This article began just over two years ago with an almighty row. In the spring of 2016, I went to South Wales. Perhaps you remember that time: David Cameron was in No 10, George Osborne still did only one job, and leading remainers thought the EU referendum was in the bag. What convinced me they were wrong was an argument with Gareth Meek.
Like most I’d met in this Labour stronghold, he didn’t care what Jeremy Corbyn and the unions said; he was voting out. Why? “Immigrants.” That was the rote response – except we were in the tiny village of Llanhilleth, where the only foreigners were inside the Daily Mail. Barrel-chested Meek had had a factory job until he got injured; now he looked after the local miners’ institute.
Truly, it was a kind of cathedral towering over all the small houses: a social club built by local miners out of their own subs in 1906. No government cash went into building this place; it relied on the prosperity and pride of its community. But the money had long since gone, and about 10 years ago the place had nearly died. The clues as to who’d provided the funds to bring it back to life were the windows plastered with stickers of Brussels blue.
In a building that had been saved by Europe raged a man who wanted to torch the EU. But his anger wasn’t directed at Eurocrats or ultimately at immigrants. What filled him with fury was the British government. Why? “They sold the country out,” he said. “There’s nothing we own any more.”
I remembered the drive out here, past hills once black with coal waste, now a lush and de-industrialised green. In place of mass employment, you saw abandoned buildings amid warehouse units for one- and two-man bands: the broken promises of an entire political class. But how would leaving Europe help? “I don’t think it would make a lot of difference. But the damage is already done. You ain’t going to pull that back now.” Then a big shrug of nihilism.
You can see the past two years as Meek’s revenge. The powerlessness that drove him and many others to pick Brexit has brought chaos on the all-powerful. By trying to take back control, he has robbed those at the top of the control they thought they had. With only six months to go, Theresa May looks impossibly far away from delivering the one thing that will define her premiership. This conference season, party leaders across the spectrum must fight to keep their MPs from mutinying. And the savants who didn’t see any of this coming now declare they don’t understand their country.
This is a crisis of governability such as Britain has not seen for half a century. And it is the bitter fruit of the extractive, inaccessible economy described to me by Meek.
Spread across Britain today are people and places united by a common condition: they are largely powerless. Their economies have been emptied out, their services cut to the bone, their incomes under threat. The market discards them; the media ignores them; the state disregards them.
If the UK is to hold together as a country – which must now be an open question – the only way it will do so is by enabling people and places to exercise power by and for themselves. That belief lies behind the series I have been writing here for the past nine months. In the Alternatives, I have sought to explore what that democratic, decentralised economy might look like, by reporting the ways people are already doing economics differently.
I looked for examples, not templates. The first place I visited in the series, Preston, is often called a model for how it brings public spending back home. Yet simply to cut and paste what the councillors and officials and advisers have done there may not work in another part of the country with a crew that doesn’t have the same doggedness and heart. Being an experiment should be a badge of pride, especially now that Britain’s economic model is broken, and mistakes are part of the process of discovery.
In Liverpool, I met residents of abandoned streets who brought them back to life by developing social housing. In Oldham, school caterers in the poorest town in England showed me how they feed their kids award-winning organic meals. The city of Plymouth is building an economy of social enterprises and co-operatives. Some of my interviewees are fighting austerity, such as the community in Witney keeping rural bus services running after cuts. Others are creating new civic institutions, such as Brighton’s Bevy, which is a pub, a community centre and, for some neighbours, a lifeline.
These are different projects with sometimes wildly opposing politics, but across the series they have some strong common threads.
First, roots: most of the protagonists live in worlds that, as VS Pritchett wrote of Rudyard Kipling’s characters, are “thickly neighboured”. Witney’s Andrew Lyons jacked in a steady job with Stagecoach to help run community buses because he hated the idea of pensioners trapped in their houses. Matthew Brown, now council leader of Preston, took me on a pilgrimage to see where Joy Division played. These aren’t Margaret Thatcher’s atomised individuals, nor are they Cameron’s broken Britain: they care enough about their homes and their neighbours to try and make things better.
Second, they are refugees from the financial crash. Most of our Alternatives activists grew up in the decade-long shadow cast by Lehman Brothers. Mike Riddell of Newcastle-under-Lyme used to build shopping centres – then went bust in the credit crunch. Others, who were at university during the eurozone meltdown, organised citizens’ economics classes – it was what they saw on the news that made them question their economics textbooks. This isn’t a story of hardened campaigners battling for decades; it’s a society thrown into an emergency of which it is still trying to make sense.
Third, basics. Among the urgent needs served by our Alternatives were decent food for children during holidays and housing. In 21st-century Britain we are still dealing with 19th-century problems. Politicians talk about automation taking our jobs, yet of 20 countries ranked by the International Federation of Robotics, factories in the UK are the least automated, behind Slovakia and the Czech Republic. It is high time Westminster recognised that Britain isn’t some Jetsons economy – its issues are far more fundamental.
Fourth, values. Be it organising community runs in parks, letting out an empty shopping centre to charities and social enterprises, awarding contracts to local businesses rather than multinationals: most of the Alternatives challenge how the market measures value.
Fifth, participation. Many of the Alternatives depend on others getting involved. These are noisy and energetic organisations. A conference hall giving dutiful ovations to some dreary frontbencher they are not.
The Alternatives are flourishing because those attributes chime with so many people. East Kilbride’s Novograf has gone from a private company a couple of years ago to being 100% owned by its staff – an extension of the stakeholder principle outlined this week by shadow chancellor John McDonnell – and sales and profits are both rising. Plymouth’s Nudge Community Builders have just this week raised £200,000 in a community share offering. And a few weeks after Preston appeared in the Guardian, the Labour party launched a community wealth-building unit to apply its lessons elsewhere.
These achievements are all the more remarkable because they are happening against the default settings of British capitalism. It’s assumed that school-dinner services will go for low-quality volume suppliers, rather than do what Oldham did with organic meals. And getting these ideas off the ground is tough: London’s Makerspaces keep losing their premises to developers of expensive flats.
Two big shackles hold in check the growth of more alternatives. Easily the biggest is capital: ventures such as co-ops struggle to raise the necessary cash. The holders of capital often seek short-term rewards, are unwilling to take large risks, and have no place on their spreadsheets for social purpose. When the community pub the Bevy began, it barely had enough money to keep trading – it was running to stand still. And as Robbie Davison of CanCook points out, he has to beg for the kind of sums the City treats as loose change. When these enterprises do find sources of cash, they often find it comes at a cost to their values.
Second, the overwhelming centralisation of the British state can stifle development of bottom-up initiatives. Whether in Southend or Sunderland, it makes little difference: financial and political power is concentrated in central London. The UK has among the lowest levels of revenue-raising by local taxes in the OECD group of rich countries. We lag behind Ireland and Hungary. So if a city like Plymouth wants to develop a social economy, it has to do so on a shoestring.
As a direct result of these two factors, there is not yet a critical mass of purpose-driven ventures. There are more social enterprises than you might think – 100,000 of them with a total of 2 million employees – but most are pretty small and constrained. In places like Mondragon in Spain’s Basque country or in northern Italy, the co-operative economy is vast and can act as a nurturing network for newcomers. In Britain, the equivalent scene is someone hunched over a laptop at 2am filling in endless grant applications to prove to a doubtless kindly bunch of people in London that they are doing something of social value.
Such serious constraints prevent our Alternatives from becoming mainstream. They block too many people from authoring a different future for themselves and their home towns.
I’d originally planned to end this series by June. Driven partly by the enthusiasm of readers and of colleagues, and partly by chancing across other examples of Alternatives, I’ve kept it going longer. But it’s important now to broaden the focus, to look at other aspects of the everyday economy. Many of the underlying themes, however, will remain the same.
A few miles from where Meek and I met, and just over a century before, Nye Bevan began work mining coal. He was only 13 years old. Decades later, after becoming minister of health to Clement Attlee and founding the NHS, he wrote about how his years at the colliery shaped his beliefs. “As a young miner … my concern was with the one practical question: where does power lie in this particular state of Great Britain and how can it be attained by the workers?” He wasn’t the only one asking, but the theorists and the philosophers were not working long hours for small money or watching their workmates get maimed or killed in the course of duty.
“It was no abstract question for us,” wrote Bevan. “The circumstances of our lives made it a burning luminous mark of interrogation. Where was power and which the road to it?”
Over 100 years later, that question remains as urgent as ever.
Teaser photo credit: Bevy Pub Facebook page.