Popular Democracy – Response by Adrian Bua

In this post Adrian Bua continues CURA’s third book debate by replying to Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Ernesto Ganuza’s first post outlining the argument in their recent book “Popular Democracy: the Paradox of Participation”.

Popular Democracy deals with an important question for contemporary debates on democratisation – what is the democratic potential of participatory governance in a context of deepening neo-liberalism? To answer this the book develops a history of changes in public administration theory and practice, and then focuses specifically on the origins and travel of Participatory Budgeting (PB) from Porto Alegre in Brazil to Cordoba in Europe and Chicago in North America. In doing so, the authors draw on years of research into participatory governance including ethnographies in the European and North American case studies.

On one hand, Popular Democracy tells a story of the neo-liberal usurpation of what was originally a radical and innovative attempt to revive the socialist project in the context of disillusionment with the pseudo-socialist regimes of Eastern Europe and elsewhere. However, as is clear from the author’s first post, as PB travelled the globe, it became disconnected from its original attempt to provide a collective space for the pursuit of distributive justice, to one oriented towards the individual expression of preferences (for an overview of this process of disconnection see here). On the other hand, the book also tells a more positive story about possibilities opened up by PB. In this post I invite the authors to elaborate upon the implications of their arguments for (a) the potential and limits of institutional design, and (b) the relationship between social struggle and participatory governance, and the role of the former in generating opportunities for empowerment.

First, a key argument of the book is that institutional design matters. Thus, as Ernesto and Gianpaolo argue in their initial entry, if participation is to be a genuinely democratising force, it should be clearly linked to binding decisions of state administration, which itself must adopt a participatory ‘modus operandi’  to accommodate participatory inputs. For reasons I won’t repeat here, but have summarised in another review, this was achieved in Porto Alegre – which turns minds to the claim that processes and institutions can be designed by elites to empower citizens. This is a key tenet of “top-down democratisation”.  I would like to ask the authors, firstly, to what extent is success down to the technicalities of getting the institutional design “right”, or is it more to do with politics? The second question is about how far institutional design can go – to what extent can a well-designed Participatory Budget influence fundamental questions about political economy, including how resources are distributed; where economic power lies? The challenge here might be that there is space for participatory governance in times of plenty, but it hits the buffers when resources are scarce and there is more conflict over both the size of budgets and distribution.

International research into collaborative governance led by us at CURA broaches the question of what happens to collaborative practice and ideology during capitalist busts – in times such as the present one, of low growth and austerity. Our cases vary. To give two examples, in the UK it is clear that participatory governance has lost the normative power it once had amongst local state actors. It has become a tool for the local state to manage the consequences of, and adapt to, austerity and scarcity – a far cry away from the empowering and democratising claims associated with it in earlier times. However, in Barcelona, municipal government is experimenting with radicalised forms of participatory governance. Although hopeful, this experiment is severely limited. It is a crosscurrent, even if a strong one, to a hostile Spanish state which continues to deepen neo-liberalism. Still, the fact that such experiments are taking place in various Spanish cities indicates a more generalised ambition for a more participatory democracy and an alternative, more socially just, political economy.

The experience in Barcelona, and Spain more broadly, is rooted in the oppositional and pre-figurative politics of post-crash social movements based around the 15-M demonstrations. The influence of PB upon these social movements is alluded to in the book, which argues that despite their clear limitations, the experience of US and Spanish PB ignited a radicalism which lived on in mass mobilisations such as occupy in the US and the indignados in Spain. It evoked new political subjects and expanded social imaginaries beyond the boundaries of representation in ways that contributed to the alternatives proposed by these movements. This is an interesting argument because critics of elite democracy promotion (or ‘governance-driven democratisation’ for others) argue that it forecloses, and diverts energy away from, more critical and bottom up forms of participation and struggle which have historically been perhaps the main democratising force. Given the different outcomes observed in our own research, at which point, and why, do the authors think that the demands they made translated into this substantive reform agenda within formal political institutions? At the level of direct participants this seems counter-intuitive – surely, taking part in the kinds of individualised, zero-sum processes the authors describe in their initial post must be a disappointing and disempowering experience? I would like to ask the authors to expand on how is it that more radical and democratic subjects emerge from this, particularly in light of the much-discussed diminution out of the Porto-Alegre model?

This question brings me to my final point.  Ernesto and Gianpaolo’s account points to a non-dichotomous, even complementary, relationship between top-down and bottom-up spaces of participation. Municipal governments like Barcelona en Comu and Ahora Madrid evidence this kind of relationship – they are rooted in grassroots oppositional politics, but now engage in institutional design and policy making. Their move into the state means a move “from protest to proposition”. At the end of the book the authors argue that the challenge for the future is to make the most of the critical energies summoned by participatory experiences like PB. I would like to close by asking what advice the authors have for radical administrations currently experimenting with participatory governance.  Do they think that this participatory milieu in urban governance can be shored up and avoid neo-liberal co-option – and what is the role, if any, for critical and oppositional forms of participation and social struggle in this?

One respondent from the fieldwork in Barcelona (see p. 17 here), put the contextual challenges faced by this project well:

“The tools are very tiny and the expectations are great. How can the City Council of a city that is globally located on the map of the relevant cities in the world, which attracts migratory flows, capital flows… how can it manage a power that it does not have? The City Council does not have the power of the city. It is a very small portion of power”.

Adrian Bua is a researcher and a core member of CURA.

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Urban Futures Podcast – Tackling City Decline with Andy Pike

In this second edition of the Urban Futures podcast we talk to Andy Pike, Professor of Local and Regional Development and Director of the Centre for Urban and Regional Development studies, at Newcastle University about recent work he and his colleagues have carried out into city decline in the UK.

You can download the podcast on soundcloud and itunes.

The Declining Cities report, analyses city decline in the UK and reviews international experience for learning. The research seeks to address a gap in urban research agendas that have tended to focus on successful, thriving cities rather than the situation of and policies needed in cities coping with relative decline. The report develops an index of city decline and a typology of relatively declining cities which is used to measure the scale and nature of city decline in the UK. It also includes a review of UK and international literature on policy responses to city decline as well as an assessment of the implications of the evidence for declining UK cities.

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Patterns of Neoliberalisation and Resistance

Professor Jonathan Davies introduces a new paper “Austerity Urbanism: Patterns of Neoliberalisation and Resistance in Six Cities of Spain and the UK”. The paper is co-authored with Ismael Blanco and published in Environment and Planning A. The article is fully open access and can be downloaded at the link above.

The relationship between austerity, neoliberalism and the governance of cities has been the source of intense debate since the 2008 crash. We develop a fresh perspective, through a six-case comparative analysis of austerity urbanism in Spain (Barcelona, Donostia, Lleida and Madrid) and the UK (Cardiff and Leicester).

We begin by looking at a continuum of perspectives on neoliberalism, from thinkers like Perry Anderson who see it as a globalising hegemonic strategy of historically unprecedented influence, to urbanists, who see it as infinitely variegated and even disappearing when studied under a fine-grain analytical lens. Our argument is that if, in the spirit of critical realism, we treat social life as stratified and scaled, then these analytical polarities are not mutually exclusive. Divergence at one level of analysis can underpin convergence at another – and indeed vice-versa.  Convergence and divergence should therefore be understood in relational terms.

Following this intuition, our central argument is – perhaps unsurprisingly – that culturally, politically and economically diverse austerity regimes tend to strengthen neoliberalism in both Spain and the UK.  Urban austerity regimes are far more strongly embedded in UK cities than in Spain, bearing witness to the enduring shadow cast over local politics by the Thatcherite shock of the 1980s.  Yet, in cities where anti-austerity struggles are highly developed, as in Barcelona and Madrid, the potential for urban transformations is both tantalizing and fraught with difficulties.  At the same time, the breadth of regional variation in Spain leads us to follow Patrick Le Gales (2016) in asking where “neoliberalism” begins and ends. Donostia, for example, retains a strong commitment to public welfare, made possible by the relative economic strength and autonomy of the Basque region and the durability of local welfarist traditions across the electoral divide. Hence, while explaining how local varieties of neoliberalism strengthen neoliberalism as a global project, we also recognize limits to the concept and the potential for overcoming it through resistance grounded in urban politics.

Theoretically, we follow a regime approach, developing a heuristic analysis based on Clarence N. Stone’s “iron law”. Stone (2015) states that for any governing regime to succeed, resources must be commensurate with the agenda pursued. This simple formulation provides a helpful lens for bringing our diverse case studies into a meaningful conversation with one another, around the question of what alliances are forged among which actors, mobilizing what resources in pursuit of which goals – and with what limitations?  Applying this lens allows us to develop an inductive comparison around a thematically structured discussion of austerity governance and resistance in our six cities. Through this approach we benchmark the powers and limitations of neoliberal austerity regimes.

We finally consider the implications of our study for conceptualizing neoliberalism and for further developing urban regime analysis in the spirit of Stone’s iron law. The paper concludes with eight propositions to inform future studies of austerity urbanism.  We hope readers find them useful and stimulating.

Jonathan Davies is Director of CURA and Professor of Critical Policy Studies at De Montfort University

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How the world’s first Social Impact Bond drained public resources, and why the market model fails forward

In today’s blog, Robert Ogman argues that success stories on the social investment market are hiding inconvenient truths, and require honest rethink about such risky and expensive policy experiments

In 2009, when governments took on enormous debts to rescue the crumbling financial sector, they sought to address the fiscal crisis by slashing funding to the public sector in the turn to austerity. The conservatives called for a “Big Society” to fill the gap for scaled-back social protections, but quickly realising that nothing comes for free, sought to link the resource-weak social sector to capital markets ‘awash with liquidity’ (IMF), through the Cabinet Office’s new “social investment bank”, Big Society Capital. Private surpluses, could be ‘mobilised’ to offset government funding gaps, through loans to civil society groups coping with deepening social crises. In the ‘age of austerity’ (Cameron), the Social Investment Market is a magic bullet: It should offset fiscal problems by securing new pools of capital, address social problems by expanding the social sector, and make capitalism responsible by directing investors towards products with societal benefit. So were the praises sung by the father of venture capitalism, Sir Ronald Cohen, now involved in Big Society Capital, the Social Finance organization, and a host of ‘impact’-oriented initiatives.

Central to this broad policy initiative is the Social Impact Bond, a mechanism to address three interlinked problems, namely, to create ‘inclusive growth’ and ‘shared value’ as a new economic model, to offset public fiscal deficits with private investment, and to ‘solve society’s most intractable social problems’ by expanding preventative services. This experiment was tested in Peterborough as the world’s first SIB, bringing together market, government, and societal actors seeking to ‘break the cycle of reincarceration’. Investors provided £5 million as working capital for organisations, who adapted an anti-recidivism programme by St. Giles Trust , to reduce reconvictions of people released from short-term sentences at the local prison. If it reduced reconviction by 7.5% compared to a control group, the Ministry of Justice anticipated related reductions in its budget. It hoped that lower court, police, prison, and other criminal justice expenses could amount to up to £90m. If the project succeeds, a portion of these savings would be used to repay investors plus dividend. If it missed its mark, investors risked losing their capital. The idea was that this would “transfer the [financial] risk to the investors”, as Social Finance writes.

A central pillar of SIBs is the fiscal argument. As project manager of the Peterborough project and major driver of U.K. SIBs, Social Finance describes as a “precondition of a successful [SIB]”, that the savings are larger than the service intervention costs. In a time of fiscal constraint, the SIBs were meant to ‘do more with less’, downsizing prisons, and in doing so, ‘paying for themselves’. They were sold to the electorate under the mantra of presenting “no risk to the taxpayer”. In fact, without such fiscal pressures, one might ask whether this policy would have gotten off the ground at all, let alone accelerate an international diffusion of nearly 90 projects in 19 countries in the value of £300, according to Social Finance.

The final results for the Peterborough project came in this week achieving a 9% reduction in recidivism among its 2,000 person target group. In their statement, Social Finance praised the reductions in reoffending and the repayment of investors. The Ministry of Justice played the same tune and Gordon Brown praised the project in the same manner. Yet, as advocates were patting themselves on the backs, they were also moving the goal posts, with negative implications for the public. The new storyline neglected any reference to fiscal issues. This covered up the inconvenient truth that the Peterborough project would not pay for itself, as Rand wrote in a report for the Ministry of Justice. Absent savings, investors would effectually be paid through new expenditure, from tax payer dollars in the Ministry of Justice’s budget, and public money from the Big Lottery Fund, who rescued the project with a multi-million pound subsidy. While the project was supposed to allow government to ‘mobilise private capital for public good’, the Peterborough experiment appears to inverse this, compelling the government to “fill the funding gap for UK social impact bonds”, when they fail to create expected savings. This fiasco is just the latest example of a blunders associated with the uncritical approach to market-style governance.

While mistakes are common in policy innovations, there appears little concern to reassess the project. Instead, new efforts are being made to shore up the model despite its problems. Anticipating future failures, the Cabinet Office and the Big Lottery Fund conjured up £60 million of special “outcome funds” to subsidise investor returns when SIBs fail to create anticipated efficiency gains.

But now one really has to ask what the fiscal logic is for these projects. If SIBs were partially designed to help government out of a fiscal jam, now they’re placing more pressure on the budget, simply to pay investor returns on projects they’ve contributed no social value to. One wonders why the government should continue a project meant to reduce fiscal pressure, when it is now increasing expenditure with no added value?

So long as the government continues to cut public resources, and refuses to draw in revenue through taxation of concentrated private wealth, we’ll likely see more of such unhelpful market governance schemes, with attractive language but poor outcomes.

While many supporters of SIBs view them sympathetically, they do so because they would like to see more investment in social protections, more market actor involvement in societally beneficial endeavors, and more private contribution to the rebalancing of public finances. But the Peterborough problems show that joining market governance to ‘public responsibility’ are a weak compromise, they can inhibit these goals, and may produce contradictory results. The shortcomings of the Peterborough pilot require more than a tinkering with existing market governance models, and instead an honest rethinking of broader policy directions, asking how the economy may be more adequately ‘re-embedded’ in structures of public accountability.

Robert Ogman is a member of CURA and a doctoral researcher at the Department of Politics and Public Policy at De Montfort University.

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Dissemination Report: Governing in and Against Austerity

We are delighted to publish our dissemination report for the Austerity Governance project. It is titled Governing in and Against Austerity and provides an overview and reports initial findings from our eight case studies of austerity governance in Athens, Baltimore, Barcelona, Dublin, Leicester, Melbourne, Montreal and Nantes.

We warmly welcome comments and feedback, you can download the document on the hyperlink above.

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Popular Democracy by Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Ernesto Ganuza

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In this post Ernesto Ganuza and Gianpaolo Baiocchi begin our third instalment of CURA’s Book Debates series by outlining the main argument in their recently co-authored book “Popular Democracy: the Paradox of Participation” – where they trace the development of participatory governance, focusing specifically on the paradigmatic process of Participatory Budgeting, its origins in the Southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, and its subsequent globalization as it travelled to European and North American cities. In a forthcoming post, CURA’s Adrian Bua will write a response and Ernesto and Gianpaolo will close the debate with a reply.

No one can escape the fact that we live in an era where calls for participation are ubiquitous. Participation is seen as the solution to the failings of democracy and a weakened civic spirit. Today, political actors, from specialists to politicians and administrators, compete to bear the heraldry of participation. We are talking about a new political hegemony.

This participatory era rests on new kinds of participatory processes that are different in spirit to those in the 70’s. Participation nowadays focusses on the public in general, in the form of deliberative spaces in which individuals, rather than civic associations, are invited to reflect on public affairs, and, in many cases to make policy decisions.  A direct form of participation is invoked that breaks with the tradition of relegating participation to a mere measure of public opinion.

However, viewed historically, this expansion of participation is somewhat paradoxical. Participation has ceased to be a counter-power like that of the 1970’s, and has become part of the functioning of administration and formal political power. It is a process of top-down democratization. Beginning with the revolts of the seventies against centralized bureaucracies, public administration has found in participation a faithful ally in its attempt to become more proximate to society, and realise the need for the public legitimation of politics. Participatory rhetoric has changed the hallmark with which it was usually presented – from prostesting, to proposing. Participation in the new spaces is not a matter of oppositional reclamation, but of constructive proposition.

Criticisms of this historical process have by no means been delayed. Both the content and context of this new political hegemony have been linked to the predatory spirit of neoliberalism. After all, participation’s logic is close to neoliberalism’s entrepreneurial spirit – do it yourself! This criticism is most forceful in a context in which the political impact of participation in cities is doubted. Just when there is no city in the world that does not invite citizens to participate, participation has lost its social justice focus, and provides spaces for consumerist disputes instead.

Faced with this all-engulfing neoliberal wave, the book explores the birth and journey of one of the most emblematic participatory processes; that of participatory budgeting. As a metaphor for this new political hegemony, we have seen how the travel of participation leads to its trivialization and disengagement from political processes as it lands on new shores. In this process, full of contradictions and popular struggles between lay citizens and elites such as experts, bureaucrats and politicians, the dilemma of participation’s neo-liberalization comes into view.

The problem of participation lies in thinking about the link between opinion and power only in terms of the relationship between citizens and representatives, without taking into account how political institutions work. Participation then becomes limited to a process for revealing public preferences. As good as that may be for some, it forgets all the second-order issues involved in politics: priorities must be defined in a (democratic) setting characterised by the equality of all and the existence of finite resources. It is therefore not enough to count proposals, nor to turn participation into a zero-sum game. You win, I lose. Information and debate are needed before deciding. A practical and material concept of the equality that offers everybody a real voice is needed. Therefore, it is not surprising that if we understand participation as an expression of individual preferences, in this context of finite resources, participatory processes become platforms for the selfish pursuit of individual interests.

Participation aims to build bridges between politics and society, but when it is disconnected from institutions it can degenerate into fatuous disputes. In other words, if participation is to claim a legitimate presence in contemporary society it will need to be linked to the workings of public administration. To achieve this, it is necessary to develop administrative reforms that envisage a participatory modus operandi. Otherwise participation will always be peripheral to both politics and social developments – and will thus fail to resolve democracy’s problems and the need for the public legitimation of political decisions.

Gianpolo Baiocchi is associate professor of individualized studies and sociology, as well as director of the Urban Democracy Lab and Civic Engagement at the, Gallatin School, New York University.

Ernesto Ganuza is a researcher at the Centre for Advanced Social Studies, Spanish National Research Council (IESA- CSIC) in Cordoba, Spain.

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Interrogating Urban Crisis

In today’s post, Professor Jonathan Davies explains the arguments developed in the introductory piece to a special issue of Urban Studies on the governance, contestation and critique of urban crises. The paper, co-authored by Jonathan, Mustafa Bayırbağ  and Sybille Münch, is open access until 25th August 2017.  

The central problematic addressed in our framing paper, is that the meaning and application of “urban crisis” is far too nebulous and imprecise.  The paper seeks to address this problem by opening up the concept of urban crisis to critical scrutiny.  We start by exploring how urban ‘crisis-talk’ tends to over-extend the concept in ways that can render it shallow or even meaningless. We then look at different ways in which the terminology of urban crisis is employed in the literature and throughout our collection of essays. We thereby disclose six framings of urban crisis, tabulated on page 2026. These framings are structure, alienation, politics, construction, boundaries and indeterminacy.  We suggest that each framing is linked to a specific set of analytical and political problematics. We hope researchers find these framings and the problematics to which we think they give rise useful in developing refined approaches to urban crisis, particularly in studies of the governance and contestation of austerity urbanism.

The Interrogating Urban Crisis conference was funded through the Urban Studies/Urban Studies Foundation Seminar Series /Competition. http://www.urbanstudiesfoundation.org. We are very grateful for their invaluable support.

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Urban Futures Podcast – the Grounded City with Karel Williams

We are delighted to launch CURA’s “Urban Futures” podcast series with this edition on the “Grounded Citymanhattan-67474_960_720” with Karel Williams, Professor of Accounting and Political Economy at the University of Manchester.

If you use iTunes click here to listen and download the podcast, otherwise you can use soundcloud – and remember to leave a rating / comments!

Some more information below.

In his and his colleagues work on the “Grounded City” Karel argues that the dominance of theories of urban agglomeration in urban policy making reflect a belated recognition of “the urban” by neo-liberal economists. However, Karel and his colleagues argue that there are fundamental deficiencies in the agglomeration approach which rise from the imperialism, and hubris, of classical economics in social science. The “Grounded City” offers an alternative policy imaginary which is interdisciplinary in nature but draws principally on the urban historiography of Fernand Braudel and other scholars such as Charles Tilly – literatures which agglomeration theories simply fail to recognise.

 

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From Surge to Sensation: Corbynism and the Unexpected Renaissance of the British Left

CURA director Professor JonathJeremy_Corbyn_speaking_at_the_Labour_Party_General_Election_Launch_2017an Davies reflects on the implications of June’s general election result for the socialist left in the UK.

When Jeremy Corbyn was first elected in 2015, I argued that he would only be able to resist the establishment backlash, especially from his own perfidious MPs, if he could make the surge that propelled him to the Labour leadership infectious. When Theresa May called the General Election on 18th April 2017, there was precious little sign of this happening. Labour was polling in the 20s; the Tories seemed on course for a landslide and the left set for a historic defeat. The renaissance between then and the election of 8th June is staggering and of historic proportions. Corbyn’s election campaign, a simple left wing manifesto, mass rallies, positive media exposure and an appeal rooted in his quiet sense of personal authenticity, has transformed the prospects for the left in Britain.  The Corbyn surge has indeed become infectious.  In the process, it has shattered several myths.

It first shatters the myth of “unelectability” peddled by critics from the now-contrite Owen Jones rightwards. If a Corbyn led Labour Party can achieve more than 40%, only a month after polling 28%, there does not seem to be any inherent barrier to it winning 45% or 50% of the vote. Corbyn’s success is performative: as a Guardian columnist put it, “the more plausible he looks, the more support he will gather“.  This insight was borne out by an initial post-election Survation poll, showing Labour now in a 6% lead. Moreover, even before the surge got going Corbyn was more popular, not only than the toxic figure of Tony Blair, but also Ed Miliband, former leadership rival Yvette Cooper and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. The takeaway lesson from the election is simple: a left wing candidate can win on a left wing manifesto.

Second, and relatedly, the Corbyn campaign shatters the self-serving establishment delusion that we have entered an age of “post-truth” politics, where emotion and belief hold sway over reason and fact. Academia is notorious for making epochs out of fads, and “post-truth” politics is a case in point. Corbyn and Bernie Sanders in the USA both tap into a fervent sense of possibility. There is a craving for authenticity, the hope that sincerely held beliefs can be rendered factual and truthful on the ground: that ordinary people can once again exercise influence, if not mastery, in the political world.

It thirdly shatters another self-serving establishment myth: that young people won’t vote. It rather confirms that abstention was not due to “apathy”, but reasonable and reasoned “antipathy”, or alienation. For decades, the mainstream political parties had nothing to offer people demoralised or repelled by neoliberal groupthink.  For a long time, there has been good in-depth research refuting the theory of “apathy”, ignored by psephologists and pundits (e.g. Marsh, O’Toole and Jones, 2007). The reprehensible Tory claim that Corbyn bribed younger people to vote for ‘free stuff’ is further refuted by evidence showing tuition fees were by no means top of their list of concerns.  Nonetheless, Corbynism resurrects the idea that  “free stuff” funded from progressive taxation is precisely the mark of a decent society and that burdening young people with £80 billion in tuition fee debt was a national disgrace.

Fourth, it shatters the conveniently anti-working class myth that Brexit and UKIP voters are one-dimensional racists. At the start of the election, it seemed that UKIP had done its job and the Tories were set to clean up in former Labour heartlands. To be sure, a large number of working class UKIP votes did go to the Tories, but many were convinced to vote Labour.  Surely, then, more still can be won back. It is worth recalling that until Cameron called his referendum, EU membership was a non-issue. A year later it seems to be a non-issue once again. To the consternation of both Leavers and Remainers, Brexit did not dominate the election. In good part thanks to the Corbyn campaign, nor did immigration. Ideological and everyday racism remains a huge issue in British politics and society. The Leave vote unleashed an appalling wave of hate crimes, as did the recent terror attacks in Manchester and London.  Yet, Labour’s campaign on an optimistic anti-austerity, pro-public services platform has begun to change the narrative on both immigration and security. Given an alternative upbeat political focus, fear of foreigners began to slip down the list of voter concerns.

A fifth myth, now shattered, is that a supine and impotent left could do nothing about Brexit but seek to retain membership of the “single market” described by New Labour spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, as “Mrs Thatcher’s greatest achievement”. To cling to the single market under current rules is effectively to say that corporate interests must always dictate how the British economy is run.  Arch-Brexit Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan pointed out that “several trade union and Labour figures, including some Remainers, now see Brexit as an opportunity to withdraw from EU rules that hamper the nationalisation of industries, and encourage contracting out of public services to private firms”. During the EU referendum campaign, this so-called #Lexit position – for a left wing Brexit – was dismissed as fantasy politics, even by committed socialists. Today, it does not appear quite so fanciful. Labour will undoubtedly have to take a clearer position if it enters government and set out the economic and political parameters of what a progressive Brexit, including the idea of a “reformed” single market, might look like. The defence and extension of free movement remains an inviolable principle for the internationalist left, an issue Labour has fudged. But whatever this position might be, the left is now in a position to influence the debate.

What of the broader significance of the Corbyn surge? I have long been wary of using the word “crisis” to describe the drearily routine politics of the UK under austerity. While there has been enormous suffering for which the term “social crisis” is apt, in politics “crisis” is meant to convey a sense of upheaval conspicuously missing for much of David Cameron’s “age of austerity” (see Bayırbağ, Davies and Münch, 2017). However, in winning over nearly 13 million people, Corbyn may have provoked an incipient full-blown crisis of the British state, something that appeared until recently to have been averted in the aftermath of Brexit. This is partly a crisis of political legitimacy.  The prospect of a weak and divided Tory government propped up by the Democratic Unionist Party, a pre-historically bigoted organisation whose culture and politics are alien to the vast majority of Britons, looks like a recipe for instability and strife.  It is also partly, at last, a political crisis of neoliberalism. This is the authoritarian “free market” doctrine that Britain’s politicians managed to resuscitate after the 2008/9 economic crisis. Presented with an intelligible non-UKIP alternative to the debilitating free market austerity consensus, people were very quickly persuaded and voted for it. Most importantly this is, and has the potential to further become, a crisis of hegemony in which the left in all its forms can fight with renewed confidence for socialist alternatives.  A new wave of anti-austerity struggles is one possibility, linked to the refusal of Tory hard Brexit logics – notably Mrs May’s threat to turn Britain into an offshore tax haven.

From the standpoint of austerity, the revival of the British left through the improbable vehicle of Corbyn’s Labour Party is thus a cause for optimism.  But it certainly is not cause for complacency. Whether the notoriously fractious British left can seize the moment remains to be seen. Little has yet been won and the British ruling class in both its economic and political guises is a formidably ruthless force. The neoliberal Blairite wing is already on manoeuvres. In the Mail on Sunday, Peter Mandelson called for “moderate” Labour MPs to stand by Theresa May, provided she takes a more flexible approach. He enjoined that “mainstream Labour MPs, who worry about the impact of the continuing Corbyn revolution on centrist voters, should be prepared to stand by the wounded PM, and likewise she should welcome their approach in the national interest”. If nothing else, this shocking intervention lays bare the extraordinary lengths to which the Blairite right will go to sabotage the left. On the electoral front, voting preferences are extremely fluid. Since the 2015 election, a working class Labour voter might have migrated from Ed Miliband to UKIP via Brexit and then to the Tories, only to be won back at the last minute by Jeremy Corbyn. This fluidity shows that Labour can no longer rely on traditional working class affiliations: it can only win through building and sustaining political credibility. Nor should we overestimate the influence of socialist ideas. Moreover the battles Corbyn faced as Labour leader seem trivial compared with what he would endure as a socialist prime minster, presiding over an ailing 21st Century British capitalism – potentially severed from its European markets.

But with these necessary warnings this is, at last, a time for optimism among anti-austerity forces and the left. The new politics fits very well with our core research priority in CURA, to explore the parameters and potentialities of the emancipatory city. As his enormous election rallies attest the Corbyn surge is, if nothing else, an urban movement anchored in Britain’s cities. If it is to progress further, with the age of austerity finally brought to a close, urban politics will be crucial.

Jonathan Davies is Professor of Critical Policy Studies and Director of the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity at De Montfort University.

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Communities first? Hybridity helps understand governing neighbourhoods under austerity

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Madeleine Pill and Valeria Guarneros-Mesa report on their research into hybridity and city governance in Cardiff, which was recently published in Policy and Politics.

Welsh Government is phasing out its (former flagship) Communities First tackling poverty programme from 2017/18.  The Bevan Foundation, a think tank, has stressed that subsequent local action should be led by ‘community anchors’ – community-based organisations with a good track-record and strong community engagement.  Our research using the conceptual framework of hybridity – conducted as part of the Transgob project in Cardiff, Wales – supports this recommendation, and highlights the need for local government to relinquish its former levels of control to give these organisations space to develop approaches which work for their communities.

The research explored what austerity means for participation in city governance.  The optimistic view is that making governance more participatory can help overcome the hurdles of bureaucracy, with government ceding control to enable capacity to address complex problems.  The pessimistic view is that city governance remains dominated by state elites, with third sector and community partners co-opted to compensate for the decline in state provision, compromising their ability to advocate for and ensure that communities get decent services.  In Cardiff we uncovered attitudes and practices somewhere in between these two views.

We found that austerity had accelerated the city council’s use of its city governance structure, the Cardiff Partnership, to share the risk and responsibility of service delivery with other public organisations, but also with third sector organisations and neighbourhood-level community groups.  Communities were certainly having to take more responsibility for delivering their own (formerly public) services, such as play and youth services and the maintenance of parks, sports grounds and streets.  Those at the neighbourhood frontline faced tensions and power conflicts in trying to develop workable practice.  But we did find that community-based organisations had some room for manoeuvre in developing forms of co-production that were rooted in communities as well as responding to the strictures of funding cuts.  One example was time-banking, championed by a deprived community-based organisation in south Cardiff.  The approach means that volunteers can exchange equivalent hours of providing a service such as kids’ school holiday activities for other services.  The scheme was underpinned by the council offering access to facilities such as swimming pools, but the opportunities to spend credits earned within the community were expanding, indicating potential for it to become self-sustaining (and thus definitively community-led).  But it was too early in our research to tell whether attempts to replicate it will be successful.

The city council was also seeking to transfer assets such as libraries and community centres to communities.  The frustrations of this process – such as the need for willing community groups to become formalised organisations – showed the need for change in the council’s attitudes to risk.  In the words of a Welsh Government officer, government needs to ‘recognise that the cheapest and best way to achieve real things is to spot what people are doing for themselves and support them’.

When the Communities First programme was reshaped in 2011, Cardiff Council innovated by contracting community-based organisations to manage the four deprived neighbourhood ‘clusters’ eligible for programme support. In so doing, the council downloaded risk and offloaded staff costs as the organisations took on responsibility for finance, HR and evaluation – thus becoming hybrid third-public sector organisations.  Their staff had to navigate the tensions and dilemmas of implementing a (national) programme, engaging in the (city-wide) strategy overseen by the Cardiff Partnership, and the needs and demands of their communities.  Doing this aligned with the demands of austerity, enrolling these community organisations into service delivery in ways that included voluntarism, thus increasing community self-reliance.  But we also found, to an extent, that community organisation staff were able to innovate (such as with timebanking) – and in ways that maintained their community-focused mission.

Therefore our Cardiff research shows how the ‘devolution, decentralisation and downloading’ of Peck’s (2012) ‘austerity urbanism’ encourages hybridity at a scalar, organisational and individual level.  But our research also reinforces the need to understand local practices to provide insight beyond the dualism of empowerment or incorporation.  The Cardiff experience of participatory governance demonstrates the potential for transformative alternatives in the everyday and the small-scale – and also highlights the need for state supports rather than constraints in these processes.   In the case of Wales, the need to sustain the work of community anchors should be a priority.

The ‘Transgob’ project analysed the discourse and practice of participatory urban governance under austerity in two British (Cardiff and Leicester) and four Spanish cities.  It was funded by the Spanish government’s National Research and Development Plan (reference CSO2012-32817).

Madeleine Pill is Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Sydney, and Valeria Guarneros-Mesa is Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at De Montfort University, as well as a core member of the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity

 

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