Pink paint on Bristol city hall

Pink Paint and People’s Assemblies: meet the council candidate bringing activism to city hall

On February 15th, Rachel Lunnon was arrested for throwing pink paint onto City Hall. On May 6th she could return to the seat of Bristolian democracy, only this time as an elected councillor. 

Standing for election in her local ward of Windmill Hill, Rachel would be the first councillor in Bristol from “anti-political” Burning Pink, an offshoot of Extinction Rebellion. From her insistence that she doesn’t even want to be a politician to her advocacy for Bristol City Council to rebel against central government, it is fair to say that Rachel is not your typical politician.  

The Road to City Hall. 

The current campaign is Rachel’s first foray into politics, having previously worked in academia (Rachel holds a PhD in mathematical logic) and later as a computer programmer. 

But Rachel was always torn between this life – ‘the lure of interesting mathematical problems’ –  and the concerns she had around the environment and social justice. 

Like many people today, Rachel felt a sense of helplessness and frustration at the magnitude of the environmental problems and the seeming inability of our established political systems to make any meaningful difference. 

Reading the 2018 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was a turning point. For the first time, climate issues were discussed not in pure technical terms but in their relationship to other areas of life: a warming world would mean food and water insecurity, leading to conflict, displacement, political fracturing and societal collapse. 

Motivated by the fear that these predictions brought, Rachel has moved away from the life she knew, including leaving her job, to become an activist, first with Extinction Rebellion and later with Burning Pink. Throwing paint on City Hall was the culmination of this transformation of a ‘quiet, shy person’ into someone who isn’t afraid to, as Roger Hallam would put it, fuck shit up.

An Unconventional Councillor 

Holding elected office would not mean the end of Rachel’s activist days, however. Instead, the two identities would be fused in pursuit of her goal to ‘radically upgrade democracy’ by reaching out to ‘talk to ordinary people.’ 

The upgrade would come in the form of Citizens’ Assemblies (CAs) – a form of direct democracy brought to public attention by XR and also by the high profile CA used to bring resolution to Ireland’s abortion debate – and also people’s assemblies, which are similar to CAs but much less formal and non-binding. 

The emphasis Rachel places on direct democracy stems from her belief that ‘the only sensible way forward is in a community-based way’, to have decisions affecting local people made by those people at a local level through dialogue and deliberation. 

That talking and listening to people has come to seem like a radical proposal is perhaps an indictment on our current political system. And Rachel is not short of criticisms for that system. 

Speaking of the upcoming May elections for Bristol mayor, WECA mayor, local councillors and a police and crime commissioner, Rachel remarks that there are some contests that she won’t bother voting in as there is ‘no candidate in the group who I personally think is worth voting for.’

Even the best politicians, in Bristol and the wider UK, are only slowing things down with regard to the climate emergency, rather than ‘truly reforming the system.’ ‘The changes that we need to the system are so radical, they aren’t going to happen with a reformist agenda.’

Such discontent with politics as is is perhaps surprising from someone who is herself running for elected office. Even more surprising is her answer to the question “are you running to win?”:

‘A lot of the reason I’m running is awareness-raising. I do believe that a candidate standing on a platform that is so radically truth-telling and wanting to radically inject local democracy into the system can make a difference.’

Such a view, and the unselfconscious honesty that allows it to be voiced, harks back to Rachel’s blurring of activism and politics. For Rachel, a most ordinary person, standing for election is a form of activism just as much as throwing paint onto City Hall. The latter raises the alarm; the former empowers others to answer the call. 

So could it work?

A frequent point of reference for Rachel is flatpack democracy, a book and, more generally, a method of reinvigorating local democracy through grassroots measures born of the experiences of Independents for Frome (IfF). Frustrated by the ineffectiveness and infighting of their incumbent councillors, IfF, former from a small group of Frome residents, entered candidates to run in the 2011 local elections. 

Giving voice to people’s sense of disaffection, IfF swept ten seats in 2011, giving them a majority on the town council. They immediately replaced the bureaucratic and unworkable system that had burdened their town’s politics for so long, with open, community-focused forms of governance

IfF’s methods were vindicated when, in the 2015 elections, they won all 17 seats on the council.

Whether flatpack democracy would work in Bristol, a city with a population 20 times that of Frome, is questionable, and even members of the original IfF group are undecided on whether their ideas would scale up. 

Yet, in listening to Rachel and reading about IfF, one common thread that stands out is the importance of simply listening to people, not through consultations, or opinion polls, or focus groups, but through honest and open conversation. 

Political disaffection is nothing new. The nation witnessed its ferocious power in the Brexit referendum. But if a different politics could address that alienation, and remould it around something positive, it would surely be a politics worth listening to.

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