Case study

New directions in political economy

The University of York is embedded in a city with a long history of institutions concerned with inequality, such as the work of the Rowntree family. Our researchers focus not just on the causes and forms of recent inequality, but also how it might be addressed by community wealth building.

Computer illustration of various institutions with arrows showing the direction of support from one to another.

The issue

How can we build local communities that are prosperous, inclusive and sustainable? Is there a way of promoting economic development that works for everyone? If we value social equality, how should we structure local and national institutions to promote this end?

Our researchers argue that traditional economic strategies, driven by tax incentives and public-private partnerships, typically waste billions in order to subsidise the extraction of profit by footloose corporations with little benefit to the community.

We are in need of an alternative economic model that serves to promote social equality via predistribution rather than solely though redistributive methods, such as taxation.

The research

Our research considered the potential of institutional alternatives to the capitalist welfare state and the possibility of creating economic alternatives to neo-liberalism. We are interested in Rawls's notion of a property-owning democracy and developing liberal socialist alternatives.

Collaborating with Joe Guinan of the US Think Tank The Democracy Collaborative, Professor Martin O'Neill has argued for an alternative economic model which uses the power of democratic participation to drive equitable development and ensure wealth is retained locally, ie Community Wealth Building. Professor O'Neill and his colleague show how this model can transform our economic system from the bottom up by creating a web of collaborative institutions, such as worker co-operatives, community land trusts, and public and community banks, all underpinned by local ‘anchor’ strategies.

In spring 2019, Professor O'Neill organised a major research event attended by numerous policymakers and think tank representatives on equality and democracy in local and city government. The event explored the theory and practice of building more equal and democratic economics at local and city levels. Some of the insights from this meeting are discussed by Guinan and O'Neill in the 'Progressive Review' journal of the think tank, the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR).

Since 2018, Professor O'Neill has been a member of the Labour Party's Community Wealth Building Unit, where he draws on his research expertise to inform the group’s policy development.

The outcome

Professor O’Neill’s research, particularly his work on the institutional turn in radical thinking about political economy, has been widely cited and debated within left-leaning policy circles and is discussed in the Economist. The Guardian cites him as one of a network of thinkers involved in "transforming capitalism". The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts make reference to a number of aspects of Professor O’Neill’s work in their report Imagination Unleashed: Democratising the Knowledge Economy.

The Labour Party's Community Wealth Building Unit jointly published with the Office of the Shadow Chancellor a document on 'insourcing' of public services under a future Labour government. The document cites Joe Guinan and Professor O'Neill's IPPR article as part of the case for this move towards insourcing.

The Labour Party's plans to support councils in bringing local services back 'in house' is further discussed in the Guardian and on the Labour party's website.

Change is coming, and another world is not just possible but already within reach. Joe Guinan and Martin O’Neill show how Community Wealth Building approaches can allow every community in the country to play their part in building a new economy from the ground up.

John McDonnell MP
Former Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer

Additional information

Featured researcher

Martin O'Neill

Professor O'Neill has research interests in contemporary political philosophy, especially equality, liberty, responsibility and social justice.

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Featured researcher

Alan Thomas

Professor Thomas' main research interests are the theory of justice, inequality, and republicanism.

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