Resident of Manchester Dr Sophie King, from the University of Sheffield, blogs on her experiences of recent political events in Manchester and discusses her disappointment in proceedings so far. Here she highlights a lack of viable policy proposals and looks at what can be learnt from small scale initiatives elsewhere in the city, as well as overseas.
- City-regional devolution has the potential at least to create space for a different kind of politics
- Researchers are working in partnership with other academics to attempt to engage with the political opportunity presented by devolution in progressive ways
- A diversity of efforts are needed to create platforms for more inclusive forms of debate
I have attended two political meetings in the last month that have frustrated, enraged and inspired me. The first was the selection meeting for Labour’s candidate in the Gorton South by-election and the second was a Mayoral hustings on housing and homelessness organised by Greater Manchester Housing Action (GMHA). It is important to state at the outset that my frustrations are also fuelled by a personal sense of having done too little.
Gorton South selection
The disappointments of the Gorton South selection meeting have been well-articulated by Mark Burton at Steady State Manchester. These included a lack of viable policy proposals and processes for engagement and a focus on the individualised lives of the candidates instead of what they would do to work towards a better society. This is not to under-value the obvious commitment and great respect commanded by all the local councillors who put themselves forward. They are part of wider systems and processes for which they are not individually responsible and should be respected for their willingness to sacrifice time and energy to public service.
Three key questions stood out for me after this event, each building on the other:
- How do we create a society which provides time and space as well as access to an adequate standard of living for people to engage in politics and accept responsibility for leadership beyond a wealthy educated elite?
- How do we create a political system that removes the need for leadership to be so individualised and gives people meaningful opportunities to influence the decisions and policies that shape our experience of life?
- What is it that we actually want as a society – in the UK, in Greater Manchester, in our local neighbourhoods? How do we want decision-making to work? Through what processes can the many different members of our richly diverse society find answers to these questions that meet some common goals?
Homelessness and housing hustings
On to GMHA’s Mayoral Hustings on Housing and Homelessness: wow. Words I would use to describe this event: tense, angry, hilarious, polarised, enraging… my use of the word ‘hilarious’ is with the best of intentions – not to trivialise the severity of ‘people dying in doorways’ on the streets of Greater Manchester as someone attested – but to value the moment where a homeless activist turned the tables on the Conservative candidate by announcing his eviction from the event (he wasn’t but in some ways he may as well have been from that point onwards).
I have to say that in my view Andy Burnham stood head and shoulders above the other candidates in stating from the outset concrete actions he intends to take and responding to demands for other commitments from housing activists with clarity and a willingness to be held to account including: building more council and social housing, agreeing to ring-fence part of the Greater Manchester Housing Fund to cooperative models, and a bold pledge to end rough sleeping in Manchester.
Some members/participants were visibly uncomfortable with the character of some of the challenges being made and the sometimes anarchic nature of the demands and questions being posed, expressed by one local councillor in the words: ‘just sit down and shut the f*ck up’.
To be fair the question had already been addressed (positively) and there were others who had not yet had airtime – a wonderfully diverse room full of people with different backgrounds, professions, and (to some extent) political persuasions.
Importantly, the debate came down eventually to questions of power: “How much power will a devolved government have to temper central government policy?” It was clear that these candidates still were not entirely sure. Some fell back on reeling off lists of budget areas: housing, planning, police and crime…; others referred to small pockets of resistance such as Rochdale Council relieving young people leaving care from paying Council Tax; or in Andy Burnham’s case, his opposition to welfare cuts as an MP.
A familiar story
Focusing attention back on the questions posed above, the hustings becomes a positive blip, in an otherwise familiar story. Here are five individuals, keen to describe how their personal lives, wives, husbands, mothers, troubled children, past work experience makes them the perfect individual to represent the voices of 2.5 million people across the city-region. Again, to Andy Burnham’s credit, he did not rely on the tactics of personal story though he has the advantage of greater existing public recognition.
To Will Patterson’s credit – and we can only hope the other candidates were taking notes – he was the only one to emphasise the democratic deficits of the decision-making and planning processes to date which have seen city-regional devolution and the process for introducing a Greater Manchester Mayor emerge from behind closed doors (here there be white men in suits). He called for a collaborative and discursive approach to city-regional governance including through engagement with a diversity of interest and campaign groups and for “a genuine people’s housing plan”.
Academics, policy-wonks and activists have been deliberating deliberative democracy for decades. What can we do – now (because as inequality grows while the planet continues to warm – it feels a little like it’s now or never) – from our new Greater Manchester context of city-regional devolution and our old Greater Manchester history of radical action – to change the way people come together and decisions get made?
Ways to engage
Interested? Here are groups you can engage with right now that are trying to have this conversation:
- People’s Plan Manchester: an independent public engagement programme, by and for citizens and civil society of Greater Manchester
- DivaManc: promote inclusion of women in the devolution debate and city-regional governance
- Steady State Manchester: hold community cafes to bring people together to discuss the kind of society we want to live in and how it can be realised
Challenges feel insurmountable? Here are just two examples of progressive municipal politics happening right now:
- Eight lessons from Barcelona en Comú on how to Take Back Control
- Brazil let its citizens make decisions about city budgets. Here’s what happened.
The three questions raised above are at the heart of our current political and economic crisis in the UK, and there are no easy answers, but city-regional devolution has the potential at least to create space for a different kind of politics.
Towards a progressive devolution
Researchers at the Urban Institute, University of Sheffield are working in partnership with other academics (including at The University of Manchester) and with key partners outside the university context – to attempt to engage with the political opportunity presented by devolution in progressive ways.
Jam and Justice is a 3-year research project (2016-2019) which aims to seize the opportunity provided by devolution to look at alternative ways to govern in our city-regions. ‘Jam’ is about trying to bring together different partners to address shared problems. ‘Justice’ is about reconnecting with those who are usually left out from the search for solutions. This ESRC-funded project is part of a larger programme called Realising Just Cities involving universities in Sweden, South Africa and Kenya, and funded by Mistra Urban Futures.
Under the RJC programme, and building on previous partnership work with Manchester’s Global Development Institute, neighbourhood-based groups in Manchester and Salford are engaging in action research examining the relevance of urban social movement methodologies in cities of the global South to their current experiences of marginalisation.
There are no magic bullets to the challenges we face, but a diversity of efforts to bring the mechanics of decision-making into the light, to create platforms for more inclusive forms of debate, and to support stronger citizen organising that can create pressure for political accountability and reform sounds like a good place to start.