Last year in Barcelona, housing campaigner Ada Colau stood up at a public meeting to say, “We want to occupy City Hall and open it up to the people.” This summer she was elected mayor on a wave of support for her new citizens’ movement, Barcelona en Comu.
With the support of the Podemos party, civic platforms like this have shaken up the political establishment and taken over seven cities in Spain, including the capital Madrid. Meanwhile in India the Aam Admi party, born out of the anti-corruption movement, won a landslide in the city of Delhi.
The temperature of democracy is rising, and the establishment is struggling to keep up. Bottom-up change is happening with unprecedented speed. I myself have spent almost a decade building mass movements and platforms to accelerate this wave, like 38 Degrees, Avaaz and Change.org. Here in the UK, the Scottish Yes movement and Corbynmania are just two illustrations of the growing hunger for a new politics that is populist, progressive and straight-talking.
Some see Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of a British Podemos. This promise will be tested in the days and months to come. But it already seems certain that London’s elections will be one epic contest in which the new politics could play a big part — as I said at the launch of the Greens’ London campaign this weekend.
I have run to be General Secretary of Labour, and worked to help make it an open movement. But partisanship has never come first for me: I believe in cross-party debate and alliances. It was exciting this weekend to see the Greens engaging social movements and experimenting with the Circles model of deliberative assemblies pioneered in Spain. As Labour centrist Tristam Hunt also acknowledged recently, there is much to learn from Podemos. Even in UKIP, Douglas Carswell is pushing for innovative bottom-up reforms.
Londoners’ political allegiances are up for grabs, and this looks certain to be the most open, dynamic and hotly contested race the city has ever seen. The Tory mayoral nominee will be the independent-minded Zac Goldsmith, who set up The Ecologist magazine, opposes airport expansion and worked with 38 Degrees on the democratic MPs recall bill. For Labour, Sadiq Khan is a fierce campaigners with broad appeal and a big group of new supporters to mobilize; and the Greens’ Sian Berry is smart and engaging. The new politics in London is coming from all sides.
Green and social issues – from air pollution to transport and housing – could take centre stage. There is huge potential for insurgent campaigning to set the agenda and test the candidates. Electoral pacts are possible — and ultimately, if they are successful, Green voters could help tip the balance in deciding who becomes mayor.
The most successful movements don’t just challenge the status quo or complain about crises and problems. They seize the agenda to paint a big vision of a better society. And they get stuck in to build that vision bottom-up, through practical change on the ground. London, with all its seething opportunities and challenges, is a perfect proving ground. If we organize for it, a new politics could take root in many more cities and communities in the coming years.
We need to demonstrate how this new politics can make people’s lives better with real examples on the ground. The Scottish National Party, Ukip, the Greens and Corbyn show in their different ways how tapping into anti-establishment sentiment can energise a movement. But to win power and change lives, you also need to be credible, practical and positive.
The next stage of movement politics involves anchoring ourselves in daily lives and needs, telling bigger stories that bind people together and give them hope for a better future, and working in an open, participatory way to build solutions on the ground. As Raymond Williams put it: “To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.”
I have been inspired recently by working with local campaigns around the world like 100% New York. It is bringing together local communities with public officials and inspiring figures like Hulk actor Mark Ruffalo to call for New York to commit to practical reforms for a 100 per cent clean energy future – a future of clean air, warm homes, infrastructure investment and economic renewal, which holds the promise of a better life for all.
We’re seeing similar city-movements springing up around the world, from Sao Paulo to India. A transformational vision and positive practical action can go hand in hand. Conversations are already brewing about citizen campaigns here in London around the upcoming elections.
Meanwhile, movements are not just driving bottom-up politics – they’re moving markets. Climate campaigners 350.org and their allies have built a divestment movement that is shifting billions out of fossil fuels. Groups like ShareAction are pressing pension funds to shift our retirement savings into the clean, green industries of the future.
Over the last week alone, over 50,000 people have signed up to the Clean Energy Switch through the 38 Degrees movement and their partners the Big Deal. A competitive price is being negotiated for them to switch en masse to 100 per cent renewable energy, leaving behind the Big Six energy cartel. Collective consumer power like this can cut costs and accelerate change exponentially. We’ve seen similar trends in the US, Germany and Australia. Even big companies like IKEA and Apple are making the switch to 100% renewables – not least because it makes business sense.
38 Degrees members decide case by case what campaigns to support, but their membership strongly supports a transition to a greener, cleaner future for all. As their campaign says, the Big Six “use our money to do the kinds of things 38 Degrees members campaign together to stop”, such as increasing dependence on coal, which is responsible for thousands of deaths and illnesses every year. “But we have the power. We can vote with our feet – and take our business elsewhere.”
Actively moving your money in this way is a simple, meaningful action, which is anchored in people’s daily lives and has the potential to directly impact the UK energy market. It’s a great example of the next wave of citizen engagement and bottom-up empowerment. The current UK government’s latest bonfire of green policies looks set to spark much more bottom-up pressure, organizing and positive direct action – from energy and investment markets to cities and communities.
Instead of always pleading for policies from national governments or complaining about what’s wrong, our movements are testing how to build power and change on the ground. Combined with open campaigns and emotionally engaging movements, radical pragmatism and a positive vision can set the agenda and engage the mainstream. We’re just getting started — but we’re already starting to break through.
The old certainties and elites are failing, and new energy is springing up through the cracks. The dream of a better life for all is in jeopardy as never before. But if we take a fresh look at what’s possible and get together for practical positive change, we could yet reclaim our future and write a better story – starting right here at home, in London and the UK.
The space is opening up. This is the new politics. Are you in?