Planning committee

Have you ever been consulted? How did it feel?

I’ll wager it felt a lot less like being asked to help direct a process and a lot more like a cowboy exhorting you to leap onto a runaway steam train, unhook the carriages, and save the women and children. The brakes aren’t working, the lever on the points has snapped, there’s a tunnel coming up and you’re on the roof.

Now imagine that train isn’t uncontrolled, there are drivers and they’re intent on stoking the boiler. And that train has over a million passengers.

That’s how I felt about a huge consultation exercise announced by Birmingham City Council in late 2008: The Big City Plan, the council told us, was to be about “the next twenty years” of the City Centre and by extension have a huge impact on the rest of the city. “Get this right or face years of problems” it seemed to say. So I wanted to help, I wanted to spread the word, to make sure that as many people as possible would contribute. I wanted to have a real conversation with people who understood the issues and chip in where I could be helpful. I’d been running a fairly well known blog about the city (Birmingham: It’s Not Shit) for eight years or so, I knew there was a knowledgable audience out there that would engage if they found it easy enough.

And then I saw the consultation documents. A glossy leaflet what seemed to say as little as it could, and a monolithic downloadable ‘Work in Progress’ PDF that talked of “sustainable delivery vehicles”. I liked the idea of a city buzzing with shop-bikes, rickshaws and sack trucks instead of lorries, but I wasn’t quite sure what was being proposed. I needed help before even starting to read it.

Birmingham had a very well connected online scene by that point: it still does, but it was fairly unusual as far as towns and cities went that that point. Bloggers, web people, early adopters, had started to meet offline and form the real-world connections that helped things to happen. The social glue of the nonsense talked online, the quick, friendly and fun interactions had really created bonds. We’d played hashtag games on Twitter before anyone had thought of hashtags secure in the knowledge that our networks understood what we were doing, we’d drunk coffee and beer together, we’d even performed an online pantomime. So at the next Social Media Cafe, a coffee morning for webbies organised by Joanna Geary, a few of us sat around a table and asked “is there anything we can do?”

A consensus emerged that there were two issues with the consultation that we could help with. One was that the online space didn’t have open comments on it (they were accepted but not published, so there was no space for conversation)—a forum or a blog with comments on it would be easy, we’d just need to make sure the huge amount of words and questions were divided up properly. There were plenty of people who could set up and host a site, I volunteered and had a basic place up and running pretty much by the end of the meeting. I used WordPress, a blog platform that says it has a “famous five-minute install”. In reality it can take less than that, was live for use very quickly.

The other just looked much more difficult, it was going to be impossible to have conversations if people couldn’t understand the questions.

It wasn’t just the jargon ‘regen-speak’ as one of us called it, there were references to further ‘spacial plans’ and bodies that just wouldn’t mean anything to the uninitiated. Essentially, we agreed. The whole thing needed ‘translating’ before any conversations could begin. Did we have the skills, time and motivation to do that?

Consultations officially last eight weeks, and by the time we saw how this Big Plan was shaping up one had already gone. To add to that the council had scheduled this one over Christmas. We might have more free time, but getting people to forgo enough of that might not have been easy. The problem is a lot of larger scale volunteer effort is that you need to believe that others are as committed as you—if I spent two weeks translating but not enough other people do to finish we don’t succeed. You can’t build half a boat.

But those, supposedly weak, online ties were enough to trust that the volunteers would see the job through. Those inconsequential interactions to have consequences. They build relationships. It wasn’t inconsequential to my mind that the majority of the volunteers had appeared in the Twitpanto we’d held the previous year. Nick Booth, Nicky Getgood, Julia Gilbert and Michael Grimes made up the team.
Over the first week or so of the new year the small team of five translators spent a good few hours every evening translating, but it wasn’t just a case of using Plain English. There was great discussion over the web about what certain passages actually meant. We used our contacts inside the council and with other experiences to try to get past the words to the actual meanings, to be able to link to supporting sites and explain how some of the ideas linked up. It had us tearing at our hair, Michael and Nicky spent at least a day fretting about the meaning of one paragraph, the collected wisdom prevailing that it didn’t really mean anything. We had to be very careful not to be seen to be influencing content, and to make sure that any comments we did get would be counted as official.

There were comments aplenty, we counted nearly 300 by the close of the consultation period. They were constructive, conversational and intelligent. And while a few hundred might not sound a lot the whole consultation got around 1,500, it was backed with billboards, bus adverts and all sorts of publicity.

But if the wisdom of the crowd was to help direct that train those comments had to be fed into the official process. That proved more difficult than it needed to, the council staff weren’t ready to deal with the volume or the idea that people would spend so much time and effort doing what our team had done.

We could have been confrontational at this point, but while there might be the temptation to shout being nice always seems to have the better effect with large organisations. We were relentlessly positive and helpful, we offered every format imaginable and eventually submitted the comments by post and email making sure that they couldn’t be ignored.
Did we stop the train? I’m not sure, but a small group of constructive activists couldn’t have done more to make sure that a supposedly huge consultation reached as many people as possible. If Birmingham gets to the right place in twenty years then it owes some to it’s engaged online community.


This was originally written for The Community Lovers Guide To Birmingham.

Immigration is not the problem

When I was nine or thereabouts our family moved from Perry Barr, which would be considered a multicultural inner-city area, to the more suburban Hamstead, which was then pretty much monocultural. I’m fairly convinced that this would be seen as a ‘white flight’ response by some, but I don’t know. After a long period of unemployment—it was the eighties and another Tory recession—our family now had two incomes and moved to a larger house. Larger that our two-up-two-down that is, my and my sister now had our own bedrooms, three bedroom houses just weren’t available where we had been living. Now I’m sure that our moving would be seen by some as a failure of multiculturalism and a problem of immigration—that’s why every party is rushing for the UKIP position.

Immigration is good for the country: it’s good in terms of overall economics, we’re told, and for our cultural mix. Why do politicians tell us it’s good, and yet simultaneously cry “something must be done”? Why do they talk GDP and also spend parliamentary time making it harder for people to come to live in the UK?

Almost everybody, when presented with facts and a tikka masala, can agree immigration is an overall good thing. Even those that don’t, like UKIP or wings of the Tories, have to pretend that they do. So why doesn’t it feel like that for some?

Business people can see the GDP rise and feel safe in the knowledge that they benefit from it, but most people don’t. Since 1979 the GDP of the UK has increased to about seven times what it was, forgetting about inflation, but the average income has just about doubled—the increase in the GDP is all about increase of one figure. It might not have any impact on you ever, and even if you believe the lie of the trickle down economy it might take tens of years. The extra money per head is for the rich, the bosses—the only GDP that directly impacts on you in a way that matters is that of your family unit. Most statistics are about comparision, real life takes a good while to catch up.

There’s no doubt that people moving into a country will provide competition for work, provide competition for housing—there are more people for finite (at one moment in time) resources. Natural ghettoisation and the slow pace of cultural integration (which can take generations) provides pressure points. The poor, those who don’t or can’t move around the country to base themselves where the cultural mix feels right to them, those that see areas change around them while at the same time finding jobs harder to come by, are going to feel put upon.

The ‘free moving consumers’, the hipsters, the humous class, can see the cultural benefits even if they don’t get any more money. New cuisines, new culture, it’s exciting—and they can move away if they don’t like the pace of life or find bits of the culture they liked before being replaced. Not everyone can, not the poor, not those tied by family and work and history to right where they are. Hell, they might even want to stay.

It’s inevitable, but disappointing, when these changes contribute to racist feelings, statements and actions. The issues are complex, and often those affected are amongst those least likely to have easy access to the real facts. What they do get is the racist crap from the mainstream media, fulled and perpetuated by some supposedly mainstream politicians on the pretext of reflecting ‘what people on the street are saying’—a opprobrious loop of protectionism and blame. There must be something beyond the usual left wing response “it’s good,” shutting down any discussion or, more dangerously, “something must be done”.

One other response you hear is that “the NHS wouldn’t function without immigrants” or “who would clean our offices”. Illogical and faintly colonialist it amplifies the myth that “these people” are here to serve us, to do jobs that we wouldn’t want to do.

The worst of it is that Labour and a lot of others on the left are complicit in this narrative—Ed Miliband will address the issue but talk about how to minimise immigration; this supposedly good thing. The only way to get past that is talking about issues of class, something the modern leftist parties are very scared of. The problem is that the concerns the working class might have about immigration, are “genuine”. They’re not lying. But they are not “right”—in a moral sense, nor in the context of a county and a culture as a whole.

What is happening right now is that people are being convinced what they feel is due to something different than what it really is—the problem isn’t that incoming Polish people might have jobs, but that not everyone has one. That’s what we need people to stand up and say.

If my Dad eventually moves out to Warwickshire in retirement as he talks about—is that going to be a failure of immigration policy? Is he a UKIP target, worried about the influx of people from Eastern Europe? I doubt it, he just fancies being out in the countryside.

Immigration is good, in wide terms, but without support, jobs, housing for all that reside in a country, then some people will lose out. Some will be those immigrants, some will be those already living there—a poor native has much more in common with a poor immigrant than either have with a rich man, to say anything else is deliberately divisive. People are finding decently paid work, decent and affordable housing, and propped social support difficult to come by—and that’s because it isn’t there. That’s down to the policies of successive governments and their business mates, not the people that are sharing the space.

We haven’t the money, they’ll say: but if immigration is good for the economy there’ll be more tax money to help pay for the support—won’t there?

Two years is a long time in politics

When I returned to the Labour fold and joined the party a few months before the 2010 General Election it was party through fear, partly through duty, but mainly because I thought there was a real opportunity that it could be reclaimed from the New Labour years and start representing the people again. People I trusted trusted Gordon Brown, and the alternatives were too awful to contemplate.

That said the tipping point of joining rather than just voting was because I didn’t want to vote Labour: I had no confidence or trust in the sitting MP that a boundary change had forced upon me. By accounts he was a lifer, remote from his constituents and out of touch. Had the coming election nationally been anything but close I’d have marked my cross next to the semi-independent community focused candidate that looked like she might win. I wanted to vote for her, but didn’t want to be responsible for a situation where we got a tory government by one MP, and not Labour in my constituency. I figured that my membership might offset my ballot-box slip somehow, save my coincidence.

As it turned out it wasn’t that close, neither locally or nationally. But, being a member in opposition felt like the right thing to do. I delivered leaflets, did a little phone canvassing and a little door knocking and was rightly pleased when in the next council elections our man overturned a Liberal majority with a significant one of his own. It might have been national tides that turned the ship but there was a real feeling that the local party was working hard on the ground and really cared. At this point I was as taken with the democratic system as I think I’ve ever been—despite a really disappointing result in the Alternative Vote referendum, an opportunity as I saw it for more representative politics.

I’m fond of quoting that the UK always has a more right wing press than the electorate—there are always more papers supporting the tories than Labour even when the left(er) party wins big in elections. I suspect that if you asked most people about policies in simple terms, and presented real alternatives, most people would be more left wing than any government we get too. Certainly any we’ve had since 1979. So while it felt right to be in the most likely opposition, each failure to control or challenge the dominant shock doctrine narrative by Ed Miliband and his team made it difficult to see what you were working for.

Another referendum offered more hope.

I’d met MP Siôn Simon a few times when he was a creative industries minister, he was trying to look at ways to help the local media through the ‘internet transition’ and I was on the fringes of the local blogging scene that was one possible prop for keeping some news going. He was engaging, engaged, and—you could tell—above all looking for the right solutions to the problems he was tasked with. So when, after the election, he talked to me about the problems of reaching people and told me that he really thought there was an opportunity for change I believed him and believed in him.

That change he said, could be driven by an elected mayor for a city like Birmingham. A position that would have to be backed by a mandate, a leader that would have no choice but to campaign on a manifesto upon which they would be judged. Direct accountability to the people, direct scrutiny by an engaged media, high-profile and with an ability to be strategic. I was sold, and it looked like it was going to happen.

Over the last two years I’ve been variously working on things for Siôn and the non-partisan Yes to a Mayor campaign. The amount of free time I had to volunteer on both ironically helped by the “austerity” cuts the tories disproportionally heaped on poorer areas like Birmingham and on the third sector—reducing my freelance work considerably. I’ve not worked as hard as some others, but I’d like to think I’d made a contribution. To what, maybe, is a more difficult one as ‘we’ lost last week (not by as large a margin as was being reported, but lost all the same).

What’s the main disappointment for me is perhaps the insight it gave me into just how hard change is and seemingly will always be under the current system. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, which is understandable—but turkeys don’t talk 364 days of the year about the need for a dry-fowl-meat based religious feast.

Vested interests within the existing party machines are the ones with the access and the voices to the media—which disappointingly went for ‘balance’ (presenting voices from both sides) instead of neutrality (where they could exercise independence and question the arguments on both sides). The main arguments that we heard in the press against the chance for change were all easily researchable and refutable by experienced journalists, but they were all too often let through with a “no campaigners say…” and no challenge. It’s too late to go through them now, but I will anyway as it’s now a pavlovian response:

A mayor would not have cost more than the current system of a council leader and a chief executive, roles which the announced candidates promised to combine. In Leicester, the nearest comparable city the mayor took a salary smaller than Birmingham’s current council leader’s allowances.

The powers of a mayor were defined, in the act of parliament that brought the referendum into being. Extra powers could be negotiated, which in theory they could be for a council leader—if one side was a ‘pig in a poke’ the other was too.

The electorate cannot in practice—whatever the theory—get rid of a council leader. Forget the past, look at the situation currently in Birmingham—a clear Labour majority of councillors that is certainly not likely to change in fewer than the four years a mayor would have—whatever they do and however they perform in the eyes of anyone who cares to look.

Not being challenged on these is the equivalent to the current government not being challenged every time they bring up the ‘cutting the deficit’ line. Statisticians have proved that the cuts are making the deficit worse, in real and structural terms—but time and again that’s not mentioned and the cutters are allowed to dominate the narrative. And for some reason the opposition are too scared to challenge—maybe it comes across as too negative, maybe there is something about the media that they know which means this fight is lost and it’s better for them to move the debate on.

And that’s the crux of it: better for them.

It’s so unusual to see anyone in politics really commit and to do something that might not have benefits for their coterie of contacts. Essentially the party system seems to draw people to compromise for power and not to compromise for good. Siôn’s decision to stand down as an MP to campaign for change in Birmingham always struck me a a courageous decision—not for him the bet hedging of certain other people who were maybe, or maybe not, in favour of real change but would quite like the power if it was available.

And he bravely stuck to talking about the truth of the size of the problems: areas of the city are very deprived, with high—especially youth—unemployment, unacceptable infant mortality. Do you need more? Will rearranging the deck chairs change that? I doubt it. Was that not the line that the media wanted to focus on? Maybe not, but in sea of platitudes and apathy it stood out for me and I was proud to have contributed in a small way.

The Yes campaign bravely tried to rise above politics, and I think that may have contributed to the downfall—often seeing it sidelined in events in favour of people the media already knew about (the BBC WM debate for example had formal ‘no’ people on the panel but no ‘yes’). That presented the argument as a political struggle when maybe it should have been one about opportunity. Some honourable councillors and people involved in the political machines saw that opportunity, but I’m afraid my suspicion is that most didn’t as they were clouded by fear about their own positions and interest.

There were honest people on the ‘no’ side too, but those ‘leading’ it dragged it down some dark paths.

The theory of Overton windows has always stuck me as interesting—it states that there’s only a limited section of the political continuum that’s acceptable mainstream debate at any time. Anything outside it seems too radical to be considered. Decades of right-ist spin seems to have dragged the window to a point where the absurd views of the Taxpayers Alliance are given credence and unions of workers are not—even by the leaders of the workers’ party.

And that’s sad. But more than sad, it’s life and death for countless people in Birmingham, the UK and the World.

I’ve had a brief glimpse of the opportunity as well as a ringside seat at the way the status quo protects itself.

It’s time to be honest, to be open, to be radical. It’s time to challenge obfuscation and apathy as well as disinformation and dishonesty. That can be dragging the window back to the left, or it can be just not letting nonsense past.

Each time you hear someone parrot a political line, think. And if what they say is not true, respond like that. Tell people, bore them stupid.

Reposition the narrative to change.


This was previously sitting out of place on my ‘work-ish’ blog.

Thatcher, my part in her downfall

I’ve asked my mum to see if she can dig an old photograph out of the suitcase she and my dad keep under the spare bed. Back from the days of prints and scattered negatives, of 24 exposures and using up the end of the roll. It’s a shot of my sister—then about nine or so—on a day trip to London.

It was a very rare short break, just me, my mum and sister as my dad couldn’t afford the day off work and we did ‘all the sights’, or at least the Tower of London and the bridge. The picture was taken in Madame Tassauds, and shows a young blonde girl in a denim dress planting a knuckle sandwich on to the image of our then Prime Minister. I recall us thinking that it would be a great photo to show Dad, that he’d be proud. He laughed, some months later when we eventually got the prints back from the chemist’s.

I don’t recall any security at all, at any point as we went round. We certainly weren’t accosted for disrespect, trespass or criminal damage. It was a more open age, where you could get closer to things. But I really don’t think it was unexpected, or maybe something the staff were quite tolerant of. As an ex-employee of the museum tweeted last week, it turns out that in the late eighties, spitting on the waxwork wasn’t uncommon: instead of a playful little snapshot, our kid might have caught something disgusting.

This is just one reason why I’m not buying the accusations that the country has changed, become nastier in the years since Thatcher left office. It’s just one reason that I’m sure that outpourings of dislike and distaste, of memory and desire, aren’t manufactured or memetic. There aren’t people going with the flow, this is anger.

I was just about four when Margaret Thatcher took office, and my sister hadn’t yet been born, so by the time we were desecrating her effigy we’d known no-one else in power and knew that the blame for most of what made people we loved unhappy was laid at her door.

I remember changing schools when I was about five, and no longer getting those warm bottles of milk at break time. They were replaced with the option to pay 5p a week to have a plastic beaker of squash before going out onto the scrubby, crumbling, concrete to kick stones in lieu of balls. I knew this was the fault of the ‘milk snatcher’ and took this with the easy resignation that young kids do; I had no clue whether this was a real person or a slightly more evil version of the fabled Humphrey that was responsible for the disappearance of milk on TV.

I knew that she made Dad angry when she came on the news, and I knew that after his redundancy the anger was worse, and the amount of time he had to watch the news was increased. In fact I can’t remember a time when the feelings engendered by the government or the establishment in general weren’t distrust or anger.

I sat on plastic chairs in a decaying sixties building as my dad waited to sign on, with no hope of anything but a few quid to keep us going for another fortnight. I remember him going through to the other side of the frosted glass and us waiting amongst the—mostly—men who were a combination of angry and sad I haven’t seen for some time. I’ll admit I’m starting to see that again, in the eyes and social media statuses of people. It’s a lack of control and a divorcement from power of any kind.

Because what the Tories took away from the poor in the eighties was hope. Now translated by the Blairite heirs to her legacy as ‘aspiration’, it’s what you have none of when you can’t do anything about the situation you’re in. Working harder or longer isn’t an option when there are no jobs. No matter how much work there might have been, monetarism and Thatcher ensured there were no jobs. And we were supposed to ‘get on our bikes’ and fight others in the same situation for the scraps that there were.

When our car, a green Ford Escort Mark I, was stolen from outside our house one Saturday evening (leaving my mum to accuse my dad of hiding it so we didn’t have to go out on a day trip the next day) we couldn’t ever hope to replace it. We didn’t get another car until I was about fifteen, we walked or got the bus everywhere for eight years. On the day Prince Andrew got married we walked five miles into the centre of Birmingham, to a place Dad knew we could get a cheap part for our broken washing machine, and then walked back. If there were street parties, we didn’t pass any.

My primary school was a small C of E near Handsworth Park in Birmingham. The day after the main night of rioting in 1985, we were let out of school early. The air was full of excitement. We weren’t scared: this wasn’t violence against the people that lived there but against a system that offered no hope.

It was the legacy of no after-school sports, or football teams, because the teachers were on permanent work-to-rule after their profession had been demonised and the system was cut to ribbons. If the British got worse at football in the years following the Thatcher reign, how much of that was for a lack of organised games for kids and the selling off of every available facility in the years that followed? No hope, there was nothing to do.

I was just really starting to understand politics in 1992, enough to despair when Labour again failed. No-one you knew had voted for them—and in Perry Barr, one of the largest Labour majorities in the country that really was the case, rather than people voting Tory and being too ashamed to admit it—but they still ruled you. There was no hope, there was nothing we could do.

Every TV programme, every pop singer, every comedian was with you in a grim solidarity. How could people watch Spitting Image and still vote the bastards in—we knew they’d done nothing but feather their own nests. To understand, and especially to begin to understand, politics at that time was to instil an impotent rage inside you. The fuckers always won.

So, when the symbol of all that anger was deposed in 1990, we were happy. But it wasn’t our victory and still nothing changed. Jobs were still perilous, control was still lost.

And when the party that caused all the damage went, there were still those of us that were wary of what ‘our’ party was becoming. “They’re promising nothing.” and in the end, what they delivered was almost more of the same.

So, last week was, and tomorrow is, an opportunity for closure. There’s a release of all of that impotent rage. The rage is for the most part directed against the effigy, the caricature. Thatcher was frozen in time when she left office, her form crystallised as the figurehead of every bit of control the working class had had stripped away from them over the last thirty years.

Once taken by force and violence, those same dignities are now peeled away like onion skins by chubby-faced pernicious plutocrats. And that they’ve told us how to feel, tried to deny us this rage, has made it every bit more violent. They are the real targets, and the powerful image of Thatcher in full pomp is the cypher for that rage. Not the elderly woman she became, nor the mother, daughter or wife—but the harsh, uncaring symbol she happily personified to a whole generation.

After Wednesday, I hope the rage hits its targets more accurately: the system and people that bring us ATOS, workfare, bedroom taxes, vile hate and division, turning class against itself in aid of nothing but the pockets of their coterie of school chums. And I hope that hope can return. If so, she will finally have been able to do something to ‘save Britain’.

Ding Dong, Society is Dead


Yes, it’s childish and puerile, sexist and disrespectful. And apart from being all of that the Daily Mail is angry. Angry that Ding Dong the Witch is Dead from the Wizard of Oz soundtrack has swung into the charts, by some sort of campaign by ‘the left’.

The song is childish (or at least high-pitched) too, and anyone buying it to make a political point is childish too. They know that and, like booing George Osbourne at the Paralympics, the British public have a remarkable history and humour of childish protest. It works so well as it’s not easy to debate against—we both get covered in jelly and ice cream and the kids like it. I also doubt that being respectful is in the minds of anyone at this point.

And, yes, the use of the gender specific insult is sexist. I don’t like it, it makes me uncomfortable.

Oh and, yes, most people who are buying it are probably to the left of Margaret Thatcher politically—but then most people are.

But, they aren’t doing it en masse by an orchestrated campaign and they aren’t all doing it for the same reason. It’s 1000s (and only that many seeing how few sales it takes to get a song into the charts these days) of different decisions for different reasons. It’s a true meme, evolving as it passes through people’s heads—there are those who wouldn’t have dreamt of supporting it getting pissed off by the pious who would tell them not to and clicking ‘buy’ with abandon. In the full knowledge of how they don’t have the heights of moral ground they could otherwise.

There isn’t a single point where this idea comes from, it’s a simple idea and a very well known song. That’s why it isn’t Shipbuilding, or Tramp the Dirt Down—or any number of better, and more politically correct, choices—a campaign on Elvis Costello’s behalf would have failed, people who didn’t know or like him wouldn’t have bought the track, no matter how cheap or easy. A playground ditty got traction.

Some haven’t thought about the sexism, it’s society’s job—if it still exists—to educate them.

Some don’t have huge encyclopaedic knowledge of music or social history—likewise.

Some, like me don’t agree with the song choice, but agree with the protest. And we’ve bought it because of who it pisses off, we make compromises like that when battling an ideology.

Excuse me if I go a bit Mark Steel for a moment, but the use of the group term ‘The Left” is dangerous. It’s as dangerous as any grouping and labeling of disparate people. The Left—it’s me, Billy Bragg, Caroline Lucas, Castro, Tony Blair, a woman from no 42 who once voted SDP, and Dan Hodges all meeting every Wednesday in the Pig & Whistle on Lug Trout Lane. Seven o’clock, back bar, knock on the side door and ask for ‘Attlee’. I did miss last week’s meeting, I was out picketing the local grocers. The Left decided in my absence to pick a song & campaign on it, sent message of solidarity to striking miners in Guam and shared a bag of pork scratchings.

Castro wanted dry roasted nuts, but he lost the motion on a simple show of hands.

Cory Booker: a social mayor

At a conference on the power of the web to deliver change in democracy this weekend in New York (the PDF, Personal Democracy Forum), the two main threads were platforms and tools (some promising, some not) and a desire to discover whether the Internet could “fix” politics  the assumption from many speakers was that trust and mechanism were broken and needed reformation in new ways. However despite a sneering disregard for politicians, the biggest hit was one: Cory Booker.


Booker – a mayor of a city in the shadow of a big neighbour, a city of around a million people with a high non-white population, a city often unfairly characterised in the media as dangerous or dull. He’s taken on the might of the media in Conan O’Brien who joked: “The mayor of Newark New Jersey wants to set up a citywide program to improve residents’ health… The health care program would consist of a bus ticket out of Newark”. This strong advocate for a downtrodden area is something that elected mayors have the power to give to a city, and if that description of Newark sounded like I was writing about my own home town of Birmingham, then good — it was meant to, I’ve fully come round to the idea of directly elected mayors.


The 2007 documentary Street Fight portrays him as a powerful force, ready for such a stage, but it’s been his groundbreakingly human use of the social web as a force for his city that had 800 of the most cynical people in the World (politically active people who spend a lot of time on the Internet) enrapt.


His main weapon is openness and accessibility — every so often he’ll DM a Twitter follower directly about their issue, he’ll also tweet about his caffeine consumption and in almost Ice Cubian honestly he’ll proclaim that ‘today was a good day, no-one had to use their AK’ (or at least that Newark had a murder free month for the first time in 50 years).


What it provides is true leadership; yes Booker users his connections to nudge and campaign but what is more important it establishes him as a visible hub in a network, a person whom is both human and responsive. This fosters more political engagement than a hundred expensively advertised, staffed and graphed consultations (again, his messages reach one million plus people on one very easy to manage, free, channel).


This isn’t a million miles away from what another conference speaker has done en-route to becoming a multimillionaire and destroying the business models of the local press all around the united states. Craig Newmark is the Craig out of Craigslist, the free online local classified website that has grown from a tiny email list in 1995 to a $150million dollar operation in 2009 to. As soon as there was money and company structure Newmark appointed an experienced businessman to the role of CEO and became the Customer Service Representative, the point of contact for and voice on the side of the customers of the site was its founder and majority shareholder.


While that might sound crazy, Newmark answers emails and talks to people across his constituency all day and the company is better for it. This method isn’t without issues of scale, whether you could expect Cameron to address people directly in this way I don’t know — but at city level it can certainly be sustained by a man as charismatic as Booker.


Inevitably openness in this way, and to everyone online if they like asks questions of whether it’s acting in the best interests of, the city. On the internet, it’s said that no-one knows you’re a dog and surely a politician entrusted with the wellbeing of a geographical area will be pressured by ‘outside agitators’,organised campaigns and pranksters. Perhaps, not withstanding that it is perfectly possible to mine the data trail we leave for much more powerful signals of real intent these days, voices from outside the city present a gentle pressure to wider interests and a change of cross civic altruism. It also does no harm at all to the image of the city.


This is more important for being the one goal that any figurehead can achieve, there is no budgetary or legislative support needed, it costs nothing but the will. With local authority spending no doubt under continuing pressure, it may be the most powerful goal too. If the slack of the state must be taken up by volunteers then they will need engaging, the will need to feel supported, appreciated and listened to. You can’t pay people to engage emotionally, but you can do it and do it at scale online.


If an elected major is what our cities need, then the ones I want are to be connected too.


You can see the Booker session (a panel also including Tim O’Reilly and Adriana Huffington) here.

Originally published on Labour Uncut.

Here comes bloody everybody

Will the General Election in May 2010 go down as the first ‘internet election’? No. The unusual — if not entirely unexpected — result has seen to that, but it was an election in which people using the social web changed forever the way campaigning works in the UK.


Talk before was of which party could “do what Obama did”, that is use the internet to harness support, and to fundraise. Well, no-one really did — and politics in Britain was unlikely to suddenly start to work like that, we’re too conflicted, too cynical and have too many choices. We sometimes have to make decisions about how to place our cross where the local and national aims seem flatly contradictory — it was never going to be a simple case of joining one Facebook Group over another, the web can handle nuance, even if our electoral system can’t.


There was significant grassroots activity though, and perhaps the best way to see the difference between us and US is to look at the difference between (‘Organising for America’) and (‘Airbrushed for Change’). One is a social network ‘lite’, directed at organising and nudging (very much in line with the theories of Richard Thaler) support, the other a crowdsourced Private Eye, with all the mix of clever satire and fart jokes that that might entail.


In the end, Obama won because he was offering something different to a wildly unpopular administration and he made great speeches — that doesn’t sound so unusual when you think about it. But that’s not to say that the web isn’t changing politics.


What sites like mydavidcameron did was to facilitate the pub-joker, and the politicised satirist, to help what would have been simple slogans become memes. Meme theory, developed by everyone’s favourite evolutionary geneticist Richard Dawkins, believes that ideas and thoughts can work like genes — that is strive to spread for survival and alter in order to do that. Memes evolve, merge and change beyond all expectation — and in the political arena they survive longer if they have been tuned against the originators, as well as being funny. The best are both, and make serious points at the same time. It’s now a brave move to release a simple to alter poster, and the Tory ones towards the end of the campaign seemed deliberately to be harder to photoshop.


Memetics ensured that the spin was quickly countered, that transparency has at least a chance, but did more direct, and orchestrated, online campaigning fail?


I didn’t see any great movement from the parties themselves, for every mild success (Labour built a site that made it easy to donate avatar space, changing your profile picture on social networks, for the direct run-up that worked much like putting up a poster in your window) there was a horrible failure (security and social failure from the Tories’  ‘Cash Gordon’ site that not only pulled in tweets indiscriminately without checking for content, but allowed code through that meant it was quickly hacked). Obama’s online team, at least the ones I heard speak at the Personal Democracy Forum this year, talked about the success being in allowing supporters access — I don’t think anyone did that at a party level.


But there were pressure groups, petitions and campaigns that operated almost exclusively online —  economically that’s the only way they can reach people.


Sky’s Kay Burley seemed sure that they had failed — or should. her “go home… watch it on Sky News” comment to David Babbs of 38 Degrees, sparked howls or outrage online. It couldn’t have seemed more to me a collision between that old politics, where large party donations for advertising and influence on the media favour the right and the rich and a more distributed set of influences in which the left — with its tradition of and roots in community organising — should thrive. Newspapers (and increasingly other forms of media, under Murdoch) are leaning and will lean right, whatever the mood of the nation, whatever the issues, whatever the real good of the country.


Here was that simple, quickly organised direct action that the disciples of Shirky have been talking about and the media was uncomfortable with it. Clay Shirky, author of Here Come Everybody, was one of the first to document how it was now possible to “organise without organisations” using the power of the social web to make ad-hoc connections around an aim. Individual protests may not succeed, but a culture of organisation can help keep debate open.


Think of the way you voted, was it on a single issue? Or was it on some combination of issues, some you felt strongly about, some not so much. Single issue campaigning will exhaust you and your social capital too, each chain email to your representatives will hold less and less weight. Each Twibbon you add or group you join will mean less, but that doesn’t mean that online organisation can’t work.


During the passing of the Digital Economy Act, thousands engaged online with the political process, many for the first time — and sites like 38 Degrees helped organise them into action. They built the databases and contact books like Obama had, and then used them to get a head start in the next single issue — but more than that they were good at making connections.


I’ve a hunch that there will be much more campaigning to do over the coming months, over issues big and small, those connections will be crucial.

Originally published by Labour Uncut.

Old Grey Mayor

You won’t remember this but, instead of weird psychedelia with top bands going ‘gabba gabba’, or gibbering stocky puppet simpletons with screens in their stomachs, kids would happily sit in front of the TV and watch stories about talking animals that had adventures in primarily human settings. One such animal was animated Sunday lunch Larry the Lamb, and when he had exhausted all his mint saucey options he’d go to see the head honcho. “M…M…M…Mr Mayor” he’d say, and a fella in a tricorn hat would sort it all out. Sweet. And decidedly tasty with mashed potatoe

Where do the lambs of Birmingham go when the wool hits the fan? Well at the moment they’ve no Mr or Ms Mayor to trot along to see—but might well have later this year. This is a round about way of saying that on May 3rd this year there’s a referendum in Birmingham to decide if the city gets to elect it’s own mayor in a similar way that London gets to be presided over by Boris Johnson—although we probably won’t have any blond, bumbling, biking, bonking Borises in the running.

A ‘yes’ vote and in November brummies will get to pick their leader, and while we won’t know who’ll stand for a while it’s worth looking at some of the most famous mayors the World has had and see if we can guess what they’d do if we voted them in here.


Famous Mayor: Dick Whittington

Mayor of: London, three times.

Would they work in Brum?: Panto fave Richard Whittington was indeed mayor of London three times, and apparently loved his pussy as much as the current incumbent. Dick’s best days are behind him, and once a man has been mayor three times there’s not much chance he has another term in him. Not your turn again, Dick Whittington. We’re one hundred miles from London, puss, and there’s no sign of Dick here. Oh no there isn’t.


Famous Mayor: ‘Diamond’ Joe Quimby

Mayor of: Springfield

Would they work in Brum?: Mayor Quimby rules the city where the people are yellow with a rod of wads of notes wrapped in brown envelopes. No method of corruption or mode of bung is too obscure for ‘Diamond’ Joe to have a finger in, even though he only has six. His womanising ways wouldn’t sit well with the Birmingham electorate who are already confused enough by local MP John Hemming’s lovelife. That said, he his modelled on the Kennedy clan so Brummies could be turned by his celebrity connections—after all we’ve only really got Jasper Carrott.


Famous Mayor: Mayor McCheese
Mayor of: McDonaldland

Would they work in Brum?: The nuemero uno, the big cheese, of McDonaldland, Mayor McCheese has a beefburger for a head and sports a top hat, a diplomat’s sash, and a pair of pince-nez glases. So far so much like many of the current councillors, and the official McDonaldland Wikipedia page says he is “portrayed as a giggly, bumbling, and somewhat incompetent mayor” so maybe not one we’ll be voting for any time soon. His record on crime (or ‘hamburgling’) is poor.


Famous Mayor: The mayor off of 60s batman
Mayor of: The camp version of Gotham City from the 60s TV programme

Would they work in Brum?: You know, in Batman with Adam West there was a white haired old gent who basically stood around looking confused with Commissioner Gordon. His decisions ran like this: there is a problem caused by a supervillan, he’s not really sure what’s going on, Mayor Linseed turns on the bat signal. In Birmingham how would that really work? If an evil genius is draining the canals or turning everyone that touches the canapés in Glynn Purnell’s restaurant to stone, I’m not sure that flicking the switch on a giant lamp its going to do much.



Famous Mayor: Clint Eastwood

Mayor of: Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

Would they work in Brum?: I don’t think he’s played one on screen, but ol’ Dirty Harry himself was the real life mayor of a tiny place in California—voted in by this fellow movie stars and artists. The town has—seriously—a ban on wearing high heeled shoes without a permit, so we’d like to see him tackle Broad Street on a Friday night with his Smith and Weston. Did he fire six shots or only five? And how many did he fire in Spearmint Rhino?


Originally published in Area Magazine, about Birmingham’s Mayoral Referendum.

Redeveloping redevelopment

Last weekend I was lucky enough to have an excuse to stay at Urban Splash’s (responsible for the Rotunda update) recently redeveloped and re-opened Midland Hotel in Morecambe. The Art Deco seaside retreat got a huge amount of publicity on reopening, Guardian features, Culture Show specials, asking the question of whether the redevelopment of the hotel could spark a renaissance for the whole town.

It is stunningly beautiful at first glance, although the view is spoilt by the car park packed with monster trucks that I’m sure Mrs Simpson (of Edward and… fame) didn’t have to put up with. The rooms are also fantastic, and a great deal of time and effort has been spent reflecting the style of the building through nice bits of design. A particular favourite touch of mine was the beer mats in the style of the Marion Dorn rugs that once graced the reception. The spiral staircase just begs you to take photos of it, which I did:
But there’s something a bit wrong. There are already stains and signs of rust on the roof of the rear terrace, there is the odd bit where the floor titles have worked loosed are in need of repair. Some of the doors are marked with signs obviously made with Microsoft Publisher, blu-tac’d on, saying “staff only”. The way to the toilet from the function suite is past a pile of mops and buckets, primed for use with already dirty water in them. Not huge problems, and ones I’d have probably not even noticed if it were not for the 1920s decadent vibe I was trying to buy into.

As far as I can guess there’s no way that buildings can be maintained in the same way now as they were in the 1920s. Labour is much more expensive. It’s right that we can no longer subjugate people into working so hard that they present a sheen of constant shininess to the paying guest. I don’t want some poor worker constantly on call to clean roofs or touch up tilings, I don’t want someone to have to stand in front of doors that we’re not meant to use “helpfully” pointing us in the right direction. But this means that it’s not possible to create a sheen over the real workings of a building, so there has to be another way to do it.

The Rotunda Bar in the hotel, but open to the public, (named for our Rotunda, I don’t know) is another sumptuous, but somehow wrong setting. I expected, no wanted, a Noel Coward-esque piano artiste (he stayed in the hotel for a time, and is one of my heroes) serenading residents with bon-mots and frightfully clever lyrics while we sipped our iced tea. What we got was pumped in chart music, slightly too loud, while people dressed for Morecambe’s sea-front (waterproofs and fleeces, it is Lancashire) drank pints of beer. It’s my problem, I’m a snob I know—but it jars with the idea of the redevelopment.

The second problem with trying to cling to this past is this: exclusivity can only be maintained by price, not by societal “rules”. Attempt to bar entry (to the bar) by lack of tie, or bearing, with result in people demanding their “rights” or (that dreadful word) “respect” –àand since they’re coming in anyway, why not switch the entertainment to lowest-common denominator (and cheapest) stuff anyway.

So, I’m thinking, you can’t really redevelop for the past as it was and an attempt to sit betwixt two eras is doomed to disappoint (well, disappoint me anyway). Again in Morecambe the palatial Winter Gardens are falling down, and in need of £10M of refurbishment (according to a guy from the society trying to save it I chatted to). If they get the money, the only real plan is to make it look how it did in the last century, when Freddie “Parrot Face” Davies and Max Bygraves trod the boards. I can’t see it working, it’s gorgeous now in it’s faded and falling down state – to put back the gilt will be to chocolate box it (they, for some reason, won’t allow photos to be taken, but imagine the theatre at the start of Terry Gilliam’s ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’). If it could be made safe without cleaning it up too much it would look wonderful, but where’s the maverick willing to do that?

So redevelopment for the present or future? It seems that the current trends are for soulessness, identikit bars attempting to price out the lower classes—which is what everybody is assuming that is planned for “Baskerville Wharf” in the stead of the Flapper.
Over a thousand members of the ‘Save the Flapper’ Facebook group, plus supportive articles in the Mail, seem to suggest that a fair number of people think that there must be another way.

If an area is underused, why not make it more accessible with bus routes, friendlier – and safer seeming – with better lighting, why not build some flexible shop units with low rents for creative types, how about housing for families rather than young professionals? How about redevelopment that doesn’t start with ideas of exclusivity, or a scorched earth policy of destroying everything that was there before?

Oh, and if you can find room for a little bar with a witty 20s pianist I’ll be even more happy.

Originally published by The Birmingham Post.