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Burning Ambition: Education, Arson and Learning Justice in Kenya

8 min read.

In a newly published book Elizabeth Cooper examines the complex reasons behind the frequent cases of arson in Kenya’s boarding secondary schools.



Burning Ambition: Education, Arson and Learning Justice in Kenya
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I have just published a book about secondary school students’ experiences of education and fire-setting in their schools entitled Burning Ambition: Education, Arson, and Learning Justice in Kenya. The particular elephant that just entered this space then is that I am a Canadian-born researcher. And so, the first question you might ask is: “Why?”, and I don’t mean “Why are Kenyan students setting fires in schools?” I mean “Why did a Canadian researcher write this book? What could my book possibly offer Kenyans?”

For Kenyans already know why students have been setting fires in their secondary schools. There have been hundreds of media stories about school arson involving interviews with students, teachers and others. There have been government-appointed task forces in 2008 and 2016 that travelled the country to interview students, teachers, and others, and reported on their many findings. There have been Kenyan scholars publishing articles with their analysis. The country’s talented cartoonists have captured many of the issues at stake. The popular TV show Tahidi High has broadcast episodes dramatizing some of the ways students and others understand school fires. Indeed, most of the time when I speak to anyone in Kenya about the occurrence of students’ arson in schools, I hear astute analysis that combines a list of students’ school-based stresses and grievances with understanding that young people tend to lack peaceable options for safely expressing any dissenting views, and concern that young Kenyans have been exposed to many uses of violence to claim authority. Of course, I have also sometimes heard politicians and other authority figures denigrating children and youth as naturally wild and even evil. However, most thoughtful people see through such narrowed blame as a diversionary tactic by those who don’t want to seriously tackle a complex issue.

But there is no getting around it: students targeting schools with arson is a complex issue. Despite all the existing knowledge of contributing factors, the challenge of actually extinguishing this arsonist trend continues. In fact, the complexity of contributing factors often seems to make the task of prevention impossible.

When public discussions turn to what should be done, there is a common tendency to try to reduce the agenda to just a few concerns: perhaps reducing the emphasis on exam scores to mitigate students’ stress, or providing more psychosocial support to young people and opportunities for them to have their perspectives considered, or is it about closing boarding schools, or somehow eliminating the widespread use of violence in society?  It’s understandable that it’s perplexing and daunting to know where and how to start tackling the danger of school fires when there are clearly so many contributing factors and an extensively multifaceted collective effort is required.

My book does not prescribe solutions. I couldn’t do this, even if I wanted to try. But that’s not because I don’t also have a good grasp of the situation. I think I do. Since 2013, I have been conducting research related to school fires by spending time in schools and at fire investigations, reading reports and court transcripts, and interviewing hundreds of students, former students, teachers, education administrators, and other community members. I hope these data and my analysis of them will provide fresh and nuanced ways for Kenyans to consider what’s happening among secondary students and where help might need to be extended.

But I can’t provide a plan of action for two reasons. First, I am not part of the Kenyan citizenry and these matters will require broad and deep societal participation—in families, schools, wider communities, and ultimately in political action. I can help support such engagement, but at the end of the day, I’m not embedded in Kenyan society and I’m not a Kenyan citizen to insist on holding Kenyan elected officials and public servants to account. Actions will need to be taken by Kenyans as this is the education system for Kenyan children and Kenyan society. And second, my book is a scholarly enterprise; it synthesizes research so as to inform—perhaps even to diagnose—but not to prescribe. As a researcher, I offer a coherent account of as much relevant data and focused analysis as I could muster. Ideally, this will feed into public policy considerations that Kenyans will pursue. These considerations are, of course, happening now, in relation to the future of educational reforms, and specifically the new competency-based curriculum (CBC).  But a scholarly book is meant to stand the test of time and stimulate thoughtfulness beyond immediate events.

My book’s analysis situates Kenyan secondary students’ school arson in broader contexts, tracing historic legacies, global connections, and the complex psychosocial dynamics of young people’s apprenticing into their political selves. I hope it will be read by Kenyans, and those who care about what’s happening in Kenya, but I also want students and scholars and policymakers in Canada, the US, South Africa, Tanzania, India, the UK, and everywhere else to read it because there are lessons to be taken from the actions of Kenyan secondary students that are significant to all of us.

As I describe in the introduction of Burning Ambition, globalized promises that education will transform lives through lifting people out of poverty and securing more prosperous futures have inspired children, families, and societies around the world to invest massive amounts of effort, money, and hope in schooling. Some hopes have been realized, of course. But the promises of success through education have also produced untold experiences of failure. In most cases, people’s experiences of disappointment with education have been discrete, both quiet and individualized. I cite examples taken from India, Uganda, Niger, Ethiopia, the United States, Singapore, and China, where researchers have documented young people’s feelings of having personally failed because they could not achieve the promised idea(l)s of success that they once believed were possible through schooling. Such a sense of individual responsibility for failure has made people blame themselves, leading to deep demoralization, anxiety, and in some cases self-harm. As I note, much of this global phenomenon of widespread disappointment with education’s failed promises is practiced in submissive ways, suggesting little immediate threat to the status quo.

Students’ setting fire to their schools can be understood as a departure from such individualized and submissive modes of despondency, I contend:

Secondary students in Kenya are challenging the existing complacency with the globalized agenda of “education for all” and its failures. As I argue throughout this book, Kenyan students’ collective acts of arson in their schools are in part a demand for fairer chances at success. They are not aiming to annihilate their chances for educated futures by taking destructive actions in their schools. Rather, they are trying to correct a system that they see as intolerably punitive and unfair. They mean for their actions to speak beyond their schools and reverberate through political society. Students’ collective contentious actions in schools serve as important critiques, if we accept with Tania Li (2017: 1248) that “Critique means prising open the capitalist world as we find it, and exposing its imminent tendencies—the waste, inequality and violence, as well as the growth—to critical challenge.” Kenyan high school students are demonstrating that submissive despondency is not the only possible response to failed, or suspect, developmental promise. (Cooper 2022: 5-6)

None of that analysis is meant to romanticize students’ arson. Some cases of school arson have been tragically deadly. As painful as those incidents were, they were the exceptions, however. In recent years, Kenyan secondary students have demonstrated time and time again that their actions are somewhat disciplined: the vast majority of cases have not targeted people, but instead infrastructure, and very specific pieces of school infrastructure. We need to pay attention to such patterns, and their exceptions, to better understand this phenomenon. That’s some of the work I do in Burning Ambition.

Such a sense of individual responsibility for failure has made people blame themselves, leading to deep demoralization, anxiety, and in some cases self-harm.

Between 2008 and 2018, more than 750 secondary schools were targeted with arson, and the chief suspects were the students of those schools. I came to this tally though a systematic counting of incidents in government and media reports, and it is likely an undercounting, due to the lack of systematic incident reports between 2009 and 2014. Students’ arson in secondary schools has occurred every year since 2008 (and many cases before 2008 which I also review in the book), with some noticeable spikes in 2008 and 2016, which I examine. Students have set fires in schools in all regions of the country, at boys’ schools, girls’ schools, and mixed schools, at government and private schools, at national, extra-county, county, and some sub-county schools, and schools that have high, average, and low median exam scores. Therefore, the underlying causes cannot easily be attributed to regional, ethnic, gender, or class distinctions.

The most glaring pattern is that students’ arson has almost exclusively occurred in boarding schools. The majority of fires have targeted dormitories, but other infrastructure has been purposefully set alight too. Paying attention to these patterns and exceptions provides important insights. For instance, quite obviously, we must look at how young people experience their boarding schools, and yet we can also note that many students attend boarding schools in other countries without such frequent collective arson. And so, we must also attend to how young Kenyan students think about arson and other acts of destruction as significant and useful for their aims.

The underlying causes cannot easily be attributed to regional, ethnic, gender, or class distinctions.

When students try to explain why they turn to arson in their schools they say it’s because it’s the only means they have to make their voices heard. And they have learned that to try to prevent or punish perceived injustices in their schools, arson can be effective. What kinds of ‘injustices,’ you might ask? All kinds. Sometimes these are neatly articulated by students: they might point to their perceptions of corruption or intolerably harsh treatment on the part of a principal, for example. Many times, their actions fill in some of the explanations: the majority (but certainly not all) of school fires are set around the time of so-called mock exams, and so it seems students act to avoid these. But not for the immediate reasons we might guess; students are fearful of doing badly on mock exams, yes; but what often undergirds that fear is not wanting to face the humiliation and punishments that go along with poor mock exam performances. We should not downplay students’ fears of feeling humiliated; students at boarding schools are engrossed in striving for success, and experiences of failure can be acutely demoralizing, especially so when these are made the focus of public humiliations, like at school assemblies.

Such concerns are sometimes labelled as “petty grievances” in Kenyan public discourse, and castigated as not justifying the destruction of school property. This might be true, but that’s a moralizing argument and not a pragmatic one: the fact of the matter is students do turn to arson and destruction to make their dissent known. Students act with arson because they see it as their only way to achieve their aims of protest. How might they come to a different conclusion? Providing more space for young people’s views to be considered and even incorporated into educational planning seems a pragmatic place to start.

The most difficult part in all of this, I think, is that students are not always able to neatly articulate what they are protesting. Yes, sometimes they burn to avoid exams, but this is not an isolated fear; more broadly, students experience profound worry for their futures and doubt that their education will help them get very far. Yes, students sometimes act out destructively to punish what they perceive as moral transgressions in their own schools’ management, but their deeper frustration is with perceiving that the entire system—not just the schooling system—is rigged and unjust. Yes, boarding students sometimes burn their dorms to get a break from what some call their “prisons”, but is it any wonder that young people want to sometimes escape feeling isolated and always in competition with others, and instead want to enjoy feeling connected in affection and comfort with others? Isn’t it understandable that they want more from life, especially when they see that their intensive striving in school likely won’t be their ticket to a good life? Each young person is carrying around a bundle of worries and fears and frustrations. And those are legitimate; students do seem pretty wise to the world as it is now. Opening up more empathy and consideration to their feelings might actually help create a wiser world.

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Elizabeth Cooper is an Associate Professor, School for International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada.


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.



Education in Rwanda: A Long Walk to the Knowledge Economy
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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.



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.



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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