Studying Municipal Socialism

Socialism is often perceived by outsiders as a force for centralisation, but Matt Parrott offers concrete examples of how using local government to further socialist aims is a worthy cause....

If we are to create a future that works for us all, free from rampant inequality, it’s clear we need to build a political infrastructure that allows us to transcend the limitations of our current systems of government. The way things are now, the hard-won victories of one period of office can be overturned in the next, and with no right of recall, voters are essentially disenfranchised for years after each election, leading to widespread de-politicisation and apathy.

Drawing a firm line under the myriad utopian delusions, the only viable solution at the present juncture is to seek power and influence whenever and wherever it’s available to enact changes that are both difficult to repeal and make further rupture with the status quo inevitable. Here, Murray Bookchin (shown below) offers us a blueprint for action when he advocates for building a movement of citizens’ assemblies that seeks representation at local elections to formalise the role of these assemblies in decision making.

Drawing on historically existing examples from the Athenian democracy of Pericles to the Paris Commune and beyond, he argues that not only is such a system viable, but that redistributing power from the centre sets up a tension with the existing state that can’t hold in the long term. That this is no chimera is evidenced by the fact that, with variation according to local particularities, this is already happening in cities across the world, perhaps most famously in Barcelona.

Of course, redistributing power does not automatically lead to socialism – nothing does. But if undertaken as part of a broader strategy of targeted, professional and unrelenting educational and agitational work, pursuing, wielding, and redistributing municipal power will exert a force greater than the sum of its parts, steadily drawing a greater number of people towards ideas that favour the many. Some of the most powerful arguments in favour of socialism came in the form of the concrete achievements of the municipalisation of services that took place in the latter half of the 19th century. When we take power, these popular works that we undertake can then be buttressed by the new network of officially sanctioned assemblies, rendering them much harder for élite cliques to abolish.

To demonstrate the impact a determined municipalism could have on a concrete social issue, we’ll use homelessness in Edinburgh as a case study. The city has provision of some 13,000 beds for tourists year-round, supplemented by 3,300 rooms which become available because of university summer breaks.

Yet, despite the fact that Edinburgh Tourism Action Group (ETAG)’s strategic report for tourism in the period to 2020 (in which it consistently refers to the city as a product) openly identifies its target market as the ‘affluent’, the Scottish Government, a participating stakeholder in the report, vetoed proposals in 2014 for a so-called ‘bed-tax’ on Edinburgh’s hotels. This levy, adding only a couple of pounds to the price of a night’s stay, would, according to the Evening Times, have raised up to £10 million. The notion this tax would have dissuaded tourists from coming to Edinburgh is laughable. Tourists in the city regularly pay £5 for a beer, or £3 for a cup of coffee.

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But it fell at the last hurdle because it would have required an act to be passed by the Scottish Parliament, and there was a distinct lack of political pressure on them at the time. This money, which was irresponsibly earmarked for future investments in conference centres and festival venues, could conceivably have been invested in council housing, both guaranteeing people homes which are not only affordable, but warm, safe, and secure, and furnishing the city with tangible assets in an uncertain economy.

etter yet, it could have been used to build a municipal hotel – a place with a responsibility to provide emergency accommodation for those who need it, while also generating a substantial income from the tourist trade which is, by all accounts, only set to grow. This reliable income could then have been ploughed back into housing. The ETAG’s strategic document speaks of getting Edinburgh residents ‘on-side’, of getting them to be ambassadors for the city – essentially to welcome the tourists. What better way for this to be achieved than to allow them to see concrete examples of this wealth being redistributed, for the good of all?

Although the ‘bed-tax’ plan may have fallen through (for now), this does not mean that ambitious plans like the above can’t still be put into practice. In Edinburgh City Council’s last audited statement of accounts, for the year 2016-17, the balance sheet lists ‘Usable Reserves’ of £254 million. While, for various reasons, the majority of this may not be available for investment, it’s unthinkable that a small sum could not be used to establish a council-owned venture, with the necessary working capital acquired from creditors on the basis of near-guaranteed returns.

Until we do something, the threat of homelessness will continue to hang over many, even in spite of the prevention strategies recently put in place. As the Scottish Government’s own report on the operation of Homeless Persons Legislation in Scotland 2014, puts it:

The continuing fall in applications overall is mainly due to the impact of housing options/ homelessness prevention strategies adopted by most councils over the past few years rather than to changes in the underlying drivers of homelessness. However, the rate of reduction in homelessness applications has slowed. This suggests that, in its current form, the impact of housing options work is unlikely to lead to further large reductions in applications beyond those already seen.

It’s a case of getting priorities in order. If the council can fund (via a levy) ‘Essential Edinburgh’, the brand for the Business Improvement Districts, to plant a few flowers and remove chewing gum and vomit from pavements at a cost of £216,000 a year, it can house, feed, and clothe its most vulnerable.

As things stand, the incredible and accruing wealth of our communities is being siphoned off by private interests, with full “public” complicity. It needn’t be this way. A revitalised municipal socialism can make a concrete difference to people’s lives at the same time as incrementally transferring power to citizens’ assemblies on an official basis, unleashing a new and active politics of which socialists - as true democrats - will be the greatest beneficiaries. We may be a long way off from storming heaven, but the gilded gates to city chambers have been left ajar.

@MattParrott89