By Steve Rushton

In May 2021, Research for Action, Municipal Enquiry and Cities for Change organised an online event called “Building local solidarity and horizontal power”. I collaborated on this project as the local forums facilitator for the UK and Nordic countries for Cities for Change, a decentralised forum initiated and organised by Amsterdam City Council that aimed to strengthen and network municipalism across the continent.

Together with Research for Action and Municipal Enquiry, we recognised that local government has been decimated by successive legislative changes and austerity, as Research for Action’s work has documented. It often feels politics provides little hope, with the biggest attack on our civil rights in decades underway and the Covid-19 pandemic having shown us the consequences of inequality like never before.

Yet that the pandemic has made us focus on our neighbourhoods, engaging in mutual aid and sharing food. As we wrote in the event invitation, solidarity has flourished where the state’s welfare network keeps withering, and it is clear we cannot rebuild the old system that has driven us into the current crises.

So we asked: Could this be the moment for a new political energy grounded in the local? What do we want our cities, towns and villages to look like? How do we build that?

With nearly 60 attendees, the event provided the opportunity for people working to co-create change from the ground up, to network and share skills. It created an autonomous space to collaboratively imagine that politics can be done differently. The event was a chance to share and broaden the conversation around municipalism, which is many ground-up ways of doing politics with democracy, deep ecology, anti-oppression and people at its heart.

Municipalism is about doing local politics differently

Across Europe there is a re-emergence in municipalism, kick-started with the wave of social movements that created political platforms to take over cities across the Spanish state in 2015.

What makes municipalism different from other electoral projects is that it is many different ground-up ways of doing politics. People coming together in a locality will choose how to take power differently, depending on the local political ecosystems and the specific manner that global crises impact people’s lives.

Equally, municipalism is about transformation. It recognises that we live in a world built around endemic crises from ecological meltdown to the impoverishment of the many, from structural oppressions such as racism and patriarchy to the abject failure of democracy within the nation state. The transformative element is about thinking beyond the state and beyond these interrelated crises.

An entry point towards understanding municipalism is looking at what municipalist movements are doing across Europe. Cities for Change was both about networking these movements and galvanising this energy. In Amsterdam – the host city of the decentralised event – a red-green city council has rejected the aim of infinite growth in favour of an economy based on living within the planet’s means. Barcelona is moving towards a feminised politics based on consensus, public assemblies and participation. It has also created a municipally owned green energy company and is clamping down on extractive landlords – amongst many achievements as one of the earliest newly emerging muncipalist cities. More recently in Zagreb, after years of corruption and cronyism, a broad alliance co-created a people’s plan for the city with over ten thousands residents’ engagement. These are just three examples of cities now taken over by coalitions of people, social movements and civil society.

Yet municipalism extends beyond winning local elections. In Naples, squatted social centres have been turned into common spaces, where they are ran collaboratively by public assemblies; something different from the public spaces controlled by the council or private spaces owned by corporations. This has been helped with the backing of a sympathetic mayor. Whilst in Berlin, housing activists are forming a coalition that is pressuring the local government to cap rents, with momentum underway for the city to buy private properties and turn them into social housing.

Creating spaces to collectively imagine

The aim of Cities for Change was to galvanise and network the energy around municipalism, which is growing from Portugal to Poland, the Balkans to the Baltic sea. So what about the UK?

We discovered that there is a great deal of emerging energy around different muncipalisms. We heard from SANE, a Glasgow-based group of social movements who are in the process of creating a People’s Plan for Glasgow for next year’s elections. In Buckfastleigh, people came together to take over their Parish Council after the privatisation of yet another public space was the last straw. This type of rural and small town democracy is part of Flatpack Democracy, which is an emerging network – with more successes at the local elections in May 2021.

But municipalism goes beyond the electoral. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a surge in mutual aid: Cooperation Town is a network of food cooperatives that were in part inspired by Cooperation Jackson, a ground-breaking project from Mississipi, US. We heard from numerous projects that were building power locally, even if they did not define themselves as municipalists. But the point was to bring people together to create a space to appreciate the power of the local.

Social inclusion and intergenerational solidarity were one strong theme that arose from the conversation, as was tackling the oppressions of sexism, racism and class. Co-operation is making people active political actors and neighbours again, rather than consumers. There was a strong DIY spirit in the initiatives we heard from, where people are taking matters into their own hands and working beyond institutions. We heard about several ‘trigger issues’ – such as the closure or privatisation of a community space or the hardship brought by the pandemic – that galvanised people to work together to turn away from crises, creating alternatives instead.

The absolute scale of the political, ecological and social crises shows that conventional politics is not fit for purpose. We need to radically rethink politics, focusing on the local, so it is done by everybody for everybody. To get there, we need more dialogue and collective imagining between social movements and other civil society actors.