Not that long ago, Conservative leaders were denying the very existence of ‘society’, but a recently released report by the Conservative-led New Social Covenant unit is now proposing a new era of “community-powered Conservatism”.
Far from being a fringe perspective, the report received endorsement from Michael Gove, who was recently appointed as the new Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
While this intellectual current has been percolating for several years under Conservative MP Danny Kruger’s leadership (Kruger previously authored the 2020 Levelling Up Our Communities report), the new report ventures much further into territory more often associated with the left, advocating for community-owned assets, community-led development and even declaring that “employee-owned businesses have higher levels of productivity and growth than other companies”.
Significantly, encouraging similar alternative models of ownership was also a key focus of John McDonnell’s terms as shadow chancellor. Indeed, the report’s citing of the community-owned Bramley Baths in Leeds as a prime example of ‘community-powered Conservatism’ might raise the eyebrows of John Battle, the ex-Labour MP for the area, who has been central to the project.
In this way, the report looks a lot like an audacious, though ultimately hollow, bid by the Tories to occupy hitherto left-wing political territory, such as Community Wealth Building, which was pioneered by the left, but about which the current Labour leadership appears indifferent.
Passing the buck.
This isn’t the first time that the Conservatives have looked to mobilize ‘community’ as part of a rightwing agenda. David Cameron’s infamous ‘Big Society’, for example, was widely recognised as a foil for cutting services and shifting the cost of social reproduction onto communities. However, this isn’t just Big Society redux; it is a strategic move to try and develop a Conservative agenda that moves beyond so-called zombie neoliberalism.
One likely reason for the Tories’ increased interest in ‘community power’ is the pandemic, and the huge outpouring of solidarity we have seen in response to it over the last 18 months. The Conservatives have even praised the explosion of mutual aid groups that sprung up across the country during the nationwide lockdowns (ironically, mutual aid groups got their name from a book by the anarchist-communist writer Pëtre Kropotkin).
There are economic reasons, too. The trend towards working and shopping from home has helped put the dominant model of urban development, based on rising city centre rents and asset prices, into real doubt. This changing geography of work raises questions over the need to maintain expensive city-centre offices – it will take more than Goldman Sachs opening a free gelato ice cream bar to get workers excited about the morning commute. That said, the political pressure to bring workers back into the offices isn’t ultimately about saving Pret-a-Manger and similar city-centre businesses, it’s about restoring investor confidence in property-led urban development.
The government is betting that community-powered Conservatism is the best way to achieve this. While seemingly putting communities in control of their local area, the Tories’ version of community empowerment ensures that nothing essential changes about capitalist property relations and urban development.
Citing the NHS, for example, the report discusses how bloated centralised bureaucratic systems of public service provision have diminished service quality and disempowered local communities.
Ostensibly, the report aims to empower local communities to run public services locally and in local interests. In practice, however, it passes fiscal responsibility onto these communities, who must now run their services as responsible economic agents, making difficult economic decisions about what services local areas can and cannot afford. This, the report says, is what it means to build a “responsible society”.
More than this, it backs so-called “social prescribing”, which entails “community-powered services from physical activities, befriending services, and voluntary action.” The plan, in other words, is to pass some of the costs of public service provision and social reproduction currently managed by the state onto the voluntary sector and local communities. This is Tory cost-cutting by another name; a sort of community-washing of the now-familiar Tory austerity agenda.
More smoke and mirrors.
The crisis of the high street, which was obvious even before the pandemic struck, is just one expression of this dysfunctional model, which is dominated by finance, asset ownership and rentier business models, in which inequalities grow much faster than GDP. With British economic ‘growth’ driven primarily by rising asset prices, rather than the provision of goods and services, investors spare little concern for socially useful activity being priced out altogether.
In practice, this often forces out small traders, with properties left empty, converted to charity shops for tax benefits, or eased at higher rents to extractive businesses like Getir and Deliveroo. Meanwhile, areas yet to experience a property-led ‘boom’ find parasitic investors waiting on their turn to profit from land and property speculation. Without a broader agenda for challenging the financialisation of land and assets, the Tories’ community-led development will again do nothing to challenge these deep-rooted inequalities.
One of the report’s suggestions, for example, is to allow local communities to retain some of the “savings” made through “preventive public services” to “spend on whatever it likes locally” to “generate far more interest and local buy-in”. In lieu of more radical forms of democratic control, freed from the disciplinary effects of private finance and asset ownership, this will, in practice, encourage local cost-cutting to public services in already struggling and disadvantaged areas in the hope that some of the “savings” can be invested to pull private development into the area.
The Conservatives’ new focus on community power emerges from their worries about the long-term political effects of the current economic model. The British version of rentier capitalism has shaped contemporary politics with a political divide driven largely by generational differences in asset ownership. From high streets to houses, those who profit from booming asset prices are those who already have at least one foot on the proverbial ladder. This often means large speculative financial institutions, but it also means individuals who benefit directly through ownership of assets (typically housing), or indirectly by holding stocks, shares and pensions in a market buoyed by asset price inflation.
The Conservative vote is heavily reliant on asset-holding pensioners and many Tory thinkers are worried the creation of new voters is being hindered by the exclusion of the young from the asset economy.
The spectre of David Cameron’s Big Society haunts community-powered Conservatism. Indeed, community ownership is seen by some as a way to further outsource public services and cut public spending, while handing liabilities rather than assets over to communities.
Although the report’s authors preempt this critique, claiming “this is not an argument for cutting back services”, they repeatedly emphasise how people – and place – centred approaches can deliver “cost-savings” (read budget cuts), especially across health and social care. To add insult to injury, after more than a decade of local government austerity, the report suggests incentivising councils to realise further ‘cost savings’, suggesting that councils should keep 50% of any savings achieved through outsourcing services to the social economy.
Yet, in places — intentionally or not — the report hints at something more radical. It argues, for instance, that we “need to remodel our economic institutions to put the values of ordinary people, rather than the abstract forces of finance, at the centre of decision making”.
Indeed, while the Conservative focus on community power is no doubt driven by the pursuit of new sources of capital accumulation, lurking in the background is the intuition that asset ownership must be remodelled if the Tories are to escape a demographic trap of their own making. Their voting base is, after all, getting older and the Tories must find some way to appeal to younger, asset-less, voters if they’re to have a chance in future elections.
The contradictions in the project become clear when we ask how community-powered initiatives can help overcome existing inequalities rather than reinforce them. Often, community ownership and increased community activity can stimulate rises in property prices, benefitting absentee landlords and driving out the existing community.
This is the same logic that underpins cultural-led regeneration and ‘placemaking’ schemes (think of temporary use licenses for art studios in half-empty shopping centres, or community gardens on sites earmarked for development), in which non-commercial activities are harnessed to attract inwards capital investment. The report directly supports such schemes; in a section entitled “beyond economism”, it calls for the UK to invest in its “social capital” including its “social and cultural infrastructure”.
As Claire Colomb, a professor of urban studies and planning, has argued in her study of Berlin’s redevelopment, such processes have “an inherent tendency to pave the way for profit-orientated urban development processes”.
We need a new model.
Our recent research into projects of community-led development in Tottenham and Plymouth shows that this doesn’t have to be the case. We advocate for Public-Common Partnerships, in which public and community ownership reinforce each other in a self-expanding dynamic of economic democracy.
Rather than positioning community ownership as a pressure valve to keep a dysfunctional economic system ticking over for a few more years, we propose building chains and circuits of common ownership where knowledge is shared and the surpluses of one project are used to help start the next. Public-Common Partnerships can be used to democratically govern a range of assets, from energy companies, to shops, social spaces and county farms.
The Big Society saw a transfer of funds to wealthier communities that already had the time and resources to manage their assets. After 40 years of neoliberal reforms, most communities are too fragmented to decide and act together. These problems can only be overcome by ameliorating the inequalities within and between communities – but, in reality, much of the Conservative party, and its supporter base, wants those inequalities maintained. That’s the contradiction running through community-powered Conservatism.
Yet, if properly supported by the public sector, widespread democratic common-ownership could provide the infrastructure around which deliberative and active communities can be built, re-establishing relationships of solidarity that underpin progressive politics.
The left must avoid the temptation to cede this ground to conservative forces and fall back on centralised nationalisation as the only marker of leftwing policy. To do so would be to abandon one of the most strategically important grounds for rebuilding a powerful left.
Keir Milburn is a writer, researcher and political activist. His most recent book is Generation Left. He works on municipalism, economic democracy and political economy for the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, London office. He also co-hosts the #ACFM podcast on Novara Media.
Kai Heron is a Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. He researches climate politics, land struggles, political economy, and critical political theory.
Bertie Russell is a researcher on the foundational economy, municipalism, economic democracy and the commons at the University of Cardiff.