A narrative from UK.

Steve Rushton (London).

Steve Rushton, journalist from UK, explains the state of municipalism in Britain.

Britain report: a not so United Kingdom.

Steve Rushton (London).

Steve Rushton is a London-based journalist and researcher. His writing appears in Equal Times, OpenDemocracy, Bella Caledonia and Minim on topics including municipalism and climate justice. In summer 2021, he worked for Cities for Change, connecting with emerging municipalists in the Nordic countries and UK.

Britain is a highly centralised, evermore dysfunctional and increasingly draconian state. Through colonialism, inequality, white supremacy, patriarchy and other systems of power and prejudice were constructed. Conversely, there are long traditions of revolt and resistance. In the early to mid-20th Century, Britain was at the forefront of public welfare and services creation. From 1979, the country was violently driving neoliberalism to the rest of the world, whilst self-inflicting neoliberalism and austerity at home.

Britain has a first past-the-post electoral system that means people’s votes often do not count. This combined with some of the worst inequality in the global North, means a lot of people are completely disenfranchised. Devolution has been brought in recently but often this does not change the bigger picture, especially in England.

The idea of municipalism is not well known, however Britain does have a rich eco-system of social movements, some of which work through municipalist-esque means, including ground-up, intersectional and internationalist. With the emerging muncipalist energies, Britain provides potentially fertile ground for these movements to grow and challenge country’s multiple crises, many of which have been intensified by the pandemic.

The four nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have never been more divided. The binary decision of Brexit was bankrolled by parts of the British establishment (e.g. casino capitalists, insurance brokers) and sold both on xenophobic lines and as a rejection of another part of the British establishment. The case to remain was not based on socially progressive values, with capitalists preferring the status quo (e.g. Goldman Sachs) bankrolling the campaign to remain in the EU.

Britain is mainly an English project that has strengthened existing ruptures. It has also made Irish reunification a stronger possibility: Brexit creates a paradox where the United Kingdom cannot remain united without re-establishing a border on the island of Ireland. This could in turn re-escalate the violence that mostly ended with the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998.

Devolution is a process that runs against the grain of neoliberalism and means many cities have elected mayors. It opens up cities to more democratic potentials, however in its current form it has frequently created a system that favours strong leaders, marginalising councillors that are not in the Cabinet and therefore close to the Mayor, reducing accountability.

The centralisation of British politics is shown by comparing how many inhabitants each local municipality averages to nearby European states. There are over 160,000 Brits per municipal authority, compared to approximately 7,000 Germans, less than 6,000 Spaniards and fewer than 2,000 French. Overall, the political entity of the UK is a convoluted arrangement, for instance, the financial district of the City of London was technically created before England, meaning it has its own laws and local administration that is extremely opaque. Half of global tax evasion is estimated to hub via the City to Britain’s empire of tax havens.

In England there are both unitary authorities and a two-tier system of county and district councils. Generally speaking, larger towns and cities have unitary authorities – which are responsible for everything from education to housing, from social care to leisure and much more. Whereas often in rural areas, county councils split responsibilities with smaller district councils. (For further reading see here.) At an even more local level there are parish councils, but these have little powers or responsibilities and are not constituted universally.

In Scotland and Wales things differ. Both nations have their own national Parliament, which each have their own devolved powers by which each nation from the worst excesses of neoliberal Britain. Scots could have a second independence referendum, with polls narrowly and now consistently favouring independence. Locally, Scotland is divided into 32 local authorities that provide public services, such as education, social care, waste management, libraries and planning. Below these in some places there are community councils. Wales is divided into 22 local unitary authorities known as principal areas. Again, Wales has some community councils, but not everywhere.

The Northern Irish assembly, founded 1998, has had many suspensions as power is shared between republicans and British unionists, a political polarisation divided by religious differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. The last suspension between 2017-20 was caused over a corruption scandal connected to the hardright unionist DUP. Since a rearrangement in 2015, Northern Ireland is divided into 11 local government districts that are subdivided into electoral wards. This process to rearrange the local authorities began in 2005, but was delayed due to disputes over where to draw the new districts’ borders. Previously, Northern Ireland had 26 councils.

The centralisation of politics even extends to the Left, especially in England. Motivated in part due to the two-party system, much leftist energy was tied to the Labour party under socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn (2015-20), which has now been maligned and the party divided. In Scotland there is a strong leftist connection towards a radical independence and rupture from the British state, monarchy and establishment – even if the Scottish National Party that holds power in Scotland and drives the independence quest is a centre-left party. Welsh independence fervour is also growing. In both Wales and Scotland, although you can find nationalists, to a great extent independence offers a pathway beyond British nationalism to recalibrate society and do politics differently.

Across Britain, politics needs to be done differently, and there are examples of movements on muncipalist pathways. One movement that self identifies as municipalist in the UK is Solidarity against neoliberal extremism (SANE), a social movement of movements co-creating a People’s Plan for Glasgow. This is planned to stand for Glasgow’s 2022 local elections. Although a small movement, SANE were strongly involved in the decentralised Cities for Change forum in early summer 2021, and are connected with the European Muncipalist Network.

There are also researchers who advocate for municipalism. For example, Municipal Enquiry which is a research project about municipalism in the UK and Research for Action, a worker cooperative researching local government finance, accountability and democratic deficit. Each collaborated within the recent Cities for Change forum to organise a digital space for social movements and municipalists to network and imagine collaboratively.

Community Wealth Building is an idea that shares many municipalist traits and is often held up as the most advanced municipalist (or municipalist socialist) project in the UK. The Labour council of Preston, North England, is a focal point for the creation of a local economics for the many, not the few. This model includes targeting procurement towards local cooperatives rather than sending millions to rich corporations, something that is business as usual across most of Britain. This politics has its roots in municipal socialism, and was driven recently by the left wing of the Labour Party, who have been greatly disparaged by their own party’s elites.

In small towns and rural areas – especially in the southwest of England – locals have converged to take over their local councils as independents dubbed Flatpack Democracy. This includes Frome, Buckfastleigh and Torridge. Frequently, closures to local services or another reason catalyses locals to take over their local authorities (e.g. town councils) and change the way politics is done, for instance ending archaic practices.

Neoliberalism has impoverished many people. Even before the pandemic there was a massive upsurge of food banks, mutual aid and charity. Politically some the mutual aid efforts connect to autonomous muncipalism, for instance Co-operation Towns is a network of local food co-operatives taking inspiration from Co-operation Jackson.

In Britain the municipalist praxis or even awareness is not wide, however its popularity is increasing. Britain has a rich ecosystem of social movements, many that share municipalist traits, yet that do not define or use the term municipalism. There are also social movements starting to form with potential municipalist paths ahead, including Beacon in Liverpool and Citizens’ Assembly of South Tyneside.

There is also contention around what is municipalism in the UK, a debate played out over whether municipal socialism is transformative or just local socialism. The Cities for Change local forums showed the energy for municipalism, with six well attended online events.

To imagine a municipalist horizon in the UK, one question about moving there is what social movements could be potential collaborators? The answer is broad, there are many organisations that work through decentralised and ground up means; including from anti-austerity and housing movements and the Right to the City; from ecological protectors to those pushing against an ever more draconian, racist and sexist state.

The Cities for Change local forums highlighted three ways to shine light on municipalist energy in the UK and provide space for it to grow.

  1. Practical skill shares
    Emerging municipalist projects can take a great deal of inspiration from each other and municipalisms further travelled (e.g from France, Spain, Italy). In action one example of this was SANE Glasgow held an event to draw on highsight from participants of Naples and Barcelona municipalisms. Not only are skill shares useful for emerging municipalist movements, but also for a broader UK audience to shed more light on municipalisms’ potentials.
  2. Create spaces to introduce social movements to municipalism
    One way to do this is through roundtable events where you have many speakers giving short introductions to both municipalist projects and social movements that share municipalist traits. Equally, more and more municipalism features at convergences/ events and this is another way to disperse its potential into people’s imaginations.
  3. Continue the embryonic network of UK municipalism
    There already exists a network of Flatpack Democracy small town and rural areas democratic takeovers. Likewise, there are growing connections between small and emerging platform municipalisms, and also with autonomous municipalisms. Although there needs to be further bonds and with like minded movements, such as municipal socialism.

Another potential pathway to articulate and reinforce municipalism in the UK would be to hold a decentralised event focusing on how municipalism can solve seismic crises. For instance, Glasgow will host the COP-26 Climate summit, which is just one up and coming moment where the municipalist energy in Glasgow could connect with other places that are transforming how politics are done and offer the chance to tackle the climate crisis – something that will not be achieved by governments in the actual COP-26 event.