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June 27, 2018

Barcelona in Common

When more than 400 folk are prepared to spend a sunny Saturday stuck inside a Glasgow hotel discussing the dire state of Scottish local democracy, something of note is happening. Most people agree the current system is a busted flush but what’s proving much more elusive is any consensus about how to fix it. The many views we heard at this event will hopefully feed into the work of Democracy Matters.  Most inspiring for me was the contribution from Elena Harrero of Barcelona en Comú, a citizen led movement (not a political party) that now runs that great city.

Stephen Burgen, The Guardian

In May 2015, the citizen platform Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common) catapulted Ada Colau into power as the city’s first female mayor. Ten months earlier, the group didn’t even exist.

With no money and little experience, just how did they wrest the city from the entrenched political caste that had been running it for the past 40 years? Not surprisingly, Barcelona en Comú has since been inundated with requests for an answer from mayors, political parties, urban conferences and community groups all over the world.

In response, the group produced a step-by-step explanation – How to Win Back the City en Comú (pdf). A new documentary, Alcaldessa (“Mayoress”), by the Catalan director Pau Faus, promises further insights into how this revolution in urban governance came about.

‘Involve as many people as possible’

According to Marina López and Juan Linares, members of Barcelona en Comú’s communications team, the first step was to build a platform that could bring together individuals and the multitude of Barcelona’s citizens’ movements in a coherent and coordinated way, so their voice could more easily be heard.

“We have always set out to involve as many people from as many social groups as possible,” says Lopez. “We’ve tried to rethink the public space so the debate can happen in the street.”

The platform didn’t spring up from nothing. On the one hand, Barcelona has a long history of communitarian politics, often organised at a neighbourhood level. And the widespread discontent caused by Spain’s prolonged economic crisis and corrupt political class had already found expression in the 15-M movement. It appeared spontaneously in 2011 as a reaction to the crisis and saw thousands of people meeting in squares around the country to argue and debate a better future. Barcelona en Comú, like the national political party Podemos and other left-wing groups, emerged in part from 15-M.

Linares emphasises that Barcelona en Comú is a platform, not a political party. “We’re a porous organisation. By being open we can combine people with lots of experience with people with none – from university professors to bricklayers, but all with the same goal.”

‘Test your hypothesis’

Lopez and Linares point out that when you’re part of a group of like-minded people, it’s easy to imagine that everyone else sees things as you do. So, three months in, having chosen a few representatives and possible candidates, and written a draft manifesto, they decided it was time to test the water.

“It’s not like saying, ‘we’re going to create socialism’,” Linares says. “You start with an hypothesis, then you have to test it.” The test was to collect 30,000 signatures in support of the platform. Even though it was the middle of summer, this proved surprisingly easy. From that point on, they knew they were pushing on an open door.

This endorsement by the people also opened the way to making alliances with other existing groups, including political parties such as the Greens. The idea, Lopez says, is to keep adding more groups, more individuals.

‘Always play to win’

At the outset, the platform was called Guanyem Barcelona (“Let’s win Barcelona”) – but the name had to be changed after they discovered that an individual had opportunistically copyrighted Guanyem as a brand. The guiding principle, however, remains: it’s vital to start out with the intention of winning, not merely protesting.

“The idea that you can win is exciting and motivating,” says Lopez. “You’ve got to have the mentality that now’s the time. We don’t want to wait for things to get even worse. You’ve got to say, ‘we’re ready, there are a lot of us and we’re going to win’. But of course,” she adds, “at the beginning we didn’t think we would win.”

 ‘Live within your means’

“We didn’t have a bean,” says Linares. “We couldn’t even pay to heat the office. But from the start we decided not to seek bank credits and set out to be self-financing.” The organisation was financed by micro-credits and micro-loans and quotas paid by activists, and then a crowdfunding appeal was launched to cover the cost of the two-week election campaign. Now that it is in power, Barcelona en Comú receives state funding in proportion to the number of votes received.

‘Listen to the people’

The collective process of drawing up an electoral programme began in the summer of 2014, when the different neighbourhood and policy groups of Barcelona En Comú (open to anyone who wished to participate) carried out diagnoses of their own areas.

This produced 40 measures in the order of priority citizens gave them, which formed the core of the electoral programme. In addition there were a set of demands for each neighbourhood.

This emphasis on horizontality slows down decision-making but, Lopez says, “if you’re not listening to the people you’re losing something important”. And as Linares points out, you don’t have to call a meeting every time you need to make a decision. “We work in a network. We have 24-hour meetings online via Whatsapp and other groups.”


‘Do it your own way’

There was much agonising about choosing Colau as the face of the movement, because no one wanted to personalise what was a collective enterprise. Some people argue that without her, Barcelona en Comú would never have won. Linares disagrees and says it’s a matter of cometh the hour, cometh the man or woman. “There are lots of hardworking, intelligent people out there who have experience but who go unnoticed until the right moment arrives.”

The group was derided by the opposition as “a bunch of squatters with no experience”, and even Colau admits they were learning as they went along. “People kept telling us, ‘this is how you do it, this is how you run a campaign’ – but we had to ignore their advice,” she says in the new documentary. “We had to do it our way, even though it was risky. And we have shown that we can achieve what they, with all their money and influence, could not.”

‘Never forget who you are’

Campaigning is one thing, governing quite another. Lopez says they have adapted well, and after one year in office have received unusually high approval ratings, in spite of a mainly hostile press.

“The difference with being in power is there are two parallel processes – ours and the institutional one, and they don’t work in the same way or same speed,” Lopez says.

But the real challenge, she says, is not to lose touch with reality – something Colau is acutely conscious of. On her first day as mayor, she taped a notice to her office door that reads: “Never forget who we are, or why we are here.”