Give us bread but give us roses too

Labour’s thinking on changing the economy to empower communities is impressive. The work on how public services will achieve the same, is far less notable. But the seeds for a new approach are out there. Hopefully they will start to listen.

As a case in point look at this recent-ish Labour political broadcast:

On the face of it this is quite a standard anti-austerity message, with calls for more money for education, housing and regional development. But there is another message which is struggling to get out.

The critique which the video opens with isn’t just that our public services need more cash, it’s that our communities have lost their “spirit”, their “hope” and that “we lost control”

What’s Labour’s response to this? Public ownership and public investment.

Bringing “essential services” such as trains and utilities “back into public ownership” is the way Labour will “give control back to local people”.

As James Meadway, formerly advisor to the Shadow Chancellor, recently argued, one difficulty with this line of thinking is that many of the previous attempts to bring services into public ownership created distant, bureaucracies.

This is the context for the new wave of thinkers who are making waves in left wing circles by arguing for new approaches to economic policy. The Guardian recently ran a balanced and interesting long read on some of the runners and riders.

The energy that’s going into thinking about how economic policy can be used to empower communities is in striking contrast to the dearth of ideas on how public services can do the same.

There are plenty of people doing interesting work in this area. I’d recommend people look at the work of Adam Lent, Hilary Cottam, Richard Wilson, Cormac Russell & Tessy Britton.

They are all coming at different questions from different perspectives but they’ve got lots in common. For example, I think they would all agree that the institutions we currently rely on to deliver public policy (Local Authorities, Schools, CCGs and so on) are not set up to build “spirit” “hope” and “control”.

This is not to say that a Labour government that invested a lot of money in public services and brought things in-house wouldn’t achieve any good. It is to say that less tangible but no less important community level outcomes such as “hope” and “control” need a different approach.

One of the ironies of the way Brexit has played out is that we’ve seen both how powerful a message about “control” can be and how our politicians and policy makers are not yet able to offer any solutions which live up to the challenge. As the old union song has it “give us bread, but give us roses too”

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