inadequate housing, or pollution and a poor environment—are not inevitable. These are the avoidable consequences of Tory government policy. It’s not just incompetence and negligence – it’s a deliberate effort to transfer wealth to the richest in society, at the expense of the poorest. This effort has driven down wages and working conditions, reduced public services, and widened the wealth divide.

Although these processes have been ongoing for a decade, the crisis has exposed just how much our councils have been stripped down. Newham alone has lost around £235 million from its budgets over the last ten years, and central government has left those in insecure work and in poor and expensive private rented housing in perilous situations.

Our Community Wealth Building and Covid-19 Recovery Strategy are borne out of this experience, and offer roadmaps out of the crisis. Our approach is bold, and shows the power of radical local government at its best. We are proud to be the first local authority to centre health and wellbeing as the key indicator of our success.

The Newham System

First, we are redefining our approach to work. For too long the central government message has been that work will lift you out of poverty. Since the majority of people in poverty are in working families, I simply do not understand why they stick to this fiction. We know that the dynamics of the labour market do not always lead to fair outcomes, and so we must rebalance power towards working people.

That is why we are establishing an Employment Rights Hub, where people can turn to us for help and when their rights are threatened. This was developed with trade unions and our residents, and we are proud to centre this collaborative approach to public policy. We also understand the importance of paying the living wage, having already applied this rate to our care workers. But we want to go far beyond the living wage, which means developing higher-skilled, better quality jobs—in the new green economy in particular—and investing in training and apprenticeships.

A key pillar of this approach has been accepting that economic growth is meaningless if it does not bring with it health, job security, quality jobs, and a better environment. With this more progressive view of work in mind, we have changed our old employment support programme, and created Our Newham, which offers unified help to get jobs, and gives support to address both short-term financial hardship and longer economic challenges. Our Newham has been providing residents with emergency loans and grants throughout the Covid crisis.

We have also been very successful at getting grants to local businesses that need it—grants which together total some £170m—and we recognise them not just as an essential part of our economy, but as part of our social fabric too. These grants require that businesses pay a living wage, and encourage them to offer apprenticeships and consider their environmental impact.

Another key element of our work has been combatting food poverty through our Eat for Free programme. This provides free school meals for every primary school child, reaching 14,000 children annually and saving families around £500 per child per year. Now more than ever, we are proud to ensure children do not go hungry.

Crucially, we’ve not let the pandemic stop our ambitious approaches to tackling climate emergency and the housing crisis. Our residents are exposed to some of the worst air quality in the world, and we are intent on changing that. We are embarking on long-term plans to improve how people move around the borough, reducing our dependency on cars.

Our Climate Emergency Action Plan illustrates how we will make Newham carbon neutral by 2030, and achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. All of these plans are again rooted in an approach which will improve health, and save people money through eliminating waste and fuel poverty. Developing skilled jobs through our local version of the Green New Deal is part of this, too.

Similarly, our Housing Delivery Strategy will be a key driver for our local economy, addressing a fundamental weakness by providing a safe, secure place to live. Our commitment to begin building 1,000 new social rent homes by 2022 is on track through the ‘Affordable Homes for Newham’ scheme. We will use our re-focused council housing delivery company to ensure we overcome other systemic weaknesses in the way homes are provided. We are investing in our existing council stock to deal with energy inefficiency and much more, which includes stepping up our interventions to support those in the private rented sector.

Finally, a key feature of our approach, embedded across the council, is the priority given to young people, through our unique, dedicated directorate ‘Brighter Futures’. We have invested an additional £11 million in this scheme, including for youth empowerment and early help, which has allowed us to expand our numbers of youth workers, establish a Youth Safety board, and roll out plans to double our youth centres. This reverses the chronic underfunding that has taken place over many years. In fact, we have designated this year ‘Newham Year of the Young Person’ – and we have much more to come.

All of this illustrates the possibilities of bold local political leadership. Driven by our principles as socialists, this reflects a long history of radical municipalism in the Labour Party, and in Newham specifically, of the the anti-racist movement and the fight for equality over the last century.

It is nearly one hundred and thirty years since Keir Hardie, as the newly-elected MP for West Ham South, helped found the Independent Labour Party – so our borough has long been a source of radical alternatives to the status quo. Equally, our politics is borne out of our internationalism drawn from our diversity. Newham is truly ‘the world in one borough’, and our inspiration comes from a shared history of struggle and anti-colonial movements across the world.

Local government can provide bold solutions to the political and economic problems of the day where national government fails. It is down to us to ensure that this works for working people. Now, more than ever, we must we deepen and drive forward this debate – and, most importantly, transform it into action.