Birmingham's 'People Power' Movement Wants To Turn Europe's Biggest Council Upside Down

People Power Brum compares itself to French President Emmanuel Macron's En Marche party.

“It’s like Prime Minister’s Questions but no one is watching,” is how Sunny Sangha describes meetings of the Birmingham politicians that his campaign wants to replace.

People Power Brum (PPB) aims to field 101 “everyday heroes” to fight for every seat in the city council elections in May, in a bid to win a “people’s majority” in Britain’s second largest city, by casting out party politics and completely redrawing it.

To drum up interest and find recruits, PPB has been taking people to the monthly council meetings, explaining its functions and then talking through what they have seen.

“People have been stunned by the playground politics,” Sangha says. ”The councillors are playing the spectacle of politics... personal attacks, insults trading, booing, hissing. Tories on one side. Labour on the other.

“Regular Brummies just come to that and they’re gobsmacked.”

Sunny Sangha: 'Power flows in the world the way water flows in the canals of Birmingham, not very much.'
Sunny Sangha: 'Power flows in the world the way water flows in the canals of Birmingham, not very much.'
Vik Chandla

It’s not the people, he says, it’s the system. PPB is looking for revolutionaries.

From Monday until the deadline for nominating candidates in April, it is holding weekly meetings to recruit people to be independent candidates.

One 27-year-old woman who attended the council meeting trips has put herself forward. Another applicant is a middle-aged Black Carribbean women who used to work for the council.

If elected, the councillors would have no whip and be only held to the “People’s Pledge” that says they should “return power to the people, by making Birmingham the first city in the world to implement liquid democracy, where everyone is included and empowered to drive society forward.”

“Liquid democracy” is a model of representation where voters have far more say in what authorities do and elected officials are more like delegates than representatives.

Sangha envisages a system where citizens, not politicians, propose ideas and initiate referendums and even give their votes to other people they trust to make the right call.

He advocates this political earthquake with broad statements. It’s fitting as its genesis was at the embodiment of broad statements: a TED talk.

Sangha, 27, spoke in front of 1,400 people at Birmingham’s TEDx event in October, preaching liquid democracy and saying: “The way power flows in the world right now is very similar to the way water flows in the canals of Birmingham, not very much.”

People excitedly came up to him in the lobby afterwards, discussing his speech.

From this and other events, the core of PPB emerged. They are all volunteers like Sangha, who works on it in his spare time around working for a migrants and refugee charity.

Sangha’s analogies are lofty. He talks about the campaigns of Barack Obama and Emmanuel Macron, who founded a party to make himself President of France, but says PPB will take things “one step further” by electing candidates on the specific platform of changing the body they’re joining.

The precedent for the campaign is more modest. In 2011, a group of independents stood for election to the council in Frome, Somerset and won a majority on their first go. They still control it now. They called it “flatpack democracy” and wrote a book that Sangha has poured over.

Frome is a town of 27,000 people. Birmingham is a city of 1.1 million people, the biggest population of any local government district in Europe.

Britain’s centralised government limits the freedom of its local authorities. Sangha knows this is an obstacle but says: “Birmingham being more participatory would certainly do no harm to the city in terms of getting more power from London.”

Birmingham's entire city council - 101 seats - is up for re-election in May
Birmingham's entire city council - 101 seats - is up for re-election in May
ChrisHepburn via Getty Images

When asked for examples of party politics holding Birmingham back, Sangha says he doesn’t know any.

“People don’t need examples to see how party politics gets in the way... When they see people arguing with each other, the whole vibe is not one of constructive problem solving.”

The detail of what this revolution would look like is scant for now.

Sangha says they will hold workshops to help their newbie political candidates learn how to campaign. If they win, he wants to use the volunteers who are coming forward to share the loaf of their work.

He concedes there’s no established way of doing this: “We’re looking to help forge that path.”

“You never know how things go,” Sangha adds. “This hasn’t been done before at this scale.”

When asked if there is a minimum number of seats he hopes PPB will win, Sangha says their achievements so far, “getting people thinking about how democracy can be done better, revealing how the current system is dysfunctional”, is enough.

He adds it would be “miraculous” if a brand new group contested every seat and won a majority on its first attempt in a council where Labour has two thirds of the seats.

“It’s definitely possible but we just don’t know. We’re putting something out there and we just don’t know how ready people are for this.”