Preston Is Bringing Socialist Ideas to Life

From workers’ cooperatives and community banks to living wage employment and regeneration that benefits the community, municipal socialism in Preston, England, shows what a real alternative to neoliberalism can look like.

Boats moored at the former Preston Docks in Preston, England. (Getty Images)

As we emerge into a new year, the labor movement must, with renewed vigor, pursue a social and economic vision that can address the deep structural inequalities these pandemic years have exposed. Doing this requires major transformation — and won’t be achieved by skirting around the edges.

The central cause of this inequality remains the political imposition by successive governments of financialized capitalism, deindustrialization, and austerity — moves which took our country from being one of the most equal in Europe in 1978 to currently one of the most unequal. It’s no surprise most working people desire change more than ever, and unless the Left understands and embraces this, the Right will fill the vacuum. This is what happened with great success in the run-up to the 2019 general election, as communities were divided over an unresolved Brexit.

More positively, we can celebrate current trends emerging in local and regional government that respond bravely to the failures of capitalism by seeking to democratize our economies. This narrative was barely heard a decade ago.

Now Labour, locally and regionally, is establishing cooperative banks, insourcing services, expanding worker and employee ownership, supporting democratic ownership of land, and developing municipally owned green energy works and key commercial activity in local authority ownership. They are collaborating with large local institutions like hospitals and universities to encourage them to spend more locally, employ residents in deprived areas, and use their land and assets for progressive purposes. Labour administrations are introducing fair work policies that grow Real Living Wage and unionized jobs in our communities.

Many of these councils, which consider themselves loyal to the principles and the movement toward community wealth building, seek to challenge the neoliberal consensus by expanding democratic ownership in the places they govern. Significantly, the trade union movement is embracing this agenda, with Labour’s annual conference adopting the CWU and ASLEF composite motion to support “Labour’s Community Wealth Builders” and ensure that more of the economy is “locally and socially owned.”

In Preston, work continues at pace. In the last three months, we have brought forward the Real Living Wage increase, benefitting over 10 percent of our staff. We are making solid progress with our partners in developing North West Mutual, our regional community bank. We have also announced that a local company will be the principal contractor to refurbish the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, a legendary Preston institution.

We are delivering a £70 million regeneration of our city center, primarily in municipal ownership, including a new £42 million city-owned cinema and leisure development and a cooperative housing project. Preston agrees with Liam Barrett, who recently wrote in Tribune of how protecting community-owned land and assets from extractive, gentrifying developers is as crucial to maintaining local democracy as opposing the outsourcing of council services.

A major part of the work in Preston continues to be supporting worker and employee ownership. We currently have five new worker-owned firms registered, with plans for more potentially involving retrofitters, translators, makers, and new cooperatives in partnership with minority communities and former prisoners. One newly registered worker cooperative, the Preston Cooperative Education Centre, has been founded by members of Preston Trades Council, and is being tasked to work with unions to support new cooperative businesses that their members will own and control.

To many of us in Preston, this gives a glimpse of the exciting possibilities that collaboration with unions could achieve. This could see unions continue to support workers’ rights, insourcing, progressive procurement, municipal ownership, and new council housing — but additionally ensuring that local and regional economies are more democratic, by promoting unionized companies that are owned by the workers who produce all the wealth.

Across Britain, Labour figures are increasingly beginning to implement community wealth building strategies. Fresh players are emerging, including Lewis Dagnall seeking Labour’s South Yorkshire mayor nomination on a strong community wealth building agenda — delivering a publicly owned transport company as part of a local Green New Deal.

It is a movement that could now certainly be called international, most notably in the United States, with New York, ChicagoLos Angeles, Cleveland, Atlanta, and other city governments introducing policies involving public banking, worker and employee ownership, community land trusts, and public housing.

Even the current Biden administration has felt it necessary to make gestures toward this agenda on a national scale, especially when addressing racial equality, and there is now talk of a community wealth building act going to Congress. It is a little confusing, in this context, that Labour’s leadership doesn’t seem to want to be more vocal about these trends.

The desire for a different type of society will not go away, and community wealth building offers part of the solution we can begin to deliver right now where we are already in power. It is tough and requires outside-the-box thinking on the Left. But a new economic blueprint is firmly in sight, and with the right amount of political organization, we can take the prize.