The people of Hull are frank, funny, and disillusioned, and the city rests not only in a basin but also at the sharp edge of crisis. We are the country’s second most vulnerable city to flooding after London, our neighbourhoods experience the worst effects of fuel poverty, and we consistently rank the lowest for voter turnout in national statistics. People here know what’s wrong, more so than most. So, in spring of 2023, I moved here with three others to kickstart an experiment of what’s possible called Cooperation Hull.
Inspired by Cooperation Jackson, Rojava, and many others and drawing on our learnings from Extinction Rebellion, we’re on a mission to create new democratic structures, and to replace today’s antiquated politics with new economic structures that prioritise equality and planetary health above profit. And we’ve swapped arrests for assemblies to get there.
We believe that ordinary people reclaiming decision making power is the key to unlocking widespread action and the spark that will ignite lasting change. We envisage a network of autonomous people’s assemblies spanning the British Isles, open to all but guided by fundamental ideas like equality, solidarity and duty to people seven generations from now*, making local decisions for themselves and regional or national decisions collectively via accountable and recallable delegates.
The first catalysers for this project met during Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) heydey, and between us, we’ve been arrested more than 50 times since 2018. We value protest, but we now recognise it needs to be one tool among many, one element of a comprehensive movement for change.
It seems increasingly fantastical to hope that either of the power-hungry, short-termist political parties will grant citizens assemblies in a meaningful way, in a meaningful timeframe (XR’s most radical demand). And, as time has passed and fires have raged, crops have failed, and dinghies have sunk just beyond our shores, we have also questioned the scale of the impact these kinds of concessions would have. The government invites 200 “demographically representative” people into a room … What about everyone else?
XR showed thousands of cynical nobodies like me the power of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and I am grateful to Just Stop Oil for continuing to be uncompromising in their tactics. But after years of testing the arrest-based theory of change and, ultimately, the failure to achieve our demands, as well as the unignorable absence of 3.5% of the population standing side-by-side with us**, we saw the need for a more long-term strategy, a systems thinking approach that reflects the complexity of the problems, and a plan for engaging everyone else.
Engaging Everyone Else
We have had to confront how far some of the left’s talking points have missed the mark with people around here. People who have seen their pay packets shrink, the price of bread soar, their community centres, libraries and pubs close for good. People who voted for Brexit and who have lived on the same road for 50 years and in the last 15 years have seen the languages, shops, and culture change radically around them without them.
We have resisted labels like ‘eco socialism’, ‘communism’ or ‘socialism’ that, without achingly careful communication and unlearning, would alienate many of the people we’re trying to reach. Most people, especially during the interminable cost of living crisis, can see the sense in prioritising fairness over endless profit without mentioning communism or capitalism. And although I’ve met people with all kinds of political viewpoints, I haven’t yet met a single person who answered the question “Do you trust politicians?” with anything other than a sardonic and resounding “no”.
Of course, in an assembly’s solution and implementation phase, things will become more detailed; informed debate may, in time, require a more ideological basis. But for now, we side with beat poet Diane di Prima: “Marx has to go and Lenin with him / let’s stop looking over our shoulders”. Besides, in this age of conspiracy and the rise of the far right, it would be suicide to shut off our ideas to people who would recoil at being called a socialist or close our doors to people beginning to see sense in the “stop the boats” rhetoric. This is not about having one right answer and beating everyone else over the head with it. It’s about reaching as many people as possible and relearning the forgotten skill of conversation, the lost act of participation, and the civic art of hearing and being heard. Remembering democracy will take practice; we’re way behind on our hours.
Although the practice of democracy has been lost, the instinct remains. A 23% voter turnout (13% in some places) could imply a lack of interest, but conversations on the street reveal something more nuanced. George, an army veteran, doesn’t bother voting but has plenty of stories about local corruption, ideas for what he would do if he were Prime Minister, and makes a convincing case for just getting people to sit down outside Downing Street “until they negotiate”. Helen had voted her whole life but now thinks it’s hopeless since she felt “sold down the river” when her pension age was increased with little warning or support. For many people, it feels like politics is something that’s done to us, and it seems futile to even attempt to participate.
In our short time here, we’ve had climate deniers interrupt a teach-in on climate science, a confrontation between a young trans person and someone who was convinced children were being manipulated into transitioning, a passionate Trump fan talking about racism with a black person, and countless people on the street tell us the cause of [insert issue here] is “too many people coming here”. These are not easy moments to navigate, and we have by no means perfected the art. But in these instances, the conversation was allowed to continue, and all parties remained to see it through. This is the beginning of the practice.
We are laying the groundwork for the wisdom of the people to be realised in the assemblies – where all participants are accountable to a set of ground rules agreed at the start, which means all opinions are welcome but all behaviours and language are not (we agree to respect each other, the facilitator and the process, to focus on the “issue not the person”, to make our contributions constructive and helpful even in disagreement, among other things). We are laying the groundwork for what’s possible: collective decision making in our communities on the biggest challenges of our time.
Since April, the core organising team of Cooperation Hull has multiplied encouragingly. We’ve facilitated five neighbourhood assemblies (people’s assemblies at the postcode level) and had hundreds of conversations on the doorstep and in the street. We’re aiming for two neighbourhood assemblies per postcode from HU1 to HU9, building towards the initiation of the Hull People’s Assembly*** next spring, a citywide deliberation process that can respond to and build on what came from the neighbourhood assemblies, ratify an ongoing strategy for Hull, support initiatives in line with this strategy, deliberate on big topics like flooding or food prices, and that, crucially, can stay the course. In the words of Cooperation Jackson founder Kali Akuno, the Hull People’s Assembly needs to become “an institution”, “an ongoing process and an enduring base of power”.
In time, the Hull People’s Assembly needs to become self-organising. To get there our work is sense-checked against a five-pillar strategy: Democracy, Economy, Education, Ecology and Action. People’s assemblies are the primary element, but it won’t work in a vacuum; we also need to solidify a local solidarity economy which can encompass the entire supply chain, develop an education program of peer-to-peer teach-ins which can disseminate essential sills for living through the coming decades, reimagine humanity’s place in the wider ecology and prepare our communities to take civilly disobedient action if needed, to protect our ideas from intervention.
In Hull, grassroots initiatives abound. We Are Not Takeaway rescues and delivers waste food. The Timebank and Library of Stuff are helping people be less reliant on money (and stuff). All this and more is already flourishing: a burgeoning solidarity economy. We see our role as connecting these groups with the will of the people, forming a coherent strategy and alternative power base; the skills and resources within the organisations can help to implement the decisions of the assembly, and the assembly can increase the reach and capacity of the organisations.
A common refrain on the doorstep is: “Great, it’ll never work.” We know the disillusioned people of Hull will take some convincing, and that’s no bad thing. But it’s up to all of us to prove to each other that it can. That we, the people, are capable of change and worth the effort. It’s up to all of us to take a good hard look at what’s possible (and yes, it is sure to be hard), to pick up useful ideas and try them, to be wrong and keep going, and to push any windows of possibility open so wide they may never slam shut again.
~Gully, Co-operation Hull
* A principle borrowed from Iroquois philosophy
** A reference to XR’s contention that if 3.5% of the public actively stand together to create change, then success will follow
*** Not to be confused with the anti-cuts group that sometimes organises marches in London
This article first appeared in the Winter 2023-4 issue of Freedom Anarchist Journal