Municipal socialism – the time is now

Municipal socialism is the basis for delivering a wide range of local services in local government across the world – even if, as in the USA, it is not always described in this way. My latest paper for the Jimmy Reid Foundation called Municipal Socialism for a Modern Scotland, develops the thinking in my previous paper on public service reform, published by the Foundation early last year. It offers an alternative approach to the administration of austerity, which is the norm in too many Scottish councils.

The paper starts with the historical context, which runs from the nineteenth century Liberals who addressed the appalling conditions in our cities by introducing municipal water, gas and other utilities. Keir Hardie championed this cause and devoted a chapter to municipal socialism in his book, From Serfdom to Socialism.

The cause was taken up in the USA by the ‘sewer socialists’ whose efforts can be seen even today in the wide range of public services delivered by public authorities there. There are some 2,000 municipally owned electric utilities, supplying around a quarter of all energy in the USA and 80% of all Americans receive water from publicly-owned systems at the municipal level.

Scottish local government today has taken the brunt of austerity, and services have been centralised. Since 2013-2014, council budget allocations have been cut by 6.9%, while the Scottish Government’s Revenue Budget fell by 1.6%. At a time when local government budgets are under enormous strain, it is worth remembering that in the 1940s municipal ownership provided 30% of local authorities’ income.

The case for municipal socialism is based on a very different approach. It recognises the benefits of collective provision, not just because it is a more effective way of delivering services, or even for the revenues it would generate, but as a key element of a strategy to reduce inequality – Scotland’s main twenty first century challenge.

The paper outlines eleven services that would benefit from municipal socialism. It is not an exhaustive list, but it shows the range of opportunities available to councils that are willing to grasp the challenge. The difference between municipal socialism and the Morrisonian forms of public ownership, like nationalised industries, is that municipal socialism can apply to those services that are best delivered locally. It can also be used to promote socialist values when national governments are unwilling to take radical action.

Some are familiar services like housing, social care and early years provision. These services are very fragmented in Scotland making co-ordinated provision and workforce planning very challenging. Marketisation has failed, so a new approach is required.

Others like energy, transport, broadband and water are commonly delivered by local government across the world, but rarely in Scotland. For example, the new Transport Bill is deeply disappointing, aimed more at supporting the profits of bus companies than the needs of passengers.

The final group of services are aimed at strengthening the local economy; including banking, IT, new forms of public finance and supporting the foundational economy. Councils can use the power of public procurement much more effectively.

Just transferring or creating new services to a weak local state is not enough. It requires new forms of participative democracy that fully engage citizens in local government.

Taking this agenda forward requires bold leadership from councils. I have argued in these pages beforel that local government in Scotland must move away from being the passive administrators of austerity, to become the political leadership of their communities. I hope this paper provides a template for radical councils to grasp the opportunities that municipal socialism offers.

Dave Watson is the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland. His paper can be found at http://reidfoundation.org/2018/05/new-policy-paper-municipal-socialism-for-modern-scotland-local-public-enterprise-for-the-common-good/

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