Authored by: Adrian Bua and Jonathan Davies, Centre for Urban Research on Austerity
In May 2015, New Municipalist candidacies entered City Hall in a range of major urban centres throughout Spain. Their policy agendas aimed to transform urban political economies and cleanse politics, whilst acting as a spearhead for deeper changes at higher state tiers and society at large. The New Municipalism involved a radically democratic approach to a perennial issue facing the left: the question of the state. A great example of what Marx meant when he stated that men make history, but they do not do so in conditions of their own choosing, the state is an ensemble of organizations, institutions and actors bound by relations, rules and practices sedimented and inscribed by past struggles and politics. What to do with this dynamic but slow moving, co-ordinated but contradictory institutional ensemble has always been one of the greatest questions facing the left. Its complexity and conservative inertias often draw left activists away from it, whilst its importance in reproducing capitalism highlights the inevitability of engaging with it.
The New Municipalist strategy was for citizen-led platforms to target municipal institutions, using participatory and direct processes to constitute and govern themselves and the municipality. In this way, the streets could enter the institutions and the state would be transformed from the bottom up. Municipalist candidacies following this strategy spread all over Spain in 2015.
In a recent article in Urban Studies, we analyse the experience of Municipalist candidacies in two large urban centres in Galicia, North West Spain. Impressive victories in 2015 in Ferrol, Santiago and A Coruña did not carry through to the 2019 elections, and the Municipalists faced severe issues implementing their agenda during the four-year term, which we document in the cases of Santiago and Coruña. Drawing the correct lessons from the achievements and limitations of those experiences is crucial for future cycles of contention and windows of opportunity for change.
The Municipalist wager in Coruña and Santiago
As in the rest of Spain, austerity in Galicia had led to a sharp fall in living standards and prospects following the 2008 crisis, especially felt by young whose options were to migrate to other parts of Europe or remain in precarity; while corruption scandals deeply undermined citizens’ trust in conventional politics. The 15-M protest cycle deepened this crisis of legitimacy. In A Coruña and Santiago, two municipalist candidacies were constituted: Marea Atlántica and Compostela Aberta, respectively.
The formation of both candidacies reflected the fast-pace of the political moment, beginning late in 2014 and going well into 2015. Their policy agendas included measures such as public housing support, municipal basic income, re-municipalizations, municipal debt audits, progressive property taxation, participatory budgeting and the promotion of Galician culture. Commitments to green transition, feminism, radical democracy and the reversal of neoliberalism and clientelism were transversal elements. The cracks opened by the 15-M, sharpened by local corruption scandals, opened a window of opportunity which both candidacies were agile enough to take advantage of, forming minority governments at the May 2015 elections.
Their experience in government was, however, troublesome and short-lived. The rest of the article examines the Municipalists achievements and limitations in three areas: their attempts to transform the urban economy; build social counterpower; and transform the state from within.
Transforming the urban economy
Real estate had been the key locus of the economic crisis pervading the Spanish state. Both administrations shared a commitment to increase public housing stock and stop speculative real estate and construction. Changes in public service contracting were high on the agenda, seen as a way to cut neoliberal clientelisms and as a lever to build alternative economies. Santiago also prioritised the need to diversify beyond, and control, tourism, whilst Coruña readied to halt the privatisation of the Port.
Notwithstanding the legitimacy crisis of the previous regime, a complete reconstruction of the urban economies was a deep challenge. Despite notable victories, such as the institution of a Municipal basic income in Santiago, municipalists faced problems managing long term economic developments outside the scope of Municipal policy. Moreover, affected interests mobilised against changes in urban planning and subcontracting, leading to administrative obstructions and judicializations. Progress was slow, and media outlets tied to previous regimes eagerly reported on set-backs. As a result, the municipalists were more successful blocking previous policies, such as the privatization of the Port in Coruña or the transferring of a large water sanitation plant to an environmentally valuable area in Santiago, than they were in instituting an alternative. This fed opposition and media narratives around chaos and economic paralysis, which would be repeated, and stick, as the main narrative against municipalist governance.
Maintaining the political momentum that swept the Municipalists to City Hall was a key feature of the strategy to implement their reform agenda. Crucial to this was continued collaboration with social movements and their activist base, as well as investment in direct and participatory democratic processes. By involving, and politicising, a broader range of urban dwellers than those usually involved in urban administration, the municipalists hoped to open political space implement reforms.
However, advances in direct democracy were not continuous or transversal enough to construct the kinds of active citizens that are central to the municipalist imaginary. Moreover, direct democracy involved changes to the forms of intermediation between City Hall and urban citizens, usually the task of neighbourhood associations. Side-stepping them through new and more direct forms of democracy, the municipalists lost potential allies, leaving administrations with intermediational and communicative deficits impeding the rationalisation of policies to urban dwellers. These problems would become especially severe in the face of sustained attacks by politically hostile local and regional media, which had seen its advertising budget from City Hall cut. Hence, Municipalists were almost defenseless in the face of sustained media attacks around paralysis and chaos.
This was further exacerbated by the degeneration of the relationship with social movements and much of their activist base. Activist calls for greater accountability and responsiveness exacerbated the besieged mentality of municipalists politicians, who complained at a lack of moral support from their base. The base itself had also diminished in size and capacity, as urban dwellers de-mobilised, Municipalist candidacies began to look like more traditional political parties.
Transforming the state from within
Municipalists advocated the cleansing of state institutions through a radically democratic and transparent politics. Policies such as salary caps for politicians aimed to ensure governing integrity and avoid professionalisation. The municipalist were also initially non-interventionist in appointing City Hall personnel, both because this was seen as a replication of clientelistic practices, and because the municipalists thought they could build alliances within the civil service.
Despite their good intentions, municipalist governance would, however, come up against an ankylosed, and often hostile, administrative system. A series of administrative blockages left policies hanging: conspicuous absences of key information, failure to ensure that policies met basic legal protocols, leaks to the press, and basic procedural ‘mistakes’. Unexpected battles over mundane and routine matters would bog municipalists down. This was exacerbated by the legislative weakness of the platforms. Conversely, political opposition by traditional parties was extraordinarily united during the municipalists’ term. Conventional opponents on right and left, turned into allies with the aim of overcoming the New Municipalist disruption of institutional normality.
These impediments were exacerbated by errors of the municipalist platforms. Thus, while Municipalists were under severe duress, there were under-exploited spaces for action. Many municipalist councillors were professionals or activists with high levels of sectoral knowledge, but lacked experienced in formal politics and administration, and had little knowledge of the specific institutional environments of either City Hall. Both limitations led to deficits in the politics required for effective administration. The governance problems that followed gave a strong basis to opposition discourse around governing incompetence, paralysis and chaos in the City, amplified by regional media.
Lastly, their lack of allies at other state scales left Municipalist candidacies isolated and ultimately vulnerable to the backlash of their opponents. Traditional political parties could also count on institutional resources from allies in higher state tiers, especially in the Xunta, who created severe problems through legislation, and by withdrawing, or delaying, funding in infrastructure. The building of “En Marea” as a regional political force that would compete in Galician elections was rife with political infighting, and municipalism as a whole was in tension with Podemos, whose main concern was for its advances at national scale to not lose protagonism. The resources of the anti-neoliberal left were both divided and de-mobilised. This was especially damaging to the municipalist project when the political wave subsided and municipal elections lost their political edge acquired in 2015, returning to a stage for national politics.
Antonio Gramsci showed that advanced capitalist societies are buttressed by strongly institutionalised states with deep “earthworks” in civil society. The Municipalists admirably exploited the cracks opened by the 15-M, gaining a foothold within the local state, but the weaknesses covered above resulted in their incapacity to expand beyond the electoral base. The municipalists were isolated, and their agency depleted, by the highly disruptive activities of adversaries, which sharpened as establishment actors regained political capacity.
Municipalists were also hampered by many internal barriers, with regards to their ability to build alternative coalitions able to deliver a radical policy agenda, resulting in an inability to consolidate the project throughout state, economy and civil society. Our analysis demonstrates how debilitating the structures, institutions and cultures of the local state can be for anti-systemic projects, and how they enhance, and combine with, the agency of hostile political forces to shut them down. However, while pro-systemic forces exercised formidable recuperative powers, they have neither resolved their own crises, nor restored the power and influence enjoyed by the ‘PPSOE’ regime its hey-day. With continued global turbulence, neoliberalism is losing its grip. The closing down of progressive alternatives has channelled popular anger towards chauvinist neo-nationalism, but the aperture for progressive and anti-systemic politics could quickly re-open, meaning that the ways in which New Municipalists reflect on, navigate and resolve their political crises could be of practical significance in determining the future.
Authored by Paola Pierri
The relationship between climate and democracy has been the subject of scholarly debate for long time. Several interesting questions have been raised by democratic scholars dealing with climate change and in my chapter, in the forthcoming edited volume Reclaiming Participatory Governance: Social Movements and the Reinvention of Democratic Innovations, I ask the question, what kinds of democracy and democratic governance arrangements are best to address the climate emergency more effectively and democratically? The core answer to this question, and the main argument in my chapter, is that for climate action to progress through more participatory and democratic ways, social movements need to play a key role in democracy and more specifically governance innovation. Unfortunately, practical examples of social movements’ participation in democratic innovations are still the exception and not the rule.
My chapter draws on the case of the Assise pour la Transition Écologique in France (in the metropolitan area of Orléans) to outline an interesting approach where social movements can play a transformative role as ‘agenda setters’ within right-wing administrations, which have historically been less sympathetic to climate concerns and less open to engage with progressive movements. This case sheds light on building alliances across the political spectrum. Whilst we can find in the literature examples of democratic innovation developed through direct cooperation with left-leaning governments, instances where social movements have engaged in dialogue with more conservative administrations are sporadic. This is potentially a limitation when it comes to swinging the balance towards an ecological transition, since climate movements need to find allies and work with governments at different scales and across the political spectrum.
Social movements play a key role in advancing Democracy-Driven Governance, but how this relationship pans out in political contexts dominated by more conservative governments is not clear. My chapter suggests looking at Empowered Participatory Governance (EPG), as this could provide a useful bridge between models of democracy-driven governance (DDG) and governance-driven democratisation (GDD).
EPG and DDG both present interesting characteristics and design principles that I used to analyse the Orléans case:
- They problematise the question of power, challenging common objections from the literature against the power-neutralising claim of deliberative and collaborative modes of governance;
- They do not aim to advance universal solutions to all issues of governance, as they recognise that institutional arrangements are a shifting terrain, where different needs, constellations of actors and power dynamics can change, which will require changes in institutional design;
- They are equally interested in the question of processes as well as the question of outcomes, as the two should not be assumed to be directly related variables;
- Finally, they both recover – although in different ways – a role for more critical voices (and specifically social movements’ approaches) within the space of collaborative governance. This is the main point my chapter is exploring.
The EPG model of governance highlights one crucial point that arguably remains partially unclear in the conceptualisation of DDG, that is the role and the skills needed for social movements to advance their agenda within top-down and more conservative governance structures. In order to achieve that, social movements – under EPG – need to dismiss their adversarial tones and tactics and become ‘collaborative countervailing power’ (2003). Differently from adversarial forms of countervailing power that develop through rigid and maximalist frames in opposition to institutional actors and elites, collaborative forms, although still countervailing, develop ways to build collaborations with institutional actors and towards meaningful forms of Empowered Participatory Governance (EPG). ‘Collaborative countervailing power’ might seem – as the authors themselves say– ‘a bit of an oxymoron’ as the concept incorporates two elements seemingly in opposition. Collaborative and adversarial forms of countervailing power require different skills-set and political attitudes that have attracted less research.
The case of Orléans illuminates how radical forms of demonstrating and taking to the street can generate the right political opportunities to shift the role and attitude of social movements towards collaboration – whilst still playing a countervailing role – to put the right pressure on more conservative governance structures towards a democracy-driven regime. This case illustrates the clear intention of the local climate movements to establish direct connections with political parties and influence the upcoming political elections, since movements can play a key role as catalyst of political crises and realignment of political forces. Local activists attempted to set up a full citizen candidate list to push forward their requests on climate change action. When the list option did not materialise social movements and grassroots organisations tried to put pressure on the political establishment through different means. In the months before the elections, they published a visual explainer assessing each candidate’s climate-related pledge and “grading” each programme accordingly.
The case also shoes how movements can be the providers of alternative spaces of political debates, which for climate action means for instance to ensure that adaptation and mitigation strategies are framed as political and not merely as technical questions. Since climate policy has become a central issue in the political and public agenda, studying how strategies for mobilising more conservative elites will evolve together with movement strategies and roles in governance will be crucial. Even when these experiments are not successful they still play a role in shifting important political balances and perhaps in inspiring the democratic innovation of the future.
About the author.
Paola Pierri is currently Director of Research and Design at Democratic Society, where she researches processes of democratic innovation and social movements. She has a doctorate in Design Anthropology and has been a Fellow at the Weizenbaum Institute addressing the question of the impact of digital tools on our democratic lives. She is a visiting lecturer at the London College of Communication and the Technische Universität in Berlin, where she teaches on the topics of design in the public sector, digital inequalities and digital activism.
Authored by Joan Balcells, Rosa Borge and Albert Padró-Solanet.
The forthcoming edited volume by Adrian Bua and Sonia Bussu, Reclaiming Participatory Governance: Social Movements and the Reinvention of Democratic Innovations, sheds light on how current social movements are reclaiming and reinventing participatory processes. Nowadays these movements and initiatives are highly digitalised. In our contribution we focus on the significant role of digital platforms as enablers of new forms of democratic governance that can either push forward democracy-driven governance or instead adapt to the bureaucratic ways of governance-driven democratisation.
Our analysis is based on the case of the digital platform Decidim (“We Decide” in Catalan) which combines elements of democracy-driven governance and governance-driven democratisation. Using the analytical framework provided by these two models of governance as background reference, we discuss some of the conflicts and problems involved in the digitalization of participatory policies through digital platforms.
The Decidim platform was originally designed and led by activists from the 15M and free-software movements as an instrument for radicalising democratic governance. One of the most promising assets of digital participation is its potential to reach out to new publics and widen the number of participants in any participatory process, thanks to the openness and ubiquity of digital technologies. Since its first implementation in Barcelona, following the electoral victory in the 2015 local elections of a new political party – Barcelona en Comú – partly derived from the 15M anti-austerity movements, this platform has rapidly spread to other local governments. Nowadays nearly a hundred local governments across Catalonia are using Decidim as a tool for supporting participatory processes, and it has also been adopted by local and regional governments, institutions and organisations around the world. There is also a growing community around this digital platform (the so-called MetaDecidim and the Decidim Association), led by programmers, practitioners and researchers working for the continuous improvement of the platform as a space for innovation and sharing of experiences.
However, this convergence between the logic of social movements and public administration is not unproblematic. The gap between the democratic expectations and the bureaucratic constrictions experienced by local administrations raises some thorny questions. Do digital platforms help to promote bottom-up citizen initiatives and increase the potential number of participants? Does the digitalization of participatory policies necessarily lead to a technocratic bureaucratization of citizen participation? How do the actors involved in participatory policies react to this process of digitalization?
To better understand how digital participatory platforms fit the workings of public administration, we conducted several in-depth interviews with local managers in charge of implementing Decidim in the Catalan municipalities that pioneered its use. We also administered an online questionnaire targeting managers in charge of Decidim in all local governments in Catalonia where it was being used. The reason for focussing on these particular actors is that they play a liaison role between local administrations and civil society, experiencing first hand the challenges involved in the deployment of Decidim. Through this methodological strategy, we were able to collect perceptions concerning issues such as the reasons for using Decidim, ensuing problems and tensions, or how the digital platform has been received by different actors involved in participatory policies, from politicians and public officials to citizens and local associations.
Our analysis revealed some remarkable findings. Interestingly enough, the municipalities that were more ambitious in the use of Decidim (i.e. the ones that had a higher proportion of citizens registered on the platform) were more likely to experience frictions with previous structures of participation. For instance, public managers had difficulties in translating existing working routines and procedures into the logic and functionalities of the digital platform. Participants in our study also detected resistance to the platform from civic associations who feared losing influence and power of intermediation, as digital platforms can empower direct participation by lay citizens. In previous research, we found that public managers, when assessing the performance of the platform, tend to value more goals such as transparency, organisation of information and the collection of citizen proposals, rather than deliberation and transfer of sovereignty to citizens (Borge, Balcells & Padró-Solanet, 2022).
On the one hand, these aspects logically reflect some of the fears, pressures and problems that are associated with any process of change. But, on the other hand, they may also show that, when seriously implemented, digital platforms can have a disruptive democratic political impact. We have found that the platform implementation can foster full-fledged participation if it is backed and used by grassroots movements and local civic organisations; when it is combined with strong face-to-face participation; and if it enjoys both sincere support from politicians and oversight not only by the technologically savvy but also by participatory activists/users (e.g. the Decidim Association).
To sum up, digital platforms can actually introduce an element of disturbance in the ecosystem of participatory policies. That potential for disruption opens a window of opportunity for experimenting with new forms of governance and rethinking the borders of citizen participation, though it may come at a price. If digital participation aspires to be transformative and transfer decision capacity to citizens and civil society, the emergence of new challenges and resistance from within and outside local administrations might be unavoidable. Yet, the lack of democratic deepening may signify the irrelevance of participatory digital platforms as simply a new tool, technologically fancy but democratically shallow.
About the authors.
Joan Balcells is Lecturer in Political Science at Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), and member of the research group GADE ‘eGovernance: electronic administration and democracy’. His research interests are in democratic theory, digital democracy, public opinion and deliberation.
Rosa Borge is Associate Professor in Political Science and the leader of the research group CNSC at the IN3 (Internet Interdisciplinary Institute), Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC). Her main areas of research are online deliberation and participation, social networks and the use of social media and digital platforms by public administrations, political parties and social movements.
Albert Padró-Solanet is Lecturer in Political Science at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), and member of the research group GADE ‘eGovernance: electronic administration and democracy’. His research is mainly focused on the impact of ICTs on political parties, public opinion, and deliberation.
Authored by Nick Vlahos
The forthcoming edited volume, Reclaiming Participatory Governance: Social Movements and the Reinvention of Democratic Innovations, provides a conversation about how political economy overlaps with public participation and deliberation. This is relevant because democratic innovation research suffers from a lack of theoretical, analytical, and empirical engagement with critical research on capitalism.
My contribution to the goals of the volume stem from a perspective that the ends of participatory and deliberative governance (PDG) should entail the decommodification of social well-being.
In capitalist societies, PDG exists in contexts where the pathologies stemming from market-based ideology and strategies of economic adjustment have led to poverty and social exclusion. Governments and public administrations support the structural reproduction of gross inequalities. This has adverse implications on the potential for democratic innovations to deepen and reimagine the participatory and deliberative role of citizens in representative democracies.
Considering PDG is embedded within capitalist economies, we need to be more critical and thorough in how we account for the intersections of capitalism and democracy. A foundational problem of capitalist democracy is the coexistence of formal political equality with socio-economic inequality. As a result, capitalist democracy cannot be comprehensively understood without recognizing how structurally unequal agents mobilize power resources to reshape the bases of political and policy decision-making.
PDG needs to be connected to transformative agendas that seek to reconfigure the operation of politics, administration, and economics. This agenda requires an understanding of the preconditions for establishing equal citizen engagement in deliberative and participatory processes, including how public decision-making can help tame the problems associated with the market economy, elevating the social well-being of those being adversely impacted by rising inequality.
This is why Bua and Bussu’s conceptual distinction between democracy-driven governance (DDG) and governance-driven democracy (GDD) is so important. They seek to uncover how democratic innovation and participatory governance can avoid accommodating (neo)liberal political economy. DDG is concerned with embedded forms of regulatory democratic decision-making that can lead to social transformation. The ontological starting point of what innovations in participatory governance strive to achieve differs between GDD and DDG.
I argue that while both GDD and DDG bear the stamp of democratizing democracy – because they involve the implementation of participatory and deliberative decision-making innovations – they differ in their potential to reinforce or alleviate inequality in capitalist societies based on the extent to which they are integrated in or seek to be distanced from the capital-driven logic of capitalist democracy.
I build upon the distinction between GDD and DDG by situating them within two political-economic heuristic devices: the double movement and welfare states and systems of stratification and decommodification.
The social history of market economies across industrialized countries indicates that governments consciously intervene in support of capitalism. Karl Polanyi (1944) calls this the double-movement. It entails the spread of the market economy alongside the implementation of policies and powerful institutions to support private accumulation, as well as limit severe results arising from the commodification of land, labour, and money. The contradictory nature of the double movement means that the state and the market economy influence how social welfare is administered in society.
Polanyi helps us appreciate the need for participatory democratic control – or re-embedding – of commodified goods to ensure that society is not run as an adjunct to the market. However, the slow development of democracy in market societies has meant that there has been initially (or rather only) limited mass participation in the governance of social well-being.
Gøsta Esping-Andersen (1990) expanded the work of Polyani, showing how modern welfare state regimes condition the extent of the commodification and decommodification of the public. For Esping-Andersen, while the welfare state involves an ideal picture of state responsibility for securing a basic modicum of welfare for its citizens, he noted that welfare states are systems of stratification. Welfare states involve either targeted or universal programmes, and the conditions or restrictions for eligibility, the quality of benefits and services, as well as the extent to which rights are a part of citizenship, differ across countries.
A key point is that the more ‘market-independence’ for an average worker – i.e. the right to an adequate standard of living regardless of previous employment, performance, needs-test, or financial contribution – the greater their level of decommodification. While the politics of commodifying workers has led to collective action to produce a tolerable level of welfare and security, decommodification cannot completely eradicate labour as a commodity so long as capitalism constrains collective social well-being.
Through two local case studies in Toronto, Canada, my chapter shows how GDD and DDG arise and utilize democratic innovations, which are differentially linked to a double movement, and involve forms of stratification and (de)commodification. In terms of the former, at a political and bureaucratic level, policy objectives and implementation are contradictory; the dis-embedding of market imperatives leads to strategies to offset severe inequalities by devising controlled forms of resident involvement. Governance-driven democracy in Toronto involves a double movement of the deployment and then mitigation of governance policies that have contributed to the perpetuation of inequality. In terms of the latter, spatial forms of resident mobilization and engagement coevolve to counteract problematic social, economic, and political phenomena, and are differentiated in how they approach and (can) devise strategies to address systemic problems. Thus, participatory, and deliberative decommodification is not a complete emancipation from capitalism, but the elevation of social well-being vis-a-vis public decision-making.
I see a participatory and deliberative consideration of politics, economics, and democracy as something that seeks to establish new nexuses of decommodification via the public’s involvement in the distribution of resources that fulfil collectively determined social well-being indicators. If we consider participatory and deliberative processes as (de)commodifiers, then we are left with how inequality is or is not being addressed to the extent that it could, or in comparison to other spaces, and regimes.
Nick Vlahos is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra. He is author of The Political Economy of Devolution from the Postwar Era to Brexit (2020). Nick’s research interests include the interconnection between political economy, decentralization and deliberative democratization. Previously, Nick worked in the public sector at the Toronto Community Housing Corporation and the Civic Innovation Office in Toronto.
Authored by Adrian Bua and Sonia Bussu with Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Joan Balcells, Rosa Borge, Dannica Fleuß, Roberto Falanga, Patricia García-Espín, Cristina Herranz, Fabiola Mota, Albert Padró-Solanet, Sixtine Van Outryve d’Ydewalle, Nick Vlahos, Henk Wagenaar, and Srinivas Yerramsetti.
We organised a workshop at the last ECPR joint sessions to discuss contributions to a forthcoming edited volume with Routledge, on how social movements and grassroots politics are widening the scope and reach of democratic innovations. We decided to start a blog series on Agora to capture and explore further the main points that emerged from the discussion. This blogpost sets the scene, explaining the purpose of the book and the main topics we covered at the workshop. The book provides an analysis of social movement-led processes for democratisation across different contexts. We’re interested in understanding better how these movements are reclaiming and reinventing the deliberative and participatory toolbox to recouple politics and economics and strengthen the impact of participatory process on people’s everyday life. In the book we ask what occurs when social movements are involved in shaping the institutionalisation of participatory governance processes and if/ how their involvement can lead to deeper embedding of a participatory culture within policymaking and the wider society. Contributions examine recent initiatives, digital and/ or analogue, by using different theoretical frames, from deliberative democracy to the commons and the right to the city. To find answers we consider:
● the extent to which these initiatives can sustain the radical potential of citizen participation for social transformation;
● whether we see new forms of participation emerging, or new usages of participatory institutional design;
● the obstacles that these efforts encounter as they try to broaden the scope of democracy;
● the tensions between the different demands of lay citizens, organised civil society, and public officials.
Throughout the book we apply democracy-driven governance as an analytical framework to understand recent developments. What is democracy-driven governance? – we hear you ask. The experience of New Municipalism in Spain inspired us to develop this concept, to capture how social movements and grassroots groups engaged with participatory and deliberative democracy practices, as a response to austerity politics following the 2008 financial crash, first to build movement parties’ platforms and later, after winning elections in many major cities, to transform local state institutions. In a nutshell, democracy-driven governance describes the kinds of participatory projects that arise when social movements engage with participatory deliberative institutional design, as part of their strategy to reclaim the state. It is a counterpoint to Mark Warren’s governance-driven democratisation which refers to democratic innovations mostly initiated by public agencies, particularly at the local level, to respond to specific policy issues and enhance epistemic value. The potential of Warren’s governance-driven democratisation resides in its pragmatic, problem-solving orientation as well as its proximity to the “nuts-and-bolts” of public administration, although feedback loops and responsiveness to citizen input has often been lacking. By decoupling politics and economics and failing to attend to socio-economic factors, the practice of governance-driven democratisation over the past 30 years has fallen short of making substantive positive change to the lives of citizens, as we see inequalities growing and democratic space actually reducing.
Democracy-driven governance addresses risks of decoupling the practice of democracy and politics from socio-economic constraints. As social movements learn and renew the deliberative toolbox they are developing new forms of democratic participation that aims to widen its scope from political institutions to the economy and wider society. Both governance-driven democratisation and democracy-driven governance exist in a dynamic relationship, and this shouldn’t be seen as a simple bottom-up v. top-down heuristic. They both attempt to foster participatory governance or to include citizens in the work of public administration through “routinised participation”. They also interact with other participatory spaces, such as oppositional politics (protests) and the commons, where citizens create their everyday democracy by managing public goods through their own democratic decision-making rules and with limited interactions with state institutions. In Barcelona, for instance, we saw democracy-driven governance emerge from protests and the commons and then interact with spaces of governance-driven democratisation as social movements entered the local state. This is a powerful illustration of the continuous and open-ended push and pull of democratic politics.
Through a range of different contributions, we look at how democracy-driven governance emerges, develops and navigates (or fails to) the constraints of day-to-day politics and public administration. Firstly, we want to understand the analytical power of democracy-driven governance. We agree it is historically situated, in that it emerges from growing disillusionment with neoliberal (participatory) democracy over the past decade. But is there a risk it is interpreted as functionalist in that it expresses a relation between means and ends, yet the ends might be prescriptively defined in terms of what participatory democracy must pursue? In the paper, we emphasise how governance-driven democratisation is focused on strengthening and improving administrative functioning and services, while democracy-driven governance aims to improve democratic goods such as inclusivity and social justice. More work is needed to distinguish empirical characteristics linked to these two forms of governance across different contexts. Secondly, we are interested in assessing how democracy-driven governance’s ambitions fare when applied to the real world. Can it help make the invisible, but powerful, politics of the commons visible, through engaging with the state to support alternative political and economic models such as community-wealth building, as seen in Barcelona? Can it facilitate processes of decommodification to help re-embed the economy in democracy and the wider society? Are these new approaches to politics and policymaking sustainable in the face of existing legal, business and public administration constraints?
Democracy-driven governance aims to realise a radical democratic ambition to give citizens not just space to deliberate but actual decision-making power on all policies and decisions that affect them. The contributions trace the practical challenges to this project, from participation fatigue and activists’ disappointment in the face of the inevitably slow pace of change, to bureaucrats’ resistance, to the difficulty of reconciling participatory democracy, where citizens can participate as individuals, with assembly democracy, whereby organised civil society might feel bypassed – do we risk depoliticising participation by focusing too much on non-organised citizens? One important aspect of democracy-driven governance concerns the digital commons, and digital will increasingly be the new battleground for data sovereignty and against the expansion of algorithmic capitalism. Yet the effects of participatory platforms such as Decidim on participation need to be explored further. How do different administrations use these platforms? How do these platforms balance engagement from civil society organisations and individual citizens? How is the digital divide being addressed?
All these issues are explored in the book. The discussions we had at the workshop were so rich that this short post couldn’t possibly do them justice. Responses to this introductory piece will help flesh out some of these thorny questions. Watch this space!
The funding crises for the Social Care sector has been resolved for the foreseeable future according to the recent statements coming from government with a new 1.25% levy on earned income. This increased funding we are told is initially for the NHS and in subsequent years will help fund social care meaning families can feel reassured over the future care for their loved ones without selling their family homes.
All is not as it seems when the detail is examined. Firstly the 1.25% levy will be ring fenced (hypothecated) by law. Whilst true completely misleading in the message it sends – no other funding for the NHS or social care is ring fenced. This means that on present estimates no less than £12 billion a year will be spent on the NHS and social care. Given the current Department of Health and Social cares core funding is approximately £160 billion with an additional £22billion Covid funding the overall funding is never at risk of falling below £12billion.
As such the core funding is not guaranteed and will vary annually depending on levels of austerity or largesse of the then government. Given the state of the public finances it can be cut either in absolute or real terms at any future budget. The 1.25% is in simple terms a tax rise that means the funds can be used anywhere as long as at least £12billion is spent on Health and Social care (A classic example of fungibility e.g. earmark £12billion from the levy and reduce core budget to free up spending elsewhere).
Secondly the safeguarding of individual’s lifetime care costs does not include accommodation and food. The extra funding will be accompanied by a safeguarding on individual’s lifetime care costs. These are capped at £86,000 over the lifetime of an individual. This cap applies only to care costs, accommodation and food is the majority costs of residing in a care home. These will continue to be paid out of income/asset sales without a cap until assets have fallen below £100,000 at which point care and other costs will not diminish capital by more than 20% a year until savings and assets reach £20,000 after which all costs will be covered by the state. So, yes it will mean assets decrease at a much slower rate, but £86,000 of care costs will take a significant time to reach and accommodation and food costs will continue to diminish assets. It increases, on average, the assets that can be passed on particularly in areas of high asset (home) values.
Thirdly it will not solve the problems of having to change care homes in later life or continued partial funding. The calculation of what is allowable will be set by the Local Authority based on its own assumption of costs. In Scotland care home costs for this year are deemed to be £600 p.w. in a council care home, any costs above this level will not be covered by the new arrangements so many residents will need to move to low cost care/nursing homes to comply with the L.A. cap.
Fourthly, for care at home, the LA association has confirmed that eligibility criteria will remain the same as now. It will be interesting to see if the local authorities raise their care charges as there is no cap on the levels currently required. For low income areas this will now be covered by the meaning that there is no detrimental impact on low income families, but will release funds for local authorities to use elsewhere (fungibility again), but will mean diminishing assets more quickly for others.
Finally we are told that the levy is progressive, again this depends on the income range being examined. Because of the way that National Insurance works before it starts being paid at the lower income levels the tax can be regarded as progressive. Once we move into the higher income ranges the levy becomes regressive (Progressive taxes mean that the higher the income the higher the proportion of that income is given in tax).
In summary the ring fencing of a very small proportion of a budget is political window dressing with no practical implications on where the money is spent. The safeguards on individual costs will not impact on support given to families immediately and will take a few years before any reduction in asset sales to fund social care manifests itself to a significant level. In the medium and longer term it will slow down the asset disposals of individuals to fund care, but will not stop it. The decision on where governments spend money is always a political one, and this is no different. The decision has been made that the overall spending decisions are not currently fiscally sustainable and so a tax rise has been introduced.
One worrying factor is that this has been announced outside of the budget, which means the claims and analysis of impact that accompanies budget statements carried out and published by the Office of Budget responsibility has not been done reducing parliamentary and public scrutiny of the impact on individuals, the economy and public finances.
Associate Professor in Accounting and Finance
Module lead in Public Sector Accounting and Finance.
Author: Pedro M. Rey-Araújo – Universidade da Coruña (Spain)
The Great Recession brought to the fore the extent to which the extension and intensification of capitalist social relations during past decades had gone hand in hand with its widespread naturalization and de-politicization. Symptomatically, throughout those decades of reigning neoliberalism, critical social theory had experienced an internal split regarding the explanatory power that was to be ascribed to capitalist social relations when accounting for social dynamics. While, no doubt, the study of capitalism has been revived once more ever since, the consequences of such a split have not yet disappeared.
On the one hand, political economy approaches of Marxist provenance, such as, for instance, Regulation theory or Social Structures of Accumulation theory, have certainly excelled at identifying the various crisis tendencies operative within neoliberal capitalism, its main institutional characteristics, as well as its differential implementation across the globe. However, it is our view that their conceptualization of political interests as springing straightforwardly from the self-deployment of capitalist dynamics, together with the insufficient attention paid to non-economic demands and struggles, have resulted more often than not in a reductionist and economicist understanding of political agency.
On the other hand, several other thinkers springing from Gramscian and/or Althusserian traditions, such as Ernesto Laclau, Jacques Rancière or Slavoj Zizek, have provided very nuanced and detailed analyses of socio-political interactions, to be sure. However, they were achieved at the cost of obliterating, in the last instance, the extent to which capitalist dynamics shape the very terrain where those political dynamics they definitely excel at appraising ultimately take place.
In our view, a social theory capable of illuminating our current conjuncture would need to pay due attention to both poles in a markedly non-reductionist fashion. That is, it would need to acknowledge the extent to which the self-deployment of capitalist dynamics moulds and shapes the social field despite the former being neither all-powerful nor all-embracing, while, simultaneously, espousing an understanding of political subjectivity that acknowledges the radical incommensurability of the various factors and motivations informing and affecting it, without presuming the former can ever remain unaffected by the fact that, in the last instance, the social field is traversed by capitalist processes.
In my book Capitalism, Institutions and Social Orders. The Case of Contemporary Spain (Routledge, 2021) I have attempted to develop such a theoretical framework by having recourse to, on the one hand, Social Structures of Accumulation theory and, on the other hand, Ernesto Laclau’s post-structuralist revision of the Marxist problematic.
Capitalist activity, in order to be reproduced over time, does always need the indispensable support provided by an appropriate institutional environment. The latter needs to guarantee a minimum of social stability and predictability for capitalist investment to take place; to pacify inherently conflictive social relations beyond the workplace, thus preventing the emergence of social contestation over the very inequalities the institutional environment institutes and reproduces; to generate internal complementarities among its constituent processes so that the internal dynamics of each do not unsettle the internal stability of the whole; and, lastly, not to compromise its non-capitalist conditions of existence, among which crucially stand the myriad gendered activities undertaken within households without monetary compensation.
Every such institutional structure is thus not only historically contingent but, also, context-specific, that is, its actual shape appears irremediably affected and conditioned by its own legacy of past institutional transformations, on the one hand, as well as by the idiosyncratic constellations of dominant interests within the domestic arena, on the other. From the perspective of systemic reproduction, not all the social processes partaking of such institutional structure will carry the same systemic relevance, insofar as some of them will play a higher-order role in coordinating and structuring the remaining ones. While the social whole is always hierarchically articulated, such a hierarchy is not predetermined ex-ante but, rather, historically contingent. Hence, correctly identifying which ones among those various processes carry higher systemic relevance within a given conjuncture stands as a crucial precondition for any political intervention to be successful in its attempt to reshape and transform the existing institutional order.
Nonetheless, the main issues of political contention in a given conjuncture will not spring straightforwardly from the internal dynamics of the over-arching institutional structure. While such institutional structure will inevitably generate myriad lines of segmentation and exclusion, thus giving rise to various modalities of conflict over the very inequalities it institutes, the very terms in which social contention is articulated will be the result of an autonomous process of political mediation, one through which internal relations of hierarchy among the various social conflicts having access to the sphere of representation will be temporarily established.
In sum, both the various social processes constituting the social totality, on the one hand, and the various social conflicts and demands that managed to gain public visibility, on the other hand, will be hierarchically articulated in a given conjuncture. Nevertheless, while it needs to be stressed that no necessary correspondence exists among both hierarchies, the existence of a fundamental and constitutive hiatus between both domains does not mean they are ultimately dissociated. Firstly, the particular shape adopted by the institutional environment will give rise to unequal opportunities for the various social conflicts to have access to the sphere of political representation. Secondly, the internal dynamics harboured by such institutional structure will be imprint a given unevenness upon the very social field where political struggles are ultimately conducted, thus favouring the advancement of certain conflicts over others, while also conditioning existing opportunities for political intervention over time. Therefore, a correct apprehension of how the various social processes implicated are contingently and hierarchically articulated in a given conjuncture represents a sine qua non condition for any political movement that attempts to successfully reshape and transform the institutional environment where it finds itself immersed. Neither omnipotent nor necessarily doomed to fail, political action ought to apprehend the context-specific conditions of existence of capitalist activity for profound and long-lasting social transformations to be achieved.
by Justyna Lada
Intertemporal budget constraint requires for the present value of debt to be lower than discounted future revenues calculated at the NPV (Baglioni, Cherubini, 1993). It is a measure used to define the sustainability of debt. Not having enough revenue in the future to cover the present debt can lead to debt default (as per example of Greece back in 2015), resulting in loss of access to borrowing and inevitable shrinking of the economy as the government struggles to support the future growth.
The sustainable deficit looks at the relationship of debt as a percentage of GDP. Through adjusting the rate of growth (G) by deducting the interest rate (and inflation rate) (r) and multiplying by the proportion of debt (D) to GDP, we calculate the level of deficit that can occur before the level of debt would need to be increased to maintain the D/GDP proportion (Mear, 2020). This results in the below formulae:
(G-r) x (D/GDP)
2013-2017 Debt and Deficit Sustainability
The trends have been analysed based on the 5-year period between 2013-2017 (Appendix 1). Main findings of the analysis include:
- Economy and debt:
- economy growth slowing down year-on-year (decreasing rate of growth)
- increasing nominal debt year-on-year
- debt sustainability – although debt/GDP level (85.2%) exceeds the Maastricht threshold of 60% and has a growing tendency which may suggest the unsustainable path (IMF, 2020), the Article IV (IMF, 2018) suggests that debt vulnerability profiles are low. The sustainability of debt will be highly affected if external shocks occur, thus impacting the rate of growth (GDP).
- Sustainability of deficit:
- closing the gap between sustainable deficit % level and actual deficit % between 2013-2016
- actual deficit became sustainable in 2017 mitigating the risk of debt default (Appendix 2).
Latest Article IV Surveillance report (2018) indicates that the countries sustainable deficit level stands at 3% with a level of debt to GDP being 85.2% (Appendix 3). In current pandemic (external shock), both levels of debt and sustainable deficit have changed. With the shrinking of the market (negative 9.8% rate of growth) (IMF, 2020) a 10.11% surplus is required (Appendix 4) to maintain current levels of debt to GDP – 100.8% (gov.uk, 2020). All of governments income will be used to cover the current levels of debt.
National Free School Meal Voucher Scheme and Covid Winter Grant Scheme
In response to Covid-19, on 31/03/2020, government introduced the Free School Meal Voucher (temporary) Scheme to ensure that children eligible for free school meals are receiving meals despite school closures, and where schools are not providing the meals for collection or delivery.
The school meal voucher value (£15) per child was exceeding the costs of meal subsidise provided to the schools (£11.50/child) (National Audit Office, 2020) to recognise the difference in cost of providing the meal when bulk buying versus provided at retail price by parents (Gov.uk, 2020). The scheme has been extended into school holidays to cover Easter and Summer Holidays 2020 following public demand (BBC, 2020) and has incurred a total estimated (adjusted) cost of £384m for voucher codes issued by supplier. The policy was replaced in November 2020 by Covid Winter Grant Scheme, which extends government support in providing meals to disadvantaged children, up to March 2021 at a cost of £170m. The funding will be provided to the local authorities to distribute as appropriate reverting back to schools providing meals for eligible children in term time only (Gov.uk,2020).
- Impact on inter-temporal sustainability and sustainable deficit.
Both policies have an unsignificant impact (below 1% each) on the total welfare spending forecasted by OBR (2020) at £246.2 billion in fiscal year 2020-21 (Appendix 4).
- Intertemporal impact – the policy does not have an impact on future growth of the economy or levels of revenue as the Debt/GDP levels remain constant at 109.9% regardless of the policy change. The policies are a temporary measure in response to external shock, supporting the families on the lowest income levels, but being insignificant in terms of % of total welfare spend or total expenditure. The replacement of Free School Meal Voucher Scheme by Winter Grant Scheme improves the fiscal space through reducing the expenditure by £214m.
- Deficit impact – the expenditure increases the welfare spend, therefore increasing the amount of surplus needed to sustain the levels of sustainable surplus considering increasing levels of Debt. The value of the spend is unsignificant on its own and thus does not affect the sustainable deficit %.
Table below provides an overview of spend as per OBR (2020) predictions, showing the impact of both policies as additional spend assuming constant nominal GDP, revenue, and interest.
Free School Meal Voucher Scheme
Winter Grant Scheme
In billion unless otherwise stated
Policy Cost (p)
Government Revenue (a)
Primary Expenditure with relevant Policy (b+p)
Primary Deficit (a-(b+p))
Total Deficit (a-b+p+c)
Public Debt + Cost of Policy (p)
Primary Deficit/GDP (%)
*Note: OBR Forecast figures include the expenditure on Free School Meal Voucher Scheme and Winter Grant Scheme. The table is purely informative to highlight the impact of both policies on deficit and debt levels.
- Main criticism of introduction of both Policies:
- Responsibility of parents – there is an argument amongst MP’s that it should be parents’ responsibility to feed their children, not the governments (Catt, 2020; Elgot and Walker, 2020).
- Main criticism of withdrawal of both Policies:
- Short-termism of the policies – the demand for government support to provide free school meals outside of term time is high following Mr Rashford’s successful campaign in June 2020 (Lawrie, 2020). An open critique of the lack of government support for the families living in poverty has been voiced again by public figures and organisations after the withdrawal of Free School Voucher Scheme (Siddique, 2020). Support for the continuity of meal provisions for children extends to wider organisations, i.e., Save the Children UK (2020) charity supports the Winter Grant Scheme and other provisions that have been put in place, but already voices concerns over the lack of future continuity of the support.
- Increase in other welfare measures as a sufficient measure of support– in March 2020, an announcement has been made on the temporary increase in Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit by £20/week each at a total cost of £6.1m (OBR, 2020). This could be argued as a sufficient increase in the government support to allow for the withdrawal of the policies, the counterargument being that increase in this welfare spends are temporary and subject to being withdrawn in April (Sandhu, 2020).
- Issue of hunger in UN Sustainable Development Goals context – the free school meals being aimed at financially disadvantaged children are fulfilling basic rights to a nutritious meal under SDG’s 2 (United Nations, 2020). It can be argued that discontinuation of the policy undermines the basic human rights of access to food.
- Reduced funding – reduction of funding through movement from Free School Meal Voucher Scheme to Winter Grant Scheme is putting additional strain on the local governments responsible for distribution of the funds considering increasing demand for Free School Meals and means tested benefits (OBR, 2020).
Interest Rates (%)
Sustainable deficit (%)
Actual Deficit/GDP (%)
Debt Levels (£b)
Free School Voucher Scheme as a % of total welfare spend:
384,000,000 / 246,200,000,000 = 0.16%
Covid Winter Grant Scheme as a % of total welfare spend:
170,000,000 / 246,200,000,000 = 0.07%
(G-r) x (D/GDP)
D/GDP = 85.3%
1.7- – 1.8×85.3 = 2.98%
G= -9.8 (IMF,2020)
R= 0.2(Bloomberg, 2020) – 0.8 (IMF, 2020) = -0.6
D/GDP = 109.9% (OBR, 2020)
-9.8- – 0.6×109.9% = – 10.11%
- Bloomberg, 2020. Government bonds: UK. [online] Available from: https://www.bloomberg.com/markets/rates-bonds/government-bonds/uk [Accessed 4 December 2020]
- Catt, 2020. Tory MPs attack celebrity free school meal campaigners. [online] Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-54620118 [Accessed 13 December 2020}
- Elgot and Walker (2020). Treasury rejects claims it refused extra 150m for free school meals. [online] Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/oct/26/treasury-rejects-claims-it-refused-extra-150m-for-free-school-meals [Accessed 11 December 2020]
- uk, 2020. New winter package to provide further support for children and families. [online] Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-winter-package-to-provide-further-support-for-children-and-families[Accessed 11 December 2020]
- uk, 2020. Public sector finances. October 2020. [online] Available from: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/936937/Public_sector_finances_October_2020_HMT.pdf[Accessed 02 December 2020]
- uk, 2020. Public sector finances. October 2020. [online]Available from: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/936937/Public_sector_finances_October_2020_HMT.pdf[Accessed 5 December 2020]
- uk, 2020. UK Government debt and deficit: June 2020. [online] Available from: https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/governmentpublicsectorandtaxes/publicspending/bulletins/ukgovernmentdebtanddeficitforeurostatmaast/june2020[Accessed 5 December 2020]
- uk, 2020. Voucher Scheme launches for schools providing free school meals. [online] Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/voucher-scheme-launches-for-schools-providing-free-school-meals[Accessed 10 December]
- IMF, 2020. Country Data. [online] Available from: https://www.imf.org/en/Countries/GBR [Accessed 1 December 2020]
- IMF, 2020. United Kingdom 2018 Article IV Consultation Press Release Staff Report and Staff Statement. [online] Available from: https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/CR/Issues/2018/11/14/United-Kingdom-2018-Article-IV-Consultation-Press-Release-Staff-Report-Staff-Statement-and-46353 [Accessed 1 December 2020], pp.5,35,52
- IMF, 2020. Debt and Reserve Indicators of External Vulnerability. [online] Available from: https://www.imf.org/external/np/pdr/debtres/#II [Accessed 03/12/2020]
- Johnston, 2020. Understanding The Downfall Of Greece’s Economy. [online] Available from: https://www.investopedia.com/articles/investing/070115/understanding-downfall-greeces-economy.asp [Accessed 1 December 2020].
- Lawrie, 2020. Covid: How Marcus Rashford campaign changed free school meals. [online] Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/explainers-53053337 [Accessed 13 December 2020]
- Mear, 2020. Sustainable deficit 20-21. [online] De Montfort University. Available from: https://vle.dmu.ac.uk/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_557026_1&content_id=_4791770_1 [Accessed 1/12/2020]
- National Audit Office, 2020. Investigation into the free school meals. [online] Available from: https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Investigation-into-the-free-school-meals-voucher-scheme.pdf [Accessed 12 December 2020]
- OBR, 2020. Public Finances Databank November 2020. [online] Available from: https://obr.uk/public-finances-databank-2020-21/ [Accessed 7 December 2020]
- OBR, 2020. Economic and Fiscal Outlook. November 2020. [online] Available from: https://obr.uk/efo/economic-and-fiscal-outlook-november-2020/ [Accessed 1 December 2020], pp.20,55,73,146,178
- Save The Children UK, 2020. [online] https://twitter.com/savechildrenuk/status/1325429054955286535[Accessed 15 December 2020]
- Siddique, 2020. Marcus Rashford forces Boris Johnson into second U-turn on child food poverty. [online] Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/nov/08/marcus-rashford-forces-boris-johnson-into-second-u-turn-on-child-food-poverty [Accessed 12 December 2020]
- United Nations, 2020 Goal 2: Zero hunger. [online] Available from: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/hunger/ [Accessed 11 December 2020]
About Justyna Lada
My name is Justyna Lada. I am an Accounting and Finance Final Year Mature Student with one year placement experience and a mum of three. My journey to university was long and rocky. And so was my love for Finance. It all started with an Accounting for Dummies book picked up from the Library, through Bookkeeping course, to applying to the University. I do not come from an accounting background, and neither does anybody in my family full of teachers, environmentalist and admin workers. My passions lay with managing the public spending and business partnering as a means to better corporate finance.
Following the Labour Party’s defeat in this month’s Hartlepool by-election, and mixed results elsewhere, including the loss of many council seats, there is renewed debate about the politics of ‘belonging’.
All too often, this debate takes simplistic forms, as if a bit of patriotic signalling and Union Jack waving, or a focus on very localised issues such as the state of the pavements, can offer politicians the route back to popular support. In fact, the politics of belonging are complex, and need to be handled accordingly. They have been shaped by long processes of deindustrialisation which have affected many parts of Britain, as elsewhere – and by the ‘austerity’ policies which were pursued by the Cameron-Clegg coalition government.
My recent research notes how the psychology of regional and local belonging has reshaped politics in northern England. This is partly an expression of the long-term trend of particularist identities developing in response to globalisation. It takes specific forms prompted in part by the growth of Scottish nationalism; the growing significance of the directly-elected mayors serving Greater Manchester, the Liverpool and Sheffield city regions, and, now, West Yorkshire; increased awareness of England’s north/south divide; and place-based reactions to the inequalities which result from the long-term distortion of economic policy to serve the interests of the London-based financial services sector.
I focussed on the town of Burnley, where I was a local government officer from the mid-1990s until 2018: my new book On Burnley Road: Class, Race and Politics in a Northern English Town tracks how deindustrialisation set the context for serious racialised rioting twenty years ago, followed by the first ‘breakthrough’ successes for Nick Griffin’s British National Party. The themes established at that time in Burnley’s local politics – antipathy to immigration, opposition to ‘multiculturalism’ and a desire to leave ‘Europe’, later became more widespread and generalised, shaping 2016’s Brexit vote and providing core arguments for Johnson’s Conservatives as they began defeating Labour in the so-called “red wall” seats.
What lay behind these developments? In Burnley, social changes and serious economic dislocations had made many people feel alienated from their surroundings. Modernisation” in the workplace or the neighbourhood had all too often spelled redundancy, displacement and marginalisation. Most peoples’ sense of their place is based on the time when they established key aspects of their identity. At the time of the 2001 northern town riots, large numbers of Burnley residents remembered working life in the post-war years. The 1960s and 1970s were decades of relative social stability and predictable improvements in living standards. Shared experiences provided common reference points, many of them for town’s Asian-heritage residents and white residents alike.
But the wave of factory closures and job losses from the 1980s led to the removal of referents, underpinnings and co-ordinates that were crucial to people’s sense of self. Working-class life became fragmented, and income levels and living standards were driven down. This did not necessarily reduce ‘belonging’ as such, but generated a form of disturbed, unsettled belonging. Some people reacted to social changes and dislocations by ‘investing’ more in their immediate locality. This was in part an understandable retreat from a world in which local institutions such as the town’s building society, or well-known family firms, had been closed by or drawn into the rootless dynamics of global financial flows, with their chaos and impermanence.
But some forms of ‘pride’ in ‘belonging’ to a neighbourhood involved a distancing from the wider town, and inward- looking and defensive attitudes which could turn into fear of ‘others’. One under-researched aspect of this shift, which happened in many places across northern England during the 1990s, was the increasing salience of ‘small-place identity’. This saw people ‘moving’ psychologically whilst staying in the same place. In the places I know well, some people who have lived in the same house for thirty or forty years have changed their description of home. Once they would have said that they came from their town or city (Burnley or Accrington, Blackburn or Bradford) but would now describe themselves as coming from their particular neighbourhood (Briercliffe or Baxenden, Brownhill or Wyke).
In this context, some political actors began asserting the needs and interests of local neighbourhoods in opposition to the rest of the borough or the city, rather than making a claim for resources and attention which at the same time acknowledged the need for balanced decisions across the local authority area. In Burnley in the late 1990s, a small group of Independent councillors began comparing their own wards to ‘certain other areas’, a counter-position carrying a racist element, at first coyly suggested and then explicitly stated. Unmet needs in some wards were contrasted with small parts of town that had become ‘mainly Asian’ and that were now included in targeted regeneration programmes. Taking up this theme, the local press promoted the myth that unfairly disproportionate funding was ‘going to Asians’. In this way, urban regeneration initiatives began to be a focus of resentment, which many Labour councillors failed to counteract and sometimes indulged. The locations set to benefit were often not much more deprived than adjacent places, which were not going to have money spent in them: residents paying their council tax but living next to regeneration areas felt like money was being taken from the medium poor to give to the poor poor.
‘Urban renewal’ thus had the unintended and perverse effect of contributing to social polarisation. Some people at once stigmatised and resented their neighbours: the soon-to-be beneficiaries of government grants were at the same time blamed for being the authors of the situation which required the ‘handout’, and envied for getting money which others couldn’t access. Subsequent regeneration programmes and social policy initiatives did take account of the dangers which were highlighted by the 2001 riots. Some of the work carried out by Burnley Council, voluntary organisations and the interfaith network showed that used sensitively and confidently, ‘belonging’ can be one of the themes around which we can develop inclusive political identities in our towns and cities. Nevertheless, politicians and professionals need to be continually mindful of the dangers of using ‘belonging’ in simplistic ways, and be alert to the risks and problems that can result.