Empowering Birmingham: The Case for Participatory Democracy

In the face of the current crisis in Birmingham City Council, Richard Hatcher argues for the implementation of participatory democracy through regular thematic city-wide Citizens' Assemblies to engage directly with Council leaders, challenge the neoliberal agenda, and shape progressive policies for the city.


The current crisis of the Council is the result of the failure of the management of the Oracle system and of the failure to pay women Council workers equally with men. James Brackley of Sheffield University has exposed the underlying causes – see recent issues of Birmingham Against the Cuts (February 28 and March 10). But the crisis has a more fundamental cause: the lack of citizen democracy in local government in Birmingham in the neo-liberal policy context.

The fact is that if we had participatory democracy empowering the citizens of Birmingham then neither the Oracle shambles nor the equal pay disaster would have happened. The facts would have been public knowledge long ago and there would have been a democratic civic structure to coordinate mass public demand for alternative policies and urgent action to sort them out.

The cuts being imposed by the Government’s Commissioners have to be challenged through political campaigning and trade union action, but the underlying failure of local democracy also has to be challenged by empowering citizens through demanding participatory forms of local democracy through city-wide open Assemblies so that they can exert pressure to shape the policies of the Council and oppose the neo-liberal dominance over local government.

This article makes some specific proposals for participatory democracy through regular thematic city-wide Citizens’ Assemblies engaging directly and regularly with the Council leaders in Birmingham. It is a short version of the full-length article which you can access at Link 1 below.

Birmingham Council is now being reshaped, not by the people of Birmingham, not by the elected Councillors, but by Michael Gove and his Commissioners on behalf of the Tory Government

Their toolkit is provided by ‘The way forward: an independent review of the governance and organisational capabilities of Birmingham City Council’ carried out by the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny (CfGS). (Link 2) The key discussion by the Council leadership of this 54 page report took place at the Council Cabinet meeting on 12 December 2023.

The CfGS report is damning about the culture of the Council, but the following clause makes crystal clear the perspective of the report: neo-liberal managerialism:

5.6 …. It is clear the solutions the Council adopts will need to be ones that are framed around changes to culture and behaviours: ‘This will not be about dramatically changing the structures and systems…. but changing the attitude, mindset, and mentality of people across the Council in coming together to tackle what are cross-council problems.

The report is about internal managerial competence, not structures and systems. Of course “the attitude, mindset, and mentality of people across the Council” need to radically change, but the citizens of Birmingham need much more than that – they need radical changes in policies and decision-making structures, and these will only happen if citizens are empowered to drive and shape it, not imported management experts policing a neoliberal agenda for Birmingham on behalf of Government.

Meanwhile, the Council has announced that it is going to cut back on opportunities for citizen involvement, not increase them. The Birmingham Mail on 9 March lists the following plans: (Link 3)

  • Ward Forum meetings, reduce the number of ward forum meetings and staffing levels accordingly from 4 to 2.
  • Cease area based community work and cease Neighbourhood Development Support Unit (NDSU) non-statutory functions, cease area-based community work and cease NDSU non-statutory functions. Restructure team to reflect reduction in service activity.
  • Neighbourhood Development Support Unit, reduce the management capacity to reflect the reduction in NDSU activity.
  • Neighbourhood Action Coordinators, cease the 22 ward pilot and do not roll out city wide.

The most powerful force to oppose the Council cuts in Birmingham and defend jobs and services is of course the trade unions. We will see over the coming months how effective they will be. Meanwhile, we are seeing develop now around the city forms of collective social action against the Council cuts, such as the campaigns to defend local public libraries. Hopefully these will spread to other areas of social provision currently under threat. These defensive campaigns are vital, but to challenge the imposed neo-liberal agenda and press for alternative progressive policies by the Council we also need a new form of collective city-wide organisation to engage directly with the Council leaders.

Democratic participation “to tame radical energy” or to release and grow citizen power?

It is true that forms of public participation have increasingly been used by local government as a strategy to integrate citizens into Council (and Combined Authority) agendas rather than to empower them, but that doesn’t mean citizens can’t use them to challenge dominant power.

Of course, on its own citizen empowerment in local government is not enough: it needs to link to other forms of public action and empowerment. But regular citizen assemblies as an integral part of local government have the potential to mobilise collective popular power for radical policies at local Council level and bring collective public pressure to bear on Government-driven agendas.

The importance of drawing in marginalised citizens and communities

The trade unions are by far the largest active working-class organisations in Birmingham, and with a majority of members – 57% – being women. But unions only involve a minority of workers. According to the latest Government figures trade union membership is 22.3% of workers and declining. In 2021, 50% of public sector workers were in a union, but only 13% of private sector employees. Employees over 50 are the most likely to be union members. There is a decline in young people joining unions, partly as a result of the growth of the gig economy. 54% of trade union members have a degree or equivalent. So the large majority of the citizens of Birmingham are not involved in union action, especially young people, those with lower educational qualifications, and workers in the private sector.

Open Citizen Assemblies offer another way of drawing not just employees but all citizens into political campaigning against the neo-liberal agenda and for working-class policies. However, although Open Assemblies can be powerful instruments of participatory democracy they can also reproduce social inequalities by favouring more experienced activists. Activists need to do all they can to attract and support community members to get involved in Assemblies, including calling for restoring Council support for participation.

We need a timetable of thematic issue-based city-wide public Assemblies for Birmingham

We already have the existing place-based Ward Forums. The Constitution of the Council says “Ward Forum meetings focus on the issues, priorities and decisions important to people in their local area”. Many of these issues apply much more widely, perhaps even to every Ward, but Councillors often try to restrict discussions only to a very limited range of issues which impact in their Ward and exclude wider political agendas. In any case Ward Forums have little or no power or even influence because they don’t engage directly with the leadership of the Council.

The majority of issues that concern residents of Birmingham’s neighbourhoods actually apply widely across the city. They cannot be resolved at the level of individual Ward Forums. What is needed are regular city-wide issue-based People’s Assemblies where Birmingham citizens, in person and on-line, can engage with Council policy-makers, discuss concerns, raise proposals and shape Council policy.

Here is how the Assemblies should be organised

There are 7 issue-based Cabinet roles: Housing & Homelessness (Jayne Francis), Environment (Majid Mahmood), Transport (Liz Clements), Children, Young People & Families (Karen McCarthy), Health & Social Care (Mariam Khan), Digital, Culture, Heritage & Tourism (Saima Suleman), and Social Justice, Community, Safety and Equalities (Nicky Brennan). Each of these issues or themes should be the basis of a separate open city-wide public Assembly, meeting regularly in person and online.

So for example the Assembly on Housing & Homelessness could meet every 2 or 3 months according to need. The same would apply to each of the other 6 thematic Assemblies. The relevant Cabinet Member would be expected to take part.

The Council also has 7 issue-based Scrutiny Committees which roughly correspond to Cabinet Members’ roles: Economy and Skills; Education, Children and Young People; Finance and Resources (internal finance policy); Health and Adult Social Care; Homes; Neighbourhoods; and Sustainability and Transport. Each Committee has 8 Councillor Members: 5 Labour, 2 Conservative, and 1 Liberal Democrat. Each Member should be expected to attend the public Assemblies corresponding to the theme of their Scrutiny Committee, along with the relevant Cabinet Member.

There are 2 Members of the Cabinet who have an overarching brief: the Leader of the Council John Cotton, and the Deputy Leader Sharon Thompson. They should share attendance at the Assemblies so that there is at least one of them at each meeting.

It is essential that citizens should have a leading role in the planning and organisation of the Assemblies, with the collaboration and support of Councillors and officers. This would be a process that will develop over time.

Source >> Birmingham Against the Cuts

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