Good but no cigar – what next if Labour is to get serious about people power?

Calum Green (@CalumDGreen)

In the early hours of Friday 9 June, millions of young people stayed up watching the general election results having participated in the highest voter turnout in a general election for 20 years[1]. Labour’s unflappable Jeremy Corbyn baffled his critics by winning over young people in the campaign, with data compiled by Ipsos Mori over the week since the election showing turnout by 18-24 year olds at 58% of 18-24, up from just 43% in the 2015[2].

This increase in the democratic participation of the young should be celebrated by all who care about the health of our democracy. It is a significant contribution to our country’s politics of which Corbyn and his team should be proud.

Alongside his calm, collected authenticity, Labour’s manifesto played a key role in the campaign’s success. In part, it made a retail offer to the young (Corbyn promised to abolish tuition fees, and pledged to write off debt for this coming year[3], as well as build one million new homes[4]).

More broadly, Corbyn won over young voters by promising to redistribute wealth, which in a time of insecure work, major housing crises and rising living costs won him a lot of new fans. However, Labour did not address the more fundamental challenge to the UK’s democracy – the need to redistribute power, or more accurately, the need for people build their own collective power to achieve change.


Jeremy Corbyn at a rally in Sage Performance Square, Gateshead. People power? Not quite…

What do I mean by power?

Power is simply the ability to act – to have agency over your life and the lives of those you care about. It’s neutral, neither inherently bad, nor inherently good. In the community organising tradition, we look to build ‘relational power’ – power with others, where the bond between two or more individuals gives them greater capacity to achieve their common interests.

By way of an example, let’s take a recently successful campaign organised at Citizens UK. This month, the first residents of St Clement’s, in Mile End, will move into their new homes. These homes are priced according to local incomes, meaning a one bedroom home will be £130,000, a two bedroom will be £182,000 and a three bedroom £235,000. If you’re even thinking of trying to buy somewhere in London, you probably need to pinch yourself – that’s less half the market rate.

The residents will own 100% of their homes, but are required through their lease to sell their home on again according to incomes, guaranteeing an affordable home for generations to come. They would not have been able to afford to buy these homes on the open market.

This is not a government programme of the kind envisaged by the Labour manifesto. It’s the first project of London Community Land Trust (London CLT) – a community organisation set up by Citizens UK that works to build genuinely and permanently affordable homes for Londoners[5]

The fact that they are London CLT homes means all the major decisions are made by local people. The model itself was built by local people, after looking at similar models that were born out of the civil rights movements in the US. The first CLT site in London – St Clement’s  – was voted for by several hundred local people back in 2008. The design of the homes was put together through an extensive community-led planning process. The policy to decide who gets to live in the homes began with a survey of 192 London CLT members in 2015. How the neighbourhood will be managed will be down to a resident management company, made up of local people.

So, why does this matter?

Well, it means that those 23 families, and the neighbours and campaigners that helped them get there, are now well versed in what it means to engage in local decision making, not just at election time, but throughout the year. Through the campaign, Londoners have developed skills in negotiation, holding individual and group meetings, taking public action and developing detailed power analyses.

Organising local community institutions, such as schools, faith organisations, trade unions and charities, provides a vehicle through which local people can develop and engage fully in our democracy and form a sense of themselves as public individuals who deserve to be heard. (more on exactly how people can build power will have to wait for another post…).

That is what’s missing from the Labour Party’s manifesto – a plan to make politics not ‘for the many’ but ‘by the many’. A plan for people to have the power to make the big decisions that affect their lives and the lives of those they care about. That is the politics this country needs.

p.s. Just in case it was in doubt, and for anyone worried about partisanship, a plan to ensure a politics by the many is missing from the Conservative Party’s manifesto too… Either way, thankfully the draconian Lobbying Act 2015[6] only applies during election periods… more on that another day!

Calum Green is a Senior Organiser from South London with 6 years’ organising experience.








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