Basildon Needs Municipal Socialism

First Labour New Town, then epicentre of Thatcher's 'Essex man', Basildon has long been a political weathervane. Now, in the wake of the pandemic, its residents need radical change.

Part of Basildon's main shopping precinct. Credit: Creative Commons

The Essex town of Basildon has borne witness to power struggles and political point-scoring longer than most. Centuries prior to its designation as a ‘New Town’ under 1946’s New Towns Act, village landholders purchased swathes of the settlement to fund their wealthy lifestyles. The Norman Turold—whose image appears in the Bayeux Tapestry—was one such figure: an amoral landlord whose opulent home in Rochester was paid for by his hard-working tenants.

Basildon suffered a decline in population after the Black Death ravaged the area in 1388, and in more recent times, it at one point experienced one of the highest Covid-19 infection rates in England. Today, the town is no different in its role as a social, political, and environmental barometer for powerbrokers – proof that its working community has been sidelined for years, if not centuries, too long.

In more recent history, the town’s demographic has had the disadvantageous reputation of being the epicentre of the ‘Essex man’: a political archetype who switched allegiance from Labour to the Tories under Thatcher’s leadership. The town voted overwhelmingly for Brexit in 2016, but a poll suggesting a victory for Joe Biden if the 2020 US election were held here demonstrates a more varied politics than the stereotypes conjure up.

The 2017 election saw a seven percent swing towards Labour—the only time the Party gained points in a general election out of the last four—when increased spending on public services and a transformative economy was on the agenda. Not unrelatedly, in the local elections this May, Basildon voted against the Labour right-led coalition council for a Tory party that advocated further public consultation and community involvement.

That recent election was divisive and ugly. Labour’s proposals for a gentrification master plan that would incorporate office and residential space in high-rise buildings—plus a grandiose arena and cinema/restaurant complex, funded by private investment—was publicly rebuked by the town’s voters. As the former council lauded the ‘café culture’ and commuter-hub vibe planned for the area, food bank reliance was soaring among low-income residents. There were also proposals made for a Youth Zone in the community, a safe haven for children and young adults to gain skills and experience, which has now been scrapped entirely by the Tories.

The newly-installed Conservative leader strategically deplores the regeneration scheme and has vowed to fight for the Basildon voters who rejected it (a party even formed in the spring specifically to fight the project). It’s inevitable that the Tories will only increase socioeconomic inequality under a façade of Johnsonism, with its baseless claims to ‘levelling up’ – but Basildon Labour lost an almighty opportunity to think radical, and with the Labour right and the Conservatives continuing to fail the town, a transformative alternative is vital.

With the avenue for socialist policies at a national level shut off since December 2019, the idea of municipal socialism has once again been gaining traction. The successes of the Preston model in Lancashire, of Salford’s ‘sensible socialism’, of North Ayrshire in Scotland, and of Mark Drakeford’s Welsh administration have given the Left concrete examples that we should be looking to emulate wherever we can.

Basildon is no exception. The town urgently needs change, but not in a way the Tories or the former local Labour leadership would agree on. There are examples of collaborative efforts at uplifting the community taking place within it: the local NHS trust has announced plans for career pathways for young people and is working with further education colleges to create them, and is also working with a coffee enterprise that diverts its profits to providing training and jobs to alleviate homelessness. Anchored institutions, celebrated for their commitment to community improvement, have reached one of Basildon’s largest employers. The council, meanwhile, has yet to catch up.

For community wealth building to begin at council level, Basildon needs municipal socialists to drive the change. The town has a pool of left-wing councillors that have long been fighting against the dearth of social housing, the destruction of green spaces, and other evidence of longstanding neglect at the hands of both national and local government, but the voices of those still organising within the Party have been drowned out by others who feel liberated under Starmer’s tenure.

The modern-day Turolds in Basildon have not yet been rescinded by voters, and as the local area grapples with its economic recovery from Covid—likely to be thwarted by the Tory council—almost half the children in certain neighbourhoods live in poverty. There’s a lot that Basildon’s leaders could learn from their Preston counterparts – including the fact that a national Party hellbent on courting capital cannot address the issues affecting their town’s residents. Its leaders need only look at local history to see the consequences of ignoring core working-class voters. Without a radical socialist vision at municipal level, Basildon’s inhabitants will continue to be left behind.