Is there an alternative to the hype and celebrity politics that seems to be spreading like a virus around the world?
Try: feminised politics, proximity, ecology and community. As we turn off ‘post-truth’ politics, face-to-face meeting, listening and community-building supported by safe technologies are some of the salves for human-scale democracy. While New Zealand is facing a national election, it’s worth considering other forms of democracy, namely engaged local politics, currently being called municipalism in Europe.
Jump to Barcelona in June — where 700 people from 180 countries converged in inaugural Fearless Cities summit on municipalism — organised by the current political movement, Barcelona En Comu.
If you’re not one for party politics, municipalism is attractive — it’s about designing a process of involving all citizens in the self-organising of their communities, towns or cities, not so much about creating new policies and group think from the top down. My interests: developing self-empowered societies, commons-building and in art processes that develop communities. After registering and paying 20 Euros online, I found myself connected to and hosted by the Corbella family who — mother, sister, son, father are all involved in the movement of people-driven democracy.
The summit was hugely powerful — not only connecting us to a major international network but giving visibility to residents, activists and councillors who have been elected from the ground up — from Europe and North America, Middle East and Africa, all encouraging us to continue work with people to eliminate fear that divides citizens. All the summit sessions can be found at You Tube here.
I attended sessions on non-state institutions, on sanctuary cities and on municipalism in towns and rural areas, thinking always, how might New Zealand might relate to this new movement?
Try these recurring themes from the summit:
- Feminised politics. The new municipalisism is radicalising the process of representation and it is female-led. It will grow from those experienced in listening to their communities. Barcelona City Councillor, Laura Perez Castaño suggested that no matter how we look at it, women’s needs are different to men’s. Issues such as mobility and working hours are different for women and our political positions different. New Zealand knows about historic suffrage; and we should start to recognise the new community-driven leaders who are women.
- Proximity is a key asset when it comes to municipalism. Having access to all the members of our small communities allows for genuine engagement. We talk about New Zealand’s ‘2 degrees’ social geography and this is powerful. The traditional elite have used proximity in recent times and it can be just as easily employed. Recommended reading: Joan Subirats on Proximity (included here the book Cities in the 21st Century).
- Ecology and people are connected. Legendary Indian activist Vandana Shiva spoke about forests self-organising and that the natural state for people too is also to self-organise within their urban ecosystems. To quote US activist Debbie Bookchin, “We can’t address ecological problems without resolving our addiction to domination and hierarchy.” We know this in New Zealand: the mauri of the land is connected to the mauri of the people. That means the people and land stay well together.
- As community organisers, don’t rely on the mainstream media to reach your people or reflect your community. Organising at community level is the way to connect where you are dealing with people at a personal level. It’s time consuming -get used to it. Barcelona En Comu was largely ignored by the TV and newspapers until the election. Trust your community networks and not the media.
Leading European examples
Barcelona En Comu started out as movement of self-organising groups and Barcelona’s Mayor Ada Colau is one of the more public faces of it. Back in 2014 she was part of organisation, Platform for Mortgage Victims, working to stop people being evicted from their homes by banks.
Connecting with other groups, the Platform members became more politically active when they realised that it wasn’t just about tackling banks — that public institutions had to change too. Running for Barcelona Council, initially under the banner Guanyem Barcelona (We will win Barcelona) they didn’t meet in secret or in members’ sitting rooms. They held meetings in the squares, in the streets, and in all neighborhoods. For more history see this Guardian piece How to win back the city.
Although Barcelona en Comu evolved to become a political party, their connection between the people and political process continues fluidly. Oriol Corbella, one of my young hosts, sent me a message as he was attending a recent meeting in his neighborhood with the elected members of Barcelona En Comu, reporting back after two years in Council. He described how the room was separated into five circles (each circle a subject), with the respective politicians explaining “the goals we had accomplished, the difficulties and the future. There are many difficulties for the ones in government to communicate what they do to the people from the party.” But intention is there.
Participatory democracy is fast-shaping the operations of other local governments over Europe, and it may be that smaller towns are easier to manage than cities. At the session Municipalism in towns and rural areas I learned that in the UK, in Buckfastleigh, Devon, Pamela Barrett, Mayor of Buckfastleigh, was elected once her community collectively developed 8 new initiatives and Council raised rates by 1 pound a week (equating to an 100% rise) without backlash. Buckfastleigh runs its meetings in football clubs, in parks and the streets, and allows members of the public to contribute in a Roman-style ‘polis’.
In Torrelodones, Spain, Marina Vicen, Councilor for Youth and Education, spoke of how the Council has established a drop in centre to deal with issues immediately — same day if possible.
In Celrá, we heard from Mercè Amich Vidal, Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), Councilor for Youth and Equality at Celrà City Council where their constituency asked them to ring the elderly residents every morning to wish them good morning and will check-in on them personally if they don’t respond. They call this the Bon Dia service.
In Celrá, 10o% of local budget (outside of Council staffing) is allocated participatorily. The town has since been trialing an online app — Celrà participa — which will assist.
In London, the Right to the City campaign started before the UK general election and has similar principles to municipalism, with a certain pick up especially since the tragedy of Grenfell Tower. Yet it feels as if class and power issues could take a while to be fully shaken from the English psyche — see Caroline Molloy’s damning piece on UK local politics.
Surely it’s possible for those of us in NZ to leave behind the colonial psyche of ‘us’ and ‘them’?
New Zealand community-driven politics?
Our New Zealand local governments are generally approachable. I’ve found Councils responsive and Councillors increasingly open minded. In Wellington I often see our Councillors in community events, football games, coming readily to invited meetings through my varied involvement in several community-driven planning programmes. The organisation I co-direct, Letting Space, for example, has worked with Wellington City, as well as Dunedin City, Masterton District, and Porirua City on a platform for community voice — the Urban Dream Brokerage*, a place for all-comers to suggest good ideas for vacant city spaces.
And in terms of political advocacy the work of New Zealand organisation Action Station has begun to reveal the possibility of crowd-sourcing support for specific causes. It’s work is driven by what people want to see happen and has had huge effect in selected areas.
There are many groups who see themselves as legitimate voices of the land, and thousands of Friends’ groups who inadvertently become the main caretakers for the rivers, streams and wilder habitats of our country. Many of recent our environmental victories have been thanks to our nation of volunteers. Yet these groups are at arms length from politics. We’re just playing in the shallows with what is possible. We need to connect voice and ideas with real politics.
Perhaps we don’t perceive the need for radical transformation in New Zealand like those in bigger cities and countries. Perhaps we don’t perceive we have an issue with corruption or access to power.
And yet we still have major problems — hugely disempowered communities and those whose needs are not being met. We’ve seen the rate of homelessness at world-beating levels, of cities too expensive for average wage earners to live in, increased mental illness, youth suicide at record levels and huge disenfranchisement in society. Many of these problems lie in Central government policies. But some issues can be met in our local towns and cities.
With the majority of the New Zealand population saying they think that traditional parties and politicians don’t care about them, we need to find new ways for people to have a voice.
Political commentator Bryce Edwards suggests:
“The idea of participatory and decentralized ways of doing politics are particularly apt for contemporary New Zealand, because the political system has become the opposite of that — it’s currently very centralized and elite. Few people are involved in the political process, and power is highly concentrated. So, we desperately need to be talking about and trialing ideas like municipalism.
“Municipalism might well be a philosophy and practice tailor-made for contemporary politics in New Zealand…People are increasingly either disenchanted with how politics currently works, or at least highly suspicious about democracy and authorities in general. There is a backlash forming against the status quo of how decision-making occurs, and about who has the power. That means that people are particularly open to new ideas about running society — and so concepts like municipalism have a very good chance of resonating with a wide variety of people. It could indeed resonate with many of those on both left and right, with young and old, and with many different types of communities (rural, provincial, urban, etc).”
The movement toward municipalism in Europe tells us that it is at the local level that we can really address peoples’ needs. Cities and towns have more connection with our daily lives. It is not the direction that New Zealand has been heading with recent attempts at reforms.
What would full municipalism look like in New Zealand? Listening and working collectively requires open-mindedness. It would require people to put aside their cynicism and their egos. Would it be more Āotearoa hui-style politics that we adapt? It needs people who are disempowered being given the platform to speak openly and for those with more resource to listen and finding solutions together, from the ground up.
Could we imagine ourselves like Celrá, where our local Councils fund services that we ourselves have prioritised? Imagine — if it were not just our elderly but also the unwell and fearful being phoned every morning to see how they were. Could we imagine participatory budgeting at a large scale, to decide what we spent our money on?
Imagine regular, official Council meetings in our parks and squares (or vacant sites if the weather is bad) where our communities come to talk about their local needs for, say good local food, or cheaper activities or safer traffic and these were addressed directly by the neighborhood representative? Engaging Maori tikanga would be vital and important- hui are the ideal reference point for the practice of listening hearing each other.
Barcelona en Comu have a step by step guide about how to organise a municipalist driven culture. Is New Zealand is ripe for a truly people-led approach to politics?
For more writing on the Fearless Cities summit, I recommend fellow Wellingtonian Richard Bartlett’s snapshot How a Global Network of #FearlessCities is Making Racist Colonial Nation States Obsolete.
*My experience has been in the transformation of space from private to public. We need more spaces to debate and meet in. We’ve witnessed first-hand the submission of hundreds of new ideas for public life. Often all is needed is space and encouragement. has helped people launch ideas, taught new skills, redistributed resources, connected property owners with creative makers, and moreover given people the chance to practise their ideas in public space free of commercial pressure. I’ve been in Europe talking with the local city of Helsingør about how this ‘radical’ programme handing over spaces to people with ideas could be adapted to Danish life.