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Mwai Kibaki (1931 – 2022): A Personal Retrospective

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“I don’t hate Mwai Kibaki, I never have. He isn’t a man who caused me to hate; he is someone who broke my heart.”

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We have reached a phase in Africa’s post-independence history where we cannot off the top of our head count the number of retired heads of states who are living peacefully at home or have quietly passed on into the great beyond. This is no mean achievement for the continent. Following independence from colonial rule, presidential transition was one of the things we in Africa often did badly; the tradition had long been for leaders to be shot out of power. This has changed. The eulogising through gritted teeth of the 1970s has given way to far more elaborate and socially reassuring mourning processes. We have come a long way.

Last week Kenya and the region laid to rest Mwai Kibaki, the country’s third president since independence. Many have reached out to me for comment or to write an obituary about him. I decided not to until the funeral was over and those essential rituals had been concluded by family and nation. It’s our African way. Others sought not my comments on my time with Kibaki but some sensational attack. I explained to one, “I don’t hate Mwai Kibaki, I never have. He isn’t a man who caused me to hate; he is someone who broke my heart.”

I had the honour of working for Mwai Kibaki from the beginning of 2003 until 2005 — the shortest stint in any job during entire my professional career. Kibaki employed me as his permanent secretary in the Office of the President in charge of Governance and Ethics. I had an office at State House, in part signifying the fulfilment of the campaign promise Kibaki had made to deal with corruption once he took office. At 38, I was truly excited by this honour to serve my country and the head of state. Being based at State House was a huge deal in the Kenyan political context. Random people would walk up to me and narrate long stories of their travails at the hands of, say, the judiciary, which they felt I could resolve simply because I “sat at State House”. We set up a Public Complaints Unit (PCU) to handle this and the rest of what became a flood of requests, entreaties, complaints and narrations of woe that, in particular, were directed to the president by ordinary wananchi at their wits end. The PCU was transformed into the Ombudsman’s office that was originally based at Cooperative Bank Building.

In my exuberance I had forgotten my own previous writings on the intrigues and machinations that took place in that House. Within a year, I realised that what I had considered a perk was no longer a perk at all. As time passed, I was reminded that while much that was good emanated from this seat of power, often too, a darkness also arose from this place that sprung from the most craven of our desires and our base greed. I came to discover that a drought was a business opportunity for some, that the reason the caps of policemen were falling part in the rain was a contract. Even the sausages, mandazis and bottles of mineral water that were served to us so efficiently could often be a racket. Shocked not only by the price the government was paying for mineral water but also by the utter resilience of the racket that was forcing his ministry to buy the water at five-star hotel prices, one minister took to buying his own water from Uchumi Supermarket.

*****

All leaders leave behind them a mixed legacy.

Before working for Kibaki, the most memorable story I had been told about him was of a time he attended a meeting of the Gikuyu Embu Meru Association (GEMA) in the 1970s. At this meeting the proposal was floated that every effort should be made to ensure that the presidency never leaves the Kikuyu community. Kibaki, who I was told was never that great a fan of GEMA, stood up and warned the gathering that they should not become like the monarchist Kabaka Yekka — “King Only” — movement and party in Uganda that had been started by elements of the Baganda elite to exclusively serve the interests of their own community. This had helped fuel anti-Baganda sentiment among the then ruling elite, comprised mainly of leaders from the north of Uganda. Kibaki was a respected leader not known for expressing emotive off-the-cuff sentiments. His “Kabaka Yekka” comment disrupted the entire meeting and it was left to others to recover the ground they felt his sentiments had lost them. This and other such commentaries regarding his political values made a major impression on me; they chimed with his public profile as it already was: laid back, non-confrontational, erudite, not inclined to tribal groupings and too much noise on the political stage.

When I joined his administration, the Kibaki I found myself working with fit the image I had of him. Prior to this, in 2001-2002, I had worked as part of the team that crafted his transition and anti-corruption strategy. He wasn’t a man of too many words and even though the part of his legacy that has been spoken about most glowingly is the economy, Kibaki never gave lectures about economic policy. It was almost as if his understanding and posture in regard to restabilising the economy was implicit and he surrounded himself with people who “got it”, as it were. In truth, within months of taking office and inheriting a stagnated economy, he had not only turned it around, but Kenya was literally open for business again. This aspect of making Kenya a viable local and international investment destination, was his most profound legacy.

They chimed with his public profile as it already was: laid back, non-confrontational, erudite, not inclined to tribal groupings and too much noise on the political stage.

Kenyans laud Kibaki’s economic management in part because of the decline in public finance management that followed his departure. This is especially true now, in this historical moment, because it is “legacy time” in Kenya, with presidential transition elections less than 100 days away. President Uhuru Kenyatta is fighting to save his legacy from the damage wrought on the economy since 2013 by Jubilee’s graft that has been on a scale that it is difficult to qualify, rationalise, synthesise and even begin to coherently explain except as a form of collective delinquency. Add to this a rapidly changing global economic and political environment and a demographic youth bulge that in five short years has apparently been catapulted from being taken with the feel-good celebrity, flashy trappings of Kenyatta’s political “bromance” with his Deputy President, to being enamoured with half of the fractured pair, especially in the urban areas. For a man known as a teetotaller, Deputy President William Ruto has embarked on a hallucinogenic attempt to distance himself from the corruption.

My own sense was that Kibaki’s anti-corruption fight was important to him not only as a political deliverable to Kenyans, as he had promised, but as essential to doing what he had mapped out in his own mind to do for the economy. Kibaki set out to fight corruption recognising that leadership choices informed the behaviour of institutions rather than the other way around. In the entire time I worked with him I never bumped into people visiting him for tax waivers — an endemic problem under the previous regime. Kibaki genuinely wanted to fight corruption, especially at the beginning. In hindsight, I would say now that as politics became more complicated and cantankerous, and as relations with other NARC coalition partners grew more and more tricky to manage, and totally contrasting views vis-à-vis the raging debate around a new constitution kicked in, priorities drastically changed. It did not help that powerful commercial interests now viewed both NARC and the development of the draft constitution as it was unfolding as hostile to their personal interests. At the time, I missed the signals of the gradual transformation. As Anglo-Leasing rolled on, it became that dead rat in the rafters of our government’s hut — it stank, we knew it was there, we pretended to search for it but understood that that dead rat was very much ours.

Kibaki set out to fight corruption recognising that leadership choices informed the behaviour of institutions rather than the other way around.

Mwai Kibaki was a man of few words. Dunderheads bored him unless they were sincerely amusing. He avoided confrontation at all costs; it wasn’t in his DNA. This means that he often spoke in a kind of code even when unhappy with someone or something. And silence was very much one of Kibaki’s languages. “Hiyo maneno tutaangalia” (That matter we shall review) usually meant no to the proposal that was being presented. “Sikia huyu mtu sasa?!” (Listen to this guy now?!) usually meant someone was saying something disagreeable or that he considered dumb. “Bure kabisa!” (Totally useless!) meant just that, whether it was in relation to a person, a group or a proposal. When he said “Huyo wacha tuone vile ataenda.” (Let’s see how that one gets on.), it was code signalling his estimation that someone had embarked on a doomed project or initiative. He had absolutely no interest in sycophants bringing him rumours and tittle-tattle (fununu and porojo) about the minor political scheming of others. That said, in what was both ultimately a strength and a weakness, Kibaki trusted and believed in old friends deeply, including, as one colleague of his from Nyeri described to me, “the mercenaries who don’t care for him”. For me, his dropping the ball on the corruption agenda was devastating.

In retrospect, I can also see clearly now that the seeds of the 2007-8 post-election violence were planted in 2003-4. As Kibaki settled into office, the idea of a group of political and business leaders from the Mount Kenya region — the so-called “Mount Kenya Mafia” — took root fuelled by growing graft, going from myth to reality between 2004 and 2005 when the government dramatically lost the constitutional referendum held in November that year. I found it deeply ironic that the man I knew as having warned GEMA’s leaders in the 1970s about becoming an exclusivist Kabaka Yekka-type organisation, now found himself leading an administration that, between 2005 and the deadly 2007 election, was consumed by the very narrative he had warned against. It culminated in the most devastating part of his legacy: the relatively brief but deadly explosion of violence that irrevocably stained his record even more than losing his grip on graft did.

I wasn’t present in Kenya when the post-election violence broke out, even though I later bore witness to the damage it wrought, first on its immediate victims, and ultimately on the fabric of the nation itself. I will leave it then, to others to comprehensively reflect on that part of his legacy. What I can comprehensively speak to is that which I witnessed up close: the disintegration of the anti-corruption agenda with which he came into office. My own ultimate impression is that, witnessing his frailty, some of Kibaki’s most steadfast allies made up their minds: “Time may be short! Let’s make hay while the sun shines!” And so Kibaki became a commercial vehicle for a range of actors determined to line their pockets. Indeed, the most supreme irony is that he outlived some of the more avaricious of these friends. What they started, especially vis-à-vis the acquisition of commercial debt by the Kenya government, grew from the Anglo Leasing skunk inherited from the previous regime into the behemoth that is today’s public debt load that has forced Kenya back into the hands of the very IMF that Kibaki had seen off by 2005.

The late Mwai Kibaki was impossible to hate at a personal level – he simply didn’t give one cause. He was an easy-going and effortlessly brilliant interlocuter. My most traumatic and saddening moments in public service were when we exchanged loud harsh words. But in truth, all who manage to climb the slippery political pole to the top leave both enthusiastic supporters behind them and damaged ones too. Kibaki, unlike others who have served in the position of president in Kenya and in other countries of the region, may not have been a determined destroyer of men, but he too could be a political heartbreaker and a great disappointment when he moved smoothly on, having suddenly dropped you off unexpectedly at the red lights, leaving you in the hands of some of his less scrupulous handlers.

My most traumatic and saddening moments in public service were when we exchanged loud harsh words.

Mwai Kibaki has shuffled off this mortal coil. May he rest in eternal peace and may his family find succour at this difficult time of the passing of a brilliant, complex man.

John Githongo served as Permanent Secretary in the Office of the President of Kenya in charge of Governance and Ethics between January 2003 and mid-2005.

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John Githongo is one of Kenya’s leading anti-graft campaigners and former anti-corruption czar.

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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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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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