On Saturday 26 November we ran a session called ‘Glasgow (Re)Governed: A Session on Local and Alternative Democracies’ as part of Glasgow Belongs to Us: A Summit on Ownership and Democracy, organised by the Glasgow Against Closures campaign. Since publishing our report Glasgow Strife: What’s the real reason behind 62 Glasgow Life venues remaining closed? we have been working alongside the Glasgow Against Closures campaign to draw attention to the venue closures and to the wider democratic inconsistencies they have revealed.
The Glasgow Against Closures campaign has shed light on issues that are critical to our understandings of how power works in the city, as we build a People’s Plan for Glasgow, a process and platform on which to explore new ideas for Glasgow’s democratic future. The People’s Plan engages with the fantastic work being done throughout Glasgow at the grassroots and community level, and seeks to bring those pieces of work together to see what we can learn about the challenges presented by current forms of democracy, and to explore what it might look like to stand together and build a better one. We’re currently undertaking a research project about the lessons that local campaigns in cities can teach us about local democracy and change making, so events like this Summit are great chances to speak with people about these relationships and gain some insight.
We’re building this on the premise that the campaigns people in this city are fighting for – whether that’s refugee rights, climate action, housing support, health campaigns, educational reform, opposing militarism, or anything else – are coming up against a common set of democratic barriers, and share a common set of democratic goals. All these campaigns can teach us about what democracy looks like in Glasgow, and all of them can teach us about the kind of Glasgow we want to build.
So what has Glasgow Against Closures taught us about the way local democracy works in Glasgow? The campaign is about the closure of venues, but it has revealed issues surrounding transparency of information, accountability for decisions made, responsiveness to communities and citizens rights, questions about the ownership of public spaces, and for voice and influence in managing the city’s resources for residents. The closures in themselves are deeply problematic, but in some sense this issue is only the tip of an iceberg.
The closures have revealed a deficit of democratic accountability, with the unelectable ALEO Glasgow Life having power over management of public assets and services. Glasgow Life is a charitable body arguably acting in its own interests (despite active stakeholder and friends of the park groups). This is also an undemocratic delegation of financial responsibility, leaving the fate of the city’s public services and venues in the hands of a body without financial security, in constant search of its next round of funding.
The financial aspect betrays a misuse of democratic power to prioritise profits over the public good. Not only does Glasgow City Council use public funds to fuel private profit in the city, but the commercialisation of spaces in the city has overtaken the use of those spaces for the interests of citizens. We see this in examples such as Glasgow Green, which plays host to TRNSMT festival each year while the People’s Palace was allowed to fall into disrepair and the plants from the Winter Gardens were shredded. Furthermore, the facilities marked for closure have been selected on the grounds of their minimal economic contributions to Glasgow Life, rather than their importance to their local communities.
We’ve also seen an abuse of the power to represent the people of Glasgow – Common Good assets gifted to the people of Glasgow have not been exempted from expressions of interest for sell-offs and asset transfers. Critically, the closures have also revealed infringements on the rights of residents and communities. The council’s own equality impact assessment of the closures found that there is potential for “displacement” of vulnerable service users, and questioned whether the closures fell afoul of the council’s human rights obligations.
As the campaign has gone on, so have the indicators of a failed democracy. The lack of public transparency from the council has felt criminal – Council plans, strategies and bids for funding are closely shielded from public view, and trying to get information from Glasgow City Council has been like drawing blood from a stone. In parallel to this, the Council has been ladling out acts of hollow and performative democratic engagement. ‘Community consultations’ are not advertised among communities, and are essentially a box ticking exercise that comes after a decision has already been made.
In times where democracy fails us, we naturally begin to form our own solutions. And this is exactly what Glasgow Against Closures has had to do to navigate through all this, hold our leadership to account and get these damn venues reopened. And this in turn teaches us significant lessons about where power really lies in this city, and what alternative democratic practices can start to harness that power to create change. In sharp contrast to some of the values we’ve seen from Glasgow City Council, Glasgow Against Closures has been demonstrating values that are far more in line with what you or I might think of as ‘democratic’.
Transparency. In order to critique our leadership, needed to have open, transparent sharing of knowledge and information among ourselves and the public. This has been a consistent aspect of the campaign in terms of sharing information about things like communication from the council, and not gatekeeping information from other campaigners. It also manifests in events like today in which we’re trying to share some of the wider lessons we’ve learned with other campaigns and members of the public.
Representation. Representation has been built into the campaign’s organising structures. Glasgow Against Closures is made up of representatives from a variety of local groups and campaigns that have been bringing together communities, including people who aren’t typically involved with ‘politics’ or organising. These campaigners come together with members from representative structures such as trade unions and community councils, so the campaign collectively represents a really wide spread of people throughout the city.
A clear understanding of the role, rights and responsibilities of a campaign. The campaign has resisted the path to speak for communities in crisis, or to project their understandings or objectives onto communities, particularly vulnerable communities. Rather they have favoured empowering those residents with the tools and support to build their own local campaigns, diagnose their own needs and draw their own demands.
A lack of bureaucracy – what has worked for the libraries may not work for community centres – what has worked for venue reopening may not work for securing job stability. An understanding that there are a multitude of different paths to creating change and that the campaign will need to draw on a variety of approaches to best tackle the struggle ahead.
A respect for human dignity. Ultimately, Glasgow Against Closures is campaigning for people’s rights to congregate freely as a community, to access vital services, to socialise the elder and younger generations, and to come together to engage in cultural and community activities. Their campaign is for quality of life in this city, and unlike local policies, places care at the heart of its goals and strategies.
We believe that the lessons and actions of the Glasgow Against Closures campaign have a vital role to play as we explore Glasgow’s alternative democratic future. It is by drawing on the strengths of our communities and local activities that we can rediagnose and reframe the causes and symptoms of Glasgow’s democratic deficit to shape a fairer, more equal city for all.