Prospects for municipal socialism

By Sue Lukes 

One of the questions often asked of socialists who are considering putting their name forward to be selected as a Labour local authority candidate is: why bother? Huge funding reductions over the last decade, plus legislation limiting what councils and councillors can do, it is suggested, mean that much of what local councils now do is mere crisis management, leaving little for Labour councillors to do but implement central government cuts.

To be honest, however, this kind of abstention is not really an option. Local government is the only place people will see a Labour administration in England over the next four years. It’s a chance to show what Labour can do and an opportunity to prove competence and probity. Above all, it’s a chance to make lives better. In the context of the pandemic, climate change and the rise of the far right, this is not something that can be left until we get a Labour government. As John McDonnell said recently, “Labour will only get into power if we can convince people that we can help with the real challenges in their lives.”

The idea of municipal socialism has been around for over one hundred years. A recent study explains: “Municipal socialists believed that by pursuing policies and conducting campaigns around economic issues that directly affected the community, they could build durable political coalitions, raise the aspirations and political awareness of ordinary working people, and develop the political and administrative skills for further social and economic transformation…This coupling of consciousness-raising with the marked material enrichment of everyday life could then be deployed to the furtherance of socialism more broadly—in local, state, and national elections.”

Further: “Municipal socialism was thus conceptualised as a consciously-evolving process, simultaneously shifting ownership—and with it power—whilst raising local living standards.”

Despite today’s context of funding cuts, these ideas are undergoing a revival. The incompetence and callousness of central government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis in particular is fuelling the need for a more effective and connected response from local authorities. Also acting as an impetus to the new municipalism is the engagement of large numbers of young people looking for a meaningful way, for example through mutual aid groups, to make a concrete difference to people’s lives.

Matthew Thompson, a Liverpool University researcher, identifies three distinct types of municipalism. On one hand, we have ‘Autonomist Municipalism’, defined as “aiming for a stateless polis of confederated cooperatives, communes and assemblies through collective self-organising, motivated by anti-statist struggles for bioregional and cultural self-determination”. This approach corresponds to the Rojava revolution in Kurdistan.

There has been a lot of interest on the left in the Rojava model of bottom-up self-organisation, with its emphasis on equalities, especially for women. In the context of a war that had destroyed the local state, there were really no other options. But this might not be so suitable a model for rolling out in less drastic circumstances.

A second, more appropriate approach is what Thompson calls ‘Platform Municipalism’, which he defines as “working in, against and beyond the state and platform capitalism via civil society mobilisation to establish new citizen platforms, often utilising digital platform technologies”.

Barcelona en Comú was a shining light of this kind of municipalism, launched in 2014. Its manifesto was constructed in a genuinely democratic and participatory way, decided in mass Peoples’ Assemblies and with online tools.  Many of the platform’s founding members were active for many years in social and political movements in Barcelona, including the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages and the anti-austerity movement 15M.  In June 2015, its leading light Ada Colau was sworn in as Barcelona’s mayor.

So in this model, activists from deeply-rooted social movements get into City Hall with the opportunity to put their ideas into practice. This was especially effective in the Spanish state, where cities and regions enjoy considerable autonomy from national state institutions.

But at the same time, the rise of Catalan nationalism and the independence struggle weakened Colau’s coalition. In 2019, the Barcelona en Comú slate came second in the city council elections, behind the pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia–Sovereigntists.

Yet such was Colau’s popularity and strong base – she established both neighbourhood and district groups in Barcelona to address the needs of each area, corresponding to the district committees in City Hall – that she was able to reconfigure her coalition and continue as mayor.

The lesson is clear: “Offering real input, ownership and oversight of local manifestos to a wider community of participants has the potential to unlock energies, knowledge and talents which are too often left to lie dormant, while also giving councils an opportunity to explain candidly and in detail the precise challenges they face.”

A final model is what Thompson terms ‘Managed Municipalism’, defined as “aiming to retool the local state for the democratisation of urban economies through technocratic engineering”. The most famous British example is Preston, which has a Community Wealth Building project which channels council and other spending towards supporting the local and cooperative economy.

In this approach, it’s the council that defines how, and for whom, local economic development works. This is more top-down, but it does demonstrate a commitment to devolving economic power and favouring cooperatives and worker-owned businesses.

The Preston model, however, is about much more than just developing the local economy through shifts in spending and procurement, as the first study cited in this article makes clear: “It is about alternative forms of ownership that not only enrich the lives and livelihoods of residents and workers, but also give them the opportunity to actively participate in the economic decisions that affect their lives and the future of their city.”

So, through a combination of policies and campaigns on issues that affect real people’s lives, it is possible to build coalitions, raise aspirations and political awareness and develop the skills needed to take more control.

The Preston model is quite intricate. It focuses on economic development and levering “anchor institutions” like hospitals, university and police to invest in local businesses. To support this, it uses its pension fund to create public energy utilities and a local bank. How might this apply to other fields?

Grenfell is a classic example of the opposite in play. The Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) was set up as a way to divest the council of its council housing. It quickly became so corrupted by prevailing “housing management culture” that no concern whatsoever was shown for what local people wanted.  We can imagine an alternative universe where a TMO uses its considerable economic power to sponsor local people to set up cooperatives and then uses them to do maintenance and refurbishment work.  As many councillors will tell you: some of the most vocal tenants are former or current building workers!

My own borough of Islington has adopted many of the policies of the Preston model.  It committed to bringing key services back in-house, such as housing management, education services, and refuse collection and street cleaning. In 2012, Islington became a London Living Wage-accredited borough and anybody who had a contract with the borough has to pay the London Living Wage. Any developer building over ten units of housing has to provide 50% of that as genuinely affordable accommodation at social rent: a much higher percentage than that demanded by most other authorities, and an approach that the borough has defended successfully in court, opening the way for others to follow.

The problem for any local council is maintaining the engagement and participation of the people it represents. This is much more difficult in a city like London, which is much less contained and has a more transient population. But without that engagement, councils tend to fall back on a technocratic approach, where even well-intentioned policies may meet with indifference or hostility.

In some ways, another often cited example of municipal socialism, the Greater London Council under the young Ken Livingstone in the 1980s took on this issue of engagement from a different angle.They “saw cultural engagement as crucial to the struggle for counter-hegemony… While ‘high culture’ (such as opera, theatre and ballet) continued to receive support, the main focus of GLC cultural policy was on popular culture, with festivals and free concerts featuring prominently… Events of this sort aimed to foster social solidarity as well as bolstering the GLC’s own public image.”  It is fair to say, however, that the GLC transferred very little economic power: it’s flagship policy of reducing fares by one third and subsidising this through rates increases in richer areas was ruled unlawful. 

A year ahead of the local elections, my council for one has a good, defendable record. But with coronavirus and a range of other issues, we also face a mess. The challenge for us is how do we get people to move beyond complaining, or even despairing, into developing a real manifesto for us to carry through?

Sue Lukes is a Labour Councillor in the London Borough of Islington and Executive Member for Community Safety and pandemic response.  Views expressed here are entirely personal and were originally put together for a discussion in Highbury East Labour Party.  With thanks to Margaret Simonot and Mike Phipps for providing additional material.

Image: The Democracy Collaborative, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0