The Local Future of Socialism: Five Key Ideas

The Local Future of Socialism: Five Key Ideas from the January 2019 ‘Equality and Democracy in Local and City Government’ conference at the University of York [programme].

James Hickson

15 January 2019

Over a decade on from the financial crash, its impact on our local communities can hardly be overstated. Inequality is increasingly visible and tangible, wages are stagnating, and the public realm is pushed further towards breaking point as neoliberal austerity policies bite ever deeper. Whilst national-level politics can often feel sclerotic in the face of such challenges, local and city governments across the globe are increasingly experimenting with new ways of organising, building new institutions to help reorient local economies to the benefit of all citizens. In doing so, local and city governments have the potential to act as the midwives of a radical post-crash politics; a new socialism that secures equality, democracy, and human dignity for citizens in the twenty-first century. 

On the 7th January 2019, academics, activists and policy-makers gathered at the University of York for an event on ‘Equality and Democracy in Local & City Government‘, to explore how local and city governments can act as crucibles for the creation of a better political order. [programme] Here are five key ideas that came out of that conference:

1. “The Institutional Turn”

In order to respond to challenges facing communities in the twenty-first century, it is not enough to rely on ex-post redistribution as the main tool for bringing about greater social justice. To do so serves only to highlight the extent to which the economy continues to fail most working people: the greater the need for reliance on redistribution, the greater the evidence that the underlying structure of the economy is unjust. Instead, we should look towards what Martin O’Neill and Joe Guinan have called “the Institutional Turn” and seek to reconstitute the institutional arrangements at the heart of our economies so that they meet the needs of all citizens. 

One way to do this is to transform the way key “anchor institutions” – particularly the large “eds and meds” institutions of schools, universities, and hospitals – do business in a local community. These institutions are not only often the major employers in a community, but also the major buyers of local goods and services. By focussing on the values of good work, investment in the local community, and democratic inclusivity, rather than simply technocratic efficiency, it is possible for these institutions to help reconfigure the culture of a local economy as a whole.

Local and city governments can also be important anchor institutions in their own right. For example, Preston City Council has recently shown how local authorities can help drive economic development by adopting policies centred on community wealth building. As an employer, the council has committed to paying all staff a living wage, and as a buyer of goods and services it now prioritises investment in local businesses rather than big, multinational corporations who will most likely invest their profits elsewhere. This can help to drive local economic growth, and provide more local citizens with well-paying, secure jobs.

In addition to transforming existing anchor institutions, we should also seek to build new institutions that can act as viable alternatives to the current infrastructure of modern capitalism. For example, in the United States, the so-called “Cleveland Model” has seen anchor institutions investing in new worker-owned cooperative enterprises to help bring back good jobs to low-income areas of Cleveland, Ohio. In the United Kingdom, Islington Borough Council has created its own not-for-profit energy company, Angelic Energy, to provide residents with affordable and sustainable gas and electricity. Meanwhile, the RSA has been working to establish a network of community banks that serve the financial needs of citizens rather than multi-national finance capital. These new institutions can provide the basis for a new political economy that puts the needs of citizens first, and provides them with a greater foundation of economic security as well as a source of collective civic pride. 

2. Voice matters

An important value at the heart of these efforts is inclusive, participatory democracy. In the face of a dysfunctional economy that all too casually subsumes democracy in favour of private interest and elite managerialism, the spirit of this new municipal socialism seeks to empower citizens to take back control of the economy and the lives they lead within it. 

This spirit of renewed democracy can be seen in the introduction of innovative forms of participatory local decision-making. For example, the city government of Amsterdam is exploring ways of enabling citizens to democratically decide, implement, and scrutinise city policy. In Barcelona, the Decidem Barcelona platform is providing citizens a greater voice in local government. In Preston, the city council has established a Neighbourhood Council that devolves important decision-making powers to the local community. By distributing greater power to all citizens, economic decision-making can track the needs and interests of the community, and individuals are able to experience a deeper form of democratic participation that extends beyond the confines of the voting booth. 

3. Control matters

A more extensive power of citizens’ democratic voice is also generated by new approaches to ownership. As we have already seen, a central feature of the institutional turn is the introduction of worker-owned cooperative firms. In addition, new models of public ownership are being proposed in order to provide citizens with greater control over important public assets. For example, the think tank Shared Assets is researching how new models of land ownership such as Community Land Trusts can help more people reap the rewards of sustainable investment in their local areas and tackle problems associated with unfettered land speculation, in particular unaffordable housing. 

Similarly, with the importance of data in a digital economy, it is crucial that new forms of common ownership for data infrastructures are explored and implemented. 

By giving citizens ownership and control of their workplaces, public services, and natural assets in this way, we will be able to have a more powerful say over the shape of the economy and how this impacts in our local communities. 

4. A better way of living and working together

The institutional turn in contemporary municipal socialism matters because it provides a better way for people to live and work together on a more fair and equal basis. Community wealth building projects reconnect the economy with local people and show them that it can work for them, rather than being something that they experience passively. However, the existence of these institutions also actively challenges the neoliberal cultures of competition and consumerism, providing the foundations for rebuilding solidarity between neighbours as they work cooperatively to decide the future of their communities. By enabling citizens to invest in the skills and opportunities that exist within their community, they can feel more valued; that they, and their communities, matter.

5. There is an alternative

The real power of the experiments in Preston, Cleveland, and elsewhere is the idea that, after decades of neoliberal hegemony, there is an alternative. Local and city governments are shining a spotlight on how we can reorganise our economies so that they work to make the lives of all citizens better. The task now is to amplify this potential, and to entrench a new economic common sense – that the economy need not be a remote and divisive structure facilitating the extraction of wealth by a few, but can instead be made to work for all of us. 

References and Further Reading:

Joe Guinan and Martin O’Neill, “The Institutional Turn: Labour’s New Political Economy”, Renewal, 26. 2 (2018)

Marjorie Kelly, Sarah McKinley and Violeta Duncan, “Community wealth building: America’s emerging asset-based approach to city economic development“, Renewal, 24. 2 (2016)

Keir Milburn and Bertie Russell, “What Can an Institution Do? Towards Public-Common Partnerships and a New Common-Sense“, Renewal, 26. 4 (2018)

Anthony Painter, “Can Labour Break Free?“, Renewal, 26. 3 (2018)


Preston City Council – Community Wealth Building  |  Islington Council – Angelic Energy  |  Barcelona Decidem  |  City of Amsterdam: Participatory and Digital

Democracy Collaborative  |  Next System Project  |  CLES – Centre for Local Economic Strategies  |  NEF – New Economics Foundation  |  RSA


James Hickson is completing a PhD in the Department of Politics at the University of York, writing on the political theory of precarious work. He is on Twitter here.