It’s becoming something of a well-worn joke amongst those of us thinking and writing about so-called ‘new municipalism’ (I can’t speak for those actually making it happen) that it so often gets conflated with ‘progressive politics happening in cities’ – or, worse, progressive policies enacted for cities.

The recent re-emergence of British municipal socialism – a particularly inspiring development in a highly constrained political context – often gets identified as new municipalism, a closely related but nonetheless distinct movement. An illustrative example is an otherwise excellent report by Manchester-based Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) entitled ‘New Municipalism in London’, which suggests that the global municipalist movement is now “taking root” in the capital, brought forward by the progressive policy agendas of three borough councils (Camden, Hackney, and Islington). Yet these initiatives are driven technocratically from the upper echelons of the local state – albeit by elected representatives – not democratically from grassroots movements. Try as we might, it is difficult to see new municipalist politics at play here.

What such British interpretations miss is the method. Municipalism is a radically democratic movement for transforming the local state and urban everyday life. As I highlight below, it explicitly avoids taking the parliamentary road to socialism – with its inevitable compromises, co-optations and contradictions – and seeks a different path of building an alternative polity of directly-democratic, self-governing assemblies and co-operatives outside the liberal-representative capitalist state. Getting there often means engaging in the messy game of electoral politics – but winning elections and instituting progressive policies is never the end in itself.

This article explores the uses and abuses of the municipalist moniker on the British Left. It begins with a brief survey of the UK’s municipal socialist and community wealth building landscape before drawing out the differences with municipalism understood more radically and globally.

Finally, it doubles up as a review of Owen Hatherley’s Red Metropolis – a brilliant book that has, I argue below, been over-invested with municipalist meaning by the British Left. It reveals how the prospects for municipalism in London have always been bound up with the electoral fortunes of the socialist wing of the Labour Party. Hopes for a genuinely municipalist movement in the UK, I conclude, must look beyond both the Red Metropolis and the Labour Party (whether Red or Blue) to grassroots organising elsewhere.


The socialist council model

Conceptual confusion seems to have most infected the ‘new’ New Left as it gathered momentum around the Corbyn–McDonnell project. In Tribune (the recently-relaunched socialist magazine with historical roots in the Labour Left; a contemporary counterpart and beneficiary of Jacobin in the US) we’ve seen a flurry of pieces celebrating the pioneering Preston model, ‘Scotland’s Red Council’ in North Ayrshire and the ‘sensible socialism’ of the Salford model (amongst other municipal models, such as Barking and Dagenham’s ‘civic socialism’) in which the authors too often conflate new municipalism with this resurgence of a distinctively British municipal socialist tradition.

Overlapping almost perfectly with the Community Wealth Building (CWB) agenda popularised by ‘think and do’ tanks such as CLES and, in the US, the Democracy Collaborative (who originally coined the CWB concept ) this brand of municipalism is an Anglo-American affair, the lovechild of a putative ‘Transatlantic Left’ much more geared towards economic than political democracy.

British municipal socialism focuses on the radical economic aspects of transatlantic municipalism, overlooking the transformative democratic politics at the heart of the wider global movement. Paul Dennett, the socialist Mayor of Salford, who’s doing an incredible job of radically reforming the social contract in his city and Greater Manchester more broadly, understands municipalism as a term invented in the UK, specifically by Neil McInroy, the Chief Exec of CLES.

Here, municipalism is interpreted in the peculiarly challenging British context as “a vision particularly suited to the Local Authority areas of the former ‘Red Wall’, post-industrial towns which have lost their economic purpose after decades of wilful neglect by national government”; a vision “for a local economy based on interesting, fulfilling, well-paid, and secure jobs in practical industries and professions – a local economy in which small businesses, co-operatives, and mutual community enterprises can thrive.” This is all well and good; municipalism should indeed aim for economic democracy and justice. But what happened to the transformative popular politics?

In describing the ‘Salford model’, Dennett expresses a common misconception of municipalism:

“In effect, we intend to do in miniature that which successive national governments have entirely failed to do at scale: direct our economy and society towards a model where work serves the needs of people, and not the other way around.”

This is a traditional model of politics – the word ‘model’ says it all – in which a technocratic blueprint for managing cities is innovated in Salford or Preston or wherever and then replicated and adapted to suit specific local government contexts. It is a politics modelled on the nation-state, seen to have failed to deliver the ends of social and economic justice, with little to say about the means of how we get there. It is precisely this gap between means and ends wrought asunder by the social-democratic state under capitalism that new municipalism seeks to close.

The ‘models’ defining British municipal socialism today are attributed to leading lights in local government – Asima Shaikh in Islington, Rohksana Fiaz in Newham, Joe Cullinane in North Ayrshire, Paul Dennett in Salford and, of course, Matthew Brown in Preston – all Labour councillors. Cullinane opens his Tribune piece with these words:

“As roads to socialism close nationally, the need for a municipal road to socialism is borne by those of us on the Labour left who are privileged to hold power at a local level. We may be few, but our impact is big.”

Leaving socialist strategy in the hands of a ‘privileged few’ (however progressive they may be) runs directly against the grain of municipalism – a movement defined by broad-based citizen platforms and assemblies in which democratic deliberation is entrusted to equal delegates rather than elected representatives. Yet such shortcomings should not discount the impressive progress made by British municipal socialism – forging a plausible pathway to municipalism hard fought for under hostile conditions.

So we often find ourselves back at this crossroads, unsure which path to follow – whether to take the purist highroad and insist that nothing short of the most radical municipalist organising can count as truly municipalist; or whether there are multiple routes to municipalism – including technocratic tinkering and bureaucratic insurgency – where municipalism becomes more of a diverse landscape than a definitive destination.

But the latter still begs the question: what really counts as municipalism? What’s the ideal-type of municipalism; the lodestar creating the gravitational pull around which orbit all other variations? Maybe we need to place a finger more precisely on what we mean when we talk about municipalism…


So what exactly is municipalism?

First, municipalism is much, much more than the sum of the parts of a progressive policy agenda in cities. Progressive policies, as Bertie Russell makes clear:

“should be seen as positive symptoms of a political project that is not fundamentally about the policies themselves (which could hypothetically be implemented by a traditional social-democratic party), but about the construction of new ‘forms of organisation’ of our everyday activity.”

Municipalism is not just about mimicking and improving a (social-democratic or even democratic-socialist) national statecraft at the local level, as many of the advocates of community wealth building seem to suggest.

It’s about starting with a ‘politics of proximity’ that only the urban scale can provide as the basis for organising spaces of solidarity and developing new popular institutions for political and economic democracy – from mutual aid societies, co-ops and community land trusts to houses of the people, social centres and neighbourhood assemblies.

Such institutions enable social encounter, popular education, knowledge sharing, and, crucially, collective joy. Over time, this may cultivate new subjectivities, democratically transform urban everyday life and begin to challenge capitalism.

Second, municipalism adopts a ‘dual power’ strategy, which aims to build an alternative polity of regionally (and eventually globally) ‘confederated’ self-governing, directly-democratic assemblies and communes to compete with and potentially supersede nation-states. This entails two interrelated strategic approaches:

  1. Expanding the commons and building alternative, autonomous institutions through which a more cooperative, anti-racist, feminist, ecologically-sustainable (and prefiguratively postcapitalist) solidarity economy and confederal direct democracy can be instituted ‘in the shell of the old’;
  2. Supporting this first approach by leveraging concessions from the state, taking hold of local political institutions through mobilising social movements for winning electoral office, and reimagining and transforming the state from within through guerrilla occupation of bureaucracies.

Municipalism thus represents a departure from recent conventional modes of social movement organising – from ‘occupying the squares’ to ‘occupying the institutions’; to begin working in, against and beyond the state. The local state is merely a strategic entry point for a multi-scalar counter-hegemonic offensive. One notable approach is to reimagine traditional political parties as movement-led citizen platforms, as exemplified in the Spanish ‘confluences’, most obviously Barcelona en Comú.

Third, means and ends are prefiguratively intertwined in the ‘feminisation’ of the state’s decision-making processes and subversion of technocratic managerialism in favour of ‘collective theory-building’ and open-source, crowdsourced deliberative-democratic policy-making. Laura Roth makes the case that “feminising power means both sharing and creating power, incentivising collaboration and abandoning confrontational discourses” to “build new institutions that are open, horizontal and accessible to everyone” and which cultivate a politics of care, honesty and accountability founded on “face-to-face interactions, a disposition to change, trust and shared experiences”.

Fourth, an important aspect of municipalism is trans-local organising and international cooperation (and knowledge sharing and trading through ‘solidarity markets’) between municipalist platforms in different cities; connected through networks like Fearless Cities and Minim (often supported by alternative transnational research and funding organisations such as the Transnational Institute) for the creation of a transcalar cosmopolitan movement of polises capable of bypassing and resisting attack by capital and state.

Finally, municipalism represents a challenge to the authority of the nation-state and its abstract notions of citizenship, in welcoming all who live in a city (regardless of national identity, including refugees and migrants) as citizens with a ‘right to the city’ based on inhabitance; with the city becoming a ‘sanctuary’ for those excluded from state citizenship. It sees the nation-state as primarily the instrument of nationalism and capitalism (as one of capital’s fundamental abstract social forms, alongside money and property) and thus turns towards ‘the urban’ (urban-based organisational forms such as communes and assemblies) as a more promising locus for anti-capitalist action.

There are obviously huge contradictions in this – whether ‘socialism in one country’ or ‘municipalism in one city’ is at all sustainable within, let alone transformable of, global capitalism; whether democracy can be given enduring, vital institutional form without ossifying through bureaucratisation.

Municipalists confront such contradictions head on in their praxis; motivated by the difficult and contradictory task of organising direct democracy at scale without succumbing to the populist and capitalist logics of the nation-state. In the context of climate breakdown, such challenges direct more radical municipalist visions towards eco-socialist, degrowth horizons in which urban production, consumption and carbon footprints are made coterminous with a city’s bioregional ecosystem.

We can see, then, how municipalism is so much more than progressive local government, which is best understood as a particularly powerful and problematic institutional tool in the municipalist repertoire.

All roads lead to London, the Red Metropolis

With this in mind, let’s return to our conundrum: why do people conflate municipalism with progressive politics happening in cities – particularly in the UK, where a genuinely municipalist movement is conspicuous by its absence? The enduring dominance of London over the British political economy – even over counter-imaginaries – seems to hold an answer.

In a conjuncture combining the long-term hollowing out of the local state and centralisation of power, ongoing neoliberal destruction of solidarity structures and financialisation of cities, and recent national failure of the Corbyn-McDonnell left-populist counter-project, the radical legacy of the Greater London Council is now being rediscovered by young radicals. Most notable in this tendency is Tribune culture editor Owen Hatherley’s new book Red Metropolis: Socialism and the Government of London, alongside his earlier essay for the New Left Review, promoted on its front cover as ‘London of the Left’.

The book is a tour de force of political, cultural and architectural historical synthesis – it was one of the few books I read cover-to-cover during the lockdown of 2020; I couldn’t put it down. It expertly skewers the current spate of ‘entrepreneurial’ policies for council house-building and municipal enterprise to cross-subsidise public services in austerity-throttled local authorities – such as Haringey and Enfield – in a trend Joe Beswick and Joe Penny have baptised ‘financialised municipal entrepreneurialism’ (on which I’ve elaborated, with comrades in Liverpool, as the slightly more progressive but no less problematic ‘entrepreneurial municipalism’).

While a welcome return of local state ambition, playing with the fire of financialisation will ultimately leave socialism burnt and disfigured. Through an analogy to unsustainable oil extraction, this point is underlined by Hatherley (p. 221) in a rare direct address to socialist council leaders: “leave it in the ground. Don’t sell your land, and don’t speculate on it either. Don’t build private housing if it is beyond the budgets of most of your residents. Don’t play the property market.”

Red Metropolis does a great job of tracing the connections – and distinguishing the differences – between the more municipalist Greater London Council (GCL) of 1981–86 and the simply hypocritical ‘Corbyn Councils’ of the late 2010s. In his Jacobin review of the book, David Madden suggests the London Left “steered the GLC toward what Hatherley characterizes as New Left municipalism.” Madden acknowledges that “London is not always on the historical map of municipalist hotspots” but believes “Hatherley’s book makes the case that it should be.”

And there are good reasons for believing so. Upon the Labour Left takeover of the GLC in 1981, a number of “non-aligned Marxists” – including John McDonnell, Dianne Abbott, Doreen Massey, Robin Murray, Mike Cooley and Hilary Wainwright – were critical in progressing what Hatherley (p. 109) describes as a “gloriously, explicitly, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-imperialist, anti-sexist… celebratory, creative and propagandist” politics that “funnelled money into co-ops and communes.” So far, so municipalist.

However, such favourable comparisons open the door to historical revisionism – to the GLC being considered a prototypical progenitor of new municipalism. As I’ve argued, the ‘in and against the state’ strategy that so influenced the GLC’s “small band of economic guerrillas” (the insurgent policy team tasked with expanding economic democracy and popular planning, as described by one of its members, Hilary Wainwright) in many ways anticipated the distinctive strategic approach of new municipalism. But still, something seems missing – where’s the demos; where’s the polis in all this?

The lack of anything truly municipalist about London’s politics – past or present – is palpable. Though Red Metropolis never explicitly references ‘municipalism’ as such, it implicitly ascribes it to the municipal socialism of the 1930s and the 1980s and perhaps, yearningly, the late 2010s. In ‘Abolish England?’, recently published in Tribune, Hatherley reveals his hand:

The crushing of the centralised power of the City and Westminster could have the effect of boosting a new municipalism in London itself, the ‘Home Rule for London’ that the London Labour Party once advocated and partly implemented in the 1930s and 1980s.

Though the GLC was far and beyond the closest the UK has come to anything approaching what we might call municipalism today, its dependence on only a handful of political personalities and economic guerrillas and its contemporary imbrication with a failed left-populism, sets it very much apart. In a fascinating passage in the book (p. 227) Hatherley tells us all we need to know:

“The 2019 election campaign was the endgame of the 1980s left, and the terminus of the GLC New Left’s two spectacular “second acts” – first Livingstone’s reappearance to retake London in 2000, followed by Corbyn, McDonnell and Abbott’s unplanned seizure of the Labour Party in 2015. The twenty-somethings at Young Labour seldom seemed to be enthused by promises of People’s Plans, co-operatives or community wealth building – it was from the youth that the harshest demands for nationalisation, municipalisation and state planning were heard.”

If the prospects for a genuinely municipalist politics to emerge in the UK remain tied to a defeated Labour Left polarised by the peculiarly British disease of statism – or, indeed, tied to the municipal socialist legacy of transatlantic Community Wealth Building – they will remain just that; prospects.

But opportunities do exist. Outside of London – where municipalist politics has only become more challenging since the GLC’s dissolution and the growing dominance of global finance over the capital’s political economy – things look a little brighter.

In Liverpool, a city reeling from allegations of endemic corruption, governance breakdown and mismanagement of public funds in the City Council – and the unprecedented threat of central government takeover – a grassroots alternative is emerging amongst the city’s thriving social and solidarity economy.

The Liverpool City Region Land Commission – a pioneering initiative led by CLES – promises to recommend radical measures for socialising public and private land as urban commons, a vital groundwork for municipalism to flourish; while Beacon has been established as a non-party citizen platform for promoting democratic socialism, with municipalist ambitions.

In neighbouring Greater Manchester, a group of activists are engaged in establishing Middleton Cooperating as a democratically-governed catalyst for community wealth building, driven – in contrast to nearby Preston – by citizen-led action. At the other end of England, in Plymouth, cooperative economy organisers are starting a city-wide conversation about municipalism in a series of public events. And right across the country, mutual aid groups are setting up Cooperation Towns – a network of community-owned food co-ops – inspired by the global exemplar of dual power, Cooperation Jackson.

In all these various cases – and more – there’s still a long way to travel. The municipalist road to socialism is no less winding than the parliamentary; but after the British Left’s latest electoral defeat of late 2019, perhaps it’s time to give it a go. Now the challenge in Britain is how to connect the excellent work already undertaken by Labour councillors and progressive think tanks with potentially municipalist movement-building at the grassroots.

Photo credit: The Economist.