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Steakholders vs Smallholders: The Political Economy of Kenya’s Sugar Industry

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Western Kenya’s sugar industry has a productivity problem. Fortunate to have been given several reprieves by COMESA, growers, millers and policymakers have still been unable to move away from the protectionist thinking on which the industry was originally built. But time is running out. Can the industry survive without state protection? By DAVID NDII.

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Steakholders vs Smallholders: The Political Economy of Kenya’s Sugar Industry
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Kenya’s sugar industry circus continues. Late last year, the government formed a task force to look into the industry’s never-ending woes. Last week, a farmers lobby group formed a parallel task force, which is already convening in western Kenya and collecting views. The government has dismissed the private task force, and vice versa. Farmers seem to be behind the private one. Ironically, both are talking the same language— reviewing law and policy.

For more than a decade now, Kenya has been granted reprieves by the COMESA trade block to reform its sugar industry. Last year, the reprieve was extended for a further two years to 2020. The COMESA region has some very competitive sugar producers including Sudan and Malawi. Kenya runs a huge trade surplus with COMESA. Kenya’s excuses are wearing thin. This time round, the trade block set up a committee to supervise the implementation of the deal.

It is a tall order. Kenya’s sugar industry has a productivity problem. This has two components, low farm productivity and low sugar recovery. We have the lowest cane yields in the COMESA region (and the other COMESA countries have some of the highest yields in the world). The recovery rates are between 9 and 11 percent, that is, a tonne of cane produces between 90 – 110 kilos of sugar, while western Kenya manages to recover only 6 percent.

Why are cane yields in western Kenya so low? Simply put, this is because cane sugar production is a land and capital intensive crop. Western Kenya smallholders are land and capital poor. They don’t have the capital to invest in irrigation and high tech agronomy, or the scale to make such investments pay off. We do not leave the country to benchmark. Kwale International Sugar, the Mauritian investors who revived Ramisi Sugar report that they are harvesting 60 tonnes per hectare on rain fed cane, and 140 tonnes per hectare on irrigated fields. They describe their irrigation system as a “state-of-the art technology that includes a sub-surface drip-fed irrigation system which delivers 40 percent water saving.

We have the lowest cane yields in the COMESA region…the other COMESA countries have some of the highest in the world…

Assuming the rest of the agronomy is the same, irrigation alone more than doubles the cane yield. In fact, at 60 tonnes per hectare the rain-fed yield in Kwale is the same as western Kenya. However, cane at the coast matures faster, 12 months as compared to 15 to 18 months in western. This makes for significant productivity differences. In western, it translates to 120 tonnes per hectare over a three year cycle, which brings down the average annual production per hectare to 40, while in Kwale the yield and annual production remain at 60 tonnes per hectare. So, though we have 220,000 hectares planted, we only harvest 80,000 a year on average, which is just over a third of the planted acreage. To see the difference this makes, we produce on average 600,000 metric ton of sugar on 200,000 acres (440,000 acres) of land. Mauritius produces a similar about of sugar on 72,000 hectares (158,000 acres).

In economics, we think of resource allocation in terms of opportunity cost. The economic value of an industry is what it produces over the next best alternative use of the scarce resources that it employs. Kenya is a land-poor country. Only a third of the land is arable without considerable investment in irrigation and land improvement. The sugar belt is some of Kenya’s most productive rain-fed cropland. If the land under sugarcane could be made as productive as tea, it would generate $1.3 billion ( Sh.130 billion) at current exchange rates, compared to US$ 180 million worth of sugar currently.

By misallocating resources, western Kenya is losing KSh 100 billion worth of agricultural productivity. As a country we are losing more. Average ex-factory price of sugar is currently quoted at KSh 4,000 per 50-kg bag (KSh 80 per kilo) which translates to US$ 800 per tonne. Sugar is trading at about $280 a tonne, or KSh 30 per kilo in the world market. Kenyan consumers are paying more than double the world price. With current consumption at 80 kilos per household, the sugar industry protection works out to KSh 4,000 per household per year. If we were buying sugar at the world price, the savings would be enough to buy every Kenyan household a kilo of meat every month.

By misallocating resources, western Kenya is losing KSh 100 billion worth of agricultural productivity.

We pay western Kenya more than double the world price of sugar, but it has not made the region prosperous. All the public sugar companies are insolvent. The government and stakeholders continue to go round in circles. Waswahili have a popular saying “ukiona vialea vimeundua” (ships/vessels float because they are build to), meaning there are reasons why things are what they are.

After independence, the government set about identifying cash crops that smallholders could grow in the different “high potential” agro-ecological zones. Central Kenya had coffee, tea and pyrethrum. The white highlands had their cereals and dairy. In line with the import substitution industrialization strategy of the time, sugar and cotton were identified as ideal cash crops for the lake region. It is the misfortune of western Kenya that both crops were unsuited for a smallholder out-grower production system. To be sure, it is pure good luck that tea turned out to be suited for the model. In fact, the World Bank strongly advised the government against it, as there was no precedent of smallholder tea production anywhere in the world.

The sugar industry thrived behind the tariff barriers of import substitution industrialization. But by the mid-seventies, the structural and economic challenges that now plague the industry were already in place. Prof. Stephen Mbogoh, one of the country’s leading agricultural economists, who studied the sugar industry for his doctorate observed:

“At the macro-level planners are interested in other aspects of an enterprise, besides the profitability aspect. The potential for an enterprise to create employment in Kenya, particularly in the rural areas, is an important consideration. Cane production is found to be the most profitable enterprise, but it does not generate as much capacity for absorbing the rural unemployed as the alternative enterprises.” (Mbogoh, Stephen Gichovi. An Economic Analysis of Kenya’s Sugar Industry with Special Reference to the Self-Sufficiency Production Policy PhD Thesis. University of Alberta. 1980)

Mbogoh’s analysis showed that sugar had the highest income per worker, but the lowest job creation potential of the competing alternatives (See table). But this analysis does not bring the import protection factor to bear. Even then sugar was the most highly protected of the alternatives. From Mbogoh’s data sugar was retailing at KSh. 4.50 per kilo in 1976, which works out to US$ 750 per tonne, against a world price of US$ 250 per tonne— the same as now. If both the domestic resource cost (i.e. the cost of protection) and job creation were taken into account, the maize/groundnut combination would have come out on top. It is worth noting that even with import protection, the maize/groundnut gross revenue is comparable to sugarcane.

After independence, the government set about identifying cash crops that smallholders could grow in the different “high potential” agro-ecological zones. Central Kenya had coffee, tea and pyrethrum. The White Highlands had their cereals and dairy. In line with the import substitution industrialization strategy of the time, sugar and cotton were identified as ideal cash crops for the lake region. It is the misfortune of western Kenya that both crops were unsuited for a smallholder out-grower production system.

From an economic policy standpoint, gross revenue is a more important variable than the net profit because it captures all the incomes generated by an economic activity and not just the profit of that specific enterprise. The difference between gross and net income captures the multiplier effect of an enterprise. In this case, we see that while both sugarcane and the maize/groundnut option have roughly the same gross income, the maize/groundnut options buys 60 percent more (KSh 2,122) than sugarcane (KSh 1,296), which is indicative of a better distributional outcome than sugarcane.

By the mid-seventies, the structural and economic challenges that now plague the industry were already in place.

In summary the policymakers saddled western Kenya with an uncompetitive, capital intensive, low productivity, regressive (i.e. income concentrating) cash crop. One cannot help but wonder whether the predominance of western Kenya migrant labour in Nairobi has something to do with these policy choices.

In all fairness, this was not, as is sometimes insinuated, a conspiracy to impoverish the region. Rather, it was a reflection of the conviction behind import substitution industrialization. Indeed, the import substitution strategy was predicated on “export pessimism” – the idea that primary commodity exporters were condemned to deteriorating terms of trade (purchasing power vis-a-vis manufactured goods) in perpetuity. Viewed from this perspective, western Kenya with its sugar and cotton mills seemed brighter than that of primary commodity exporting central Kenya.

Policymakers saddled western Kenya with an uncompetitive, capital intensive, low productivity, regressive cash crop. One cannot help but wonder whether the predominance of western Kenya migrant labour in Nairobi has something to do with these policy choices.

By the end of the 70s, import substitution had run its course. Subsidies drained government coffers, and the imports of machinery and raw materials required to keep the industries afloat depleted foreign exchange without generating any. In Sessional Paper No.1 of 1986, Economic Management for Renewed Growth, the Moi government acknowledged that it was at the end of the road. Gradual liberalization began then, and ended with a bang in 1993. The textile industry, and cotton farming were wiped out.

But the sugar industry survived. How come? To the best of my knowledge, this question has not received much academic attention, but I have a theory. Cotton was by and large a poor man’s crop. Sugarcane outgrowers are both rich and poor. According to Prof. Mbogoh’s study, large scale outgrowers farming 40 to well over a 1000 hectares accounted for 40 percent of the outgrower acreage, and smallholders with between one and six hectares for the other 60 percent. I suppose that the sizes will have changed as land has become fragmented but the industry structure remains more or less the same.

Liberalization…ended with a bang in 1993. The textile industry, and cotton farming were wiped out. But the sugar industry survived. How come?

Because sugarcane production is capital intensive, the large scale outgrowers are able to achieve higher farm productivity than smallholders, but still benefit from the cane prices that are based on the smallholders cost structure. Moreover, the low husbandry requirements between planting and harvesting makes sugarcane very amenable to “telephone” farming by western Kenya elites. Additionally, the same said elites have preferential access to other business opportunities in the value chain, such as suppliers to the factories and sugar distribution. It is instructive that Mumias, which stands out by not having large scale outgrowers, was the only sugar company that was privatized, perhaps because there were no powerful elites with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. From this vantage point, the private task force begins to look more like a “steak holder” than a stakeholder initiative.

Because sugarcane production is capital intensive, the large scale outgrowers are able to achieve higher farm productivity than smallholders, but still benefit from the cane prices that are based on the smallholders’ cost structure.

But western Kenya’s sugar industry cannot be protected from competition indefinitely. Sooner or later, the COMESA safeguards will come to an end. If not that, other domestic producers will follow KISCOL and cash in on the high prices with lower costs of production. And as long as the wedge between the international and domestic prices remains what it is, episodes of import deluges will continue to destabilize the industry. The time for western Kenya sugar industry to face reality is now.

Steak holders should let the people go.

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David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

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Education in Rwanda: A Long Walk to the Knowledge Economy

If Rwanda is to attain its stated ambition to become of a middle-income country by 2035 driven by the knowledge economy, then it must inject significant investments in the education and related sectors.

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Rwanda has shown commitment to bring improvements to its education sector. The development of Human capital that involves the enhancement of the education and health sectors was one of the main pillars of Rwanda’s development programme launched in 2000 to transform the country into a middle income state driven by the knowledge economy by 2020. Many developed countries joined in to financially support Rwanda to fulfil its development ambitions.

But while Rwanda did not meet its target to transform into a middle-income state by 2020, it has nevertheless made progress in the education sector that should be recognised. The country has now near-universal access to primary education with net enrolment rates of 98 per cent. There are also roughly equal numbers of boys and girls in pre-primary, primary and secondary schools in Rwanda. Compared to other sub-Saharan African countries, Rwanda has made great improvements in the education sector based on the gains made in primary school gross enrolment, out-of-school and retention rates and considering that the country came out of a genocidal civil war in the 1990s. Those of us living and travelling across the country can also see that the government of Rwanda has built more schools across the country to address congestion in classrooms.

However, education in Rwanda is faced with serious challenges which, if not addressed, the country will not attain its ambition to become a middle-income by 2035 and a high-income by 2050. The World Bank’s comparison with middle- and high-income countries, to whose ranks Rwanda aspires to join, shows that Rwanda lags far behind in primary and lower secondary school completion levels.

The gains made in education are not equally distributed across Rwanda. There are, for instance, wide disparities in lower secondary education by income and urban–rural residence. Whereas lower secondary school gross enrolment ratio level is 82 per cent in urban areas, it is only 44 per cent in rural areas. Moreover, transition rates between primary and lower secondary education are 53 per cent in urban areas, and 33 per cent in rural areas. School completion is 52 per cent among the richest quintile while it is 26 per cent among the poorest. Any future development strategy is unlikely to succeed if it does not provide basic equality of opportunity for all in Rwanda.

The standard of education in Rwanda is another major challenge. At the end of Grade 3, 85 per cent of Rwandan students were rated “below comprehension” in a recent reading test, and one in six could not answer any reading comprehension question. In my view, the quality of education has been partly affected by the abrupt changes in the language of instruction that have taken place without much planning since 2008.

Any future development strategy is unlikely to succeed if it does not provide basic equality of opportunity for all in Rwanda.

Learning levels in basic education remain low in Rwanda.  Children in the country can expect to complete 6.5 years of pre-primary and basic education by the age of 18 years. However, when this is adjusted for learning it translates to only about 3.8 years, implying that children in Rwanda have a learning gap of 2.7 years. This is a concern.

Education in Rwanda is also impended by high levels of malnutrition for children under 5 years. Although there have been improvements over time, malnutrition levels remain significantly high at 33 per cent. Malnutrition impedes cognitive development, educational attainment, and lifetime earnings. It also deprives the economy of quality human capital that is critical to Rwanda attaining its economic goals and sustaining its economic gains. In 2012, Rwanda lost 11.5 per cent of GDP as a result of child undernutrition.

Because of low learning levels and high levels of malnutrition in children under 5 years, Rwanda has consistently ranked below average on the World Bank’s Human Capital index since 2018, the year the index was first published. HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens.

If Rwanda is to develop the competent workforce needed to transform the country into a knowledge-based economy and bring it into the ranks of middle-income states, the government must put significant public spending in basic education. This has not been the case over the past decades. According to the World Bank, Rwanda’s public spending on primary education has been significantly lower than the average for sub-Saharan African countries with similar coverage of primary school level as Rwanda. This low spending on primary education has translated into relatively modest pay for teachers and low investment in their professional development which in turn affects the provision of quality education in Rwanda. The government recently increased teachers’ salary but the increment is being eroded by, among other things, food price inflation in Rwanda.

Malnutrition impedes cognitive development, educational attainment, and lifetime earnings.

Going forward, Rwanda’s spending on education needs to be increased and allocated to improving standards. Considering that the underlying cause of the high rate of malnourishment in children is food insecurity, the government needs to spend more on the agriculture sector. This sector employs 70 per cent of the labour force but has received only 10 per cent of total public investment. Public investment in Rwanda has in the past gone to the development of the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions sector rather than towards addressing pressing scarcities. This approach must be reviewed.

Increasing public expenditure in education and connected sectors should also be combined with strengthening accountability in the government institutions responsible for promoting the quality of education in basic schools and in promoting food security and livelihoods in Rwanda. This is because not a year goes by without the office of the Rwanda auditor general reporting dire inefficiencies in these institutions.

Strengthening institutional accountability can be achieved if the country adapts its consensual democracy by opening up the political space to dissenting voices. Doing so would surely enhance the effectiveness of checks and balances across institutions in Rwanda, including in the education sector, and would enable the country to efficiently reach its development targets.

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No Imperialist Peoples, Only Imperialist States

Adam Mayer praises a new collection, Liberated Texts, which includes rediscovered books on Africa’s socialist intellectual history and political economy, looking at the startling, and frequently long ignored work of Walter Rodney, Karim Hirji, Issa Shivji, Dani Wadada Nabudere, A. M. Babu and Makhan Singh.

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No Imperialist Peoples, Only Imperialist States
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Liberated Texts is a magnificent, essential, exciting tome that feels like a bombshell. This incredibly rich collection is a selection that is deep, wide, as well as entertaining. The book focuses on twenty-one volumes from the previous one hundred years, with a geographical range from the UK, the US, Vietnam, Korea, the Peoples Republic of China, the Middle East, Ireland, Malaysia, Africa (especially East Africa), Europe, Latin America, and the former Soviet Union, focusing on books that are without exception, foundational.

The collection is nothing less than a truth pill: in composite form, the volume corrects world history that Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States offered for the sterile, historical curriculum on domestic (US) history. The volume consists of relatively short reviews (written by a wide collection of young and old academics and activists from every corner of the globe) but together they reflect such a unified vision that I would recommend Liberated Texts as compulsory reading for undergraduate students (as well as graduates!) Although the text is a broad canvas it speaks to our age (despite some of the reviewed book having been written in the 1920s).

Each review is by default, a buried tresure. The writer of this very review is a middle-aged Hungarian, which means that some of the works and authors discussed were more familiar to me than they would be to others. For example, Anton Makarenko’s name was, when the author grew up in the People’s Republic of Hungary, a household word. Makarenko’s continued relevance for South America and the oppressed everywhere, as well as his rootedness in the revolutionary transformations of the Soviet experiment, are dealt with here marvellosly by Alex Turrall (p. 289). In loving detail Turrall also  discusses his hero the pedagogue Sukhomlinsky’s love for Stalinist reforms of Soviet education (p. 334).

There is one locus, and one locus only, where death is given reign, perhaps even celebrated: in a Palestinian case (p. 133) the revolutionary horizons are firmly focused on the past, not on any kind of future. The entire problematic of Israeli society’s recent ultra right-wing turn (a terrible outcome from the left’s point of view) is altogther missing here. Yet it is difficult to fault the authors or editors with this (after all, they painstakingly included an exemplary anti-Nazi Palestinian fighter in the text, p. 152) but it might be in order to challenge a fascination with martyrdom as a revolutionary option on the radical left.

In every other aspect, Liberated Texts enlightens without embarrassment, and affirms life itself. Imperialism is taken on in the form of unresolved murders of Chinese researchers in the United States as a focus (p. 307), and in uncovering the diabolical machinations of the peer-review system – racist, classist, prestige-driven as it is (p. 305).

The bravery of this collection is such that we find few authors within academia’s tenure track: authors are either emeriti, tenured, very young academics, or those dedicated to political work: actual grassroots organizers, comrades at high schools, or as language teachers. This has a very beneficial effect on the edited volume as an enterprise at the forefront of knowledge, indeed of creating new knowledge. Career considerations are absent entirely from this volume, in which thankfully even the whiff of mainstream liberalism is anathema.

I can say with certainty regarding the collection’s Africanist chapters that certain specialists globally, on African radical intellectual history, have been included: Leo Zeilig, Zeyad el-Nabolsy, Paul O’Connell, Noosim Naimasiah and Corinna Mullin all shed light on East African (as well as Caribbean) socialist intellectual history in ways that clear new paths in a sub-discipline that is underfunded, purposely confined to obscurity, and which lacks standard go-to syntheses especially in the English language (Hakim Adi’s celebrated history on pan-Africanism and communism stops with the 1950s, and other works are in the making).

Walter Rodney, Karim Hirji, Issa Shivji, Dani Wadada Nabudere, A. M. Babu, Makhan Singh are the central authors dealt with here. Rodney is enjoying a magnificent and much deserved renaissance (but this collection deals with a lost collection of Rodney’s 1978 Hamburg lectures by Zeilig!) Nabolsy shows us how Nyerere’s Marxist opposition experienced Ujamaa, and Tanzanian ’socialism’. Nabudere – a quintessential organic intellectual as much as Rodney –  is encountered in praxis as well as through his thought and academic achievements in a chapter by Corinna Mullin. Nabudere emerges as a towering figure whose renaissance might be in the making right at this juncture. Singh makes us face the real essence of British imperialism. Nabudere, Babu and even Hirji’s achievements in analysing imperialism and its political economy are all celebrated in the collection.

Where Shivji focuses on empire in its less violent aspect (notably NGOs and human rights discourse) powerfully described by Paul O’Connell, Naimasiah reminds us that violence had been as constitutive to Britain’s empire, as it has been to the Unites States (in Vietnam or in Korea). An fascinating chapter in the collection is provided by Marion Ettinger’s review of Richard Boyle’s Mutiny in Vietnam, an account based entirely on journalism, indeed impromptu testimony, of mutinous US soldiers tired of fighting for Vietnam’s landlord class.

Many readers of this anthology will identify with those veterans (since the collection appears in the English language) perhaps more than with East Asia’s magnificent, conscious fighters also written about in the book. Even in armies of the imperialist core, humanity shines through. Simply put, there are no imperialist peoples, only imperialist states.

Zeilig’s nuanced take on this important matter is revealed in Rodney’s rediscovered lectures. Also, the subtlety of class analysis in relation to workers versus peasants, and the bureacratic bourgeoisie profiting from this constellation (p. 219) brings to mind the contradiction that had arguably brought down Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso’s anti-imperialist president who nevertheless found himself opposing working class demands. Rodney’s politics in Guyana invited the same fate as Sankara, as we know.

Nabolsy’s review on Hirji’s The Travails of a Tanzanian Teacher touches on very interesting issues of Rodney’s role especially in the context of Ujamaa and Nyerere’s idiosyncratic version of African socialism. Nabolsy appreciates Nyerere efforts but analyses his politics with great candour: Ujamaa provided national unification, but failed to undermine Tanzania’s dependency in any real sense. The sad realization of the failure of Tanzania’s experience startles the reader with its implications for the history of African socialism.

On an emotional and personal level, I remain most endeared by the Soviet authors celebrated in this text. So Makarenko and Sukhomlinsky are both Soviet success stories and they demonstrate that this combination of words in no oxymoron, and neither is it necessarily, revisionist mumbo-jumbo. Their artificial removal from their historical context (which had happened many times over in Makarenko’s case, and in one particular account when it comes to Sukhomlinsky) are fought against by the author with Leninist gusto.

Sukhomlinsky had not fought against a supposedly Stalinist education reform: he built it, and it became one of the most important achievements of the country by the 1960s due partly to his efforts. The former educational pioneer did not harm children: he gave them purpose, responsibility, self-respect, and self-esteem. The implication of Sukhomlinsky and Makarenko is that true freedom constructs its own order, and that freedom ultimately thrives on responsibility, and revolutionary freedom.

As this collection is subtitled Volume One, it is my hope and expectation that this shall be the beginning of a series of books, dealing with other foundational texts, and even become a revolutionary alternative to The London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books, both of which still demonstrate how much readers crave review collections. Volumes like Liberated Texts might be the very future of book review magazines in changed form. A luta continua!

This article was first published by ROAPE.

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We Must Democratize the Economy

In the UK, prices for basic goods are soaring while corporations rake in ever-bigger profits. The solution, Jeremy Corbyn argues, is to bring basic resources like energy, water, railways, and the postal service into democratic public ownership.

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Jeremy Corbyn: We Must Democratize the Economy
Photo: Chatham House, London
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On Thursday, December 15, the Royal College of Nursing went on strike for the first time in their 106-year history. Understaffed, underpaid, and overworked, tens of thousands of National Health Service (NHS) nurses walked out after being denied decent, livable pay rises. Hailed as heroes one year, forced to use food banks the next, nurses’ wages have fallen more than £3,000 in real terms since 2010; three in four now say they work overtime to meet rising energy bills.

People will remember 2022 as the year that the Conservative Party plunged this country into political turmoil. However, behind the melodrama is a cost-of-living crisis that has pushed desperate people into destitution and the so-called middle classes to the brink. We should remember 2022 as the year in which relative child poverty reached its highest levels since 2007 and real wage growth reached its lowest levels in half a century. (Average earnings have shrunk by £80 a month and a staggering £180 a month for public sector workers.) These are the real scandals.

For some MPs, this was the year they kick-started their reality TV careers. For others, this was the year they told their children they couldn’t afford any Christmas presents. For energy companies, it was the year they laughed all the way to the bank; in the same amount of time it took for Rishi Sunak to both lose and then win a leadership contest, Shell returned £8.2 billion in profit. SSE, a multinational energy company headquartered in Scotland, saw their profits triple in just one year. Profits across the world’s seven biggest oil firms rose to almost £150 billion.

Tackling the cost-of-living crisis means offering an alternative to our existing economic model — a model that empowers unaccountable companies to profit off the misery of consumers and the destruction of our earth. And that means defending a value, a doctrine, and a tradition that unites us all: democracy.

Labour recently announced “the biggest ever transfer of power from Westminster to the British people.” I welcomed the renewal of many of the policies from the manifesto in 2019: abolishing the House of Lords and handing powers to devolved governments, local authorities, and mayors. These plans should work hand in hand, to ensure any second chamber reflects the geographical diversity of the country. If implemented, this would decentralize a Whitehall-centric model of governance that wastes so much of this country’s regional talent, energy, and creativity.

However, devolution, decentralization, and democracy are not just matters for the constitution. They should characterize our economy too. Regional governments are demanding greater powers for the same reason an unelected second chamber is patently arcane: we want a say over the things that affect our everyday lives. This, surely, includes the way in which our basic resources are produced and distributed.

From energy to water and from rail to mail, a small number of companies monopolize the production of basic resources to the detriment of the workers they exploit and the customers they fleece. We rely on these services, and workers keep them running, but it is remote chief executive officers and unaccountable shareholders who decide how they are run and profit off their provision. Would it not make more sense for workers and consumers to decide how to run the services they provide and consume?

As prices and profits soar, it’s time to put basic resources like energy, water, rail, and mail back where they belong: in public hands. Crucially, this mold of public ownership would not be a return to 1940s-style patronage-appointed boards but a restoration of civic accountability. Water, for example, should be a regional entity controlled by consumers, workers, and local authorities, and work closely with environmental agencies on water conservation, sewage discharges, the preservation of coastlines, and the protection of our natural world. This democratic body would be answerable to the public, and the public alone, rather than to the dividends of distant hedge funds.

Bringing energy, water, rail, and mail into democratic public ownership is about giving local people agency over the resources they use. It’s about making sure these resources are sustainably produced and universally distributed in the interests of workers, communities, and the planet.

Beyond key utilities, a whole host of services and resources require investment, investment that local communities should control. That’s why, in 2019, we pledged to establish regional investment banks across the country, run by local stakeholders who can decide — collectively — how best to direct public investment. Those seeking this investment would not make their case with reference to how much profit they could make in private but how much they could benefit the public as a whole.

To democratize our economy, we need to democratize workplaces too. We can end workplace hierarchies and wage inequalities by giving workers the right to decide, together, how their team operates and how their pay structures are organized. If we want to kick-start a mass transfer of power, we need to redistribute wealth from those who hoard it to those who create it.

Local people know the issues facing them, and they know how to meet them better than anyone else. If we want to practice what we preach, then the same principles of democracy, devolution, and decentralization must apply to our own parties as well. Local party members, not party leaders, should choose their candidates, create policy, and decide what their movement stands for.

Only a democratic party can provide the necessary space for creative and transformative solutions to the crises facing us all. In a world where the division between rich and poor is greater than ever before, our aim should be to unite the country around a more hopeful alternative — an alternative that recognizes how we all rely on each other to survive and thrive.

This alternative is not some abstract ideal to be imagined. It is an alternative that workers are fighting for on the picket line. Even before the nurses went on strike, 2022 was a record-breaking year for industrial action. Striking workers are not just fighting for pay, essential as these demands are. They are fighting for a society without poverty, hunger, and inequality. They are fighting for a future that puts the interests of the community ahead of the greed of energy companies. They are fighting for us all.

Their collective struggle teaches us that democracy exists — it thrives — outside of Westminster. The government is trying its best to turn dedicated postal workers and railway workers into enemies of the general public — a general public that apparently also excludes university staff, bus drivers, barristers, baggage handlers, civil servants, ambulance drivers, firefighters, and charity workers. As the enormous scale of industrial action shows, striking workers are the general public. The year 2022 will go down in history, not as the year the Tories took the public for fools, but as the year the public fought back. United in their thousands, they are sending a clear message: this is what democracy looks like.

This article was first published by Progressive International

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