A new type of civic socialism
New East: New Thinking is a ground-breaking vision piece. It is written from the heart and from the experience of being a community and political activist, with defining moments when Labour defeated the BNP in Barking and Dagenham in 2010. Now as civic leader, Darren Rodwell has recalled his political journey to pen this ‘long read’, that is simultaneously biographical, deeply political, historical and forward-looking. It connects personal experience with the evolution of a place and its communities; reflecting on and explaining what the Council is trying to do in the most challenging of circumstances and drawing out some wider lessons for the Labour Party.
A distinctive Left politics runs through the piece articulated through a new type of civic socialism – rootedness in locality but open to the wider world; pride in the working class values of the 20th Century, but seeking to remake these in the diverse environments of the 21st; determined to lead a community but to listen to them and involve them in shaping their future; enormously critical of New Labour for leaving behind working class communities and admiring of the radicalism of the Corbyn project, but suggesting a new relationship between the national Labour Party and its civic base.
The vision of the New East
Central to the vision piece is the concept of the New East that is deeply rooted in a sense of place. Darren takes us through the history of the Borough with its heyday from the 1930s through to the 70s – a garden city that accommodated migration from East London and was industrially symbolised by Fords. This is not a sentimental journey with a longing to live in the past, but aims to use the past to help create a future for Barking and Dagenham. The vision piece is interestingly reflective of this ‘Keynsian’ past. Along with the recognition of its social cohesion and pride of place around a white working class, there are criticisms of regimentation; passivity and complacency of the era. These reflections, and an extensive critique of the effects Thatcherism and neoliberalism and what these did to the Borough, lay the basis for the future vision – A New East.
The New East is a complex and compelling concept. This vision piece contains only its beginnings, but the future shape comes into view. For Darren, at the heart of the New East is the aim of inclusive growth and a new local economy in which all its citizens can participate and prosper. Allied to this is a highly public, anti-gentrification approach to housing which prioritises homes for local people so they can lead sustainable lives in a rapidly changing London. At the same time this housing strategy, that will lead to 50,000 new homes, also recognises that there will be new residents who will also contribute the New East and its inclusive growth.
While firmly rooted in strong sense of place, the concept of the New East is not isolationist or inward-looking. It recognises that Barking and Dagenham has to become an integral part of part of a ‘rebalanced’ London. The Borough is not relegated to the periphery of ‘Supernova London’ and its overheated centre, but a vibrant element of a more devolved ‘polycentric London’ that is also growing Eastwards. But the concept of the New East is not confined to a remade London: it also looks outwards to the wider world. Although the vision piece does not dwell on globalisation, it is implicitly trying to forge a new relationship with it; notably the role of the ‘New Silk Road’, the rail link from China that terminates in Dagenham. This new relationship with globalisation (arguably a progressive version of it) can be encapsulated in Darren’s slogan ‘Where the New East meets the Rising East’.
A new type of council, council worker and citizenry
The driving force for the New East is a renewed alliance between the Council and the citizens of the Borough. The Labour-led Council has had to renew itself with only half the money and half the workforce it had in 2010. It has refused to ‘salami slice’ its services and has chosen instead to reconceptualise them; to forge new relationships and alliances to bring other social partners into the picture whether this be voluntary, private sector or, critically, the community itself. Driven by the concept of public service innovation, council services are being reimagined as a set of linked projects; for example, Community Solutions; Be First; Reside and Participatory City.
But here there are huge questions and challenges in creating a new type of council, allied to a new type of citizenry and all of which has to be built in a period of continued imposed austerity.
How to build a new local public realm out of diversity? This will have to be forged from a blend of the ‘values of the public sector, with the community involvement and flexibility of the voluntary sector, and the commercial-mindedness of the private sector’. To work in this more open and alliance-based way will require a deep sense of social mission that is shared by the Council itself; all council workers; the social partners and members of the community. The project, therefore, is as much about a comprehensive educative project as it is about producing better services and a new local economy.
How to develop a new type of public-sector professionalism? Community Solutions, for example, is attempting to reimagine public service delivery to try to address the problems of citizens nearer to their source, that links issues of housing; worklessness and health. Rather accepting services being delivered in a siloed way, they are being integrated in a way that responds to the complex lives of its citizens. This a very demanding process and requires workers that have not only specialist skills, but also a strong shared ethical awareness and highly developed general social skills. This too is a long-term educative project.
How to directly involve citizens and create a new civic pride? There is a central role for a citizen participation and a new civic pride, but this cannot be conjured from thin air. It will be a long and painstaking process involving more community projects; more effective and engaging services; more door knocking and listening and, above all, more faith in the fact that the future lies with the People and their bottom-up actions, even though sometimes the energy does not appear to be there because everyday lives can be such a struggle.
Practical, open and rooted politics – lessons for Labour
Running through the piece are the themes of working class values, a very English concept of fairness and the Spirit of ‘45. But in keeping with its historical and forward-looking vision this is not trapped in the past, but is seeking renewal of these themes in the 21st Century conditions. Here there is a clear lesson for Labour – a democratic version of socialism rooted in current realities and struggles and an outward-looking politics that engage with friends rather than searching out enemies. At the same time, Darren’s piece is both intensely practical, yet highly moral. Having lived his life in Barking and Dagenham and having taken up the mantle of civic leadership, he has chosen to ‘dig where he stands’. This he seeks to do in partnership with the People and through this open and alliance-based politics lies a profoundly modern lesson for Labour.
Professor Ken Spours
UCL Institute of Education and Compass Intellectual Strategy Organiser