How Labour councillors are using culture to do radical things in Newham

Rohit Dasgupta

Ahead of the upcoming local council elections, I wanted to pay tribute to how Labour is using culture to do radical things in the London borough of Newham. I am a Labour and Co-operative Party candidate in the area, where I have served as the councillor for Canning Town South and the commissioner for social integration and equalities for the last four years. Newham is one of the most diverse boroughs in the country, with more than 70% of our residents coming from Black, Asian and other ethnic minority populations and over 200 languages and dialects being spoken.

When we got elected in 2018, we pledged to do things differently. And we delivered: a radical participatory democracy approach saw us organise citizens’ assemblies, speaking to our residents and listening directly to their concerns, and neighbourhood community assemblies, where people decided for themselves what kind of community projects should get funded. This move away from a typical top-down approach, towards a collaborative process involving all those living in our communities, has been hugely appreciated by most of our residents.

In 2019, we launched our ambitious social integration strategy to build a cohesive, united and fairer borough. The diversity of Newham is something we are very proud of; from the very outset, we knew we wanted to use culture as a way of enhancing opportunities and social connections between our diverse communities, and a means of enabling fuller participation of our residents. Under the umbrella of Newham Unlocked, a collaborative year-round festival, we are giving everyone here the opportunity to participate in the cultural life of this borough. We have successfully held Newham Heritage Month, Black History Month, LGBT History Month, Windrush Day, The Word Festival and – for the first time this month – South Asian Heritage Month to showcase the role of culture in bringing people together. We have deliberately taken an intersectional approach in our cultural programming, building on the four key principles of relationship, participation, equality and evidence.

Underpinned by these same principles, our community wealth building strategy was our answer to growth and investment in this borough – and aims to ensure that prosperity is shared amongst our residents. Practical initiatives, such as progressive procurement, the use of our purchasing power to keep wealth in our local economy, and the drive towards an inclusive economy in which our residents get a fair deal from employers, are some of the small things we have managed to do to offer our residents the best opportunities that the borough can offer.

The Black Lives Matter movement and incidents of police brutality on Black, Asian and other ethnic minority communities also acted as a catalyst for us to create a new programme, which we call TRID: Tackling Racism, Inequality and Disproportionality. As part of this scheme, we want to transform Newham to become a beacon of social change. This includes a programme of developing a rich cultural heritage offer to reclaim the diverse history of all cultures and communities so they feel increasingly proud to live here, as well as initiating difficult conversations with our communities about racism and disproportionality through our ‘Time to Talk’ sessions to help address the systemic discrimination and disadvantages experienced by residents of Newham due to their race or ethnicity.

I think we have a solid platform of achievements to stand on. Personally, I have been very happy with the work that we have done on culture and community. It was important that we did not do things for tokenistic reasons but instead to empower our communities to be self-reliant and to celebrate their identities. Labour councils are the first line of defence against Tory austerity, but we are also a good example of what Labour in power can achieve.

As one of the most deprived boroughs in this country, we have shown that we can be ambitious. Our 15-year cultural strategy shows our commitment to the principle that happiness and wellbeing will be the primary markers of our achievement – and our ambition to make this a place where culture, creativity and inclusive participation will thrive for years to come. If re-elected on May 5th, we will strive to maintain this vision, building a thriving and resilient community.

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