For the progressive left, the last 5 years have been a story of intense highs and deeply discouraging lows, even before the terror brought on by an ongoing global pandemic. Just two short years ago it seemed possible that systemic change was finally on the horizon in the two largest economies in the English speaking world after decades of crippling austerity.
The relentless attacks on Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. demonstrated the lengths to which political establishments in these countries, whether claiming to be ‘centrist’ or ‘conservative’, would go to protect a neoliberal system that enriches them and their donors while also spreading the disease of profit driven militarism throughout the global south.
In the American context, although Sander’s primary campaigns in 2016 and 2020 didn’t give the U.S. left a progressive presidency, they had modest success in terms of bringing important ideas like the Green New Deal into the national, and later international, conversation. The campaigns also helped inspire a number of progressive politicians to run for seats in the country’s House of Representatives, a trend that seems set to continue in the years ahead.
These historically diverse new voices and Sanders himself in the U.S. Senate will, at the very least, continue to promote progressive policies and an internationalist foreign policy in the U.S. If anything, on the national level, things are much worse in the U.K.
Blairites in his own party seemed to work as hard to stop a Corbyn led government from becoming a reality at the end of 2019 as his supposed opposition, Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party. As reiterated by Labor’s most recent electoral drubbing in hundreds of mainly local elections held on May 6th, despite widespread allegations of corrupt practices, Johnson’s party remains dominant in the country’s parliament.
One of the only really impressive showings for Labor outside of a few mayoral races on what was dubbed ‘Super Thursday’ in the press was in Preston, a traditionally working class city with a population of around 320,000.
Preston is located in Lancashire behind what used to be called Labor’s ‘Red Wall’. These traditionally Labor controlled areas, mainly in the north of England, mostly fell to the Conservatives in the 2019 national election, shocking and disheartening activists and the left far beyond the country’s borders.
However, since 2011, Preston Labor councilors, led by Matthew Brown, were quietly building a resilient local economy by investing in cooperatives and other progressive measures in the community. Soon after the elections, Preston became one of the most talked about places on the British left, including numerous articles and opinion pieces in the center left Guardian and Observer newspapers.
The talk was spurred on by success, with the core of the city in 2018 retaining almost 74 million pounds (almost $105 million) above what it did in 2013, a huge benefit to the local economy where this money likely continues to circulate.
Oddly enough, the success of Preston’s experiment in local government is heavily influenced by one in Cleveland, Ohio that began in 2008 and has mostly been ignored by the mainstream press. The American Rust Belt city had lost almost half of its population between 1970 and 2013, a situation that mirrored so many other once prosperous urban areas in North America and Europe.
By the time of the Great Recession, most of the large manufacturers and associated businesses had already left the city, with working age people often forced to search for employment opportunities elsewhere. In simple terms, a group called the Democracy Collaborative worked with some progressive local politicians in the city, influenced by the most successful cooperative corporation in the world, Mondragon in Spain, to revive Cleveland by building self sustaining coops with the help of what came to be called ‘anchor’ institutions, an experiment that Preston would first reproduce and then further develop shortly after.Working with partners including the Cleveland Clinic, The Cleveland Foundation, Case Western Reserve University and University Hospital, local government and NGOs like the Democracy Collaborative began to build the Evergreen Co-operatives in late 2009. In keeping with the progressive politics that inspired them, the resulting coops were, as the name implies, based on green principles, good public relations for the anchors taking part in the projects.
As explained by The Corbyn Project in a 2018 article, “Together, Cleveland’s anchors were spending around $3 billion per year, very little of which was previously staying in the local community. The Democracy Collaborative worked with them to localize a portion of their procurement in support of a network of purposely-created green worker co-ops, the Evergreen Co-operatives, tied together in a community corporation so that they too are rooted in place.”
Although it seems small relative to more national stories, a deal between the Cleveland Clinic and the Evergreen Cooperative Laundry created 100 new jobs in 2018, empowering workers who all now have a stake and decision making power in the growing business.
Seeing the success of Evergreen in Cleveland, Labor councilors in Preston were inspired to imitate it in terms of building coops using community anchors. They also expanded upon it, introducing the radical idea of a local bank in partnership with other municipalities in the country’s northwest.
As Matthew Brown explained in terms of the bank, named North West Mutual, “The closure of many high street bank branches over the last few years has had a substantial effect on small businesses in Preston. Residents may have also struggled to open bank accounts due to complex personal circumstances, and this initiative will be there for those families too.”
It isn’t something most of us have really considered, especially in those localities devastated by the failure of state and national governments to spend on infrastructure, but as pointed out in the Corbyn Project article cited above, cities and towns are where governments were most effective in the past. Most of those reading this still benefit from public roads, public utilities, public schools, parks and transit systems that have stood against the tide of wealthy interests to commercialize and privatize everything.
So-called public-private partnerships like those putting private entities in charge of things like parking in many urban areas have been all the rage for years but if one looks into them, besides being run by the politically connected, they’re often wasteful, as their main goal is to line the pockets of private entities and their shareholders. Anchors, as private entities themselves, can be problematic as well, but are at least rooted in place.
It’s in part because local success stories are rarely covered by larger media outlets that federal governments have been able to cut spending and then blame municipal governments for the austerity politics initiated at the top. However, staying out of the limelight can also benefit communities building on socially democratic ideas over the longer term.
With this in mind, now might be a good time to look for other models to create the change progressives everywhere want to learn from and see, building from the bottom up rather than trying to facilitate it from the top down.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean that progressives should abandon big national goals altogether. In the United States, Medicare for All should remain a top agenda item as such a program lowers costs for everyone while guaranteeing a fundamental human right to all. Still, one of the progressive left’s goals has to be to empower citizens, and as Cleveland and Preston are showing the world, this is most easily done at the local level.