With Tessa Jowell considering standing for mayor of London and others throwing their hats in the ring, the very male-dominated mayoral model might be about to be shaken up.
This matters, not just because representation is important – Ros Jones in Doncaster and Norma Redfearn are the only women executive mayor Labour has had, elected on the same day last year – but because the rebalancing of power that Jon Cruddas and Ed Miliband have spoken about, with devolution of budgets and decision-making to local and regional government, then to communities and individuals, is an opportunity to create local and city services that work for women.
Pluralist liberalism creates space for services run by and for groups of people, according to their identity and their needs. While the centralised welfare state was essential to the progress women have made since 1945, the way it functions reinforces gendered family roles. Localised, plural service provision driven by those using it could change that.
The interim report of Labour’s Local Government Innovation Taskforce recognises the difference between transactional services that deal with volumes of similar cases and cases of multiple and complex needs, where a more relational approach is needed. The work programme is the well-used example of a standardised programme that has failed in tackling complex barriers to work.
Back-to-work support run by and for users, including women, could see skills training routinely run with childcare on site, or social services that integrate respect for the voice and contribution of carers of vulnerable or disabled people with support for carers to work.
Big shiny buildings thrusting through the London skyline are fine. Imagine a London mayor who used her planning powers to lead a new wave of community-led regeneration projects built around buggies and safe routes to tube stations.
Some have questioned this faith in changing the world by forming committees. If simple, transactional services are all you need – a standard operation, the ability to renew your parking permit – coming to meetings may seem like a waste of time. If you are long-term unemployed, have complex health conditions, are the parent of a child with significant educational needs, live in poor quality, overcrowded social housing, you will already spend a lot of your time in contact with various parts of the national and local state, and the way you are treated will leave you with less and less dignity and power over your own future. There are many examples of voluntary sector organisations in London that start from a belief in the agency of people and communities to transform – our task is to entrench this approach in core service delivery.
Teamwork and co-production are invaluable tools where an individual or organisation that has power is willing to share it. The next Labour government must entrench plural, shared power within the governance structures of public services.
A shift in power and resources would mean a national renewal in civic society, with new voluntary sector and cooperative organisations. The City of London has seen the consequences of concentrating power in the hands of a closed network of white men. Corporate governance is changing – as we renew our local institutions, we must entrench diverse representation in decision making structures at every level.
Maybe we could start with a woman in charge at City Hall.
Rachael Saunders is councillor for Mile End East and deputy leader of the Labour group in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. She tweets @RachaelSaunders
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.