People Power after Brexit

When this country took its decision to leave the EU, the deciding factor for many who voted Leave was the sense of powerlessness they feel over changes that are making their lives tougher. The speed of global change has had a dramatic effect. For too many people that change has been damaging, to jobs and to living standards. Whole communities feel abandoned and ignored. So when we were told that Brexit meant taking back control, many voted for it. 

But the truth is the Tories have no intention of giving people control over any of the things that have left too many behind. They’re keeping their plan for Brexit secret. It’s not really a surprise. The Tories are incapable of giving away power. That’s clear from the way they treat local communities.

The Tories claim that they’re committed to localism, to giving local communities a bigger say. Yet they subject local councils to billions of pounds worth of budget cuts with the deepest cuts falling on the poorest areas. That leads to cuts in education, health services, schemes that help the unemployed back to work and the fight against crime. And that, of course, underscores people’s sense of powerlessness.

It’s clear that the Tories don’t trust local communities to make their own decisions. The only thing the Tories trust is money and the market. They’re not interested in giving power to the powerless, they are handing even more to the already powerful.

In the referendum many people voted to take power back from what they regarded as unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. We cannot now allow the Brexit settlement to hand new powers to unelected bureaucrats in Whitehall.

I want to see people given a real voice. Control put back in their hands. Power over their own lives is something the rich have always enjoyed, now it’s time to give the same opportunity to everyone else. And the way we can do it is through local government. Not just making sure that funding is fair and reflects real needs. But learning from those councils that are finding new ways to open up power and decision making to the communities they represent.

That is why I’m today announcing the formation of a new taskforce called Communities for Culture, which will look at how decisions on arts, sports and culture can be placed in the hands of local and regional communities.

I will chair it along with Simon Henig, Vice Chair on Culture, Tourism and Sport at the Local Government Association and leader of Durham County Council. Its members will also include two local leaders drawn from the arts, culture and sports community, who will be appointed soon. Every Labour councillor who holds the culture portfolio at local government level will also be invited to join.

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It will examine how local communities who are sometimes overlooked by arts bodies and cultural institutions can receive their fair share of the UK’s cultural dividend. Crucially, it will seek their views on what services they need and how money should be spent.

Voters embraced the EU referendum because they felt their choice was important and their voice was heard. We need to build on that and find more ways for people to participate in decisions that affect their lives.

Madrid has experimented with the same idea on a larger scale. The city has a pot of money earmarked to be spent on local projects prioritized by local people. Citizens vote on what they want to fund. This is democracy-max, and we need much more of it right across our country.

In Lewisham in south London assemblies of local people decide how to spend a small amount of public money on a ward-by-ward basis. In Brockley, they decided to use it to fund arts and sports projects that helped bring together residents and strengthen community relations.

Communities for Culture will carry out work on a wide range of topics, including the impact of cuts to local government spending on the arts, culture and sport; the role of libraries in the digital age; the impact of the night-time economy on local areas; the provision of services for young people; the structure and funding mechanisms used by arts bodies and the effectiveness of outreach programmes designed to engage less affluent communities.

We must demand more devolution from this Government, and point out the emptiness of their rhetoric when they centralize decision making as they have over schools and housing. I want Labour to be the party of devolution by default, always pushing power down, always finding new ways to give people a real voice over the decisions that affect them.

I have to declare my own interest here. Local government funds and supports the majority of this country’s cultural attractions, tourist destinations, sporting events, libraries and museums. And as well as being Labour's Deputy Leader I am now Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. 

Giving people a voice in their own communities, giving local councils the ability to act on those demands, will help reduce the sense of hopelessness and exclusion felt by many. A voice at work, a voice in your community, a voice over the public services you use. That’s the real way to let people take back control and I want to see this right at the heart of our party’s vision for national renewal.