Never mind the ballots

Rhian E Jones looks beyond by-elections to assess the co-operatives, regional initiatives and community wealth-building projects energising the UK left

May 27, 2021 · 6 min read
The Preston Model (illustration courtesy of The Democracy Collaborative)

As the dust settles on May’s round of elections, Labour’s results across England have shown that the party’s post-Corbyn direction isn’t bearing fruit – not least in the Hartlepool by-election. Hartlepool’s new Tory MP, Jill Mortimer, claimed her victory was based on the desire for material change, with people voting for ‘jobs and investment’. But the ability and inclination of Boris Johnson’s government to actually deliver on its promise, given the insubstantial lip-service of its ‘levelling-up’ agenda, is dubious at best.

In the North-West city of Preston, however, Labour bucked the national trend, retaining all of its incumbent council seats and increasing its vote share in others. The city’s Preston Model of community wealth-building was enabled partly by the visible failure of old models of post-industrial regeneration, which relied on outsourcing and external investment by multinational private capital. Instead, Preston has pioneered alternative economic models based on democratic and socially conscious enterprises, using local ideas and resources. The material improvement this has delivered has consistently been reflected at the ballot box.

Labour also did strikingly well in Wales, where the past year has seen the Welsh Labour government act with an unprecedented degree of independence in its handling of the pandemic, lockdown and vaccine rollout. In Salford, Labour also made gains following the council’s decision to reject outsourcing and invest in local infrastructure, institutions and services. 

Might these results further indicate the benefit, appeal, and political reward of local and regional autonomy? Andy Burnham, decisively re-elected as Mayor of Greater Manchester, stated similarly that political success for Labour lay in embracing devolution and going ‘beyond Westminster’.

Looking local

The Preston Model is only one of a number of local, regional and community projects working without permission from Westminster or Whitehall. A whole range of groups across the UK are taking local matters into local hands, from community land stewardship in the Welsh Valleys to customer-owned regional banks like North West Mutual and Banc Cambria. Local Green New Deal initiatives – like that in Coventry, working with shop stewards at Rolls Royce on conversion plans for a low-carbon economy – are showing the potential for action that both addresses climate change and safeguards jobs. 

Other important local projects centre on cooperatives. Co-ops have a long history in the UK, and can include businesses owned and managed by their workers (worker co-ops); associations in areas like food, housing or utilities owned and managed by their service users (consumer co-ops); or enterprises in the health and social care sector in which ownership is shared between caregivers and receivers. This last example can help address the lack of control often felt by elderly and disabled people around the operation and priorities of the services they use. 

For those looking to get actively involved, organisations like Radical Routes and the Wales Co-operative Centre support the setting up and development of cooperatives and social enterprises, ranging from housing schemes to education providers. The Cooperation Town project works to establish a grassroots network of food co-ops on housing estates and in other communities. 

In addition to Preston’s municipal socialism, projects like these draw on other left traditions including syndicalism, anarchism and environmentalism. Grassroots localism, engaging groups and individuals outside party politics and civic institutions, is another way of securing change that doesn’t rely on a political vanguard leading from the top – and that isn’t vulnerable to the vagaries of the electoral cycle. 

Continuing this conversation, Red Pepper will host a discussion at the Stir to Action festival on 13-15 July on how to connect and better integrate  local institutions and community groups when looking to expand community wealth-building.

With little real prospect of economic and social transformation being led by Westminster, the British left will need to look beyond the electoral horizon to really ‘level up’. 

Rhian E Jones is a Red Pepper co-editor and co-author of the new book, Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too (Repeater Books, 2021)


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