Labour can restore trust in politics by showing we trust people
I have been an MP for just over a year. In that time it’s become clearer to me that people don’t trust politics. But one of the reasons for this is that most politicians don’t trust the people. Too many politicians think power is something for themselves rather than something to be shared with people and communities. This situation is not unique to our country: across Europe the divide between the governing elites and the electorate has been growing.
Who has power and who doesn’t is central to the political debate .Labour’s policy review is taking a radical new direction in seeking to hand power to the people. It’s time for politicians to stop trying to manage people and start giving them what they need to take back control of their own lives.
I was leader of Lambeth council until my election to parliament 14 months ago. I was struck by how much better public services worked when the people using them had a bigger say over what they did.
When I was first elected, there was a housing estate in my ward where people no longer wanted to live. It suffered from high crime, fly-tipping, antisocial behaviour and sub-standard housing maintenance and repairs. Today, 10 years later, it is transformed. Why? Because residents elected a board, who appointed their own housing managers. With direct accountability to tenants, services improved dramatically. The estate now has far higher standards of repairs and less crime, and is much cleaner than similar estates in the area.
Traditional public services intervene in people’s lives to solve their problems for them. But often they don’t work well enough and services aren’t joined up. Many people who rely heavily on public services, whether because of ill health, lack of work, poverty or addiction, have little control over the decisions that affect their lives. Over time this lack of control can sap their self-reliance and their ability to aspire to a better life. This becomes even worse when it affects whole communities or is transmitted across generations. People get locked into dependency with no easy way out.
We need to change the way public services work, because they work best when they listen to their users. They provide better value for money that way too.
The social theorist Roberto Unger talks about doing politics in a different way. Politics has to be experimental, unleashing creative forces, instead of grand schemes run by the state. We need a form of democracy that can react more quickly and be effective in creating change. And it has to be more participatory and deliberative. For Unger, the point is for people to take the power to lift themselves above their circumstances and live “bigger lives”.
The British people do not believe politicians can solve all the problems the country faces. They are right. Politicians alone don’t have all the answers, and pretending we do simply sets ourselves up for more failure in the future. Instead, we need to harness the insights, ideas and creativity of our whole community, because that’s where the answers can be found. Labour is drawing up plans to spread power out to our cities, regions and communities and open up decision-making to make public services more accountable to the people who use them.
People need more control over their lives. If we want people to trust politics again, it’s time for politicians to show we trust the people. While the Tories want to roll back the state, Labour could change the role of the state from top-down to bottom-up and make it directly accountable to the people who rely on it. That means letting go and handing people the power they need to build a better future for everyone.