Saving devolution from itself: Building #RegionalDemocracy in the North of England

Devolution. City Deals. Northern Powerhouse. What does this even mean to the average person on the street? Devolution probably reminds most people of Charles Darwin. If not, then it’s something to do with Scotland. City Deals just sound like business as usual. The Northern Powerhouse may be a funk band. If somehow all these big words are about the future of Northern England’s society and economy, about its transport and education and health system, about power and control vis-à-vis Whitehall bureaucracy and the whims of national government, about jobs and infrastructure and other areas where we are spending and raise tax money, then we should be talking about something else. We should be talking about regional democracy – a mechanism to build better systems to support our lives, communities and industries through more democratic governance.

From the beginning, it seems that both the term ‘devolution’ and the processes behind it – in contrast to the more bottom up approach in Scotland – have been conceived by and for Oxbridge politicians, local authorities and suited-and-booted business representatives. This has served to exclude and disengage the public, as the agenda is often seen and perceived as something remote from our daily lives. Indeed, it is fair to say that a lot of citizens have never even heard about the Northern Powerhouse, City Deals or devolution.

Like too many things in this country, these are policies conjured up in the corridors of Westminster, in local authorities’ offices, behind closed doors, or at exclusive events attended by the few. Imagine: attending the ‘Northern Powerhouse Conference’ held in February 2016, costing only £450: a real bargain for a programme which focussed only on business, with no inputs from civil society and third sector organisations, minority groups, or young voices.

Beyond this, the way in which City Deals have been put on the agenda seems only to reinforce the idea that devolution in the North has little to do with democracy, and more with the needs and wills of politicians. Indeed, none of the Deals that have been signed so far in Northern city regions such as Greater Manchester and Sheffield have been involved in any real process of consultation with the public from the outset. Of the elites, by the elites, for the elites, one would be tempted to dare say.

So who constructs the discourse of devolution in the North? How can citizens have a voice or exercise their power to decide what future they want for their localities and regions when decisions are made in the corridors of power?

It is hard not to feel disillusioned when comparing England’s experiences of devolution to Scotland’s democratic resurgence. Regardless of how one feels about the subject of the Indyref vote, it was a huge victory for democracy. People on both sides got engaged, got involved, and the politics, process and ideas were better for it. So rather than wallow in yet another critique of devolution, our question is how do we turn the devolution agenda into an opportunity to develop a real system of regional democracy? How can it be moulded into something positive, inclusive and hopeful? How can this moment be used to mobilise people of all backgrounds to be part of a movement to change England’s North for the better?

Step 1: Stop talking devolution, start talking about the issues

The first step in this direction is to change the ‘power-and-economy-obsessed’ discourse of devolution in the North, and focus instead on everyday lives. Devolution should not be just an empty word used by politicians in speeches or manifestos. It should not be framed simply as a way to achieve economic development. It should not be only about passing responsibilities (short of matching funding) down from the central government to the local or regional level. It should be about how to turn all these narratives into action, and figure out how the emerging new systems of governance could be used to improve people’s lives.

Thus, devolution must be reframed into something that is interesting and important to people on the ground and relates to their daily struggles, hopes, frustrations and dreams. We need devolution only if it is actually and directly connected to issues that matter to citizens. We need a system of regional democracy that brings better transport, education, housing, jobs, health care and strengthens communities rather than depriving them of their voices.

Part of the problem with devolution is that each of these systems is different. Instead of focusing on whether power should be given to Yorkshire or West Yorkshire or this council or that, we need to focus on the things that matter. Transport is not housing, health care is not education. There is no perfect geography for all of these systems, and they don’t need to be the same geography for everything. We recognise this already – Transport for the North has been set up because transport needs large-scale thinking, but this is often left outside the devolution conversation, even though it is ‘devolution’. Certain things are better done at the council level, and in some cases – as  with aspects of housing, or local economic development, or care – we need to be thinking about pushing power down to districts and neighbourhoods.

Regional democracy is about bringing together all of the actors – government, third sector, private industry, regular citizens – that are capable of contributing to a more sustainable, economically efficient and socially just systems that can provide these key services, regardless of scale. We need to keep our eyes on the prize, in this case better governance for better lives.

Step 2: Stop talking to each other, start talking with everyone else

If we are truly devolving power to local people, where are the people? Charities and the third sector have been almost entirely excluded. Grassroots groups have been ignored. Minority groups, communities of colour, young people – not at the table. From the beginning, there has been a politics of division and neglect – dividing rural voters from urban ones or squabbling between northern local authorities, or everyone from the political elite doing their best to either ignore outside voices or proclaim their own powerlessness in the face of Whitehall and Osborne. This is not to say that local authorities in the North are to be ‘blamed and shamed’. They have been between a rock and hard place, with the government snapping at their heels, all the way through the process that led to City Deals, and in the end they did what they had to do: accept what was on offer, so as to avoid their cities and economies  falling further behind the rest of the country. However, at the end of the day, in order to work the new structures that will emerge from the Deals (including elected City Region mayors) will have to take root in the local communities, and have the people behind them—at the polls in local and city region elections; but also on a daily basis. Local politics could, and should, play a key part in this, as an agent of change—but to achieve such a goal local authorities need to turn their attention not only to what the government wants, but also to their citizens’ voices. In many ways, last week’s local elections were a warning, shining light on how a continuing disconnect at local level could undermine the whole devolution agenda from within.

So we need more people involved, not because it is more just, or out of fairness, but because it is the only way to make sure the new processes actually function in the long term, and regional democracy – and the systems and communities it is supposed to improve – becomes a reality rather than a dream. Changing the North can’t be done without the people who live and work there getting involved and participating in such a process. We need organizations and institutions to come together and imagine a new style of politics, one which is pluralist and inclusive, and trusts and empowers communities. We need to engage young people, working people and communities of colour in new and exciting ways. The real ‘revolution’ of devolution as a means to achieve regional democracy ultimately rests in this, and not in the politics of catchphrases heralded by the Chancellor.

Step 3: Have the courage to believe in regional democracy

It is too easy to be cynical, but all cynicism does is turn the fear of the elite not delivering on promises into an inevitable reality. Instead, we need to take progressive steps to ensure that we are the start of a community-wide movement. Public pressure is one of the most effective ways to change policy, yet this is feeble at the moment. The key here is to spark the interest of citizens, and use that genuine interest as a catalyst for bottom-up regional democracy, bringing people closer to politics.

This is the biggest challenge ahead – especially because, in times of austerity, citizens tend to disengage from, turn against and blame politics. We must instead insist on and develop a new style of engagement that is not couched in easy anti-politics motifs, but builds from the grassroots upwards and seeks to challenge dominant assumptions – speaking to and connecting with the diverse and rich communities of the North, and insisting that a regional democracy which develops new forms of governance for better regional and local systems is possible.

All of us, as people living and working in the North of England, have to take responsibility for making this happen. We have to act together in any and all capacities that we can, whether as grassroots groups, community organizations, charities, unions, activists, universities and, most of all, as citizens, without asking for permission or waiting for public funding. This is not an easy task. But it’s not impossible either – just think about the work of the Scottish Constitutional Convention back in the 1980-90s, the democratic thrust generated by the referendum, all the impossible that became the possible. Our demands and needs and communities are different, but looking north of the border should be a source of inspiration to build on, rather than just of wishful thinking. Regional democracy has to start somewhere.

This is a collaborative piece jointly authored by Yorkshire residents Leila Taleb, Arianna Giovannini, Andrew WilsonAlex Schafran and Ian Martin.

A version of this article also appears on the Open Democracy and Oxpol websites.

 

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Could we put ‘Ubuntu’ at the heart of better mental health for all in West Yorkshire?

Guest blog by Penny Wangari-Jones from Liversedge

Before David ‘Rocky’ Bennett’s death in an East Anglian psychiatric unit 18 years ago, he sent a letter to the nurse director, pointing out there were no black staff members. He wrote: “There are over half a dozen black boys in this clinic. I don’t know if you have realised that there are no Africans on your staff at the moment”. Bennett died while being held down by four staff members at a psychiatric unit after a violent altercation with another patient and a nurse. Looking at the circumstances around his untimely death, it’s clear his blackness was threatening to staff members. He had been using mental health services for at least a decade, yet his needs as a black Rastafarian were not being met.

Bennett’s death was a catalyst for what became ‘delivering race equality’ in health, however the cuts since 2010 mean little is currently being done. He is just one example of the mental health system failing people of colour – Sarah Reed, who died in a prison cell earlier this year after having been sexually assaulted, is a more recent case, but the list is far, far longer.

61% of refugees are likely to experience a mental health crisis or breakdown. Most will have experienced trauma before their arrival in UK, forced to deal with a complicated, bureaucratic immigration system. Refugees face the challenges of restarting a new life in a new country, often without family members, dealing with culture shock and language issues. Understanding the culturally specific, underlying reasons for their mental ill health could lead to far better treatment.

Minority communities who have been in the UK for several generations are also known to feel alienated from the health system. This means that often they do not feel comfortable in environments that are supposed to improve their mental health well being. Support is not always timely: reports show that black people are 40 times more likely than white Britons to come into contact with mental health services through the criminal justice system, rather than the general practice referral system.

There is also evidence that ethnic minority communities are less likely to seek help at an early stage of illness, due to a combination of lack of knowledge and stigma around mental health. But this is not helped by inappropriate or racist models of diagnosis which often lead to poor experiences of mental health services, for example being medicated, restrained and going off radar upon release.

It currently costs the NHS about £105 billion a year to deliver work on mental health. The NHS also has a specific plan for ‘equality and diversity’, following a catalogue of failures. But the continuing cut backs mean this plan is no longer being regarded as a priority. When it comes to mental health, providers still have little understanding of the nuances in the different cultures of minority ethnic groups. This means treatment that is offered by practitioners is ineffective and at a cost to the taxpayers.

The methods used to diagnose mental health illnesses are western-centric, often rooted in a tradition of Freudianism. This means they do not work universally. Globalisation means we no longer have monocultures in our towns, but mental health systems don’t reflect this.

Could devolution be an opportunity to do things differently? If we had responsibility in West Yorkshire for mental health, could we decolonise our system to fit with the communities that live here?

The Race Equality Foundation found that black people are three times more likely to be diagnosed and admitted to hospital for schizophrenia. This, in turn, has been attributed to institutional racism or to a racialized definition of traits associated with schizophrenia. Gesticulating or talking loudly is often seen as threatening in western cultures but might be seen as normal, acceptable behaviour in non-western cultures. People have lost lives because of such misconceptions.

For example, witchdoctors and prophets have been known to claim having powers to heal, transmit messages from gods or the dead to family or congregation. In some communities such people are held in high regard, but in others they are seen as delusional and therefore in need of medical intervention.

Decolonising mental health would allow practitioners to have a better understanding of different communities. This can be achieved through cultural diversity awareness, as well as having a more diverse staff team as people learn about others informally. This would make the services more accessible because a lot of service users are put off by going into places where no one looks like them. It would also place less expectation on the NHS to be the only solution for mental health problems. Communities can look after their own and each other allowing them to practice, for example, the African concept of ‘ubuntu’.

Ubuntu holds that humans feel human through affirmation from other humans and that is achieved through belonging, participating and sharing with others. The concept of lack of belonging and being ‘othered’ is one that most minorities say they struggle with. It has been argued for example that individualism in western societies can adversely affect someone who has migrated. Reinstating their qualities of Ubuntu instead of prescribing medication can improve someone’s mental health. An individual’s ability to have a choice of treatments that suit their cultural need would empower someone to feel like an agent and not a problem or victim.

Looking into the underlying reasons for poor mental health within certain communities and working with the communities to address it would be far better and more cost effective than sectioning someone under the Mental Health Act for a period or several times. Medication should not be the only solution. Instead, working with individuals and families will allow for better understanding of conditions to allow people to make their own choices on what works best.

Mental health has been and still is underfunded. Continuing cuts mean the situation is likely to get worse for those experiencing mental ill health. One positive thing brought about by cuts is it has fostered relationships and synergy between the statutory and the third sector. This has perhaps facilitated the gradual growth of social prescribing within the health service and would therefore mean health services are now looking at other alternatives.

It could be said that this ties with the spirit of devolution where the government announced it will empower local communities by handing decisions down to local people. A devolved health system is already part of the powers held in Greater Manchester and despite the size of the budget, there have already been calls to use this as an opportunity to challenge failings in national policy. If we get the chance through regional democracy to do things differently in West Yorkshire, stopping the situation deteriorating any further would mean refusing to replicate what has been the case so far: alienating those who are on the margins of our society. Having an understanding about communities who face multiple oppressions and equity would harness and create opportunities for involving everyone in West Yorkshire. The ability to involve all members in our communities in looking after their own will not only inform and empower them to demand what is best, it will also fill in the gaping hole being left open by cuts in services.

Intersectionality has in recent years highlighted how multiple barriers can make certain individuals or communities more vulnerable than others. W.E.B Dubois spoke about double consciousness and the effect of internal conflict on an individual living as a minority in an alienating environment. To improve mental health treatment for ethnic minorities would require understanding racial disparities in treatment. This is an example of ‘equity’.

Assuming everyone has similar health status and health care needs is a false starting point. People experiencing disadvantages mean equality in service is not enough. Equity in this case means patients not getting the same thing, but treating people differently having taken into account their different circumstances. Equity would mean that all sectors would work together to ensure individuals are not slipping through the net. If we have the opportunity to do things differently in West Yorkshire, that should be our starting point.

Penny coordinates the West Yorkshire Racial Justice Network and also works on developing and advocating for inclusive mental health support systems for BME communities. She can be found on Twitter here.

 A version of this article first appeared on Open Democracy here.

 

 

 

Could our #RegionalDemocracy trial a Citizens’ Income?

Maybe it’s me. Maybe my instincts are all over the place. But when the Yorkshire Post’s political editor described something as ‘much mocked’, a few connections sparked in my brain and I wanted to know more. Somehow that phrase made me think that whatever he was talking about might be a good thing. Or at least that it must be interesting to receive such a wide spread negative reaction. Weirdly though, it turns out that what he was talking about is quite a popular idea. And not just here. Around the world in fact.

He was referring to ‘Universal Basic Income’. The idea that each citizen receives from the Government a set amount of income to guarantee a basic standard of living, the same amount, untaxed, no questions asked. A Citizens’ Income. Although some see this in terms of social security, others see this as a necessity for the future. A future where technological advances lead to fewer paid jobs. A future where the relationship between industrial production, income and belonging will loosen into something unrecognisable from what went before (as described by Srnicek and Williams here and critiqued in N+1).

Given the reality of our regional economy, this ‘future’ is actually the here and now for many people. Our reality in large parts of the North is post-industrial. A reality of fewer jobs and the transition away from dependence on certain industries. Away from industries that may be harmful to us, to others, to our environment. Often a transition which hasn’t been managed in a way that maintained the sense of confidence in a particular area.

Often in this process of transition, the complexities of our social security system have been in themselves a barrier to starting a positive future for many people. The universality of Citizens’ Income is promoted as a means of ensuring that no-one will miss out on an income due to such complexity. But more than that the very freedom provided by a guaranteed income which is not dependent on a job may be exactly the space needed for citizens to have ideas, to offer their time, to take a risk, to experiment and play, to work with others, to find new democratic and inclusive ways of building communities (as described by Tabitha Bast), to start new enterprises with loans from local public banks (as described by Marie McCahery) – it may be the exact security of ongoing income required that creates the space for our regional economy, our regional society, our #RegionalDemocracy to emerge. To be resilient. And to flourish (as described in New Start’s Leeds edition).

But this piece is not aimed at describing Citizens’ Income and the broader context in detail, that is better dealt with elsewhere. Nor is it saying that Citizens’ Income is definitely the most effective way of meeting the needs of the future (there are interesting counter arguments here and here). It’s asking a question: Should part of West Yorkshire trial a Citizens’ Income?

Even though the idea is ‘much mocked’, it has become reality in many other places. Or at least, many other societies have decided to try it out within a specific area or region. Whilst Finland looks set to experiment nationally at approx. £620 a month, Utrecht and a number of other cities in the Netherlands have a limited trial at approx. £660 a month based on those already in receipt of social security. Most recently Ontario, a Canadian province which includes some areas with similar issues in the transition to a postindustrial future as parts of Yorkshire, announced it was to trial a basic income for all citizens. In fact initial evidence from a 1970’s trial in Dauphin, Manitoba suggested a significant positive impact on both health and education outcomes.

If we are to get a better idea as to what part a Citizens’ Income may (or may not) play in our future, a trial within a specific geographical area therefore seems a reasonable approach. Given the reality of the postindustrial future facing large parts of our region, could our #RegionalDemocracy take the initiative here and trial a Citizens’ Income in part or all of West Yorkshire?

One of the most vocal proponents of Universal Basic Income and its relationship with the future of work and technology, Paul Mason, was asked about this at a ‘Postcapitalism’ event last year by Scottish independence activist and futurist thinker Pat Kane. In his response he described how Wales was a society with a polity willing to engage in thinking creatively about a sustainable future and which had been forced to engage with the realities of a postindustrial future (from 57 mins here).

Could that describe us too? What if our #RegionalDemocracy was willing to engage creatively in addressing the very same issues affecting Wales’ postindustrial future. Wouldn’t a Citizens’ Income trial here be a first step towards that? Aren’t parts of West Yorkshire exactly the sort of ‘diverse urban areas with new social movements and the energy of contemporary politics’ described by Nick Pearce as the most likely to develop the policies of the future?

The initial tweet from the Yorkshire Post’s James Reed actually referred to his discovery at the Green Party’s recent Harrogate conference that ‘Universal Basic Income’ was still party policy. As it turns out, one of the longest standing campaigners on this issue within the Green Party is actually based in Leeds, Clive Lord. Although these days, he advises caution about the potential of certain interpretations of Basic Income for the radical change he would like to see.

But as it happens, there is a wide variety of interest in Universal Basic Income in other parties too, including LabourLiberal Democrats and Yorkshire First. Outside the UK, there are also many conservative and libertarian supporters.

Like many others interested in a free, fair and fun future for their home region, I’m not ready to mock Universal Basic Income. I want to know if a Citizens’ Income could be a key part of our future. I want to know whether a Citizens’ Income helps or hinders newcomers and longer term residents in building that future together. I want our #RegionalDemocracy to be the kind of brave, positive, open-minded kind of place that takes new ideas seriously and bases its policy decisions on evidence from here and around the world.

What do you think? Should we trial a Citizens’ Income?

Ian Martin is based in East Leeds and is a member of the Same Skies collective.

Could local public banks allow our region to do things independently of London?

Guest blog by Marie McCahery of Bradford

When I’ve attended devolution conferences, I’ve found them interesting but at the same time I’ve been astonished that local public banking is never on the table as an option for achieving financial independence.

Upon extensive study of monetary and banking reform I have become convinced, with many other people, that local public banking is the most achievable way for localities to gain some measure of financial independence, to fund the initiatives they decide they need. I think that devolution to local cities provides a fantastic opportunity for this option to be investigated further as local public banking can allow cities to do so many things independent of funding from London or Brussels. It really needs to be on the table.

But public banking is never talked about in the UK, despite it being 25% of banking worldwide and 40% in successful economies such as Germany. The UK banking sector is dominated by four huge private banks and it’s about time we had a more diverse banking sector like many other countries. Germany, for example, has local, regional and national public banks, all motivated for the public benefit, not profit maximisation. These are major lenders into local SME’s, infrastructure and the green sector.

The local public banks, the Sparkasse, lend over 70% of their loans to the local SME’s (small and medium enterprises, less than 250 employees), unlike the massive, national private banks in the UK, that only lend 8% to the productive sector and only a quarter of that, 2% to SMEs. The Sparkasse are also major investors in local green initiatives and co-operatives. We have many problems in the UK and public banks could be part of the solution to alleviate them, the devolution to the cities offer a great opportunity to investigate the idea of local public banks using the Sparkasse outreach programme, the SBFIC, who have already been doing fantastic work in Ireland.

Local public banks are owned by the local authorities, though not operated by politicians but by public employees proud to work for the public benefit. They can only ever earn salaries as there is no bonus/fees/commission culture in public banks. They offer what Professor Marianna Mazzucato calls “patient, committed” money. Their remit to work for the public benefit means that public banks do not lend into financial speculation which meant that the Sparkasse did not suffer losses in the crash of 2008, and were happy to continue lending to businesses and to even lend more to nurse their businesses through the recession. Institutions worried that they would lose their deposits in the event of a bank failure caused by the incessant financial speculation of private banks might choose to deposit in public banks, where their money is safer, where banking charges are cheaper, and where loans and profits are channelled for the public benefit.

Local public banks are willing to look at business plans from the local authority and lend to it for public housing, green initiatives and other projects whose income will pay to service the loan. Their Interest charges are also cheaper for such loans as they have minimal overheads. Local co-operatives are also much more likely to receive funding from a local public bank that does not want local enterprises to close.

It must be remembered that credit unions do not have a banking license, they are intermediaries between savers and borrowers. The difference with a banking license is that banks can create money from nothing when they issue loans. When someone borrows from a bank, they sign a promise to pay which becomes an asset to the bank. The bank then must create a matching liability which it does by crediting the borrowers account. This money, however, does not come from savers or from the bank’s reserves, but is created by tapping the keyboard. This capacity of banks to create money was explained by the Bank of England here.

So local public banks bring newly-created money into the local economy, supporting local businesses and jobs. It is not inflationary, as the money is matched by new production, unlike the money created by the present private banks that are primarily aimed at the housing and financial sector, creating inflation in these sectors and making asset-holders richer whilst leaving everyone else with debts, thereby increasing inequality. For more information on how banks create money, also look at Positive Money here.

Only 3% of money is created by the government as cash, the rest is created digitally by the private banks and it is time this immense power was used for the benefit of the public. How much longer can we put up with the private banks litany of wrongdoings?

Marie can be contacted on Twitter @MarieMcCahery

or via mariemccahery@gmail.com

Public Banking Conference – banking in the public interest

Friends meeting House, Manchester, Sat February 20th 10am – 5pm

If you’d like to know more, I have organised a conference bringing together major thinkers on banking and how it can be reformed to help society including:

Ellen Brown from the USA and author of “Web of Debt” http://www.webofdebt.com/     and  “The Public Banking Solution” http://www.publicbankinginstitute.org/

Richard Werner, Professor of International Banking at Southampton University, a leading thinker on bank reform, and a leading proponent of local banking

Dr. Thomas Marois, senior development lecturer at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) in London, who has studied the workings and benefits of public banks in developing countries. See this report http://bit.ly/1PNuwnD

Frank van Lerven, of Positive Money, as mentioned above

Noel Kinahan, a leading local public banking campaigner from Ireland, who will outline how the Sparkasse Outreach Program (SBFIC http://bit.ly/1njreBp ) is helping Ireland plan how to introduce local public banking, which is now on the manifesto of three of Ireland’s political parties in the upcoming election.

Duncan McCann of the NEF http://www.neweconomics.org/  talking about financial independence for Scotland

TBC others talking about the possibility of local public banking in the devolving northern cities

Tickets –   https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/public-banking-banking-in-the-public-interest-tickets-20773078838?aff=ebrowse

Facebook event to share https://www.facebook.com/events/1093984393974560/

Tea and Registration 9-10pm, finish 5pm,

I am also organising a seminar with the main speakers on the preceding Friday (19th Feb) to take place at Manchester University and am trying to get representatives from the northern city councils to use this opportunity to question them. There are also academics interested. Hopefully, they will take this opportunity.

To learn more on public banking in many countries, please listen to my interview with Dr Thomas Marois, on my radio show “Why Don’t Economists? ” https://audioboom.com/boos/4075926-why-don-t-economists-13th-january-2016

 

What can Yorkshire learn from Rojava?

Guest blog by Tabitha Bast from Leeds

Rojava is the light in the darkness that is Syria, an autonomous region of 4 separate but interrelated cantons since 2013, also known as Syrian Kurdistan. Rojava has established a society based on the principles of direct democracy, sustainability and gender equality. The YPG are the military wing, a very young army that has only been in existence in this form since 2012. Yet I, and probably most other Yorkshire folk, hadn’t heard of Rojava or even the Kurdish people, until Kobane came under siege from the terrorist group ISIS (known as Daesh or ISIL also) as this was a key strategic area that if ISIS had won, would have given them a great strategic advantage.

And now I know that there are 300,000 Kurdish refugees in the UK, and Leeds, Huddersfield and Bradford are home to many of the Kurdish diaspora, some a few minutes from my door. We also know that ISIS didn’t win, they didn’t take Kobane. The YPG; unbelievably; whilst starved of military and humanitarian assistance by Turkey’s ongoing campaign against the Kurds; triumphed. This military, made up of 40% women, and under a political system closest to what we know as anarchist/libertarian socialism, or grass roots organising, not only resisted the onslaught of ISIS but last year seized land. Rojava typifies the spirit of demanding the impossible, making dreams reality.

Northern_Syria_offensive_(2015).png

Rojava and Yorkshire are; literally; miles apart and have different cultures, landscapes, ways of being. This is not a call to identikit and imitate the Rojava Project, but rather to engage with the consciousness of Rojava in ways that have meaning for us here.

One of the most interesting elements of the Rojava Revolution is that it has emerged from a Stalinist-Leninist hierarchical organisation into a movement committed to Democratic Confederalism. This means, at it’s core, power to the people, to neighbourhood assemblies rather than high ranking officials. In Rojava, decisions happen at street level, at the grassroots. In some ways, Yorkshire might seem the opposite of that; with the bureaucracies of councils and proposed devolved powers centralised in Mayors, or decision making concentrated down in Westminster, London, by a load of Eton boys who have no understanding of the North. But actually Yorkshire is rich in a history of grassroots organising from the radical militancy of food riots or anti blackshirt organising, right up to just a few weeks ago during the floods when all over Yorkshire neighbours helped neighbours and volunteers piled in to provide food, accommodation and hard labour for strangers across the region. Grassroots organising without money or hierarchy happens all the time across Yorkshire, and it’s up to us to make it happen more.

We lost a much loved Yorkshireman out in Rojava last year, Kosta Scurfield who came from Barnsley and was a former Royal Marine. His parents, Vasiliki and Chris, campaign for Peace and speak out about the Kurdish struggle, including resistance to ISIS. We even have Joe, a Halifax lad out fighting with the YPG right now, through the International Brigades group ‘Lions of Rojava’. Those with a sense of history will know this resonates with the Spanish Civil War and many dreamers, thinkers and makers from our region heading out to join the anarchist resistance to fascism there. Whilst there are few who would not understand the necessity in this situation to take up arms against ISIS as self defence and against genocide, the military element of Rojava is just one small part, and perhaps the least transferable element of the Rojava Project to a Yorkshire situation.

Instead perhaps we can look at some of the economic systems in Rojava, much of the financial situation is managed by cooperatives; these are non-hierarchical collectives that manage the day to day systems such as agriculture. As Abdurrahman Hemo; advisor for economic development states in explanation “Our economic project is the same as our political project. We call it “social economy,” and all parts of society participate. It’s cooperative. We have started to build cooperatives in all different sectors: we have trade cooperatives, company cooperatives, construction cooperatives. The organizational model for our economy is the cooperative. Our aim is to be self-sufficient. If there is just bread, then we will all have a share. This is the main principle of cooperatives.”

Again, this is not so far removed from the cooperative community that exists across Yorkshire. In Leeds alone, there are workers co ops such as Leeds Bread Co Op, or the cooperatively owned market place Fairmondo, or Oblong who operate a flat management structure to run Woodhouse Community Centre. There are also Housing cooperatives such as Firelight, Cornerstone, Tangram, Xanadu and Lilac.

The essential ways that power and oppression are understood and challenged in Rojava as integral to Women’s Rights are absolutely central to the ideology in Rojava and women make up 40% of the People’s Protection Units (YPJ). The YPJ are in charge of investigating rape and domestic violence, and the police force are taught feminist theory as part of their training. Equally, despite massacres, torture and brutalisation of the Kurdish people as an ethnic group, they have not turned away in fear and grown isolated as a people but instead ensured Rojava is committed to ensuring other ethnicities are welcome. Indeed, for Christians it is one of the few places that is now safe in Syria, and the Yazidi people; of whom the YPG/YPJ rescued 50,000 from an ISIS massacre off Mount Sinjar; have their own fighting forces within Rojava as a separate but united front with the mostly Kurdish units. This welcoming, in the face of adversity, rather than a closing off from fear, is something that Yorkshire can do too. The deadly creep of racism and the rhetoric of the Far Right is a horrible truth for Yorkshire, yet just as true is that Yorkshire common sense and hospitality, and a history of multiculturalism and integration. If 3,000 Syrian children are finally given refuge in the UK I trust Yorkshire will be at the forefront of that welcome.

 
Finally, with that acute critical instinct so often celebrated in Yorkshire, we must understand that the project in Rojava is by no means perfect or to be idealised and idolised. Rojava is made up of people, imperfect as us, and traumatised by endless war and crisis. We must assume internal conflicts and human errors. Rojava is not a finished project, not a utopia, but rather another example for us of some ways we can exist without a capitalist, patriarchal system, that there are many ways of being, and we hold the power to make our Yorkshire the region we desire.

Tabitha is a member of Leeds Friends of Rojava. To find out more, please contact them via Facebook here or email leedsisrojava@gmail.com

“If we are truly devolving power to local people, where are the people?”

On Friday 22nd January, Leila Taleb from the Same Skies collective and JUST was invited to participate in a panel discussion as part of ‘Power to the North’ – an event organised by the White Rose Consortium for the North of England at the University of Leeds. Like so many events of its kind, attendance on the day reflected the relatively narrow section of society in our region currently engaged in debates about our future. Nevertheless this was one of the very few big events where a real effort was made to hear grassroots voices alongside those who already hold power in our region. Great credit for this must go to Arianna Giovannini of the Consortium.

For the many people in our region unable to attend on the day, please find below a copy of the speech that Leila made as part of the panel. Below this, you will also find photos and messages from some of the delegates at the event telling us their views on #RegionalDemocracy.

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DEVOLUTION & CITY DEALS: A VIEW FROM THE GRASSROOTS

I’m going to be honest here, when I first came across the term ‘devolution’, my initial instinct was how incredibly boring it sounded. What does devolution even mean to the average Jo on the street? Well, it turns out, nothing much- in fact, it probably rings more bells with Darwinism than it does with the true meaning of the word.

The agenda in England (in contrast to the bottom up approach in Scotland that developed during the independence referendum) has been led by Oxbridge politicians, local authorities and suited-and-booted business representatives.

This has resultantly served to exclude and disengage the public, as the agenda is seen as something remote from their daily lives, and decided out there in the corridors of Westminster and local authority offices behind closed doors.

Most ordinary people have no awareness of what the council does, let alone their protocol and procedures; they neither vote in local elections nor pay any attention to any kind of local politics, so why would they know about devolution?

In England, we feel green-with-envy disillusionment when comparing our experiences to the democratic revival in Scotland.

But there is no reason as to why we cannot have the same here. If we bring a sense of positivity, inclusivity and hopefulness to the debate, we can mobilise people of all backgrounds to be part of a movement.

So the question is: how do we turn devolution into an opportunity? We know the North has so much potential, but we need to take the steps to unlock that potential.

The solution is to reframe devolution into something that is ‘interesting’ to people on the ground in that it relates to their daily struggles and frustrations regarding transport, infrastructure, jobs, housing and the North-South divide.

At the moment, the term ‘devolution’ is too closely attached to Scotland and is somewhat seen as a tarnished word, which automatically alienates young people and people already uninterested in Westminster-style politics. I mean if you wanted to pick a word that only attracts white men in suits then here you have it. The first thing I noticed when I arrived today was that the demographic was not representative of the communities we live in.

If we led and marketed campaigns on things like the lack of efficient, reliable and cost-worthy public transport in the North, then people on the ground would most definitely come on board.

I am always complaining about the lack of jobs for graduates up North and how most of my friends have had to succumb to the pull of the South, as they are not in a position to ‘pick and choose’ their job, especially with a £27k debt trailing them and no real work experience.

Why should young people be forced to move to a place where it costs them in gold to rent a box miles away from the centre of the city and where nobody gives a monkeys as to whether you’re dying in the street or have just won the lottery (I guess they’re used to seeing polar ends of the profound inequality in London)?

Friends that visit me from the South always complain about the lack of frequent public transport, as well as the expense. People experience these frustrations on a daily basis, yet they have no clue as to how this relates to devolution.

We should be looking at consciousness-raising around the symptoms of an overly centralised government giving precedence to London, rather than the technocratic process of devolution and squabbling over whether we want a Yorkshire-wide or a Leeds City Region bid.

If we are truly devolving power to local people, where are the people?

There is also a danger of mirroring the London economic model, rather than playing to our region’s strengths.

Instead of perpetuating the UK’s over-reliance on the services and financial sector, we should be looking towards developing a manufacturing and industrial base as well as creative and high-tech industries in order to retain more graduates that attend Northern universities, instead of feeding the brain-drain down to the South.

However, what we don’t want is the rooted inequality that has become a major side effect of the London economic model. We need good growth.

There has been an understandable tendency to jump on the oppositional and sceptical politics bandwagon regarding our fear that Osborne will, in fact, devolve cuts instead of power to the North.

It is evident that devolution needs to be accompanied by real resources. Nonetheless, focusing on the negative will only turn it into an inevitable reality; instead we need to take progressive steps to ensure that we are the start of our own movement.

Public pressure is one of the most effective ways to change policy, yet this is something we are completely lacking.

When I go to most events such as these ones, they are often filled with dry and content-less rhetoric that tends to go over my head, with no more than vague action points such as ‘yeah we need to engage people’, rather than trying to think about how we will go about carrying out the action points in small steps. So, I hope that we walk away from today filled with confidence and the drive to pledge to do one concrete action that will help facilitate democratic self-determination.

What do you think? Do you agree with Leila?

What about the photos below? Do you agree with these views of #RegionalDemocracy captured at the event?

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#NotWestminster -Local Democracy for Everyone

Andrew Wilson from the Same Skies collective is one of the organisers of a series of Local Democracy for Everyone events in Huddersfield this February.

It would be great if those who contributed so much to discussions before, during and after our ‘What Kind of Region Do We Want To Live In?’ event could join Andrew and others to think about democracy beyond Westminster, including how local and #RegionalDemocracy can contribute to positive change.

#NotWestminster – Saturday 13th February The main event brings together people who have something positive to say about local democracy and who are up for a challenge. It includes participant-led workshops, lightning talks, creative activities and lots of opportunities for making contact with others who are interested in local democracy and digital. Participants include councillors, community organisations, local government officers, digital makers, academics, open data advocates and young people. If you’re interested in democracy, citizen engagement or civic tech, Notwestminster is for you.

Fringe events – Friday 12th February Fringe events include the Local Democracy Maker Day, a practical day to help build a better local democracy. We’ll talk about the issues and quickly prototype something based on our shared ideas. We also have a PechaKucha Night, featuring a series of quick-fire presentations from members of the Notwestminster network and our friends. #RegionalDemocracy and the Yorkshire Suffragettes are amongst the topics you’ll hear about on the night.

More info What’s On in 2016

Book your free tickets Notwestminster 2016 – book now

Local Democracy Maker Day 2016 – book now

Notwestminster PechaKucha Night 2016 – book now

Some thought provoking writing for the end of the year

Here are a few pieces of online writing from inside and outside our region that really got us thinking over the last year…

“Facing an increasingly self-centered centre, we stand for citizens who are open to the world and to the present time, capable of organizing and cooperating according to their abilities and aspirations” – Simona Levi got us thinking about how citizens respond to centralised states in Spain and other parts of our continent here.

Paul Salveson got us thinking about the ‘many rivers’ that might flow towards #RegionalDemocracy here.

In the run up to the Scottish referendum on independence, Lesley Riddoch wrote this piece here and got us thinking about how female voices could be better heard in the debate about our #RegionalDemocracy.

Joe Brady described a specific example here of how devolution enabled people in Scotland to think again about how to make newcomers welcome and got us thinking about what that might mean for our #RegionalDemocracy.

In thinking about our future #RegionalDemocracy, developments in Rojava (described here) also got us thinking about what we could learn from the experience of developing an inclusive, hopeful and engaged democracy in the most difficult of circumstances.

What about you? Is there anything you have read over the last year that has really got you thinking about #RegionalDemocracy and your hopes for our shared future?

Best wishes for 2016 from all at the Same Skies collective.

Putting All of Us First in Yorkshire

Guest blog by Elaine Calder from Halifax

A couple of years ago we made a long planned move to Scotland. Both my husband and I have family connections to Scotland and we wanted to be a part of the growing Radical Independence movement there. We lived in quite a remote area, so when a family member became ill back here in Yorkshire we decided we needed to return here to support them.

While we were in Scotland we were very impressed by the level of debate and engagement from grass roots level concerning the Independence Referendum. A lot of thought and consideration was being  given by people there to decide on their own future. They were thinking about what they wanted and how they could go about getting it. One of the organisations that was set up at the time was the Common Weal movement. Common Weal (CW) is a ‘think and do tank campaigning for social and economic equality in Scotland’. It is a non-party movement concerned with bottom up social change. CW helps to provide creative thinking to provoke debate without prescribing limits. Even after the narrow victory of the No vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum, the Common Weal has given the people of Scotland a storehouse of ideas to feed Scottish politics for the future. They have produced a ‘Book of Ideas’ to offer ways of doing things differently to create a better Scotland. It is a vision for the next Scottish parliament from 2016.

Since we returned to Yorkshire there has been a lot of talk about Yorkshire as a region receiving some powers devolved from Westminster. We do not know what these powers will be but I feel at least the discussion around regional democracy gives us a chance to get together to discuss what we want rather than just accepting what is imposed on us by central government.

Having seen the positive impact of discussions during the referendum campaign in Scotland, I took part in the event in Bradford on 7th November, ‘What Kind of Region Do We Want To Live In?’. It was good to meet people from a wide range of backgrounds from different parts of West Yorkshire. Many things were discussed at the event but we did all feel that people in our region have different priorities to the priorities of the current London model . We all felt  that we are fed up of ‘Me First’ politics and that the current talk of devolution all seems to be about what someone above wants us to have, on their terms, rather than the people who live here who have different priorities, making the decisions. The discussions we had, seemed to me to mirror the CW principle of ‘All of us First’.

Regional Democracy must include us, the Book of Ideas puts this as ‘ Nothing about us, without us, is for us’. People living in the region should be at the heart of any discussion about the future of our region. One of the only things that we do know will be part of any devolution deal promoted by the government is that we will get to elect a mayor for the region. During the General Election campaign earlier this year, CW promoted the Red Lines campaign which asked people to consider their own values, their Red Lines, and to vote only for a candidate who stuck to their Red Line issues under the slogan “Small can be powerful, your vote can count”.  I feel that this approach could be adopted here in Yorkshire. We could have local meetings to discuss what our Red Lines are and campaign on them. For example, in the case of electing a mayor, we could promote a referendum on changes to the system and an assembly directly elected by PR as Red Lines for any mayoral candidate. I feel that such a Red Lines campaign could help to engage more people in regional democracy, encouraging them to believe that they could actually have a say in the kind of society they want to live in. At the moment, the whole devolution subject seems to be far removed from people’s actual lives.

The Book of Ideas highlights the true aspirations of people, home, security, work, community, recreation, public service and respect. These were all topics that came up in the discussions at the Bradford meeting. We all felt that we had had enough of me-first politics, where greed, profit and elitism has taken us away from our own core values of humanity and equality and that a collective well being was at the heart of the society we want to live in.

The Book of Ideas provides creative ideas encompassing almost everything needed to envision and create a better Scotland, from tax and investment to energy and housing or from infrastructure to economic and social equality. Scotland is more than a step ahead of us, so some of the content of the Book of Ideas is not relevant here in Yorkshire just yet. What it does provide though is a starting block for discussion. What came out of the Bradford meeting was the notion that we here in Yorkshire, like the people in Scotland want a society which puts All of Us First.

You can download a copy of The Book of Ideas free or for a donation of your choice here or £8 for the book version here.

Elaine can be found on Twitter @elainecalder

Common Weal can be found on Twitter @Common_Weal

Same Skies collective – Who are we? What do we want?

Following our ‘What Kind of Region Do We Want To Live In?’ event in Manningham, Bradford in November 2015, the organising group have become the Same Skies collective – working for a hopeful, fair, prosperous and inclusive regional democracy.

The collective’s priorities are: 

– enabling ‘unheard’ voices to be heard as effectively as possible.

– encouraging the democratisation of devolutionary processes towards self-determination.

 – identifying and supporting positive ideas for regional democracy.

 – engaging with people across political parties and of none whilst also ensuring that the collective engages on its own terms and doesn’t allow itself to become a tool of any one political party.

 The founding members of the collective are:

 – Leila Taleb @leilastaleb

 – Yoshiko Stokoe @notyosheeko

– Ed Carlisle @edleeds (of @t4pleeds)

 – Alex Schafran @alexschafran

 – Andrew Wilson @hannahfestival

 – Ian Martin @ianeastleeds

All founding members of the Same Skies collective live and work in West Yorkshire.

We will often communicate via our:

Facebook page

– Twitter @SameSkiesBlog

Blog