Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
In these times of austerity, it is important to cleave to our historical memory, which reminds us that the policy of aggressive cuts to essential services, and the crucial support they give to citizens, is an ideological assault on us all. A sense of our history can remind us of the long road to the welfare state, and the many women and men who fought across centuries to guarantee access to education, health and other basic services for all.
The laissez-faire state of the early 19th century was often disastrous for rapidly growing urban areas. As migrants looking for work poured into the cities, the old local government vestry system creaked at the seams. Small parishes that suddenly became densely populated could not cope with the demands made on housing, water and sanitation supplies. Even burial space was in short supply. In some communities, local parishes worked together to try to manage the huge economic and social changes confronting them. But many could not cope, as revealed in the local responses to the cholera outbreaks of the 1830s and 1840s. Thousands died, particularly in poorer, urban areas, because the infrastructure to manage large numbers of the sick and dead did not exist. The root cause of many disease deaths was the dire state of privately run and piecemeal sanitation and water supply.
The reform of local government in the 1870s was a curate’s egg, and the result of a long and complex series of processes. But its positive aspects remain relevant to us today, particularly given the current dynamic between central and local government. Local authorities have been forced to make stringent cuts, and are outsourcing services that were once central to their purpose and role. It is a political choice to do this, not an historical inevitability.
What a contrast to the proud and assertive local government that arose in some cities in the later 19th century, and which may find its echoes once again. Municipal socialism, often associated with the reforms of Joseph Chamberlain in Birmingham, describes a period of reform that included slum clearance, the development of city sanitation, the creation of public green spaces, and the conversion of gas and water services into publicly owned utilities. Although it would be a long stretch to describe Chamberlain as a socialist, his ideas for city reform were very influential to the Fabians, who believed they offered a model of humane and connected urban environment that helped to put citizens in charge of their own services.
Sidney Webb wrote in Socialism in England in the 1890s that civic reform had meant that nearly half of all citizens in the UK ‘already consume gas made by themselves, as citizens collectively, in 168 different localities, as many as 14 local authorities obtained the power to borrow money to engage [in] the gas industry in a single year’.
In addition, urban water supply was becoming a matter of public provision, with 71 authorities obtaining loans for its provision in 1885-86. So too was the tram network, with 31 localities owning lines, which at that time comprised a quarter of the UK’s mileage. In cooperation, local authorities and their communities could manage their needs much better than the piecemeal, half-private, half-philanthropic arrangements of earlier in the century.
A more radical version of municipal socialism was the ‘Poplarism’ of the London Borough of Poplar, led by George Lansbury in 1921. The Labour council, elected in 1919, led a comprehensive programme of social reform, including equal pay for women and a minimum wage for council workers. This was in part to address the desperate inequalities of a very poor borough at a time of high unemployment. The council also refused to pay the rates demanded by cross-London authorities, which would have compromised what they could spend on their residents’ needs. They marched in protest at the prospect of having to cut back on what their community needed, under the banner ‘Poplar Borough Council, marching to the high court and possibly to prison’.
‘Poplarism’ has entered the lexicon to mean municipal-led relief for the vulnerable and needy, and investment in local services and wages; and also to epitomise those times when local authorities stand up to central government for the rights of their constituents. It’s a proud, radical idea that shows that local authorities do not always accept the terms laid down from the centre, and that the municipality can become ‘free’ when it asserts the needs and rights of its community. We can make our future ‘as citizens collectively’.
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament