Alternative Editorial: The Green Shoots of New Political Culture

Jessica Holloway,  Textually Active: A Code for Plymouth  (2018)

Jessica Holloway, Textually Active: A Code for Plymouth (2018)

By Indra Adnan, co-initiator of A/UK

What does it take to turn a political system on its head? Transforming it from a top-down structure – one in which all the key decisions are made by a small group of career politicians in a small room in Westminster, and sent downwards – to something that is genuinely grass- roots upwards?

Not everyone believes this is desirable. What would community groups know about the economy, energy, food production (they say). How could communities handle large sums of money and distribute it efficiently? If people were left to their own devices, only the strongest voices would get heard. Money would be squandered on folksy projects and they’d never attend to the bigger picture.

The myth of ‘might is right’ – that those with the most capital, whether economic or cultural, will know what is best for everyone - is slowly grinding to halt. Brexit – for good or ill – played a significant part in this. Not necessarily because the Leavers ‘knew best’. But more that, for all their confidence, the political elite (made up of the five major parties) had failed in keeping 52% of the people on side with one of the most important decisions in recent political history.

No matter how the Leavers had arrived at their decision, few doubted that it came with major dissatisfactions about politics and parties. And on examination, it’s not hard to understand why. Political ideas, however interested in the people they appear to be, are still largely trickle-down. They are discussed in homogenous rooms with only the minimum of consultation - and even that is pre-framed and presented as a series of boxes to tick. Even the very best of people’s politicians talk about handing power down to voters, on the party’s terms. It’s never (or rarely) about facilitating the vision coming upwards from the ground, where people live and experience life. Or to be specific, as Peter Jones, development officer at Locality, suggested recently, about giving up financial control or transferring community assets to the occupants.

One would imagine, almost two years after the event of Brexit, that a new political logic would have established itself firmly. Namely, that the numbers are against any complacent elite ignoring the needs and wishes of the people. People are not inert, apathetic, without agency. They have the power to overturn the centre, sabotage the will of the few. Or worse, they can be harnessed by anyone with enough hard power to disrupt the system.

Isn’t it in the interest of political parties to encourage self-organisation and deliberative processes at the local level? Not simply responding to the national agenda but generating original and complex solutions to real-life human problems – from loneliness to tribalism - which may not be easy to perceive from the outside. So that people can begin to get their need-to-be-heard met in a healthy and balanced way. And while they are at it, begin to get their needs for control, for belonging, meaning and purpose met too. Isn’t that the meaning and intention of democracy?

But no such enabling has taken place. Politics remains a top-down affair and as a result, only 30% of people bother to vote at local elections. In fact, as one major community actor told me last week, most community projects try to stay under the radar of politics for fear of being co-opted by any one of the parties. They will try to take credit for what community action is doing, or attempt to re-shape their projects – inappropriately – from above.

So it’s a minor miracle, surely, when you spend some time in a city and find that community politics - with a small p - is flourishing. I spent Saturday participating in a symposium aptly titled We Can Do It. Convened by Inter:change – a collective of local Plymouth artists, architects and social activists - who aim to bring about social transformation through the creative use of buildings and spaces.

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It’s a compelling starting point: not only because buildings ‘place’ people who are working together on a social project – giving them somewhere consistent to meet and invest their energy. But also because the fruits of their efforts benefit the community around them. Whether as a working monument to change, such as the Devonport Guildhall developed by the Real Ideas Organisation. Or as a community hub, such as the Union Corner or Clipper Inn, both developed by the Nudge Community.

Each of the day’s panels focused closely on what kind of community capacity-building was occurring with different sized projects. The smallest ones probably delivered the steepest learning curves, because they worked closest with people who have little or no experience of social design and the least input from experts.

Hannah Sloggett, together with Wendy Hart, started as volunteers putting on street parties in their own Stonehouse community, which was too often in the news for negative reasons. Starting with ‘a carrier bag of food and bit of bunting’ they celebrated what’s special about Stonehouse annually. It was the police who suggested to them that next time they go bigger and include neighbouring Union Street, after which they grew year by year. Thus the Nudge Community Builders came into existence. 

Feeling a bit more confident, they ‘randomly’ signed a lease to take over Union Corner – an empty building, next door to another recently burnt to the ground. It took two years of very hard work to bring it back into use as a much loved and cared for community hub. Next they stepped up to owning a building – the Clipper Inn – which they are now renovating with the community, designing it for “heart, feel and impact”. Today these hubs have also generated street markets, giving more traders a “place to be in community”.

In the Q&A’, Hannah said: “everyone has aspirations, but they need to get articulated. A new park bench is not all we can hope for. We need imagination, but also translation our sense of what’s needed into initiatives that have character and distinctiveness. It doesn’t come from the top but from being together. Sometimes we get too much official advice, which confuses us. We need to be wrapped around with friends and supporters, for the right thing to emerge.”

This commitment to the step-by-step development of collective agency is surely what we need, in order to bring our communities into the political domain, develop their citizenship, link them to power. But it would be helpful if political parties were inclined to recognise the role of community actors – the way they engage and offer people relationship and, with that, security. That most community actors work for little or no pay reminds me of how many women do their care work for nothing. Not valuing and properly resourcing this work makes us inherently unstable: the people we rely on to hold society together are themselves vulnerable.

In the second session we heard from Pippa Goldfinger, one of the original Independent Councillors (and former Mayor) for Frome, who took control of the council alongside Peter Madfadyen (Peter later wrote Flatpack Democracy as a DIY guide to local democracy). Pippa had some caveats. Frome was always known to be good at self-organising. It was even seen by some as a ‘little Manchester’, long before it took such effective action to run itself. Also Frome was relatively small to take on: a market town with only 17 seats on the council.

Even so, what Frome managed to do – possibly precisely because it had these early advantages – was to create a blue-print that could be applied to other, larger towns. Much more than simply walking in and sitting down in the vacated chairs, Independents for Frome established how to agree new ‘ways of working’ across the community; how to develop new political cultures and experiences; what a new economy begins to look like from the bottom up. They did participatory budgeting and established high quality local food markets (which have affected tourism all around Frome).

While I’ve focused on only two  key elements of the picture that Inter:change was presenting this weekend – the power of engagement on the ground and political action that takes that forward – there were many more examples of small to medium and large Plymouth initiatives that build a more comprehensive picture of what is possible on a variety of scales. We’ll be featuring some of these on our Facebook page in the coming week.

What’s clear is that experimenting and prototyping is the energy we need to establish confidence outside of the mainstream political bubble. Not just repeating old established formulas.  As Pippa said “Once your community is engaged you can do anything, as long as it isn’t illegal”. Adapting that stance for cities is the next step. As Nudge moved from street parties to owning and running a community hub, what could happen at a bigger scale in Wigan, Birmingham, Linlithgow?  

I left We Can Do It feeling we had the beginnings of a whole new political culture all ready to go in Plymouth. Watch this space for next steps.