Innovative citizenship on Brixton’s new square
This Saturday I attended ‘an action’ with South London Citizens in Brixton. The event took place on the Brixton’s new Windrush square which, it seemed, was experiencing is baptism on the first Saturday of reliable sunshine since its unveiling in February this year.
If not quite a baptism of fire, my first week at the Innovation Unit has been an intense – and intensely positive – learning experience. Fuelled on bountiful quantities of paid-for coffee – a welcome gift from many a new colleague – I have dived into understanding parts of the Innovation Unit’s work. On Saturday, with this partially formed understanding swashing around my head, my perspective on what was unfolding in front of me prompted added insight.
The event was part of the London Living Wage campaign and was aimed at bringing together local councillors to encourage them to give a firm commitment to implement the London Living Wage in Lambeth (that is, for all those employed by Lambeth council, directly or indirectly) . Amongst the politicians gathered was Labour councillor Steve Reid (Head of Lambeth Council), other Labour, Green and Liberal candidates from the local area, and local MP Tessa Jowell. Joining them were Lambeth citizens from community groups, schools, churches and mosques, as well as some employees whose lives have been directly affected by the low wages paid by some of the council’s contracted service companies. As the invitees gathered, the vibrant atmosphere was helped by the weather and location, with many onlookers watching with interest.
London Citizen’s events are often quite a spectacle. Haphazard as they are –their community-centred, collaborative approach dictates this to some extent – they are also well focused and many of their aims overlap with and compliment the approach that the Innovation Unit seeks to practice and advocate. As with the IU’s Radical Efficiency work – aimed at providing different, better and cheaper public services -the starting point is social issues and quality of life. This involves recognising that employees are not merely resources to be manipulated in whatever way will improve service efficiency – in the long run, and on a broader scale, this is not the best way to cut costs. Instead the primary concern is with the quality of life of employees by emphasising their rights as citizens within a wider community.
The London Living Wage campaign is also family-focused, a factor which was used powerfully at the event, with a local street cleaner testifying to his troubles and fears for the future welfare of his unborn baby. The Living Wage sought after is not conceived as a wage solely for the individual, which would exclude those with dependents. It asks for the minimum capital and security to look after a family. This is a far cry from a model which seeks improvement of public service only through maximising efficiency of existing methods of service provision, which may result – and has resulted – in lowering the quality of life of employees.
Whereas the political will and action has only been partially demonstrated, the statement of affinity with London Citizen’s approach was unequivocal. For the Liberal candidate Ashley Lumsden, it was not about whether this money could be found in the budget; it was a necessity, the dignity of the employees is something that couldn’t be compromised upon. The “I agree with Nick”-style sentiment for the day was a recognition of the lessons that those in power could learn from the civil and practical approach of those gathered around them.
Part of the ongoing success of London Citizens rests it providing a forum for its diverse membership to collaboratively pursue democratically-agreed social outcomes, and its ability to equip community groups and individuals with the tools to pursue these goals. On Saturday, when leaders come into contact with some of their empowered and informed electorate, I witnessed the fruition of this work. No punches were pulled by the citizens charged with holding the councillors and candidates to account, and getting them to publicly declare their commitment through a symbolic act of voting to make Lambeth a living wage employer. The unanimous vote in favour and sentiment to learn from more collaborative, innovative and community focused approaches to social issues is encouraging, let’s hope some practical steps follow the rhetoric.