Skip navigation.

Communities in control?

Martin McIvor


First published in Renewal Vol. 12, No. 1 (2004)


Communities in Control: public services and local socialism
Hazel Blears

Deepening Democracy: Institutional innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance
Edited by Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright
VERSO, 2003


It was the new left in Britain who originally argued, as a matter of both social critique and fundamental socialist strategy, that the achievements of post-war social democracy could only be defended from the onslaught of the right by a radical democratisation from below. In an early indication of the influence of such currents on his thinking, Tony Benn argued in a Fabian pamphlet of 1970 that Labour’s answer to the New Right’s promise of ‘greater freedom from government’ had to be 

a more creative relationship with many organisations that stand outside our membership … so that a Labour government will never 'rule' again but create the conditions under which it is able to act as the natural partner of a people.

Stuart Hall’s seminal 1978 Marxism Today essay ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ lamented corporatist Labour’s equation of ‘socialism’ with ‘the expansion of the state machine, under the management of state servants and experts’ and failure to countenance ‘the mobilisation of democratic power at the popular level’, whilst for working people the paternalist institutionalisation of the welfare state was increasingly experienced ‘not as a benefice but as a powerful bureaucratic imposition’. 

And in 1981 Raymond Williams was offering a left critique of the Alternative Economic Strategy (in Ralph Miliband’s Socialist Register), arguing that an incoming Labour government must look for ways to

democratise and at best socialise what are already, nominally, publicly-owned and controlled institutions … There is no real prospect of socialist advance, along the necessary paths of public ownership, unless the deep unpopularity of many of the nationalised institutions is admitted as something more than reactionary prejudice.

It may be, as Hilary Wainwright has argued, that New Labour cut itself off from an adequate appreciation and development of these insights (and the experiments they inspired at the GLC and elsewhere) in its determination to define itself against a crude catch-all caricature of its political and intellectual pre-history. But it is fascinating to watch how in government it has found its own way back to such ideas in its project to renew and sustain popular support for an ongoing renovation and expansion of tax-funded public services.

Hazel Blears prefers to invoke the more respectable heritage of ethical and guild socialism, but her argument for rethinking the Morrisonian model of public ownership and instituting a radical extension of ‘community control’ over local services starts from a sharp strategic analysis. Labour’s ‘narrative’ cannot be ‘just spending more money’ than the Tories.

Without creating a tangible connection between citizens and their public services beyond narrow concepts of consultation and participation, the process of alienation and disengagement from mainstream politics and institutions will continue.

We need to ‘move further and faster in a socialist direction’ and ‘recast the traditional structures and institutions of the state, including “our” institutions such as the National Health Service, educational institutions, and social services’. This means ‘taking power away from the politicians, the ‘experts’, the bureaucrats and the officials, and passing it to the people’ by ‘devolving power and opportunity within the public services to local communities’. Illustrative experiences of the New Deal for Communities and local public health partnerships are drawn upon. Blears is a rising minister, now in the Home Office, and her pamphlet has been seen as an important preview of the ‘third term thinking’ on such themes now emerging within government.

Such thoughts are not confined to the UK. The latest volume in Erik Olin Wright’s excellent ‘Real Utopias’ series for Verso brings together a wealth of material from around the globe on institutional experiments that break the standard liberal democratic formula of ‘representative democracy plus techno-bureaucratic administration’ and ‘elicit the energy and influence of ordinary people, often drawn from the lowest strata of society, in the solution of problems that plague them’. A series of chapters by well-placed contributors present detailed descriptions of and commentaries on the system of participatory budgeting pioneered by the Brazilian Workers’ Party in Porto Alegre; control of policing and public schools by neighbourhood councils in inner-city Chicago; empowerment of village-level administration by left governments in the Indian states of West Bengal and Kerala; and stakeholder-led habitat conservation planning under the US Endangered Species Act. Wright and co-editor Archon Fung frame the discussion with introductory and concluding chapters that analyse this emerging paradigm of ‘Empowered Participatory Governance’ (EPG), relating it to theoretical discussions of deliberative democracy (of the kind inspired by Jürgen Habermas) and sociological accounts of the dynamics of civil engagement and secondary associations (as seen in the work of Robert Putnam).

Blears’s prospectus is certainly an enticing one, and our sense of its potential can only be reinforced by Fung and Wright’s considered conclusion that

many of these ambitious designs are not just workable, but may surpass conventional democratic institutional forms on the quite practical aims of enhancing the responsibility and effectiveness of the state while at the same time making it more fair, participatory, deliberative, and accountable.

But the obvious appeal of this agenda should make us all the more attentive to the real challenges and dilemmas it raises. Fung and Wright’s lucid and penetrating account provides us with an invaluable framework for interrogating the developing UK variant of Empowered Participatory Governance sketched by Blears.

One of the first questions prompted by any proposal to give ‘local people control over their public services’ is how it relates to existing structures of democratic representation and accountability. Wright and Fung identify one of the three key distinguishing features of Empowered Participatory Governance (alongside the involvement of ‘ordinary’ citizens and the emphasis on deliberative procedures) as its organisation around ‘a specific area of practical public concern’, which is certainly a feature of Blears’s vision in which ‘different elected representatives may be responsible for different services’. As Blears recognises, this ‘will challenge the traditional model of a group of two or three councillors representing a ward, and being responsible to local people for all of the local services’. Wright and Fung’s claim is that this non-adversarial, problem-solving focus ‘creates situations in which actors accustomed to competing with one another for power or resources might begin to cooperate and build more congenial relations’. But the other side of this coin, they point out, is that ‘it may also distract agents from more important, broader conflicts (e.g. redistributive taxation or property rights) by concentrating their attention on a constrained set of relatively narrow issues’.

This can only draw our attention to the link between such ideas in the UK context and the declining vitality of local (and to some degree national) electoral politics that has accompanied its loss of fiscal and economic leverage. We should be clear that the democratisation envisaged by Blears could at the same time be a kind of de-politicisation – the corralling of democratic discussion into separate sub-divisions of public administration that while facilitating more constructive and informed engagement may disconnect them from any wider conception of the public good or more global contestation of power relations in society. The government’s interest in such ideas would then count as further confirmation of Peter Mair’s suggestion, in answer to David Marquand’s posing of the ‘Blair paradox’ (constitutional decentralisation plus political control-freakery), that New Labour’s ultimate drive is towards the creation of a ‘partyless democracy’ uncomplicated by ideological confrontation. But the objective of such reforms should be to generate new pressures on the state rather than tame and contain existing ones, bringing forth new waves of grassroots activism that will overspill their formal remits and flow into broader projects for political and social change.

This relates to the issue of who actually participates, and which communities do in fact take control. Wright and Fung warn of the danger that such schemes may simply ‘compound background social and economic inequalities’, noting that their advocates

are often inattentive to problems of powerlessness and domination, thus seeming to suggest that if only the institutional designs can be constructed just right, then gross imbalances of power in the contexts of these institutions will be neutralized.

Blears readily acknowledges that today’s ‘active citizens’ are for the most part ‘people who have had educational advantages, who are most articulate and organised, and who have the most resources’. But she stresses repeatedly that her proposals are aimed at ‘working class people’ – ‘single mums, piece-rate workers, shift workers, or multiple-jobbers’ – and cannot be accused of inattention to the difficulties this presents.

Indeed, this problem seems to be the motivation for the most concrete policy recommendation in the pamphlet, the creation of a Citizens Participation Agency that will provide ‘support, training, information and encouragement’ to working people seeking to wield influence and ‘break up the cosy cartels of the “great and good”.’ This is an imaginative and important suggestion. But we are bound to wonder whether, on its own, it can ever be enough. Blears herself argues for its necessity on the grounds that those ‘forms of self-organisation’ that have in the past facilitated the learning of crucial skills and capacities by working people – ‘political parties, trade unions, churches, voluntary groups, co-ops, temperance societies, women’s groups, adult education bodies’ – are now in retreat.

But this recognition surely suggests that Blears’s Participation Agency must be seen as a complement to, not a substitute for, imaginative strategies to renew and revive more organic and less artificial ‘schools of democracy’. We must hope that political parties and trade unions will not go the way of temperance societies. Fung and Wright note that the ‘countervailing sources of power’ vital to the success of participatory processes will

usually arise from the polity, outside the boundaries of the institutions themselves, and their presence is contingent upon capricious factors such as those that give rise to interest groups, social movements, and lower barriers to collective action generally.

In their absence, the delegation of decision-making to lower levels of governance 'can amount in practice to a state-shrinking, deregulatory maneuver in which oppositional forces are co-opted and neutralized and the collaborative participation becomes mere window dressing'.

This brings us to what is possibly the most distinctive, but also certainly the most controversial aspect of Blears’s argument. Running all the way through the pamphlet is an insistence that ‘recasting’ the idea of public ownership means ‘real, actual, legal ownership by local people of key services’ in place of the ‘imagined ownership based on what the state owns’. It is clear that Blears sees this literal transfer of ownership from the public sector to specially constructed mutual enterprises as the litmus test of true radicalism in this area, a prerequisite for real community ‘control’ that goes beyond mere ‘consultation’. But it is notable that such measures appear nowhere in Fung and Wright’s presentation of the essential principles or design features of effective participatory governance. 

There is no denying the success stories Blears cites, like Ealing Community Transport and Greenwich Leisure, and she may be right that there is more to be made of cooperative models like these. But it is not at all clear why this needs to be the universal formula for democratising public services, as Blears seems to intend. For sure, mutualisation is not the same as privatisation. But however constituted, there will always be pressure on such organisations, responsible for their own bottom line and dependent on financial markets for their investment, to behave in an increasingly commercial manner, maximising surpluses by exploiting users (through increased charges and selecting out the more burdensome) and workforce (terms and conditions in the non-profit sector do not always compare well with the public). Drawing on Fung and Wright’s conclusions, we can imagine a great many different ways of reinventing and radicalising public ownership. 

This is amply illustrated by two big areas of the welfare state that Blears seems to have in mind for large-scale mutualisation, social housing and the NHS. There are clearly other ways of ‘involving residents in the development, prioritisation and delivery’ of housing than through Large Scale Voluntary Stock Transfers, while the record of housing associations on democratic accountability as well as rent levels, service charges and evictions has been notoriously mixed. And Foundation Trusts are not the only route to enhanced patient involvement in the health service (see the recommendations of the Commission on the NHS set up by the Association of Community Health Councils and chaired by Will Hutton, or the White Paper on Scotland’s Health recently published by the Scottish Executive). As has been argued by Angela Eagle, another Labour politician whose experiences in government have led her to an interest in radical democratic alternatives to traditional statist prescriptions, there are real tensions between the competitive business model upon which Foundation Hospitals are based and the superimposed structures of stakeholder governance celebrated by Blears.

Tellingly, both these policies – housing transfers and semi-autonomous NHS trusts – take off from previous Conservative reforms. In the early 1990s analysts of the emerging ‘post-Fordist welfare state’ like Paul Hoggett were already observing its increasing fragmentation into decentralised cost-centres with devolved budgets, via quasi-markets, arm’s length agencies, and outsourcing to private or voluntary sector providers. Then the ministerial rhetoric stressed flexibility, innovation and responsiveness, but the underlying rationale was cost control.

Much of this might suggest that the New Labour version of Enhanced Participatory Governance remains at present a curious ‘Third Way’ hybrid in which the practices and principles of mutualism and community activism are grafted onto a neo-liberal process of welfare state restructuring. But in that contradictory dynamic lie exciting political opportunities.

Privacy policy