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How to Stop Gentrification in London: What We Can Learn from Spain's New Rebel Mayors

Maybe it's time to stop fighting against City Hall and start fighting in City Hall.
May 27, 2015, 9:20am

Ahora Madrid campaigners celebrate their victory in the municipal elections (Photo by Felipe Hernàndez)

Imagine if NHS worker and single mother Lindsey Garrett, who campaigned to save the New Era Estate from development sharks, was the next mayor of London, rather than some slick politician. It's not impossible – for one thing, she is running in 2016 – but also, that's pretty much what's just happened in Barcelona. Ada Colau, the woman who established the hugely successful direct action housing group the PAH (which has blocked over 1,000 evictions and counting), has just been elected mayor there, as head of the new citizens' platform Barcelona en Comú.

The message from Spain in Sunday's elections is clear: rather than fighting against city hall, maybe we should be fighting from city hall. Backed by, but independent from, left-wing political party Podemos, a wave of city-based radical democratic candidacies have just swept Spain's established parties from power. Ada Colau and Barcelona en Comú have taken the Catalan city, while the capital Madrid, normally the secure home of the right-wing Partido Popular, has been similarly shaken by a new constellation called Ahora Madrid, who have seized 32 percent of the vote and will now form a coalition arrangement with the centre-left PSOE.

Barcelona en Comú are already setting out their programme, and it is breathtaking because it is so radical and so blindingly common-sense at the same time, but most of all because it is happening: there will be fines for banks that hold empty properties in the city, a tax on electricity companies, free transport for under 16s, a review of (often shoddy) working conditions among all city hall sub-contracted employees, job creation through property renovation, an elimination of official cars, reduction of officials' salaries, a subsidy for low income households and a freeze on new hotel building. It is a platform designed to reverse Barcelona's frenetic and untrammelled gentrification, and to reverse the trend of cities as little more than vehicles for ever-widening inequality.

Colau announced her victory saying that she would "govern by obeying the people"; a phrase used by the revolutionary indigenous Mexican movement the Zapatistas, who have established egalitarian self-government independent of the Mexican state since the 1990s. The fascinating populist paradox in Spain is that these new platforms often have inspiring leaders who look suspiciously like ordinary people, but they are not about their leaders – they have direct roots in the massive, leaderless 2011 indignados movement, and also in local neighbourhood organisations of the big cities. Barcelona en Comú, Ahora Madrid and others seek to turn what is often the sham of modern electoral democracy inside out, and over to the people. As one local put it, "Colau does not represent us – I've voted to change representation into participation".

As David Harvey argued in his 2012 book Rebel Cities, the misery inflected by contemporary capitalism and state power needs to be tackled based on the realities of people's everyday lives, not via dusty texts written by dead Russians. In the west, the factories are going or gone. Work is often precarious and labour organising is difficult – the city must become the new factory. The terrain on which we organise and fight for justice, equality and real democracy is no longer the factory shop floor, but the actual places where we live. London and Barcelona share similar problems as they grow, gentrify and privatise.

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As my home-town London explodes in size – with 1.3 million new Londoners expected by 2030 – its chief subject, the precarious city-dweller, is also proliferating at a rate of knots. While each new glass skyscraper in the shape of a kitchen appliance is a new monument to success for some, there does not appear to be a corresponding reduction in inequality or suffering in the capital. On the contrary, in the decade to 2011-12, the number of people in in-work poverty in London increased by 440,000 – as real wages stagnate and house prices, rents and living costs soar.

In London we are a long way off the jubilant scenes on the streets of Barcelona and Madrid last night, but there are promising signs that the fight back is beginning. This astonishing map provides links to 45 housing and anti-gentrification campaigns in the capital – only a handful were in existence a year ago. Skills and experience are being shared from the Focus E15 mums to the New Era residents, from Cressingham Gardens in south London to the Sweets Way Estate in the north.

Londoners are mounting hyper-specific, hyper-local campaigns to defend their homes against the ersatz gold handshake proffered by the regeneration industry and its patrons in our town halls. These are the most important practical battles of the minute, based as they are in communities, among neighbours, for the essential right to live in the city. Interestingly, their logic is broadening outwards: the recent Reclaim Brixton protest was notable because it objected to gentrification as a general process.

The smashed window of a Foxtons estate agent in Brixton (Photo by Chris Bethell)

The rapid and recent growth of these campaigns also speaks to the question posed by the new Spanish populism of Podemos and its municipal friends in Barcelona, Madrid, Zaragoza, Cadiz and beyond: how do you build a left-wing alternative whose language and tactics don't reek of a past of failure and irrelevance? Podemos's populist philosophy, adapted from the late Argentinian philosopher Ernesto Laclau, aims to construct "an internal antagonistic frontier" of the people against a corrupt and self-serving elite. In the context of a city, it pulls a veil over the "old left" because it is based on a new subject: not the Fordist factory worker, but the precarious city dweller.

Their employment is insecure, irregular, and poorly paid, of course – but their housing is insecure as well. In light of its rapid gentrification and the deep-set Spanish housing crisis, it makes perfect sense that Barcelona's new Mayor is the leader of the PAH, the radical anti-eviction movement that has garnered 89 percent approval in polls. Tellingly, a documentary about the PAH has been doing the rounds among London's growing number of housing activist groups recently. With unaffordable housing the new norm in London, this emerging "antagonistic frontier" is forming against a property developer and landlord class who, country-wide, are being subsidised to the tune of £26.7 billion a year from the taxpayer, via tax breaks and housing benefit.

Want to learn more about the battle to live in London? Watch our documentary, Regeneration Game:


So how do we follow Spain's example and make the leap from those 45 localised campaigns to city hall itself? The London Mayoral elections in 2016 will see a few interesting candidates on the ballot – Lindsey Garrett from the New Era Estate, for one; Sian Berry from the Greens, for another. A new non-partisan organisation on the Spanish model, Take Back the City, was launched earlier this month, with the notion that they might find and support a "people's candidate for Mayor" in 2016, and hopefully this goal will only be one side-product of a much wider effort to empower the city's marginalised communities.

Take Back The City is formed from the same mindset as the new wave of housing campaigns, with no more storied an ideology than the notion that the city should belong to all its citizens, not just the rich and powerful.

We are many, and they are few, and we have to remind ourselves of that as we gaze up at the opalescent, mocking hubris of The Shard. As a famous Spanish radical from a few generations prior to Ada Colau said, "it is we who built these palaces and cities – and we can build others to take their place". To the millions of Londoners who have been abandoned, ignored or exploited by politicians and bosses: to young people herded out of public space and out of free education, permanent renters, migrants, victims of racist policing, the disabled, carers, the insecurely housed, the underpaid and unemployed – it's time to take back our cities.


Dan Hancox wrote The Village Against the World which is out now, published by Verso.

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