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We are in an era of a profound shift in the nature of social and political power. The power structures of the twentieth century, reliant on hierarchical, technocratic methods, are weakening.

New forms of collective power, some reminiscent of pre-welfare state social action, are emerging. But unlike the rise of the welfare state where these forms of social action were supplanted or superseded, old power will not be entirely eclipsed. In fact, it could be a vital element of the pursuit of a more widespread and creative sense of human agency.

Before the modern welfare state existed, people came together, associated, co-operated. They formed trade unions. They fought poverty together. They shared their goods and services – from groceries to a decent funeral. It was largely as a result of people coming together and associating through co-ops, non-conformist churches, or unions that the foundation for parliamentary action through the Liberal and Labour parties was laid.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the fundamental building blocks of the social democratic state were put in place: common education, the NHS, proper social security. All of this remains and, indeed, has expanded- even in a period of austerity. It should be noted that George Osborne’s state, albeit smaller, is essentially more focused on welfare as a proportion of expenditure than it was a decade ago.

Now again, whether we look at the foodbank movement or the growth credit unions, civic action is stepping in where the state and the market fail. This is most evident in the US metro context as I have discussed previously. However, it also forms an increasing backdrop of change in the UK also. The social movements of today might be the significant institutional changes of the future.


Recently, power has been devolved – first to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. Now the current Government is extending this to many of England's metro regions. The minimum wage and now the National Living Wage have been introduced. And despite recent cuts, tax credits remain an important aspect of the modern state.

In all these cases, power has been used in traditional ways. Mass party organising to grab hold of the state and use its power and resources to the ends of justice. This approach was right for those times but now the way that power can be used – and is being used - is fundamentally changing. The power of the big, technocratic state is waning and the energy of ‘person to person’ action is gaining.

Things have gone full circle. Social and economic energy is increasingly with people rather than big institutions again – just as it was before the long march of the social democratic state. This is not to say that national institutions won’t have a part to play. Indeed, at the RSA we are looking at how a new basic income might work – that would, eventually, be an essential new national institution.

But person-to-person social action is becoming more energetic. We are seeing it improve places, help people cope with long-term health conditions, enable people to extend their learning, contribute to a better environment, and spread economic opportunity. Increasingly we see the emergence of a smart state that works with the people rather than for or on their behalf. Smart Government fulfils its statutory duties of course (eg around child protection and universal education to 18), it provides a series of public goods such as a taxpayer financed NHS or social security but seeks to incubate and accelerate innovative responses to complex challenges beyond that. In other words, it is different from the traditional social democratic state in that it acts as a partner in social change instead of commissioner and provider. It relates rather than dictates.

Person-to-person social change where people come together - fired by co-operative endeavour, sometimes facilitated through widespread technology and social tools, and use their collective leadership to improve their lives, their community or their locality - demands a very different form of political and social action. It is action, as is outlined below, that we are seeing across the UK.

The key to person-to-person action supported by the smart state is that it’s not enough to just step away and leave people alone, as a libertarian (or enlightened anarchist) would and simply trust emergent community alone. For sure, sometimes the state should get out of the way by removing legal, administrative, or procedural hurdles. However, inequalities in social, cultural, and technological capital mean that communities will vary hugely in their capacity, so government doing nothing frequently perpetuates social injustice. The key is to target resources to people and places with the potential to overcome these relative disadvantages; and to recognize that the resources that most matter may not be financial or legal in nature. They may require an incubation and acceleration culture; there are many examples of just this type of fusion. Such an approach also creates a clearer sense of expectation of person-to-person action in order to change communities.

If we are to increasingly work with people to help them to enjoy a better quality of life, it needs smart Government and local leadership allied with the energy of people themselves, working together. The point is not that new power - of people working together applying new values, knowledge and forms of social connection often tech-enabled - will replace old. The question is how can we get the best out of new and old power combining their respective strengths to underpin latent creativity?

That’s why the Big Society didn’t work. The problem with the Big Society is that it assumed a new civic energy would thrive just by removing the state. In places where there is already a strong and well-resourced community that can happen. But in the main the energy is difficult to sustain and magnify without some support. So the Big Society went nowhere.

Now devolution of power to metros is the idea. This is to be strongly supported. However, the current approach risks under-shooting its potential. The idea is simply to devolve power and resources to metro-regions and hope for the best. That’s not enough. A Town Hall bureaucracy can feel just as remote as a Whitehall one. We need to go further. Power needs to be devolved to people in neighbourhoods and in public services. Devolution is essential and we need more of it. But there should be a far more assertive step- power has to be decisively recast. Luckily, there are already numerous examples of how.

The power of place

When Brixton Market was scheduled to be redeveloped a group of local people not only resisted but they came up with their own alternative plans. The Council put the developers and a social enterprise called Space Makers Agency together with the ‘Friends of Brixton Market’. Six years later and Brixton Village, with it amazing food and atmosphere, is a thriving hub of great food, great times and community regeneration.


The same happened in Broadway Market in East London where the revival one of London’s great markets has culturally and economically turned the neighbourhood into one of London’s most popular. Surplus funds from the market go to local community projects, schools, youth organisations and pensioners’ groups. It is was led by volunteers and Hackney Council came behind them in support.

These are not an isolated examples. In Toxteth in Liverpool, like Brixton a place blighted by riots in the 1980s, local residents fought back against the neglect of their neighbourhood. This is a beautiful part of the city. The houses are wonderful. They had been vacated over the course of two decades. Now a community land trust has been given ownership of derelict properties by Liverpool City Council.

They are being refurbished, there’s a vibrant street market, the area won a Northwest in Bloom award. You can see what happens when people together, say no, and a Council gets on board to help them out. It is transformative and this activism can change people’s lives. There are few things that are more precious than pride in the place you live. In all these cases barriers were removed and support given but it was people themselves who drove change.  

We are seeing a similar story with Ancoats Dispensary in Manchester where again the community has claimed ownership of a civic space for community rather than simply private benefit. They were supported by Heritage Lottery Fund. And in Skainos, a thriving community space shared with businesses and residents in East Belfast.  

Place is part of the essence of our country. And people are getting together to make their village, town, and neighbourhood places to be proud. So they are taking over pubs – the old Crown in Hesket Newmarket was the first and is now a brewery too and others such as The Bevi in Brighton, The Ivy House in Nunhead and many more have been turned over to community ownership. The same is true of post offices and local convenience stores too- the post office in Darnall has gone from strength to strength since being taken over is now showered with awards. It is also supported by Sheffield City Council. 

What all these cases show is the route to a better society runs through people committing to work together. It works best when they are supported by local and national institutions- including the Big Lottery and Heritage Lottery Fund. Each of these cases show the power of person-to-person power reinforced by smart state action.

We are constantly told that people are happy to leave it to others or that they just want the state to do it for them. And yet, this is refuted time and time again. We are seeing such a range of people – whether they are professionals, service users or citizens - taking up power when they have the opportunity to do so.

It is as true when we look at people’s economic and personal well-being as well as the places we live.


Person-to-person well-being

Take the Cuckoo Lane Surgery in Ealing. It is not run by GPs. It’s run by nurses. And the Care Quality Commission has just rated it outstanding. Why? Because it teams up with Age UK to make sure that older patients who live alone get the right support and advice, it helps ensure those with mental health conditions are treated locally rather than in hospital, and supports patients with long-term conditions with proper self-management plans. It gives people greater stability and control over their lives.

At a larger scale, Alliance Scotland is driven by three hundred members. The initiative funds community and voluntary groups who are innovating new ways for people with long-term conditions to self-manage. But there’s a twist. A key element of the programme is that those who receive support have to be involved in the design, delivery, implementation and evaluation of the projects. This approach encourages community group to work with local government and the wider voluntary sector. Alliance Scotland has supported well in excess of 100,000 people.

Loneliness is a blight on lives – it has even been called ‘social sickness’. That’s why the work of North London Cares has been so crucial. They bring young volunteers together with older members of the community to combat loneliness and isolation. This is cross-generational person-to-person care. Most of the older people North London Cares helps live alone. Those who receive support report being less isolated, lonely, more connected to the young and feel more secure. But the impact on the young people is just as profound – they feel a greater sense of belonging in their community and feel they are making a contribution.

None of this can replace the essential work of the state. Safeguarding the welfare of the vulnerable is a statutory duty. Services have to be funded and supported. And we will always need a strong underpinning of decent state services. But we need to ensure far more than the state alone can provide.

Professionals engaging with the community, helping people who receive services to steer them, bringing people together in new and innovative ways, these are the essence of powerful new ways to pursue social justice and ensure that people have a better quality of life. The digital revolution supports these changes as it becomes easier to reach people, bring them together, provide more access to data, knowledge, ideas and tools of organisation. But it is the energy and commitment of people that turn this infrastructure into real change.

There is now an argument for going much further. We will explore later in the year the role that a large-scale increase in personal budgets have in radically shifting power to people, especially when they act together, to support one another. This was explored in a paper written for us last Autumn by Alex Fox. Moreover, digital currencies make the fraud-avoiding operation of personal budgets more coherent. Many have argued for an increased 'voice' for consumer. That is fine and important. But 'voice' is only fully powerful if it always has some control over resource. Person-to-person social justice relies on new citizen budgets in social care, healthcare, education, welfare, and in communities.

Place is crucial to well-being. But new forms of power need to have an economic impact too.

New Power and the Economy – opportunity, jobs, learning and finance

Sometimes we will have to look elsewhere for inspiration. And the greatest example of what smart local initiatives can do when combined with new forms of people-led initiatives comes from Cleveland in the US. There a number key local institutions – anchor institutions as they are called – like the local housing associations, university, hospitals and the city administration got together. They decided to ensure that the money they spent would contract services from local, living wage employers with a special focus on a local co-operative called Evergreen. It manages a food grower and supplier, renewable energy company, and laundry service. Evergreen has created not just jobs but good jobs and has helped improve the locality, provide good affordable, shared ownership homes, and benefits the environment.

This is yet another example of what can be achieved by enlightened public institutions working with people-power. There are some examples of this approach emerging in the UK.

In 2011, Preston City Council, like Cleveland, and decided to act as an anchor institution acting in support of co-operative by leveraging public sector buying power. It is not doing this by providing grants but through establishing networks of support. They call it a ‘community wealth building initiative’.  

Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust has committed to buy local, high quality produce. It was given a Soil Association award as a result. It has been cost neutral for the hospital but now means that an extra £2million is spent on local produce. Yet again, we can see huge potential realised when new and old power combines.

There has to be a focus on the economic opportunities of the young especially. That’s why the work of social enterprises such as Livity in Brixton is so impressive. There is a deal at the centre of its work: companies need to understand what drives young people so Livity engages young people in its work- it is a youth audience focused marketing company. But Livity gives back, making grants, mentoring young people, and making sure they have opportunities to come into their office and gain experience as well as running an ongoing apprenticeship programme.

Hackney Community College* has set up a new company, Tech City Apprentices, which has placed apprentices with tech companies such as Thomson Reuters, Credit Suisse, the advertising agency, Mother, digital developers, Poke, and leading online printing firm, Moo. Both Livity and Tech City Apprentices show what can be done when public infrastructure such as the apprenticeship system is applied creatively to get many young people who are less advantaged into inspirational opportunities. Anchor institutions can be bridging institutions too and create new forms of social and economic power in the process.


And learning is such an important part of the future: social justice requires both social mobility and social cohesion. Learning is changing in ways we have barely begun to comprehend. There is a quiet revolution going on with literally millions of people globally sharing their knowledge and skills and people learning from them to improve their knowledge and capabilities. This is, as we at the RSA have termed it, the ‘spontaneous shared learning economy’. Some of this learning happens through local on and offline networks. Some is more formal such as through learning networks like Udemy or simply through YouTube.

This open learning surge gave the opportunity for Chicago’s Mayor, Rahm Emmanuel, to establish a new citywide mission- cities of learning. He galvanised young people to attend short courses in the city’s colleges, parks, and community groups so they could learn new skills instead of idling away the Summer break. It’s now year round and has been copied in Pittsburgh, Dallas and DC. Public, voluntary and private organisations provide opportunities, kids and young adults pursue their interests and support each other in their learning. This is what smart power and social justice in a modern setting look like. Why can’t we try cities of learning here?

Open learning is crucial but so is opening up access to finance. There is some good news here too. Goldsmiths University have found that the number of people becoming members of credit unions has doubled in the last decade. They are increasingly becoming alternatives to crippling pay-day lending firms. However, that creates financial sustainability challenges. The Archbishop of Canterbury has committed the Church of England to supporting the sector. Is there more that banks can do - or be compelled to do - to help underwrite credit unions as a commitment to local communities in which they operate? That’s what happens in the US through the Community Reinvestment Act. That means that the credit union sector in the US dwarfs that of the UK.

We are increasingly seeing new forms of finance emerging whether it’s peer-to-peer funders for business such as Funding Circle or for individuals such as Zopa. Crowd-funding platforms such as Kickstarter and Crowdcube create new sources of finance for social enterprises and community initiatives. The question for us is what can be done to provide even more support to these sectors? Sometimes public bodies might be able to provide the role of guarantor and accelerator for vital initiatives of the type we have been discussing.

There is also crossover between finance and wider goals such as combating climate change. A partnership between the village of Fintry in Scotland and Energy4All, financed by Falck Renewables has enabled the village to own a wind turbine. That means that the village is receiving £50,000 to £100,000 a year which is expected to rise to £400,000. With the money, the village trust is insulating properties and improving the energy efficiency of its public buildings. This is great. We need more Fintrys. Local and national Government can pull together its planning powers, regulatory powers, and financial heft to support more Fintrys.

All these possibilities are ripe for large-scale acceleration and dispersal. But there's still a blockage - our politics.


New political form and purpose; a different way of governing

Can old-style parties be real contributors to change? The answer is yes but only if they radically change.

Parties must become a part of wider social movements. Too often they either stand apart from others or seek to take things over - and re-badge them in the process. Parties must seek to work with others, let them lead, don’t try to take over, work out where they add value and where they can’t.

Just take the living wage campaign. There are few more successful social justice campaigns in the last few years. It happened through civic action linked to trades unions, churches and others. Both major parties have been heavily influenced by the campaign (though the co-option of its name by George Osborne for a policy that isn't actually a living wage has gone down to well at all). Sometimes parties must be participants in person-to-person change led by others and be comfortable with that. This is a very different mindset.

At their best parties are community agitators for change as well. Such an approach has been taken be Paul Cotterill who won a challenging seat for Labour on West Lancashire Borough Council. He has quite a unique take on things:

“All politics is local, even at constituency scale.  Just do stuff.  Throw away the Labour stickers.  Stick the Voter ID sheets in the shredder.  Come election time, if people know what youve been up to, theyll vote for you.  If not, they wont.”

The spirit of ‘just do stuff’ is absolutely right. And his local record is formidable. That’s what the parties should be about: do stuff. Don’t take over stuff. Do it with people but spend more time doing stuff – with the sorts of people that have the ideas, skills, passion, and resilience to make a real difference that we find in every community up and down the land. And it's why a group of inspirational independents have taken over Frome Town Council.

And what about the role of Government? That has to fundamentally change too.

You’ll notice there’s not a traditional ten-point policy plan here. That’s the old power approach. Pull the levers and the change will happen. But it often doesn’t. Just take the failure of the New Deal for Communities established by the last Labour Government. A significant investment that promised a lot. It was consultative and it was run by people with passion- the absence of 'voice' wasn't at issue. But it ended up as being too formulaic, inflexible, and tied up in bureaucratic knots. We need to learn the lessons. The Big Society was too empty and too naïve. Instead we need a smart set of governing institutions that looks to go with the grain of the changes we are seeing. It will need to be a bit more like an investment fund including providing seed capital and capacity-builder – looking to support the best while identifying realistic ways of plugging gaps.

But most importantly of all, this form of Government needs to know when to step back and when to step in. It has to combine its resources and power throughout all public institutions, local and national, and seek allies for change. It will motivate and cajole from time to time.  It has to have clear social justice principles as its heart and it has to balance economic and personal well-being with quality of life and support for great places where people can thrive not just survive.

This is a different way of thinking about governing. We can’t go back to the inflexible past. Nor should we accept that Government should just step away. It’s through fully supported person-to-person co-operation that we will see the strides in social justice; blend the best of new and old power. Smart Government, the energy and passion of people who want to initiate change together is the route to greater social creativity, productivity and justice. The opportunity is right here, right now.

* Declaration of interest. I am a Governor of Hackney Community College.

** Thank you for input from Jonathan Rowson and Matthew Parsfield on this draft. The content is of course entirely my responsibility.


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