Today it is easy enough to think that people are not interested in politics, or even that they don’t value democracy. But it isn’t so. We want to have an active role in the decisions that affect our everyday lives, our neighbourhoods and our communities; but we don’t believe – and with good reason – that traditional electoral democracy is offering us that. We don’t believe that it is enough to only vote once every four years and that then the elected members – all too often in the service of powers that are not subject to democratic accountability – take all the decisions in our name. Laura Roth, Brad Lander, Gala Pin. Radical democracy in the town hall. In Ciudades sin Miedo (Fearless Cities), Barcelona: Icaria, 2018. p. 113
We have previously discussed the challenges of governing a city as large and diverse as Greater Manchester1. How can decisions be taken that reflect the interests of the diverse population, distributed as it is in a variety of settlements with different characteristics and histories? How can the maximum involvement of citizens in the democratic process be realised, going beyond the ritual of putting a paper in a ballot box every few years (with pretty low levels of participation). How can representatives at all levels really learn to listen, and (to use a current buzz word) to co-produce solutions with their constituents – not just members of their own party, but with the full diversity of voices, including those whose starting positions might be difficult to understand or accept. How can political, economic and ecological education be integrated within this process, so people are better equipped – have a greater level of consciousness – to take part in shared government?
The answers to these questions are by no means easy. Some good things are happening in Greater Manchester, for instance the live-streaming of council and Combined Authority meetings and the Ask Andy sessions with the GM Mayor in each district. But much more could be done as we suggested to the former interim Mayor, Tony Lloyd in our widely circulated open letter.. A previous post discussed the Heidelberg model of a digital platform for participation. Here we look at the Fearless Cities movement which goes a lot further, and ask whether Greater Manchester could learn from it.
In 2015, a housing activist, Ada Colau was elected Mayor of Barcelona. She was not a member of a political party, but the chosen candidate of Barcelona in Common, (Barcelona en Comú, in Catalan, BC hereafter) an alliance of social movements, many with roots in the 15M movement, the Spanish version of Occupy, a response to the neoliberal austerity policies that were especially pernicious in Spain with its dispossession of people who fell into mortgage arrears. BC have a minority of seats on the council, so govern with support from other parties: the Spanish electoral system does lead to such arrangements.
BC, from the outset, realised the importance of linking up with others attempting similar re-invention of politics, worldwide and last year, 2017, hosted an international gathering of the resulting Fearless Cities movement. A book, building on that event has appeared, in Spanish and Catalan (they say it will come out from Verso in English early in 2019, though there is nothing on the Verso site yet). The book has a lot of material from the Spanish cities, Barcelona, Madrid, Zaragoza, A Coruña, and others but also from Chile, Poland, Italy, Croatia, Canada, USA, Rojava (Kurdish North Syria), the UK (Frome Independents and London’s “Take Back the City”) and elsewhere.
As a new movement, there is relatively more on forms of organising than on forms of governance, and a lot of great policy ideas but so far, not a huge amount of practical experience of implementation. Having said that, administrations such as those of Ada Colau in Barcelona, Jorge Sharp and Alcaldía Comunitaria in Valparaiso (Chile), Manuela Carmena and Ahora Madrid, and Une Ville Pour Tous in Grenoble have moved fast with a variety of initiatives to restore at least some social and economic justice and environmental stewardship in their areas. The popular administration in the Kurdish region of Northern Syria, Rojava, continues to inspire with its radical multi-ethnic, multi-faith, democratic model in the “limit situation” that faces the people there.
I will focus on the principles that underpin the movement, because it is from these that we could devise solutions we could apply in our own distinct political context. Ciudades sin Miedo sets them out as follows.
There are two defining characteristics of municipalism:
1) The way politics is conducted is as important as the content of the politics. So candidate platforms are participative in their construction and practice, and the organisations created for the new municipal politics have the kind of priorities and structures of power that they want to see in the world.
2) The local sphere allows politics to be approached in concrete terms that matter to people:
“Although the powers and legal responsibilities of local governments can vary around the world, politics is inevitably centred on concrete issues that affect people’s everyday lives.”
The collective authors of the book consider that there are three dimensions of central importance, and these are used to structure the various thematic discussions:
1) The feminisation of politics, “which implies the questioning of patriarchal models of organisation and power, in order to situate the work of caring at the centre, of both the political agenda and the forms of organisation.”
2) The emphasis on concrete action. The authors write, “We believe that the best political arguments are the small victories that demonstrate that things could be different, both within and beyond the local institutions. Taking note of this, we have included more than 50 practical examples, tools and local transformative policies that can serve as inspiration and guides to action.”
3) International commitment. As much as municipalism prioritises local organisation, action and local solutions, that doesn’t mean that it has a merely parochial outlook. The issues affecting local communities have a global dimension, and they need to be overcome through joined up and joint action. The idea is to create an international network of radical municipalist activists, organisations and administrations, and the book bears witness to the fruitfulness of that aim, albeit in its early stages.
To give an idea of the content of this new municipal politics, here are notes on, and extracts from (translation MHB, Steady State Manchester: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license applies), two of the thematic chapters. One covers process issues and the other one area of policy formulation.
First, on process:
12. Radical democracy in the town hall (pp. 113-121)
The quotation at the head of this piece comes from this section of the book. The authors, from Barcelona and New York, go on to say that they are trying out new ways of taking decisions and that for local democracy this means that it involves more than putting into practice progressive local policies, but implies the decentralisation of power, providing communities with the means to take decisions collectively. But they are very clear that this is work in progress and not a finished work where all issues have been resolved. Remaining challenges include:
How to give voice to the population at large without leaving to one side the social movements and community associations that have more considered views and knowledge?
How to maximise participation without ensuring the quality of decision-making?
How to combine “digital democracy” and democracy based on people interacting face to face?
How to involve people that don’t show interest or who don’t have the necessary time or resources?
How to convince public servants and elected members to cede power to the people on the ground.
Democracy means self-government: delegation and representation are second best options. Treat the communities as the true possessors of the power to decide, not just as sources of information and opinion.
Make institutions less hierarchical, less bureaucratic and more transparent. People can’t make decisions if the administration is too opaque.
Take into account the potentially excluding impact of every tool. There are not single solutions: it is necessary to establish alternative methods so that people with diverse abilities, interests and experiences can decide which means to use.
Facilitate the use of digital infrastructure that can be re-appropriated and ensure that they are accessible and that people can learn to use them. Combine them with methods that involve people being present.
Motivate participation by offering opportunities that are real and effective. Not everyone is a member of an association. Take account of those that haven’t yet been involved, demonstrating to them that their contribution can be effective, that we aren’t just seeking legitimacy but their empowerment and positive impacts on their lives.
Weave together social connections and make participation enjoyable. Radical democracy isn’t just about results. When it’s done well, people discover the joy of acting together, overcoming that which divides them. Participation and enjoyment have to go hand in hand.
Accept conflict and don’t try to falsely resolve the profound differences that are part of our complex societies.
Think in terms of participatory ecosystems and don’t isolate and separate the tools for participation. Find how these tools can work together and reinforce one another.
Pay attention to three classes of impacts of any procedure for taking decisions and find ways to balance them should they conflict:
– Impacts on the quality of the decision – aim for decisions are informed and reasonable.
– Impacts on inclusion and equality – aim to even out the power of influence on decisions.
– Impacts on participants – people learn to make decisions as they make decisions for themselves. Have confidence in that process and support it.
Promote radical democracy everywhere. Enable democratic culture in local associations, political parties and companies.
Examples follow (not reproduced here) from Barcelona, Belo Horizonte and New York.
Web resource (in English, Spanish and Catalan): decidim https://meta.decidim.org/
….But radical democracy has its “dark side”. It uses a lot of time and that means that usually more men than women take part. That means that deliberative democratic procedures need to take account the fact that the opinions of men usually carry more weight than those of women and are more valued due to the prejudices of those that hear them, and that oftnen men are more willing to express their opinions by speaking out in public, taking up more of the time available, etc.
And an example of a concrete area of policy:
16. Mobility and pollution (pp. 149 – 156)
Mobility is one of the pillars of the right to the city, especially for those that live outside the big metropolitan areas. A restricted mobility implies a restricted access to employment, education, leisure and services. The problem is that, too often, our cities and regions are designed for the car rather than for people. Public investment has favoured the construction of motorways, tunnels and car parks, instead of public transport and infrastructure for cycling and walking. ……..
We understand mobility, not as a simple technical problem, but as a matter of health, ecological and social justice. More than 90% of the global population live in areas that don’t comply with regulations for air quality. ……..
The people who travel by car are disproportionately white men with above average income; that is to say that the models of urban and spatial development based on the car exacerbate the inequalities of gender, race and wealth. That’s why we adopt an ecofeminist approach to mobility, putting people and planet at the centre of the way we design and connect our neighbourhoods, towns and cities.
Municipalism allows us to confront those unsustainable, carbon-intensive models of urban development and propose healthy and sustainable alternatives, overturning this unjust system that gives greater freedom and mobility to the greater polluters and those with most resources.
We have to question the idea that driving is a right, opposing the motor car lobby and work to change the attitudes of the public and change our transport culture. ….
Oppose the car lobby with the collective right to clean air.
Change the priorities of urban design in order to favour pedestrians and discourage the use of the private car.
Reduce the quantity of public space dedicated to private vehicles, through measures such as pedestrianisation and the conversion of car parks to alternative uses.
Promote public transport through public investment and accessible tariffs that facilitate frequent usage.
Facilitate transit by bicycle, creating, enlarging and improving cycle-ways and offering public systems for shared use.
Penalise or prohibit the use of high emission vehicles, for example by creation of zones where those vehicles are prohibited.
Introduce congestion charges for private vehicles that enter central areas, and increase the cost of parking to reduce car use and finance investment in sustainable transport infrastructure.
Invest in a low emission public transport fleet to reduce both energy use and carbon dioxide emissions per capita.
Create bus lanes to increase the average speed of transit by bus.
Promote shared use of cars to reduce the quantity of cars in the streets.
Fix speed limits to reduce pollution and accidents, for example, 30 kph [18.75 mph] in urban areas.
Examples are given (not reproduced here) from Vancouver, Bologna and Barcelona
The impact of urban planning and transport policy is not gender-neutral. Our towns and cities were designed thinking of participation in the labour market, with little or no consideration of the labour of reproduction [biological and social – SSM] and of caring. This bias is clearly evident in the systems of transport everywhere, that tend to be defined in terms of the convenience of those that travel to and from workplaces twice a day, sometimes for large distances (the majority of whom are men), in place of the multiple short journeys typical of those who provide care and those that work part time (who are more likely to be women). Frequently the transport infrastructure turns out to be inaccessible for those with restricted mobility or who tavel with dependent persons, and women are at special risk of sexual harassment or assault in those public spaces they cross travelling on foot, cycle or public transport. A policy and politics [política] of feminising mobility implies questioning the privileges of htose who use the private car, giving equal importance to the transport needs of those persons involved in reproductive labour and caring and making it so short journeys, on foot or by public transport, are comfortable, accessible, affordable and safe.
English language resource: Ecomobility SHIFT – htpps://ecomobility.org/ecomobility-shift/
Radical municipalism, radical democracy in Greater Manchester?
Could Greater Manchester rise to the challenge of the radical municipalist agenda? Undoubtedly. It would look different here, because it looks different everywhere Nevertheless there is nothing to stop Greater Manchester citizens and political leaders taking up the key ideas of a more engaged, participatory democracy, a different kind of “feminised”, deliberative politics, with policies effectively “co-produced” with citizens. Nor is there anything to stop elected members making themselves more accountable to citizens, improving their reporting back, not just to party members, but to their electors, who have the right to know just what they are doing in their name, and not just through puff pieces put out to gain electoral support. We know that some councillors have got this message (and some clearly haven’t – we and you know which group you are in!); we also know that the GM Mayor, Andy Burnham, has been to Barcelona and discussed the revival of municipalism with Ada Colau and Barcelona en Comú. The tools, the processes, the principles are there, but none of this will happen in the absence of strong, “upward” citizen pressure. There are civil society and social movement groups calling for moves in this direction2 and we count ourselves with them. Their enthusiasm and positive ideas should be welcomed by politicians as an asset for strengthening democracy. That way we could end up with a “Viable Democracy” for a Viable Greater Manchester.
2These include DivaManc, Greater Manchester Housing Action, Acorn, the Jam and Justice collaboration, the Save Greater Manchester Green Belt coalition, amongst other and more locally-based groups.
Teaser photo credit: By Oliver-Bonjoch – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,