Meet the Radical Group Trying to Make London Less Shit for Non-Rich People
Take Back the CIty want to scrap the Met, introduce rent caps and bring back EMA, on a crowd-sourced platform for election to London's Assembly.
London is a city at war with its poor, governed by a political class apparently bent on demolishing enough social housing that oligarchs, bankers and property developers might be left alone to carve it up for their own savage, greed-crazed reasons.
So last week, sitting with almost 100 people gathered at the Osmani community centre in Whitechapel to launch a manifesto crowd-sourced from some of the city's most marginalised people felt like a fundamentally different way of doing politics.
Take Back the City are a group loosely modelled after the Spanish socialists who were so successful in their country's municipal elections last year. In Barcelona, housing activist Ada Colau was elected Mayor as part of the citizens' platform Barcelona en Comú, while in Madrid a similar group named Ahora Madrid took 32 percent of the vote, becoming their council's second-largest party.
Although Take Back the City were publicly endorsed by Barcelona en Comú yesterday, they cannot hope to match those victories. For a start, they're only running one candidate for the London Assembly, in the City and East constituency. She is Amina Gichinga, a charismatic 26-year-old singing teacher who says the fact that Spanish activists are now in city hall at least tells voters the model can work.
"It does help when you're speaking to people," she says. "This is a bit of an experiment, to be honest. We've crowd-funded our campaign and crowd-sourced our manifesto. This is the beginning of something. We want to be on people's radar, and that's partly why we ran in this election. We want power though, don't get it twisted: if I was elected I'd be so gassed because it'd mean I'd be the face of a movement of people who feel that we need to turn things around in London."
Take Back the City preach "radical democracy", so their " People's Manifesto" was created from online suggestions and visits to community groups around the city, including refugee migrants, homeless shelters and unions, sixth forms in Haringey and housing co-ops in East Finchley. The resulting policies include a London minimum wage of £11 an hour, the introduction of rent caps and a 20 percent cut to all transport fares.
Most radically they also want to see the disbandment and replacement of the Metropolitan Police, as well as the reintroduction of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA). "Those two really came from young people," says Gichinga. "Disadvantaged children in London don't feel like the police trust them and they don't trust the police. It's the same with the EMA, which we'd take away the charitable status of private schools to fund. When I was going to college all my friends had EMAs. People who would have fallen off the radar were kept in education because of it."
Bringing people who feel excluded back into not just education but also into politics itself is essential to how Take Back yhe City have organised themselves. "When I was canvassing, a lot of the responses I'd get were: I don't vote," says Take Back the City campaigner Kennedy Walker. "They didn't think it represented them."
"You know, only 30 percent of people are going to vote in this election," says Gichinga. "We hope it will be more because we've been on the streets saying, 'please register'. If they are going to vote, I'm hearing: 'Yeah, I guess I'm just going to vote Labour'. That's not good enough. We want active engagement, not just putting a cross in a box because it's the better of two evils. Why aren't we aspiring to more? Why aren't the Zac and Sadiq campaigns aspiring to more, rather than sniping at each other? Why isn't it about positive politics, a politics of hope, that actually speaks to people?"
The City and East constituency – which covers the City of London, Barking and Dagenham, Newham, and Tower Hamlets – has been held by Labour's John Biggs since the creation of the London Assembly in 2000. Biggs, now mayor of Tower Hamlets, is stepping down and his replacement Unmesh Desai is the favourite to retain the seat.
Predictably, Gichinga is disillusioned with the Labour party – particularly with mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan's acceptance of thousands of pounds of support from property developers, as well as his plan to expand London City airport. "I work with the community beside London City airport and the kids I teach have asthma because they're living beside an airport," she says. "They're directly affected by the noise and air pollution. Even as a voter I'm torn. I'm voting for Sian Berry, but if I vote for Sadiq even as my second place then that affects the community I've been working with for the past three years. Then you look at Zac ... our options aren't great. That's why we need to cause a ruckus."
If Take Back the City has grown in part out of disillusionment with the Labour party, it's also lost patience with the idea of marching for political change. "Every weekend there's a demonstration and we knock on the door of power and say please," says Gichinga. "What Take Back the City is telling us to do is kick the door down."
"The situation is urgent," adds Walker. "When the Panama Papers came out, we had to make a decision about whether to go and support the march or canvas. We went and canvassed, because the people who are going to suffer the most don't know about that happening. They need something to change sooner rather than later."
From Barcelona and Madrid to Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, leftist outsider candidates seem to be having a decent time with voters at the moment. Still, the question remains: are the people of east London ready for "radical democracy"?
Gichinga believes it's Take Back The City's job to at least ask them. "The left constantly preaches to the converted," she says. "It's easier to talk within your insular group. It's hard to go to a working class community and say: 'look at this idea, what do you think?' And have them gun you! The first time you talk to them they'll tell you that you're living in cloud cuckoo land. What's needed is a bit of hope."
At the manifesto launch there were songs and poetry but also a certain amount of realism about their chances of actually winning in City and East on Thursday the 5th of May. Whatever happens, Gichinga and Walker say Take Back the City will continue trying to build a movement of the disenfranchised and disillusioned over the next four years. In a city where the rich get richer and the poor just get evicted, it's one way of fighting back.
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