What Michael Gove’s return means for us
Will Brett, Campaign Director
With Michael Gove back in charge of “levelling up”, we’re reflecting on our campaign for community power, the progress we’ve made and the tension that sits at its heart.
We are seeking to build a united movement for community power driven by the deep commitment and ingenuity of local community leaders. The future we want to see is one where all that energy is genuinely unleashed to do what it does best – build thriving places that work for everyone and where local people find connection, purpose and pride in community action. That energy is the reason we exist. Without it, we’d be nothing.
But from the beginning, our campaign has understood that one of the main things standing in the way of a more community-powered Britain is the fact that so much power is hoarded by distant institutions, not least in Westminster and Whitehall. Too much energy for local change is used up in a constant struggle against a system that fundamentally doesn’t trust local people to be the architects of their own prosperity. That means that the fight for community power has to be taken to the places where power lies. And that, in turn, means our campaign must retain a relentless focus on the national political scene – where the big changes we seek can be made to happen.
…those hording power at the centre must be persuaded to give some of it away.
Therein lies the tension. The people driving forward our campaign are used to expecting less than nothing from central government. They tend to be much more interested in getting on with making amazing things happen locally than in hoping for some semblance of support from distant institutions. And as political turmoil has increased in the last six or seven years, expectations have sunk lower and lower.
But these leaders also know that to unlock the potential contained in each and every one of our neighbourhoods, there needs to be a fundamental shift in where power lies. To achieve that shift, those hording power at the centre must be persuaded to give some of it away – either because it’s the best way forward for the country; or, failing that, because if they don’t then a wave of frustration could knock them from their perches.
Too much energy for local change is used up in a constant struggle against a system that fundamentally doesn’t trust local people to be the architects of their own prosperity.
Michael Gove’s reappointment brings that tension back to the fore. He has been the senior Conservative minister who seems most likely to ‘get’ what we’re trying to do. Since 2016 he has consistently voiced the sense that people want to take more control over the things that matter to them (a feeling that is not going away). He has introduced the language of ‘community covenants’ into government policy, in line with one of the three pillars of our proposal for a Community Power Act. And overall his version of the levelling up agenda, while not completely aligned with our thinking, has been the closest any government in recent decades has got to embracing the power of communities.
…we are investing in building a longer-term movement of local leaders committed to achieving a big shift in where power lies, and taking action at every level to help make it happen.
And yet Gove’s removal from Cabinet by Liz Truss, and subsequent return yesterday, is symptomatic of a political culture that appears too volatile to deliver the kind of meaningful change people want and need. And it’s unclear whether any politician operating within our stultifyingly centralised system will be able to push power past its walls. By all accounts, Gove’s attempts to drive forward the levelling up agenda in late 2021 and early 2022 were hindered most of all by the Treasury, led at the time by Rishi Sunak, who has since become the new PM. Better, some might say, to get on with the daily grind of making things happen locally, rather than to fight for change from our increasingly sclerotic national politics.
There is no easy answer to this tension. As a campaign, we don’t want to pass up any opportunity to advance the community power agenda. For that reason, we will absolutely seek to engage with Michael Gove and his team at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and to inject a focus on community power into government policy. Yet we don’t know how long this latest incarnation of the department will last, nor how much power within the government it is likely to have. So, at the same time, we are investing in building a longer-term movement of local leaders committed to achieving a big shift in where power lies, and taking action at every level to help make it happen.
That means thinking about national politics in the round, and not just in terms of influencing the current government. We need to build political allies for community power on all sides of politics, well beyond the front benches and indeed Westminster, to give us the best possible chance that a future government will make the changes which we know are necessary to enable communities to take back control for real.
…all of us are smarter than any of us, and this movement doesn’t belong to any individuals.
But it also means growing our movement in every city, town and village across the UK. Ultimately, the more capable we are of taking the case for community power to decision-makers, powerholders and influential people and institutions everywhere, the more likely we will be, in the long term, to succeed.
We’re in this for the long haul. In the coming months, we’ll share more information about our plans to support community organisations and groups to make their voices heard, and to make politicians and policymakers sit up and pay attention. But we need you to be a part of this new phase of our campaign – if you haven’t already, please sign our letter to Michael Gove, share your story of community power or tweet about why you believe in a community-powered Britain (tagging us @right_hereUK).
We’ll always be honest and open about the strategic dilemmas we face and what we’re thinking – because all of us are smarter than any of us, and this movement doesn’t belong to any individuals. If you have thoughts about the strategy we’ve set out in this blog, email us at hello@firstname.lastname@example.org.