What acts of municipalism in England are most needed now?
The Covid-19 pandemic is fuelling debates about inequity. And in the context of the ‘new municipal’ landscape in England, this means greater attention is rightly now being given to discussions about the role and status, in the political process, of local people, communities of interest, municipal authorities, formal democratic procedures, elected local representatives, local voluntary organisations, campaigning, solidarity-based and activist groups.
In one part of this landscape, MP’s within the Conservative Party appear to be working to reboot the ‘Big Society’ concept. In another part there are local government organisations looking to re-establish the power of local authorities in the face of ideologically driven budget cuts and in partnership with national organisations that support the community and social enterprise sector. These include the New Local agenda around #communitypower, backed by organisations such as Power to Change and Locality.
Alongside this, there are various progressive groups promoting alternative models for a ‘new municipalism’. These include CLES and others supporting public bodies in Preston and other anchor institutions across the UK, as well as Commonwealth and the US based Democracy Collaborative who are working in partnership to progress this concept of Community Wealth Building.
Over the last 9 months there has also been a mushrooming of mutual aid groups, emerging in response to immediate need, especially during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. The activities of some of the newer and more member-led unions such as the IWW and IWGB have also increased exponentially during this same time.
The onset of the pandemic has also prompted the start up or accelerated development of a panoply of hands-on campaigning and organising initiatives such as Centre for Progressive Change, Citizens for a Democratic Society, the Sortition Foundation, The Foundation Design Lab, Civic Square, Flatpack Democracy and WeCanWin, all of which are also looking to innovate and engage citizens and communities on this 'new municipal' terrain.
Honing in on gaps that still exist in this English municipal landscape has helped us look more closely at what isn’t currently happening so much across this landscape and at what may still need to develop further in the months and years ahead.
From our research, so far, it's already clear that there’s no shortage of party political, institutional, start-up innovations and grassroots work that's responding to current conditions by seeking to influence and reconfigure how local politics and community action takes place in the period ahead.
Nevertheless, it is also very clear that there is still a lack of progressive conceptions and practices of municipalism in this English context that have power, accountability, participation and control which are built democratically and evolved directly by people at local levels.
Part of the reason this gap comes into view seems to be because the initiatives that are already operating in this space do not yet have significant profile, or support, or capacity to develop, at least compared to many other current higher profile municipal projects.
But there may be other reasons that more directly democratic municipal alternatives are struggling to emerge, including the structural forms of inequality that so clearly exist in the English context. These forms of inequality are becoming ever more pronounced and as this happens these inequities are ever more firmly shaping the conditions within which alternatives are required to operate.
It is against this background that Municipal Enquiry is working to involve key activists and practitioners in a collective conversation which aims to address such gaps and issues which need further consideration as part of the current process of developing the ‘new municipalism’ in an English context. The key questions we're looking to address include:
1. How do we make sure that conversations and development work linked to the ‘new municipalism’ has the broadest range of voices, isn’t dominated by those with the greatest power and that divisions of labour don’t simply reproduce existing power relationships?
2. What should be the role of politicians and the people currently viewed as the professionals and experts in this democratisation process and what do these actors need to do to create the space and resources required to support the local communities, local activists, civil society groups and public sector workers to be involved in taking the lead in these developments?
3. How can we most practically, effectively and collectively build alternative forms of local power, new and plural forms of common ownership and expand a diversity of cultures of local democratic inclusion in decision-making, accountability and control?
By tuning into gaps and focusing on the issues (above) the aim of Municipal Enquiry is to look more closely and collectively at what is and isn’t currently happening across the English municipal landscape and at what will need greater resource and amplification in the months and years ahead.
What kinds of radical municipal acts are needed to truly challenge and significantly reconfigure the existing divisions of labour and relations of power which still largely define and continue to shape this landscape?
And how might these acts work with existing initiatives which seek to (re)organise, (re)mobilise, (re)regulate communities and reform municipal institutions predominantly within the orthodox power structures?
We have spoken in the last few months to a range of people involved in initiatives that work in this gap between direct democracy and institutional work. As a result, we have published versions of some of these conversations on the Municipal Enquiry website.
We are at the stage now where we’d love to further expand the range of people we speak to, so if you’d be interested in discussing your initiative, if the issues we’ve touched on here are relevant to your work, or if any of the questions raised above resonate with your current interests please do get in touch via the Municipal Enquiry website or Twitter.