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How Preston became a socialist utopia Lefties across the world have fallen for its economic radicalism

John McDonnell loves Preston (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

John McDonnell loves Preston (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)


July 29, 2021   5 mins

Unlike so many global landmarks — the Sydney Opera House, say — Preston Bus Station is actually much bigger than it appears in the photos. A decade ago, the undulating brutalist rib was considered an archetype of the failure of Sixties urban planning, an avatar of a North in decline. Plans circulated to knock it down.

In recent years, though, Europe’s largest bus station has had the sandblasters round; the facade doesn’t exactly shimmer, but now it seems friendly. One side of the terminus has been pedestrianised. It has always been a great way to get out of Preston. Now, it might even be a great way to arrive.

“It’s about investing,” Matthew Brown gushes. “All it needed was someone to think long term.” The Leader of Preston City Council is a Labour man almost to the point of caricature: a lanky Lancastrian in a flat cap and thick British Racing Green workers’ shirt. Increasingly, he is also an unlikely Lenin to a new wave of global leftism. The stuff he’s doing here, not too far from the factories whence Friedrich Engels once minted his champagne kitty, has been profiled all over the world as “The Preston Model”.

Until their defeat, when Corbynites wanted to point to an economic policy, they would often wave towards Preston. John McDonnell was a frequent visitor. Funds had been earmarked, in the event of a 2019 Labour victory, to frank Prestonist policies across the country. More lately, yesterday’s man Ed Miliband devoted an entire chapter of his new book, Go Big: How To Fix Our World, to the town’s schemes. In an age of thinning possibilities, Preston seems to suggest somewhere that the Left can go.

From the brow of the hill, Brown points to a big hole in the centre of town, where a slew of brutalism has been torn down. Soon, it will rise again, as a cinema, owned by the council, and run by an independent contractor: the Preston model is based on keeping money in circulation in the town, rather than having it bleed back to some distant corporate HQ. The contracts for the old building’s demolition were won by local businesses.

But the problem with buying local is so obvious entire books have been written about it. The nation-state is inherently redistributive: that’s part of the bargain. The block grant that Preston receives from central government is funded through the dark satanic number mills of Canary Wharf. But once it arrives, they convert capitalism into socialism: a perfect economic cycle.

Just outside the Council’s offices, a cafe-restaurant has been turned into a worker’s co-operative, The Larder (4.5 stars on Google reviews). “It’s about putting power in people’s hands,” Brown tells me. In his section of the Left — the one that once contained Tony Benn — democratic participation is the cure for all ills. It’s an idea that seems to conform to basic human psychology: taking decisions at the closest level of organisation won battles for the Wehrmacht, and profits for GE.

How you get to that point is a different issue. Whereas previously socialism asked how can a state become like a company — incorporating workers into its overall plan — Prestonism asks: How can a company become more like a state, giving democracy to the workers? “With a co-operative,” Brown says, “everyone gets a vote. From the cleaner to the managing director.”

But where will the money come from? This is the eternal dance of history. The Left says: wouldn’t it be nice if we all worked as a team and pooled our winnings. To which the Right replies: yes, it would. You first.

Yet Brown points to a student accommodation block: black brick, four storeys, undistinguished, but no failure. It was funded by the Lancashire Pension Fund. “See, there are millions of pounds that would otherwise go to fund something in Abu Dhabi.” But if a new spa resort in Abu Dhabi pays a higher rate of return, that might be useful to the Prestonian pensioners scraping by. And worse: if the market in Preston collapses, well, there are suddenly a lot of eggs in one local basket.

Still, there is something here that most “neoliberal” economic theory doesn’t quantify well: the power of reputation, and observation. Nassim Taleb touched on it with his idea of Skin In The Game. If the Lancashire Pension Fund goes bust, the university accommodation managers will have their own community to answer to. And the Lancashire Pension Fund can at least keep a much closer eye on their asset here than they might on, say, a condo block in Vancouver.

At its heart, the Preston Model is a reaction against globalisation, on a Legoland scale. We are alienated from the fruits of our labour, and that gap between the observable allows for all sorts of perversions to creep in. In the long run Preston will always be out-competed by the forces of capital — an invisible shapeshifting enemy — but at an instinctual level, they’re not onto nothing.

There’s a certain vacant fatalism, for instance, in the attitude of Councillor Ron Woollam, deputy leader of the Preston Tories, to what the town centre should actually look like, who it should be for. “We’re quite worried about the bank actually,” he says. “We don’t think it’s the job of the council to be making these kinds of investments
 and as to the model, well, we keep asking for evidence, if it’s worked then there should be signs. But none is ever really forthcoming. In fact, we think it’s actually discouraging investment. People are put off by the meddling.”

A decade ago, LendLease turned up in Preston. Britain’s largest property investors had successfully backed Liverpool’s One mall development. Now, they proposed to extend the favour to Preston with a £700 million investment. Heavy change. But the deal fell through, in part due to niggles from the Labour-lead council.

LendLease might have been something great for Preston. But then, as anyone who has been to a British shopping mall will know, this is highly unlikely. The town’s gig staple, The Warehouse, “would have been bulldozed if the shopping centre had gone ahead,” Brown tells me. Here, Joy Division recorded a live album twelve weeks before Ian Curtis’ death. Here, generations of bands have had their start.

Now, instead of LendLease’s glistening food courts, what persists is a far smaller rebuild of the old Edwardian market, reborn in glass panels with independent traders. Paired with where the cinema will go, it’s a core that will likely revitalise the downtown precinct: a place worth congregating, in a town centre worth spending money in.

But that invites problems of its own. If the Preston Model is as successful as its inventors boast, then Big Capital will be along soon, ready to get its tentacles of jobs and investment into the place. So what’s an ardent socialist to do? Is this a model that can only win under conditions of failure?

In this country, we aren’t even close to answering these questions. In France, where they think from their gut first and add their reason after, they have long maintained a separate tax code for small business. Their small, independent shop sector thrives, but their big enterprises do OK too. The Monop’ is at the end of your block, but Marie at the boulangerie also gets by. In the UK, the Tesco Express squats at the end of your block, and the boulangerie is a Gregg’s. We don’t seem to have a cultural mechanism to price the value of autonomy, of community connections. And through some twisted vision of materialism, we don’t seem to believe that we even should.

As national politics comes to seem ever-more removed from our lives, the Left especially is retreating to a local level, where they can still hold power. But then, alongside this localism of the Left, the Right are also becoming invested in their own notions of local: of tradition, authenticity, capital-P Place. Preston was the site of the last battle fought on English soil — the Jacobite rebellion of the Young Pretender.  Now that the Left has bet its future on an ex-mill town in Lancashire, it may again decide who reigns.


Gavin Haynes is a journalist and former editor-at-large at Vice.

@gavhaynes

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J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

I was a bit skeptical when I read the title of this article. It seemed so provincial. But it turned out to be a well-researched, thoughtful article about how a small town in an economically deprived part of the UK is trying to thrive in a globalized world. The financial experiments of Preston are instructive not just for similar communities in the north of England but also for the Rust Belt communities in the US.
I also learned, along the way, that France maintains what amounts to a separate tax code for small business to help them survive. Interesting idea and one I can research on-line. That’s when Unherd shines: when it provides a nugget of information that sends me off in a direction I had never considered.
Great article. Kudos to the author.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

I don’t see “investment” , I see wealth distribution.

Which is fine, that’s what every aspect of the distributive economy – government at all levels, welfare, entertainment, cafĂ©s, tourism etc does anyway.

But somehow, somewhere, there has to be a productive economy generating this wealth and that’s what socialists never seem to grasp.

Last edited 2 years ago by Brendan O'Leary
Hubert Knobscratch
Hubert Knobscratch
2 years ago

Some very interesting thoughts here, and I think the journalist did the main thing here, which is to go and visit, talk to locals and find out for themselves.
School boy error to start off with – Why talk to the politicians?
What about the local businesses there, do they want to invest in the town?
Speaking as a Lancastrian, who has lived in Preston as a student for 3 years and has worked there for 4 years, I left for the South East 20+ years ago – I wouldn’t go back. 
Read the article again

  • Monolithic concrete bus station
  • Student accommodation block
  • Cinema
  • Council offices
  • CafĂ©/restaurant
  • Meddling left wing politicians
  • Gig venues
  • Greggs

hmmm…..
I am NOT reading

  • Artificial intelligence
  • Robotics
  • Aerospace
  • Nuclear energy
  • Green energy
  • Formula 1 / Motor sport
  • Electric aircraft

Which I have on my door step here in Buckinghamshire, yet the joke is, nearly all those local industries to me here are also there in the surrounding areas of Preston. Find out about those and how well they are doing, and I will believe the rest of it.

Michael O'Donnell
Michael O'Donnell
2 years ago

Nuclear? Look for Westinghouse Springfields. It’s 5 miles west of Preston

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

Are local councils best suited to make investment decisions in AI? I don’t actually see any harm in a modest level of municipalism, which the Preston model actually seems to be. This was pretty much the norm for many decades – Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds etc. and led to a welcome degree of local decision making and City pride.

As is often mentioned, despite the new Mayors with their very limited powers, of nations of similar size, we are governed in the most centralised manner.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

In my old part of London, within a very short walk of the house now are 3 restaurants, Petrol station/convenience shop, Newsagent, Real estate agent, tiny Tesco, all owned/run by people from Africa, Middle East, China, Asia. Not one is ethnically British. And we do very much appreciate the amenities they provide, but without my vaccine I wonder if I will ever see it again, likely not, the old family house was finally sold recently – during lockdown, so I could not be there in 2021, and I could not return in 2020.

There is something of a sad and empty feeling when your old home is gone for ever, your old country is now just a history to you. My mother is now living in my guest cottage here, and in her mid 90s also may never return again. It felt like a huge door thudding shut when the house sold and so my ties to UK are merely memories now… it is a sad feeling.

My mother, like the few remaining old people living in their old houses there, form a substantial part of the Ethnic British in that community, and when they finally have to sell up, like my mothers sale, it is always foreigners who buy – the people I knew when in school there long gone, they could mostly never afford to live in the houses they grew up in.

UK, London, it is a very different land and reality to this place. I miss its culture and high intellect, and all I gained by my formative years there, it has changed so very much though. I wonder how it is in Preston.

Dr Stephen Nightingale
Dr Stephen Nightingale
2 years ago

The Preston Bus Station was always a white elephant because it is located across town from the railway station – and Preston is one of the most important stations on the West Coast main line – and is a perversely unsigned zig-zag route to get betwen them. On arriving at the concrete bus station you are faced with a vast asphalt apron, having to mix it with buses in order to get to the building itself. Finally, the bus you want (if there is one) goes in an hour. Result is most people arriving at the Railway Station leave by car. It is the perfect example of how not to do a joined up public transport system. “Modernizing” the actual bus station cannot fix this fundamental disconnectedness problem.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

I don’t know it but it is worth mentioning that most people using local buses have not previously arrived by train.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago

Minor point: the Duke of Westminster does not own Lendlease!

Nick Russell
Nick Russell
2 years ago

The idea of awarding lucrative contracts to local firms certainly sounds attractive – a way to keep money in the local area rather than it being skimmed off to distant shareholders.
But if this policy becomes embedded, isn’t there a danger of complacency within the local firms and a risk that they’ll ultimately provide a sub-optimal service?
Would the council rather hire a company that is more expensive and less reliable than some competitors- just because it’s local?

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  Nick Russell

The post-office scandal is a good example of where this can go wrong. The real reason ICL and then Fujitsu got away with a crappy system that destroyed sub-postmasters lives is because they were the favoured contractor of government. And so those in the upper echelons of the PO including after its pseudo-privatisation had every reason to aid and abet lies to court about how the system function (despite it being common knowledge among employers in Fujistu) so they could continue to deploy their system and order new ones and pay juicy fixed rate contracts for them in mutual back-rubbing schemes. And all because, well, it was part of the public-section gravy train, promoted under the aegis of helping local jobs etc.
Of course this is the national government, at a national scale with a national/internation business. The damage radius from local decisions will obviously be smaller. But the same kind of petty injustices and backrubbing could be easily propogated there too, as anyone with first hand experience of local government decision making and corruption can all too readily attest.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

Interesting article. Small local companies can often provide good efficient and value for money services, but are not always well placed to complete the complex and costly procurement box ticking processes. So the big boys win again and again.