The Labour Party was formed by working people to take power and create a more equal society. To our party’s founders, that did not just mean parliamentary representation, it included the collective power of trade unions, working men’s clubs, friendly societies and co-operatives.
Labour has often prioritised state power over this ‘power building’ part of our movement. But an over-powerful state can become oppressive, not least in the hands of a Conservative government. We can look to the history of our movement to find ways of putting power directly into the hands of people so they can shape the lives they want to live and the communities they are part of. Power, if it’s not to become oppressive, must be bottom-up as well as top-down. Too many injustices in our society are linked to an inequality of power in our workplaces, our economy and our politics.
Rapid technological change is transforming the way we live, work, learn and communicate. There is a risk that these developments will benefit only a powerful elite with the growth of corporate social media giants, big data and the gig economy where the likes of Uber use digital platforms to exploit their workers. Can Labour rebalance this through more democratic approaches to decision-making and new forms of co-ownership?
During the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve seen new forms of collaboration emerge such as mutual aid groups. Collaboration also underlies new forms of community power-building in councils like Wigan, Preston, Barking and Dagenham and the co-operative councils movement.
Instead of power that is exercised top-down and does things to people, all these places are exploring how to directly involve people in taking the decisions that affect them. They’re showing how deepening democracy and opening up participation leads to dramatically improved outcomes for people and strengthens the communities they are part of simply by giving them a voice and the power to use it. It’s part of an approach Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms describe in their recently published book New Power.
New Power is at work in Plymouth’s community-owned energy co-operatives, Preston’s community wealth-building and Stevenage’s co-operative neighbourhoods. It’s there in the community land trust movement, platform co-operativism, hyper-local currencies like the Brixton Pound, or collaborative approaches to tackling family crisis, like Camden’s Family Group Conferencing, where the family leads decision-making rather than being subjected to it.
The New Power movement is thriving on the ground in our communities, but it has more to teach us about politics at a national level. We know it’s transformative and we know it can help tackle injustice and inequality, so can we put community power centre stage in Labour politics? If renters’ unions can give tenants a bigger say over their landlords, and youth trusts can give young people a bigger say over the youth services they use, how far can we go in finding ways for everyone to have a bigger say over the decisions that affect their lives as part of a national programme of democratic renewal?
The New Power project will be launched today, Tuesday 16th March. It will bring together everyone in the labour movement who believes we can build a fairer society by tackling the inequalities of power that hold so many people back and allow inequality to grow. We want to explore new ways to give people a real voice and the power to use it in the workplace, in their communities, and over the public services they use. The project will feed into the shadow cabinet’s policy renewal work and can help shape the agenda for the next Labour government.
Please register here to join the Labour Together/Compass launch event with New Power co-author Jeremy Heimans, community activist Shana Roberts, writer and political scientist Dr Sue Goss and entrepreneur Jason Stockwood.