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More tales from the frontline of regeneration

When captains try to reverse a big oil tanker in a narrow channel, ordering the manoeuvre is not enough: sailors must be trained and willing to carry out all the intermediate steps that will make this happen. Similarly, for a local authority like the London Borough of Enfield it is not enough for the Labour administration that regained power in 2010 to denounce the thirty-five years of laissez-faire neoliberalism that have gutted our industrial fabric. Nor is it enough to simply inform council officers of our determination to turn things around. The sine qua non for success is empowering frontline operatives (the actual change-drivers) to implement our programme. For Enfield's reindustrialisation agenda, this means imbuing officers with the self-confidence and entrepreneurialism that underlies all economic ambition - an attitude that is foreign to the ambient culture in many local authorities. Slaying the dragon of neurosis - which reflects public servants' sense of insecurity after years of right-wing invective - is one of the first challenges that we have faced during the first year of Enfield's 'New Directions' programme. Our revolution has been as cultural as it is economic.

That being said, elected members in Enfield can count themselves lucky in finding so many officers who are capable of throwing off the self-imposed shackles of psychological subjugation that have characterised public sector interventions in recent decades. For too long an economic paradigm has been in place whereby the [End Page 122] parties negotiating on behalf of the state have felt that the only available option is begging for whatever crumbs might fall from the corporate table. This self-effacing attitude is rooted in the pernicious notion that the privatisation of wealth implies the primacy of private over public interests.

But another analysis is possible. Without consumers' custom; without public procurement contracts spending taxpayers' hard-earned money; and without the state training and safeguarding a healthy and educated workforce - the large corporations doing business in Enfield and elsewhere would never accumulate their war chests of gold. As President Obama famously said to business owners during the 2012 presidential campaign: 'You didn't build this'.

The new message we have started communicating in Enfield is that companies working here have as much of a debt to us as we do to them. We owe them because they provide us with the goods and services we need, especially if they use local residents to do the work. But they owe us because they make big profits from local dealings (see my article in Soundings issue 52), and because we build a society where they can transact business viably and solvently.1 Notwithstanding Thatcher's glorification of self-interest, Fortune 500 executives are not the only heroes in society. The arbitrary decision to underplay the contribution of public servants is unjustified and unjust.

In developing policy based on these ideas Enfield council is now also beginning to think along mercantile lines, in the belief that an important part of its role is to seek to balance the borough's capital inflows and outflows from its local dealings with big corporations.

I wrote in 2012 about the economic and political conceptualisation underlying Enfield's New Directions project. One year on, there is a lot more to be said about this experience - starting with our first major success. But, of course, marauding plutocracy was never going to give up the ghost without a battle. Before our change saw the day, several obstacles had to be overcome.

Old insights, new institutional culture

One benefit of neoliberal capitalism's current crisis is that it has led to a wider acceptance of certain longstanding social-democratic (or socialist?) truisms (which [End Page 123] for many of us have never gone away). First and foremost is the idea that public and private sectors can and must operate on an equal footing - but this is an insight that can be upsetting to the conservative and Conservative voices preaching the bad religion that has now been sapping the life force of UK industry for thirty-five years. Here the obstacles we have faced in Enfield, and the ways...


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