Take Back the City: The Disillusioned Londoners Calling for Radical Democracy.

by Emma Snaith

Take Back the City is a new grassroots movement made up of ordinary Londoners dissatisfied with mainstream politics in London, seeking to make their voices heard. The group significantly raised their profile in the recent London Assembly elections when their candidate ran for the City and East constituency. Does their recent popularity prove that there is a growing demand for a different kind of politics in London, especially as anti-political sentiments grow post Brexit?

During the recent London Assembly elections, Take Back the City offered a refreshing alternative to the anodyne programmes of the mainstream political parties. Formed only last year, the group seeks to amplify the voices of London’s marginalised communities. Whilst both the Conservatives and Labour continue to serve the interests of big business, Take Back the City is solely focussed on tackling the fundamental imbalance of power in the developed world’s most unequal city. Since the result of the EU referendum has exacerbated levels of distrust in mainstream politics, the ‘radical democracy’ that the group promotes is perhaps more appealing than ever.

Building a movement.

Take Back the City ran one candidate, 26 year old Amina Gichinga, for the City and East seat in the London Assembly elections. As a young black working class woman who works as a singing teacher and a community organiser, Amina is nothing like what we have come to expect of politicians.

Despite limited exposure, Amina received 1,368 votes – nearly triple the number of votes the campaign had expected to receive. This was a significant achievement for the group considering that prior to this campaign few people had even heard of the group. Their campaign ran on just £5000, the entirety of which was crowdfunded.

Take Back the City are well aware that the overall vote share they gained was very small – just over 1%. But this doesn’t seemed to have dampened the campaign’s spirits: ultimately, they are more concerned with building a movement of disenfranchised and marginalised Londoners than gaining a seat in the London Assembly. In a video posted on the group’s Facebook page on the 7th May Amina Gichinga spoke about the future of Take Back the City after the election: “Although we’re ecstatic that we’ve got 1,368 votes, we know how important it is to build a movement and to keep connecting pockets of resistance across our city”

Certainly the election has helped to raise the profile of Take Back the City. The group attracted a notable amount of media interest in the run up to the Local Assembly elections. The Guardian website even posted a video about the group as part of their ‘Anywhere but Westminster’ series. Since the election, the group has also received a lot of interest from other political groups – including the Green Party, Momentum and various smaller activist groups in London and across the country.

Most importantly, by campaigning on the streets, Take Back the City were able to connect with people that might not have otherwise heard of the group, or even considered themselves interested in politics. Reflecting on their experience speaking to ordinary Londoners during the campaign, Take Back the City activist Glyn Rhys stated that the group ‘feel there is an appetite for a different of politics”. However he conceded that “most people are not exposed to it and they don’t know it exists. When they do come across it they are interested”.

A Demand for a Different Kind of Politics.

Evidently, the group has attracted a significant amount of interest. However the question remains: Is there a growing demand in London for the “radical democracy” that Take Back the City preaches? And if so can the group fulfil this demand for a different kind of politics?

Clearly Take Back the City is not an isolated movement; there are a growing number of community and activist groups fighting back against poor living conditions in London. A whole wave of housing and anti-gentrification campaigns have emerged in recent years. A map produced by the housing activist group Action East End provides links to 45 housing and anti-gentrification campaigns where only a few were in existence a couple of years ago. Take Back the City have forged links with some of these groups, including Focus E15 and the Radical Housing Network.

As part of their commitment to ‘radical democracy’, Take Back the City consulted many of these community and activist groups across London in order to produce their ‘People’s Manifesto’. They also spoke to trade unions, and youth and migrant groups, as well as looking at suggestions they received online.  The resulting policies in their manifesto include the introduction of rent caps, a compulsory London minimum wage of £11, a 20% cut to all transport fares and the restoration of Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA). Most controversially, the manifesto also calls for the replacement of the Metropolitan Police.

The group have also managed to engage a large number of disillusioned Londoners using art and music to get their message across. In this way, they try to attract the attention of many people who are typically uninterested in politics, and turned off by the normal methods of political engagement.

While campaigning for the Local Assembly elections members of the group recited the poem ‘Can you See us Now’ from the decks of the the buses in the Newham area. The poem is a rallying cry to the people of London to resist the forces of gentrification that are dividing the city: “While you regenerate this city, it seems you’ve forgotten who generates this city.”

Take Back the City also organised a number of cultural events in the last year, attracting a diverse cross section of Londoners of all backgrounds and ages. Over 800 people attended a recent event they co-organised called ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, which brought together young artists from across London to share their stories of the city.


Mainstream Politics Failing Londoners.

By connecting with a wide variety of ordinary Londoners and listening to their demands, Take Back the City have uncovered a significant amount of dissatisfaction with mainstream politics in London. This is hardly surprising given that both Conservative and Labour politicians consistently promote the interests of big business in the capital, and have so far failed to address rising inequality and worsening living conditions.

Both Conservative and Labour councils across London have faced particular criticism for failing to provide enough decent social housing. The social housing stock has been squeezed by a relentless sell-offs of publicly owned properties: a trend presided over by Conservative and Labour councillors alike. As a result, many people across London have been forced to live in squalid and cramped temporary accommodation and increasingly residents are being relocated in social housing outside of London. This has sparked a series of housing protests across the capital over the last couple of years.

The Labour dominated Newham and Southwark councils have faced considerable backlash from local residents- with the Focus E15 mothers occupying homes on the boarded-up Carpenters estate, and the tenants of the Aylesbury estate holding a two month occupation. Likewise, the Conservative controlled council in Barnet responded to an occupation of the Sweets Way estate – organised by housing campaigners protesting against its demolition – with bailiffs and police vans. The final resident, a disabled father of four, was finally evicted after a six-month struggle to keep living in his own home.

During the recent mayoral election, both Sadiq Khan and Zach Goldsmith courted big business. Admittedly both candidates set out policies to help tackle the housing crisis, improve public transport and deal with air pollution. However, neither of their programmes went any way towards addressing the fundamental imbalance of power between the rich and poor in the capital.  At best their policies set out to marginally alleviate living conditions for some poorer Londoners.

After his victory, Sadiq Khan even proclaimed that he would be the ‘most business-friendly mayor in London’s history’. This position clearly is at odds with his promise to be a “mayor for all Londoners.” Perhaps this clash of interests was most apparent when Khan accepted thousands of pounds of donations from property developers towards his mayoral campaign, while at the same time criticising the hold that developers have over the capital. Confidence in the new mayor to improve conditions for ordinary Londoners has already been undermined, after accusations that he has broken his manifesto pledge to freeze public transport fares.

It is perhaps surprising that Labour politicians like Sadiq Khan do not share Take Back the City’s desire to directly tackle inequality and the imbalance of power in the capital. Ostensibly Jeremy Corbyn’s election has reshaped the Labour party and it now pursues a more progressive agenda. In reality there is a stark contrast between the ideals and preferred policies of Corbyn and his followers and those of many Labour politicians in London.

Empowering Ordinary Londoners.

So can Take Back the City can succeed as an alternative party and campaigning movement to challenge the political status quo in London? Their future is an uncertain, one considering that the group is only a year old and entirely volunteer run.

However, Take Back the City draw great inspiration Spanish citizen platforms, which hve chieved rpid success in the last couple of years. These radically democratic groups are committed to making city governments accountable to citizen participation, crowdsourcing their policies by consulting neighbourhood assemblies and using digital participation tools. Many of citizen platforms have been catapulted into government in Spain’s major cities – including Barcelona and Madrid. The mayors of both of these cities have histories in radical housing movements. There was only a nine month gap between the formation of these platforms and election night in May 2015.

Whilst Take Back the City hope to emulate some of the success that the Spanish citizens platforms have achieved, the group is much smaller in size than these platforms. Indeed the group’s launch was somewhat overshadowed by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the labour party a couple of months later. Take Back the City activist Glyn Rhys explained that the group did not ‘explode’ in the way they expected: “Many political activists have got drawn into the Labour Party… so that upsurge in interest did not happen in the same way”.

Despite a slower start than anticipated, since the London assembly elections Take back the City have received an enormous amount of interest. It now falls on the group to respond to this interest and get more Londoners involved in their movement.

Yet even if Take Back the City were able to replicate the sudden rise of the citizen platforms in Spain, they would likely encounter similar limitations currently faced by their Spanish counterparts. The Spanish platforms are finding themselves constrained by the centralisation measures and local government cuts enforced by the Spanish government. This reduces the ability of the citizen platforms to pursue alternatives to austerity. They also are required to fend off attacks from the political establishment and vested interests who disagree with their policies.

Already the mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau has faced popular revolt from those who once counted her as an ally. Rioting broke out after she failed to stop the eviction of squatters from a former bank. The squatters feel betrayed that Colau, a long-time housing activist, did not intervene in this instance. In her position as mayor she is unable to do much: the conflict is between private parties and she must defend herself from criticism from right-wing politicians.

However the citizen platform run cities across Spain are able to challenge these limits by creating alliances together in pursuit of their goals. In defiance of the Spanish government’s . sluggish response to the refugee crisis, they created a network of “safe cities” to assist refugees arriving in the country. These cities formed a national network of ‘ciudades del cambio’ (cities of change).

If Take Back the City is to have any chance of bringing about a radical extension of democracy in London, they will need to consider how to respond to similar constraints imposed by the government, and prospective attacks by the political establishment. As the experience of the Spanish citizen platforms prove, they cannot simply operate as an isolated movement.

Indeed Take Back the City hope to continue participating in electoral politics but are also focused on strengthening links with activist groups both within and outside of London. Activist Glynn outlined some of the group’s potential plans including “organising more big cultural events, getting more involved in some of the campaigning around housing and potentially running in the 2018 London local elections.” Although it must be conceded that unlike in Spain, there does not currently exist a burgeoning network of groups across UK cities promoting radical democracy.

Responding to Post-Brexit Precarity.

After the Leave vote, and the political turmoil that has followed, it might seem like an inopportune moment to radically challenge mainstream politics. In a time of change, it might seem attractive to cling to our institutions as bastions of stability. However, Take Back the City have been actively engaging with Londoners, considering how to move on from Brexit and promote a different kind of politics. They held a gathering outside Stratford station a week after the referendum, discussing how to tackle rising racism and xenophobia and how to unite communities. Gichinga represented Take Back the City at a post-Brexit alliance meeting, to speak about the possibility of building a ‘progressive alliance’ with more established parliamentary parties – including the Green Party and Labour. By working together, it is hoped that progressive parties can more effectively counter the politics of the emboldened far-right.

Since Brexit, the need for the more participatory form of democracy that Take Back the City promotes is more urgent than ever. The Leave campaign profited from an anti-elitist sentiment: the idea that those in power do not listen to ordinary people and act in their own interests. Whilst overall, Londoners overwhelmingly voted to remain, there were many pockets of voters who agreed with the anti-political feeling of the leave campaign. Five London boroughs voted to leave. In some boroughs – including Newham and Bromley – remain won by a very slim majority. Even amongst Londoners who voted remain, trust in mainstream politics has plummeted since the referendum, as the Labour party tears itself apart and the new Conservative prime minister Theresa May neatly slides into office without even a leadership election, hand-picked by party grandees.

But in participating in creating a progressive political alliance, Take Back the City are keen to stress that other political parties need to fundamentally change the way they do politics. At the recent post-Brexit alliance meeting, Gichinga highlighted that it would be a mistake to think that the purpose of such an alliance would solely be to “get rid of the Tories”. Rather, progressive parties need to make politics “more open to young people, people of colour, women, working class people, migrants, refugees – people who lack a political voice but make our city and our country what it is”. Take Back the City are rightly wary of the possibility that by joining a progressive alliance, their ideas might be co-opted without the alliance fully committing to a radical extension of democracy.

Whatever happens, they are determined to put the marginalised and the disillusioned into the centre of decision making in London. This is crucial at a time when mainstream politicians are failing to tackle – or even to understand – the fundamental problems faced by ordinary Londoners: soaring rents, house prices and homelessness, a fall in real wages and a rise in air pollution. Undoubtedly any attempt to challenge mainstream politics will be difficult and controversial. But Take Back the City’s presence at least draws attention to the inadequacies of our current forms of political organisation. This can only make it harder to ignore calls more a more creative, open, participatory style of democracy.

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Published 17th July 2016

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