The Preston Model: behind the red gloss

Preston council has been presented as an example of ‘municipal socialism that works’, a model for how to transfer economic and political power back to working class communities. But a new book co-authored by the council’s Labour leader profoundly disappoints, argues CLIVE HEEMSKERK.

Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too

By Matthew Brown and Rhian E Jones

Published by Repeater Books, 2021, £10-99

“This book is everything we need right now”, the radical author and occasional Guardian columnist Owen Hatherley wrote earlier this year, in pre-publication publicity for the new book, Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too. It provides a “how-to guide to municipal socialism that works” in the here and now, he argued, and “should be mandatory reading for all socialists”.

The book’s cover summary promises “a blueprint for the wholesale transformation of our currently failing economic system”. Equally enthusiastic, the former Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell says that Preston is a “reminder that despite years of austerity and neoliberalism, there are now genuine economic alternatives emerging in many towns, cities and regions across the UK”.

The stage the Covid pandemic has reached makes such a discussion on how to fight back even more timely. The initial emergence of the virus completely upended the global economy, forcing even the most ideologically free-market driven capitalist politicians into the biggest state interventions outside wartime, to protect their system from the mass anger that would have been unleashed if such measures had not been taken, including by Johnson’s Tory government.

Now, as Britain moves to a post-pandemic ‘new normal’, with all the qualifications to be made about the future evolution of a still dangerous virus, the battle will be to sustain public spending – and doing so not at the expense of workers’ living standards – and ensuring it serves the interests of the working and middle classes, not the capitalist profiteers leeching on the public realm. With Keir Starmer’s revived Tony Blair-style New Labour party, however, committed to a defence of capitalism in Westminster and local town halls, a manual for how to maximise the opportunities councils provide to defend local communities would be just what socialists, militant trade unionists and social movement activists need.

And if Preston does provide such a model of resistance to the pro-capitalist consensus of Johnson and Starmer, who better to explain it than the council leader Matthew Brown? He was first elected as a councillor in 2002 and was responsible within the council leadership for ‘community engagement and inclusion’ since the ‘Preston Model’ was launched in the city in 2011, before becoming leader in 2018. Paint Your Town Red’s other author is the founding editor of the New Socialist website and now a co-editor of the left-wing Red Pepper magazine, Rhian E Jones.

Their book does give examples of how Preston council has attempted to aid the local economy through the development of small businesses, not least, as the authors describe it, through the council’s “ability to command and drive the process of local procurement”. The council has also striven to go beyond ‘progressive procurement’ however, “to include community banking” – albeit with results still to be realised – “the local investment of public pensions funds, and the encouragement of worker-owned co-operatives”, giving a glimpse of what powers are available to the ‘local state’.

But unfortunately these initiatives, noteworthy but in themselves not especially remarkable, are also not put forward as part of a council-led strategy to demand more resources from central government but as a self-sustaining alternative economy. The answer to the fundamental question posed by the austerity squeeze on local government funding, in the past and in the future – should councillors vote in the council chamber to pass on the cuts to central government funding of local authorities or not? – is never given, or even properly discussed.

But Matthew Brown, at least, is aware of the debate. He was a councillor in December 2010 when a motion was presented to Preston council opposing cuts, job losses and privatisation by Michael Lavalette; then, as a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) which had been co-founded earlier that year by the Socialist Party, the RMT transport workers’ union’s Bob Crow, and other leading trade unionists. Although the motion had the backing of Preston trades council, where five Labour councillors had supported it, at the full council meeting all the Labour councillors voted for an amendment accepting ‘fairer cuts’.

By avoiding this question – and the 2010 debate is not mentioned at all – the book cannot be a manual for how councillors can and should act in the coming struggle over post-Covid cuts to local public services and the jobs and conditions of council workers. Or, equally significantly in that the Starmer New Blairite Labour leadership is also a block to socialist municipalism, the role that local councillors could play in rebuilding a working class political alternative following the decisive defeat of Corbynism within the current framework of the Labour Party.

What Preston is not a model for

The only context in which previous examples are raised in Paint Your Town Red of the role of local councils in the UK as centres of struggle for more central government funding, is to contrast them to the alleged powerlessness of councils today. So the authors write that “in the past, local government had both the power and the will to make radical improvements and to stand up for the area it represents. Councils like London’s Poplar in the 1920s, or Liverpool, Lambeth and others in the 1980s, defended their communities against central government cuts”. The implication is that such possibilities are no longer there today – which, as explored later below, is totally false.

Instead the model, which was first adopted by Preston’s newly-elected Labour council leadership ten years ago, accepts the existing framework for the distribution of power and funding between central and local government but strives to intervene in the local economy in a process described as ‘community wealth-building’.

The authors explain how the council began by “working with six of the public bodies on their doorstep – Lancashire County Council, Preston College, Community Gateway [a housing association], Cardinal Newman College and Lancashire Constabulary (the University of Central Lancashire and local NHS joined later)”. These organisations are described as “the city’s anchor institutions: large employers with a stable presence in the area”, who were spending £750 million on procuring goods and services but with only 39% being spent with businesses and other organisations based in Lancashire, including Preston.

This meant, the authors argue, that “over £458 million was leaking out of the Lancashire economy”. But through re-organising supply chains, opening them up to local competition and “then redirecting contracts for services such as printing and catering” towards local businesses, the ‘anchor institutions’ have brought back £176 million of contracts into the local economy.

The council encouraged the formation of co-operatives, to fulfil the procurement needs of the ‘anchor institutions’ and more generally, and the book lists four that have been established so far, offering services locally in educational psychology, catering, digital media and a cooperative of local taxi drivers. In addition, at the time of the book’s publication, there was the prospect of “at least ten potential new worker-owned cooperatives in care, construction, education and supporting former prisoners” being formed, meaning that possibly “hundreds of workers in Preston will become worker-owners in the next few years”.

But such an approach is not a challenge to austerity cuts to council funding – or even, fundamentally, to the broad neoliberal conception of the role of the local state advanced by Margaret Thatcher and subsequent UK prime ministers, including Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Thatcher’s assault on local government, reflecting the capitalists’ response to the end of the long post-war boom in 1974-75 and the public spending concessions to the labour movement they had been forced to endure, began by reducing councils’ powers in order to push forward the marketization of public services: summed up in her infamous phrase “I must take more power to the centre to stop socialism”.

In other words, public services that ‘crowded out’ the private sector should be curbed or, where they continued to exist, should be opened up to private companies to make profits from public needs. The goal for local government was always a US-style system of ‘city boards’ of elected officials – in the US from two capitalist parties, with no historical experience of a mass workers’ party – whose primary responsibility is to allocate state contracts to private providers, not excluding commercially competitive charities or mutual organisations.

But this is not incompatible with the Preston Model. This is something indeed that the authors acknowledge, when they write that “there are significant questions on how mutual aid networks can or should interact with the state, and a particular need to avoid the responsibility for welfare provision being further pushed into voluntary groups or the charity sector, as has happened with the so-called ‘Big Society’ over the past decade of austerity”. That can only be done however by linking any immediate ameliorative measures taken to salvage something from the wreckage of local public services, to the building of a mass challenge to the government for resources. Not by evading the question.

Honest accounting

Nor by exaggerating the situation and applying a red gloss. In highlighting, for example, the generally positive public stance of the city’s ‘anchor institutions’ to the Preston Model, the authors refer to the Gateway Community Association (GCA), which manages more than 6,000 homes in the area, for its decision to insource its repair, refitting and grounds maintenance services from 2015. But while quoting approvingly the preference of GCA’s head of finance for local procurement “whenever we can”, the book doesn’t mention anywhere that GCA was actually established, in 2005, as a result of a stock transfer of Preston council homes. This was initiated by the council as part of the Blair government’s national drive to ‘end council housing’, in the words of the minister then responsible for housing and local government, John Prescott. Non-binding talks in a ‘partnership model’ with the city’s main social housing organisation are a poor substitute for local democratic control.

Similarly, another ‘anchor institution’ praised is the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), with the nineteenth-largest student population of all UK universities, which, the authors explain, has in recent years switched from its (unsuccessful) efforts to expand overseas as part of the global higher education market to now “concentrate more on how it can play a role in the local community”. This meant restructuring its procurement spending and, the authors record as they completed their book, “is considering becoming a Living Wage employer”.

But again, this is not a sober explanation of the real erosion of local democracy that has been involved here and how limited the ‘Preston Model’ actually is. Unmentioned is the fact that previously UCLan had been Preston Polytechnic, funded and managed by a democratically elected council local education authority, arrangements overturned by the Thatcher government’s 1988 Education Reform Act and not reversed by Blair. Achieving a position where a local council succeeds in persuading an institution still heavily reliant on public funds to amend its procurement policies and – very decently – to ‘consider’ paying living wages is, sadly, not even near to being a finished strategy to shift wealth and power back to the working class.

Regarding co-operatives, while they can be a model of how many elements of a future socialist society might be organised when the commanding heights of the economy were no longer in capitalist hands, context is everything – which economic forces, which class forces, predominate. The current travails, in an energy market dominated by giant monopolies, of small companies including some municipal providers – Preston at one point planned an energy co-op but that is not mentioned in the book – is a salutary reminder of that.

Moreover, most of the Preston examples listed cover services – in education support, catering, digital media, local taxis, care and construction – which councils could themselves deliver. And not through market competition between various suppliers but as planned services, with trade union negotiated pay, terms and conditions, and structures of worker and user management, which really would raise consciousness about the possibilities of a new organisation of society. There were elements of workers’ management achieved by Liverpool local authority workers in the 1980s, under the council in which Militant, the Socialist Party’s predecessor organisation, played a critical leading role. (See Liverpool’s Real Legacy of Struggle, by Peter Taaffe, in Socialism Today No.247, April 2021 and the book, Liverpool: A City That Dared To Fight, by Peter Taaffe and Tony Mulhearn)

On the issue of resources the authors provide figures for how much spending on goods and business services the council and the ‘anchor institutions’ have brought back into the local economy but not how much resources have been removed – without a struggle by the councillors – from the area’s local authorities, Preston and Lancashire County Council, in the same period. The first tier authority, Lancashire – which Labour lost control of in 2017 – has cut its gross expenditure on public services from £2.611 billion in 2013 (in 2020 prices) to £2.39 billion in 2020, an annual reduction of £221 million. Preston has cut its annual gross spending from £126 million in 2013 (in 2020 prices) to £79.3 million in 2020, a drop of £46.7 million. The authors assert in the book’s introduction that Preston’s “success shows… the capacity to achieve a meaningful transfer of wealth and power back to local communities”, but unfortunately the facts don’t bear them out.

Preston is a second tier authority with a population of 142,000 and direct comparisons with Liverpool need to be approached cautiously. But it is an historical fact that the mass struggle led by that council forced the Thatcher government to concede an extra £60 million in resources to the city in 1984 (£197 million in 2020 prices), in a retreat that enraged the Tory media. The Times famously denounced the deal as ‘Danegeld’, a tribute to pay off tenth century invaders, lamenting that “in Liverpool, municipal militancy is vindicated”. (11 July 1984) The struggle of the tiny Clay Cross council in 1972-73 against the Ted Heath Tory government’s Housing Finance Act, in a town of just 10,000 residents, also provoked the hostility of the ruling class, alarmed at a real model of resistance.

But Preston? The only mild rebuke from capitalist ideologues has been from The Economist magazine, arguing that what it termed the city’s “municipal protectionism” created extra costs and inefficiencies by reversing economies of scale. (21 October 2017) On this occasion it is unfortunately by our enemies as much as our friends that we should be known, and know ourselves.

Not a movement with mass participation

“In a discussion like this”, the authors write not incorrectly, “it’s helpful to recognise what can and can’t be done within the limits of local government, especially in a context of ongoing funding cuts and austerity”. Councils are constrained in the steps they can propose “unless accompanied by the building of a strong grassroots movement in support of these initiatives”.

The authors suggest that what they say are Labour Party successes at the ballot box are a measure of broad support for Preston council, arguing that “in the 2019 general election, Preston was one of the few constituencies to buck the national swing”. In fact Labour’s vote fell in Preston in 2019, from 24,210 in 2017 to 20,870, a four percent swing. In contrast, for an example of a movement generating real mass support, the vote in Liverpool’s then six constituencies between the general elections of 1983 and 1987 – the period covering the council’s struggle against the Thatcher government – rose from 128,467 to 155,033, a 10.7% swing. If this had been repeated nationally there would have been a Labour victory instead of a Tory majority of 102 seats, greater than Johnson’s 2019 result.

The authors’ citing of Preston’s local election results, in particular the 2018 contests which they highlight, are no more convincing. Labour’s city-wide vote in 2018, at 13,121, was actually down from 13,831 on the last time these particular seats were contested, in 2014, while its vote in the most recent elections, in May 2021 after nearly ten years of the Preston Model, was static at 12,912.

But generally, it is true, the authors are not trying to argue that the Preston Model was either the product of a mass movement or an inaugurator of one. ‘Progressive procurement’ policies were achieved, they say, “through what the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) describe as ‘cajoling’ and through engaging with a range of partners and stakeholders in addition to the city council”, not through grassroots action.

Matthew Brown was responsible for the council’s ‘community engagement and inclusion’ portfolio from 2011 but there is not one example in the book of how any council policy emerged from mass involvement. The authors mention the “visits and ongoing contact” with the US professor Ted Howard, for example, and name “progressively-minded council officers” involved in developing the model, but never the care-workers, housing staff, bin workers, tenants and so on at the sharp end of austerity. There were no mass meetings, protests or demonstrations in support of the council’s stance, at least none that are reported in the book.

Compare that with the seething debates that took place in the hundreds-strong delegate meetings of the trade union and party organisations in the Liverpool District Labour Party, to organise defiance of the government and direct what the councillors did, not the other way round. Or the mass participation in the Poplar struggle, with the 1921 ‘rates strike’ decision agreed at a conference of the ‘Poplar Trades Council and Borough Labour Party’, a combined organisation of trade union branches and local parties. South Poplar Labour Party alone had 2,800 individual members in 1923. There are no figures however in Paint Your Town Red, in fact no information at all, on the situation within the Preston Labour Party or the local trade union movement or community organisations.

The authors are indeed concerned at the lack of what they term ‘buy-in’, “to what extent these top-down changes have filtered out to the ordinary citizens of Preston”. They put the lack of involvement down to “the financial crisis of 2008, and the imposition of austerity that followed”, for generating “feelings of powerlessness and despair among ordinary people who had no faith in the ability of local or national governments to act in their interests”. But that’s because the local and national governments led by capitalist politicians were not acting in their interests! And unfortunately that ‘sense of powerlessness’ cannot be overcome by opposition councillors who, however well-intentioned they may be, go along with the idea that there is nothing they can do to resist central government’s slashing of local authority funding.

Can councils fight the cuts?

Is it really the case that it is only “in the past” that councils “had the power”, like Poplar in the 1920s or Liverpool in the 1980s, to defend “their communities against central government cuts”?

From a purely formal, legal viewpoint, the situation has, in fact, improved. There is no prospect now of imprisonment, as the Poplar councillors faced in 1921. Similarly the power of surcharge, which was inflicted on the Liverpool and Lambeth councillors in the 1980s, was abolished in the 2000 Local Government Act, except for cases of personal gain.

In general, after the 1990s transmutation of the Labour Party into Tony Blair’s New Labour, the capitalist ruling class were quite prepared to restore powers to local councils effectively stripped of working-class political representation. As explained earlier, this did not contradict the neo-liberal conception of the role of local government. And the capitalists’ national political representatives, both the New Labour governments of Blair and Brown and the David Cameron-Nick Clegg Con-Dem coalition – and since 2015, the majority Tory governments – could each see the possibility of advantage against the other of ‘devolving the axe’ to councils under the attractive banner of ‘localism’.

So the authors are right to point to some of the contradictory effects of the Con-Dem government’s 2011 Localism Act “in which new rights were created for charitable trusts, voluntary bodies and others”. This included the right to bid to take over ‘assets of community value’ such as public buildings, or privately-owned shops, pubs and playing fields put up for sale, providing opportunities for community ownership. These new rights certainly fit in with the book’s promotion of “local initiatives that operate with a degree of autonomy from local government… generating their own wealth locally rather than relying on handouts from external grants or budgets, or on private sector employers”.

But what the authors conspicuously do not mention is the increased freedoms that councils themselves gained under the Localism Act – not to subcontract them but to provide services and social goods themselves – summed up in the provision giving them a ‘power of competence’ to do “anything apart from that which is specifically prohibited”. Failing to spell out what is really possible for local councils to do is letting local councillors off the hook, not saying what they should be doing as community champions – or why they should stand aside if they are not prepared to fight and let others come forward who are.

Earlier this year, in contrast, the TUSC steering committee published a report examining the policy pledges made in Labour’s 2019 general election manifesto under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, which councils have the legal powers to implement today if they had the political will to do so. The report identifies 46 separate policies promised by Labour just 21 months ago which councils have the possibility to introduce now – not after a general election, or after new legislation is passed, but immediately, today. These range from breakfast clubs and free school meals for all primary school pupils; local replacements for the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) for 16-18 year olds in education; free bus travel for under-25s; a council house building programme; rent controls for licensed landlords; the end of ‘15-minute maximum’ home care visits; to a mass home insulation energy efficiency programme to fight climate change; and much more. But you wouldn’t know that from only reading Paint Your Town Red.

The issue of a struggle for resources would still need to be addressed. Council chief finance officers do now have greater legal powers than they had in the 1980s to block council expenditure or refuse to issue council tax bills – through a Section 114 notice – if they deem a council budget to be ‘unbalanced’. But ‘balancing’ a no-cuts budget by the use of prudential borrowing powers and reserves, to buy time to build a mass campaign for government funding, is possible. This is explained, again by TUSC, whose briefings, reports, and their guidance material for organising local no cuts People’s Budgets campaigns, are at least as much a manual for activists as Matthew Brown and Rhian Jones’s book.

The strategy of using borrowing powers and reserves to temporarily balance no cuts or improving services budgets would not avoid a potential confrontation with council chief finance officers or the government. The alternative budget amendments explored in the TUSC material were not recommended by council officers when they were presented. But they were not ruled as ‘illegal’ either. The use of borrowing powers and reserves to meet projected deficits is a ‘matter of judgement’ for councillors to make, which could at least be legally defended while a mass campaign for more resources for local government is built. The ‘technical’ means to fight back can always be found if there is a will to do so.

Local austerity will not be defeated by action in the council chambers alone but by combining such defiance with building a mass movement. But it needs councillors prepared to take that stance, not acquiesce in the government’s slashing of resources.

The tasks now

Speaking to the Conservative Councillors’ Association in February 2017, after Jeremy Corbyn had seen off Owen Smith’s leadership coup attempt the previous summer, the then prime minister Theresa May warned of the dangers of Corbynism gaining ascendency in the town halls. “For those of us who remember what Militant did to Liverpool”, she said, “it doesn’t matter what term you use – we can’t allow Labour to get a foothold back in local government”. (The Guardian, 25 February, 2017)

But unfortunately Corbyn did not emulate the fighting stance of the Liverpool councillors. He fatally failed to confront the councillors he had inherited from the New Labour era, over 90% of whom did not support him for leader. Instead of a call for Labour councils to refuse to cut services or sack workers, and an appeal to his supporters to deselect Labour councillors who went ahead with the cuts, in one of the first of many mistaken attempts to find ‘unity’ with the pro-capitalist Labour right, he and John McDonnell issued a circular letter in December 2015 to council Labour groups which, whatever its intentions, effectively condoned their continuation of austerity policies. (See No Retreat on Resisting Council Cuts, The Socialist, 6 January 2016, reprinted in the special edition of Socialism Today, Lessons From the Corbyn Experience, No.239, June 2020) The resulting continued experience of cuts made by alleged ‘Labour’ councils allowed the town hall Blairites to undermine Corbyn’s anti-austerity message, particularly amongst working class voters in ‘left behind’ Labour constituencies.

Responding to the electoral defeat of 2019, the authors do correctly point out that “the structural conditions that gave rise to these political breakthroughs” – in which they bracket Corbynism and the support for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns in the USA – “persist, and will continue to fuel demands for something different”. But at the same time the subsequent crushing of Corbynism – within the framework of the Labour Party at least – has reinforced an at bottom pessimistic appraisal of the balance of class forces and the prospects for mass working class resistance, and a seeking for an ‘easier’ route.

So they write that “one of the obvious strengths of localism is that it is already producing results” – which this review at least has shown is debatable – “while attempts to develop a national alternative to the status quo through an electoral path have not yet had significant success”. They go on to approve the response of “many on the left” to Labour’s electoral defeat, who identify “the need for a longer-term strategy that rebuilds engagement and credibility on a local level, through focusing on bases of community support and solidarity, including welfare and social, cultural and leisure provision” – but not on what councils, and fighting councillors, can and should do.

But are they really saying, for example, that if Jeremy Corbyn had stood in the London elections this May he would not have been a contender – as Ken Livingstone was when he stood against Labour in 2000 – to become the mayor of the largest city in Europe? And that if he had won that he would not – or should not – have used the lever of the mayoralty to refuse to make the cuts to London’s transport system demanded by the government? So that the coming battle over funding would not be between the RMT, ASLEF and the other transport unions and the Transport for London (TfL) management; but the unions and a TfL under Corbyn’s direction, mobilising the London working and middle classes against the Johnson government?

Of course they are not. But why then couldn’t the left-led trade unions, the Campaign Group of MPs, the hundreds of councillors who did support Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity message – along with socialist organisations including the Socialist Party and our allies in TUSC – organise a fightback: including the largest possible challenge in next year’s local elections against cutting capitalist politicians of whatever hue, with over 6,500 council seats to be contested?

The next period is not going to be one of tranquillity, with Theresa May’s former deputy prime minister Damian Green amongst others warning of a coming winter of discontent. Local councillors standing with their communities against post-Covid cuts could be an important part of the resistance, including the battle to re-establish a vehicle for working class political representation.

But whatever else they stand for, they can only contribute to the struggle if they unswervingly commit to vote against austerity in all its guises in the council chamber.