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Co-operating without crises

cooperativecouncilsThe British like to think that the prospect of a good old crisis brings out the best of our character. Facing catastrophe, we come together, temporarily abandoning cultural reserve and class boundaries, to overcome the odds with grit and ingenuity.

This belief runs through the Co-operative Councils Network’s new collection of essays, Towards co-operative councils: empowering people to change their lives.

The publication is a significant indication of the Labour Party’s future direction in local and, perhaps at some point, national government. With a preface from Ed Miliband and contributions from across the party’s palette of ideological shades (which now includes Green Labour, Blue Labour, Purple Labour and In the Black Labour, as well as the traditional Red), the essays set out a new approach to the organisation of society and public services.

Miliband summarises this new approach as the assertion of a new One Nation ‘common purpose’, expressed through forms of collaboration that cut across the ‘old binary power relationships between council and citizen’ to deliver public services and generate social goods.

The great hope is that is that these new models of organisation will be forged through the individual and collective difficulties we face. The word ‘crisis’ appears 17 times in Towards Co-operative Councils (although I’ve just discovered I’m responsible for 5 of them), covering the crises of spending cuts, public service demand, political legitimacy and banking. In the face of each looming disaster, we should be able to set aside old conventions and assumptions and find new ways of organising society for the better.

This raises two important questions; one short term, one long term.

The short term question is whether necessity really is the mother of invention. There are examples of innovation out there, stemming from the harsh realities we face. I discuss some of these in my contribution on the potential for bottom-up approaches to neighbourhood renewal.

Gareth Swarbrick’s essay about the development of Rochdale Borough Housing (RBH) offers another example. Taking inspiration from the town’s historical association with the co-operative movement, and realising that existing approaches to housing management have run their course, RBH is the first housing mutual, jointly owned by tenants and employees.

However, scarcity can also be the mother of inertia. For every example of creativity born of austerity, there are many examples of innovation being strangled at birth by low morale, lack of capacity and the natural tendency to deliver the legally-required bare minimum.

It’s striking that the examples of innovation highlighted by Toby Blume, from his work with the London Borough of Lambeth, and Martien Kuitenbrouwer, president of the Amsterdam West District Council, didn’t come from a sudden withdrawal of the state, but from a re-organisation of the support it offered. As Kuitenbrouwer argues, while services can be handed over to communities:

‘This has not led to government retreat. We see a great demand for a government presence, especially when the basic fundamentals are at stake…The local administration needs to provide this back up’.

Necessity may be the mother of invention but the reality in many neighbourhoods is that additional support is still needed to ensure that new forms of cooperation can flourish.

The longer-term issue is why it takes a crisis for co-operation even to be on the agenda. This is a pressing question for the progressive left.

As James Kennell argues in his piece, the last Labour government talked about localism and community control as the way to revive democracy and renew neighbourhoods. But taking the example of the New Deal for Communities, the party’s statist mindset led to the formation of ‘hyper-local quangos within communities…mini-states within the local state, embedded into dense local networks of governance and bureaucracy’. Anyone involved in delivering the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal, notwithstanding its other successes, will recognise this critique.

Without the threat of imminent crisis, is the left doomed to default to these kinds of heavy-handed responses? Without the threat of catastrophe, will it always suppress the pregnant capacity that exists in all citizens in favour of government-knows-best solutions?

In the words of the political theorist and revolutionary Thomas Paine, ‘there exists in man a mass of sense lying in a dormant state’. The task for us as citizens is to create a democracy that vitalises this latent energy:

‘As it is to the advantage of society that the whole of its facilities should be employed, the construction of government ought to be such as to bring forward, by quiet and regular and operation, all that capacity which never fails to appear in revolution’.

Perhaps the chronic problems we face on so many fronts, social, economic, political, will result in a new and more creative ‘construction of government’. But the change needs to be permanent, not an emergency measure until we get back to normal.

We need to cooperate without crises; then we’ll see the best of our character.

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