"We Share The Same Skies": Regional Democracy in Yorkshire

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We think that one of the most hopeful sources for a reimagined politics is the rise of the "independents" - those who can see huge potential in their area, but want to creatively express that in ways that don't fall into the usual party political frameworks.

Flatpack Democracy in Frome is blazing the way (see Guardian article here), but we have some new voices (and forces) from Yorkshire today.

Ian Martin introduces the activism (and optimism) of We Share The Same Skies.

The way the UK works now and for a long time has failed us here in West Yorkshire. You may be thinking that way about where you live too?

If we keep doing things this way, things will not get better for us. We could leave it up to the same structures that have failed us to decide if they want to do something about it and what that should be. But the evidence suggests that they cannot solve this problem, even if they really want to.

The future must therefore be different and the only way to make sure it is different is if those directly affected by these failures stand up and take responsibility for doing it better.

Same Skies is a network of volunteer organisers based in different parts of West Yorkshire who particularly want to engage unheard voices in the debate about the future of our region. This is where we know best so this is where we act. We have no funding or staff and all expenses are covered by ourselves and by donations at events.

In fact none of us earn an income through politics or policy and were partially inspired to do this by the fact that we couldn’t get time off work or afford to pay the fees for ‘conferences’ about our future.

Devolution has so far been an unseen and unknown process for the vast majority of us who live in Yorkshire.  In fact we have found that the term 'devolution' itself has primarily negative connotations, associated not with Scotland or Wales, but with cuts, back room deals and partisan politics.

Instead we talk about Regional Democracy - standing up where we are, looking out positively and seeing opportunities to improve the lives of our neighbours through a new democracy big enough to make a real difference but close enough to prioritise our needs.

Devolution, by its nature, is about passing power down from those who hold it to be exercised at a smaller geographical level.  Our vision is that the Regional Democracy building over time from below is ready to meet the devolution being passed down from above in a way that makes the most of the opportunity and uses it to expand its potential transformative power. That may be up to the level of West Yorkshire, to the whole of Yorkshire or to the whole of the North.

Our first activity in 2015 was to organise the 'What Kind of Region do we want to live in?' event in Manningham, Bradford. By using videos and photographs online of a diverse range of women and men giving their initial responses to this question as well as actively promoting the event beyond the usual places, this participatory event felt very different to previous devolution events in Yorkshire. 

In fact, virtually none of the attendees had attended a 'devolution' event before or were involved in party politics whilst 40% of participants were women.

Following this event, we developed the 'We Share The Same Skies' collaborative blog of hopeful ideas and more recently we hosted an open conversation about Regional Democracy at Leeds Summat – an annual gathering of activists and campaigners on a range of social and environmental issues.

Many came to the workshop with understandable cynicism about the 'Osbornian' view of devolution, but by the end were starting to think about the opportunities Regional Democracy provided for a vision less constrained by the UK establishment’s domination of ‘national’ institutions.

In many ways Same Skies is a political laboratory in itself. From the beginning we have been open to working with people from all parties and none and we have actively tried to do something to engage a more diverse range of voices.

This means being open to different ways of working including videos, photoboards and events based on open models with no fixed agenda and no top table of speeches (such as from MPs or council leaders) so enabling all participants to suggest themes/discussions with equal value.

It also means thinking about when, where and how events happen so that it is not just about women and men who already hold positions of power within the region. This includes offering childcare and helping with travel costs.

Inspired by the Creative ‘Conscientização’ of Paulo Freire and the activism of 1960’s US feminists, we are also asking hopeful questions through viral, enigmatic and playful messaging in unusual spaces (such as bus stops, lampposts, buses, trains, public art, libraries, markets etc.).

For example, we recently chalked questions on streets near to a meeting of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, calling on them to initiate a ‘wider conversation’. We believe this is the next step in building a more positive politics for the region, to engage people in region-building and not just resistance, cynicism or scepticism.

We believe the bottom line is that a centralised UK has failed us and that the idea of Regional Democracy represents a positive opportunity. If we actively try to make it so.