openDemocracyUK

Democracy exists by the act of doing it: a meeting with Podemos in Manchester

A meeting with Podemos in Manchester provides an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of democracy and the need to challenge the undemocratic politics of 'DevoManc'.

Rashid Mhar
13 April 2015

Podemos’ Marcha del cambio January 2015. Image: Flickr/Vicente Nadal

On a Monday evening I visited the meeting of the Circulo Podemos Manchester as a representative of Assemblies for Democracy. I had been given an invite after being introduced to a member of the group, a kind gentle mannered young man called Albert. We had exchanged a few emails where we shared briefly the experiences of a first generation immigrant and a second generation immigrant. Something in those communications told me that the people I was going to meet weren't as painted in the media. I didn't know exactly what to expect but was expectant of something like political energy and desire for change. 

The last message from Albert told me that he was working late and wouldn't be at the meeting but he gave me the contact name Alex. As a second generation immigrant I was familiar with shortening names to an Anglicised form. I arrived at the meeting in a popular Spanish restaurant called La Tasca. Not knowing the faces of the people I was there to meet, I could only clumsily ask a waitress for the Podemos meeting. Luckily that was enough and she showed me to Alex. We briefly introduced ourselves and I went downstairs to wait whilst he finished his discussion with a new member of the Circulo. 

Presently Alex joined me downstairs in the meeting room where he had to arrange tables for the meeting before that evening's Assembly. The fact that I was not Spanish but interested in them was enough for him to be pleased to see me there. He was slightly curious if I wanted to join Podemos. Young people of Spanish descent had joined, but so far no others from the United Kingdom. I explained my immigrant heritage. I told him the story of Manchester being the city where my parents met, relating some of their experiences and some of my own. We soon found we shared plenty of common ground. The feeling of loss of footing on arrival at a new place that came with the feeling of discovery and the sanguine desires for new opportunity. We both recognised that challenges emerge and difficulties rain down as new modes of life open up. I told Alex that I wasn't there to join Podemos, I represented a non party political group and I was there to meet them. His response was one of delight and utter warmth, I was soon seated and surrounded by the energy of vibrant young people. 

They had come to Manchester after Spain had lost all capacity to offer them even the meagrest future. They had done everything their parents and societal patriarchs had asked of them, studied hard, earned higher education awards, took every chance to build experience and readied themselves to build a better future for a nation within the  dream of Europe. Yet now they were here to forge a future taking whatever work they could, mostly in the service and retail sector within the bustling day to night lifestyle of Manchester City Centre.

Strangely enough these were the stories shared, not of rampant political dreams or new emergence of radical left wing thinking. As a volunteer campaigning on the issues with 38 Degrees I know a lot of the local activists, parties, unions and groups and I know how deeply embedded a person's political beliefs can be. There was none of that in these young people, they simply wanted to work hard to create a free, equal and democratic future for themselves and everyone else. I told them about the Assemblies for Democracy. They immediately found the name appealing, visibly pleased and delighted that in Britain such a clear statement of intent had emerged. We talked about how the word had spread about Syriza, the news of its (then) imminent victory and the success at the polls. Alex shared with me that often he'd been asked 'What is the secret of Podemos's success?' He found that question a hard one to answer for the enquirers that had posed it to him, but found my question very simple to answer. 'Would you like to join us at our Assembly? Tell people of your experiences, help us, as part of the local community, explore and discover for ourselves a way for Britain to achieve a new and better democracy?' 

Alex was delighted to accept. I'd imagined that everyone must be asking Podemos to join their political events, but that assumption was false. Alex told me we were the first to come to them and invite them to join in, to contribute to the democratic future of their new home. I was doubly struck with surprise but it dawned on me that we are living in a media dominated world. Here connections between people are swamped out by the sound-bite fiction that fills the limited spaces media culture allows. Here a community of immigrants that offers film shows, talks and lively events open to all, can be excitedly talked about, and yet despite the warmth they offer, be forgotten in the return of the favour.

On the ground level we unite as people, warm hands that can clasp a hand of a person that has come in from the cold street. That simple thing is the universal feeling of acceptance and invitation. More strongly than ever I felt the philosophy of the Assemblies for Democracy was right, because it was a simple one based on a plain and solid fact. People build the future.

The energy of the conversation was palpable; the eloquence, insight and intelligence of these young people enthusing. The subject of the Greater Manchester Devolution Agreement arose, though not from me. They had heard about it, recognised something was democratically amiss with its implementation and were curious about what it meant for the people of the region. I was delighted to share what little I knew. Just a few days earlier I had been walking around the Crumpsall area, attempting to leaflet, petition and complete questionnaires about this package that has been inappropriately named 'DevoManc'. In Crumpsall, the council ward of agreement signatory Richard Leese, the effect of the democratic deficit was at 'in your face' proportions. There is an unnerving absence of public awareness and engagement in an agreement that will fundamentally shift, and could even damage beyond repair, the remaining aspects of democratic representation in the region. Walking around Crumpsall as a clipboard wielding pariah had been a harsh eye opener and deflating experience. Yet sat here with this Spanish community of Manchester once again I could feel the energy of democratic engagement. 

I could explain the role of Howard Bernstein, his tête a tête meetings in the corridors of power with George Osborne. I could enjoy the expressions of people who fully understood the description of him as a home grown unelected local technocrat. We talked about the power wielders in the formation of an agreement that had been made in the modern fashion typified by the Trans Atlantic Trade & Investment Partnership, the Comprehensive Economic & Trade Agreement and the Trade in Services Agreement - that is made with the people in absentia. George Osborne could be argued to hold real democratic mandate from the people of Tatton constituency to represent them. Tatton however is a hotchpotch invented political boundary that bears no relationship to the geographical connections or municipal boundaries of the place. It is an area that could be better described as a safe Tory barony that had a brief tryst with democracy in the 1997 General Election when a coalition of co-operation formed to support Martin Bell and end Neil Hamilton's tenure. That time the system was exposed as needing Real Recall after the Conservatives and Commons proved incapable of resolving Hamilton's 'Cash for Questions' scandalous débâcle.

The question about legitimacy is further challenged by the typical safe seat story, that is George Osborne's political careerist reward. Osborne is heir apparent to the Baronetcy of Ballentaylor & Ballylemon, a lineage of power brokers that clog up British democracy with arcane and meaningless titles. Yet in the harsh light of day we can see that it means access to the highest levels to enforce your plans upon society, without our scrutiny, oversight or consent. We have to pose this question. Does the fact that he has support from the Conservative party to populate one of their safest seats grant him authority over the 2.7 million people of Greater Manchester? Does it give him the right to destroy the opportunity to generate excitement and involvement in political life for the 7 million people of the North West - something that would be the primary result of a debate about North West devolution in the context of a Constitutional Convention? 

We talked about the other major players Richard Leese who holds political power on a measly 2499 votes in a ward of Manchester that suffers desperate lack of investment and utter neglect. 77% of the people of Crumpsall didn't regard him as worthy of power. Yet now he is signing over their rights to a future unelected mayor. Lord Peter Smith with just 2005 votes from Leigh West ward in Wigan, a power monger that is 82% unwanted by the people. He will be a bookies’favourite when he puts himself forward to be the chieftain of Greater Manchester. Would he then wield the power given to him to further the aspirations of those of who care about our Merseyside, Cumbria, Lancashire and Cheshire neighbours, or would he ruthlessly pursue economic centralisation of power, replicating dark agreements in Manchester Town Hall in the same manner that would have spawned his power base from Westminster? 

How different can you get from the dreams of young people, who feel the energy and excitement of Assembly. Simply allowing the process of what they wish to do achieves the growth in maturity and responsibility that we keep asking our education system to achieve in the classroom by abstract means. If as a society we are serious about dealing with the inequities that remain unaddressed because of the democratic deficit then we need to grant people a real say in their futures. A place to consider their decisions, explore the options including the implications each option has for themselves and how it impacts on others.

As we gather the people in Assembly we will be looking at these issues, not merely our local concerns but a stark look at how the national impacts on the local. We will be creative, inventive, exploratory, scientific, communal, focused and even that old bastion of aspirational consumerism - we will be ambitious. Three Assemblies have been announced, London, Glasgow and Manchester. Grass-roots movements will be following the age old process of 'learn it by doing it' and 'make do with what you have'. It's a simple story of people coming together locally within a modern setting of crossing distance virtually. Coming together not for the purposes of a cathartic release of frustrations, but as a growing network of problem solvers creating the first steps to forging 21st Century democracy with utter faith that a very large part of the nation is doing likewise. 

We know it's a long hard route. We know that it involves economic restructuring, electoral reform, and devolution into regional entities. We face the challenge of balancing practical requirements of the diverse expressions of the people with a reborn regional identity forged from heritage and culture. We know that the legal articles of state will need to be addressed through a process of Constitutional Conventions. 

We know that consensus is hard to achieve, but before anyone chooses to dismiss the notion that the people coming together can achieve these ambitious goals, please do take a look at the history. We've done it before, we will do it again. As long as the task remains undone there is no reason not to set about doing it. You can disempower the people with poverty and press them further down with austerity. You can keep them fearful that their lifeline, the NHS, will be cut off if they don't accept its privatisation. But you can't stop the conversation that is already under way. We are starting the process to discover the future we wish to forge. We are entering into discussion with the only people who really matter in a democracy, the people so aptly identified by Occupy's resounding claim 'we are the 99%'. Regardless of what the decision makers and power holders of what will become the recent past want, this decision will be ours. A lesson the arcane machinators of power will learn too late is that democracy isn't a forgotten ideal, it can't be granted and taken away. Democracy is given existence by the act of doing it.

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