The Local Wealth Building Summit organised by CLES in association with other partners, including City-REDI at the Birmingham Business School, took place in the week of extraordinary events at home and abroad. The UK Constitution looked to be rocking, its electoral laws too weak, Parliament gridlocked, the PM without authority, the major parties divided. As for the once familiar ‘World Order’ – what World Order? With such a backdrop, who wants to talk procurement, co-ops, local government?
It seems that many people do, and with good reason. Mid-way through the afternoon session I Tweeted that no one had yet mentioned Brexit. Over the last two years I’ve attended many meetings, conferences, seminars, even literary festivals, in which the B word was inescapable. Indeed, a decade into ‘austerity’, there were few mentions of central government, and that mainly confined to the dead hand of the Treasury upon local initiative. This feels new, indicative of something qualitatively different in the practical politics of living in today’s Europe (and further afield).
The Centre for Local Economic Strategies is a ‘think tank’. Most of my engagements with think tanks over the last few years has tended to be with those of the right, like Bright Blue, Localis, and others. (I even attended the triumphant launch of Britannia Unchained in 2012, the book that launched the careers of Dominic Raab, Liz Truss, and others on the young Tory right.) It is instructive sometimes to look at these events not as being about different kinds of political approach to knotty policy issues, but through the eyes of an amateur social anthropologist. The ‘right-oriented’ gatherings tended to be of policy wonks, SPADs, would-be MPs, lobbyists and journalists; a professional political caste operating, or hoping to, at the highest levels of government.
The Local Wealth Building Summit was not at all like that in feel. One complaint from a delegate at the end was that he’d expected more of a practical exchange of ideas about how to do things on the ground at a local level. It was a fair point, although I suspect that more than a few such exchanges happened over lunch, or coffee. But there were other things going on that are, I suspect, even more important to our times.
CLES, and even more so, City-REDI, are not politically partisan outfits. Both, particularly City-REDI, work pragmatically with all relevant actors and stakeholders on the basis of meticulous research to inform rational, evidence-based policy-making. This is itself at odds with the tenor of our time, which makes them, whether they like it or not, representatives of something different from the world view that has dominated our political and economic thinking for more than a generation.
Explicitly a lot of the discussion was couched in terms which were profoundly critical of neoclassical economics. Politically, too, there was little expectation placed on formal political institutions, except in the most pragmatic ways. ‘These are the tools we have’, seemed to be the assumption.
Even more clear was the absence of the language and methods of lobbying. It is as if, at least in the context of the Local Wealth Building community, methods which once dominated our political practice have been shrunk back to the second order tools they used to be.
In this context, the banishing of today’s political dramas from discussion felt significant, indicative of change.
Which is why I left the summit with more optimism than I have felt in a very long time.
I was left with the impression that, however difficult the situation individuals, organisations, and institutions find themselves in in the here and now, there is new thinking emerging, building upon practical approaches to change. The ‘top down’ models were rejected as too slow, too sclerotic, too jealous of their power. There was a recognition that small initiatives could be, as Neil McInroy put it, “stitched together”, “embroidered” into a whole, so that the sum became greater than its parts.
The day had started with Councillor John Cotton of Birmingham City Council talking about their programme of “Energy and Water Socialism”, which is talk to quicken the pulse of any true citizen of Birmingham, the home of “gas and water socialism”. He made reference, too, to a local bank, bringing to mind the old Birmingham Municipal Bank, which had once powered local economic prosperity, and citizen’s financial security (with its slogan ‘Thrift Radiates Happiness’). But this was no rose-tinted nostalgia for the age of municipal pride, but rather new thinking about how to recalibrate ‘the economy’, and with it, political power, to ensure that wealth no longer flows out of most of the world, but irrigates the places where it is made.
In short, I felt as though I had been privileged to have witnessed a moment in which things were starting to change. About time.
(Photograph: A stained glass window from the headquarters of the Birmingham Municipal Bank, featuring the City Crest, with its motto, ‘Forward’, and figures representing ‘Industry’, and ‘Progress’.)