Re-think power to build inclusive local economies
by Frances Jones & Eleanor Radcliffe
Thirteen years ago, the global financial crisis prompted human suffering across the world. In the wake of this, community wealth building emerged as an alternative approach to local economic development. In community wealth building, local authorities along with other public sector anchor institutions and social and private sector partners, work to disrupt the structures which enabled the crisis, building in their place local economies where people have far greater levels of control and ownership of wealth. At the same time, activists responding to the same inequality and suffering on their doorsteps, began to reshape the political landscape in their cities and communities, this time animated by feminist principles. Their work to “feminise politics” has become a global movement.
A decade on and we are living in the shadow of another seismic economic crisis that is, again, laying bare the inadequacies of our economics. Community wealth building, meanwhile, has moved from the fringes to become widely adopted by local, regional and national government across the UK. In this blog we explore why, at CLES, we believe that the feminisation of politics provides much needed inspiration not just to movements to revitalise local democracy, but also to those seeking to realise the true potential of community wealth building to drive meaningful change on inequality.
At a time when local government in the UK is assailed by challenges on many fronts, it is easy to miss the potential for the feminisation of politics to spark creativity and unlock new ways of working. For many, elements of these ideas will appear familiar: a commitment to increasing the representation of women and a greater emphasis on participatory decision making, for example. But narrow interpretations miss the point: the feminisation of politics is a “way of doing” local democracy which seeks to transform the local landscape as it works.
“rather than offering another set of prescriptions for what should be done within existing structures, it focuses on how people at the grassroots and within local institutions can together create and share power”
The outcomes from this “way of doing” are much greater than the sum of any isolated action. Feminising politics is about letting go of traditional ways of holding power. Through this, advocates set out to erode the deep currents of oppression and privilege – sexism, yes, but also racism, ableism, homophobia and classism to name a few – which determine life chances across the world. Its power is that rather than offering another set of prescriptions for what should be done within existing structures, it focuses on how people at the grassroots and within local institutions can together create and share power in new ways.
A powerful example of the application of these ideas in practice can be seen in the recent history of Barcelona. In 2015 a grouping of activists and citizens – Barcelona en Comu – won the city elections. Their strategy, of reorientating public institutions to tackle inequality and build a more just economy, is a story of a revolution in urban governance, animated by feminism.
“we see powerful resonance between these ideas and our work on community wealth building”
At CLES we see powerful resonance between these ideas and our work on community wealth building, which aims to build greater levels of control and ownership of wealth by local people. Reflecting on this work through the lens of the feminisation of politics begs a question: are approaches led by public institutions, in isolation from local people, in danger of replicating the very inequalities they were intended to address?
The appetite for community wealth building and progressive local economic ideas is significant and growing. But, as the movement grows, it is more important than ever that we reflect on its core purpose. Engaging with the feminisation of politics provides an important opportunity to enhance community wealth building’s potential to drive deep rooted change in local economies.
Hence, this summer, CLES are beginning a programme of work to explore the feminisation of politics in greater detail. In this, we see two overarching questions:
- What does a route to feminised local politics look like for the UK?
- How can the ideas behind the feminisation of politics help people working on the ground to create more just local economies?
With assumptions and norms upended by Covid-19 we have an opportunity to set our sights high to rebuild a democratic and just future. In the words of Barcelona en Comu, “A revolution that isn’t feminist isn’t worthy of the name”.
Frances Jones is Associate Director and Eleanor Radcliffe is a Researcher at CLES.
This was originally posted on the CLES blog on 19th July 2021.
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