Bicycles and Brexit: The people and issues behind alternative political groups in Nottingham

As the May local election campaign has shown, Nottingham is a city bursting with political ideas – and not just inside the major parties. From Brexit pressure groups to those pushing for a cycling-friendly city, Lucy Pegg meets the politicians and campaigners behind alternative political groups.

With a city council that has been run by Labour for more than 20 years, and for the majority of the time with a grip of red iron, you might not expect Nottingham to be home to a thriving and unpredictable political melting pot.

But it’s an area awash with campaigns, pressure groups and political parties that fall outside the mainstream – from revolutionary communists, cycling activists and animal rights supporters to independent councillors and both sides of the Brexit debate.

Motivated by a stated desire to shake up the establishment, serve their communities and improve democracy, people are turning to ideals and movements which sit firmly outside of Red, Blue or Yellow.

Independent politicians are rare in national British politics – but Francesco Lari is the leader of the Nottingham Independents, one of Nottinghamshire’s three elected independent groups of councillors.

Winning three seats in Clifton from Labour at the local election in May – making the party the unlikely official opposition on the city council – rather than the Conservatives – Mr Lari says he wants to “improve the quality of life” in members’ wards.

“They [Labour] took for granted that they would be elected – we decided to challenge it and attract some competition,” the computer programmer explains.

Rather than a disadvantage, he believes the group’s distance from established parties is a selling point.

“Contrary to what can be thought, connection to national parties at a local level it is not a positive thing. You are bound to be very involved in national politics and that’s not good for a neighbourhood and community, there’s a lot of time spent on internal squabbles,” he says, explaining Independent councillors are discouraged from using their time to tackle countrywide problems.

They believe their approach means they attract members from across the political spectrum – left or right, leavers or remainers, along with former Labour, Conservative and UKIP supporters.

Francesco Lari.

Mr Lari has a political past that may raise questions for some, but he claims this hasn’t pushed voters away. Though he was the former chairman of UKIP in Nottingham, he says the Independents are “very localised, very different from UKIP”.

He said: “I left UKIP because I didn’t like where they were going.”

He also defends his time as a councillor for Lega Nord, in his home country. The organisation is an Italian party that has been described by some as part of the far right.

“At the time [I was involved] they had quite different politics,” he said.

“They believed that the infiltration into politics of organised crime in the north could only be solved by a split in the north.”

Back in Clifton, the Nottingham Independents are involved in community clean-ups and feeding the homeless.

“It’s difficult and hard work, but I love the fact that we are not tied to a party”

It’s not all local issues for local activists though.

Two groups are taking on one of the biggest and most divisive problems facing the country – Brexit.

Nottingham People’s Vote wants a second vote on “whatever the Brexit deal looks like” because they claim the promises of the 2016 referendum cannot be delivered.

“We are saying that whether you voted leave or remain we should have a say in what Brexit looks like,” said Susan Martin, who founded the city’s anti-Brexit group last summer and anticipates that the government will propose a ‘hard’ or ‘no deal’ Brexit.

“We are saying, let the people decide and choose either a no deal or remain and reform.”

She adds: “It’s choosing between two types of change really.”

Susan Martin.

Though Nottingham and Nottinghamshire voted to leave the EU overall and the East Midlands elected three Brexit MEPs at the recent European elections, Susan denies that her group is out of step with the region.

“Overall, area by area, although the Brexit party won more seats, the remain parties won the overall greater share of the votes,” says Susan, who is self-employed.

“The East Midlands is moving in to being a remain region.”

Having increased the turn-out of the remain vote the Nottingham campaign is hailing itself a success and says it is regularly thanked by members of the public for what they do.

Members insist that positivity more than outweighs abuse some have faced.

Susan said: “We have had people being rude to us, to begin with it was quite frightening but now we are used to it.

“I have only once felt close to being threatened which is okay over nine or ten months.”

Just like the Nottingham Independents, Susan – who lives in West Bridgford – cherishes the campaign’s freedom from established political parties.

Having left both Labour and the Lib Dems citing their approaches to Brexit, she says being free of party politics is “really exhilarating”.

She explains: “I’m an ordinary person talking to people in the streets about what happens.

“Its difficult and hard work, but I love the fact that we are not tied.

“I can’t see me not being an activist,” Susan adds.

“It really has been quite an amazing revelation how much groundswell of support there has been.”

But Susan’s enthusiasm for the People’s Vote campaign is matched by Joanne Homer’s confidence in the local pro-Brexit campaign.

Having previously been involved with the Vote Leave and Leave Means Leave campaigns, Joanne is now passionate about Nigel Farage’s new venture, the Brexit Party.

“Since the Brexit Party’s rise people have become very excited about what the party is going to offer,” says the 48-year-old landlord.

“We want to leave the EU and become a sovereign independent nation again as we voted for in the referendum.”

Joanne Homer.

Though their manifesto is yet to be launched, Joanne enthuses about potential policies that will go beyond the EU – from House of Lords reform, ditching ‘first past the post’ voting and reconsidering the BBC’s licence fee.

She is also insistent that the party is not the hot bed of hate speech and intolerance some see it as.

Commenting on Farage’s infamous “breaking point” poster – which was compared by some to Nazi propaganda imagery – Joanne insists that it was not racist.

She said: “When he put that poster up immigration was a big issue and we were told that they were fleeing war, but actually they were economic migrants.

“Perhaps the poster was not the best idea but I swear on my kids lives that Nigel Farage did not do that out of racism.”

Farage’s divisive views certainly haven’t dimmed support in Nottinghamshire, with Joanne claiming people are keen to get involved with the campaign, precisely because it isn’t one of the mainstream parties.

“Usually there’s a core of eight people but there’s been so many people turning up who have never ever campaigned or been involved in parties and this is something which other people haven’t got.”

And if we get a general election?

Joanne said: “I can’t be more confident that we would win.”

Not every campaign is wading into elections and constitutional crises though.

“Pedals campaigns for a city where everyone has the freedom to ride a bike – that’s the elevator pitch,” said Matt Turner, chair of the Pedals cycling campaign.

The 33-year-old heads the Nottingham pressure group, which works to transform the city into a haven for those on two wheels.

Matt Turner.

He said: “The bike is a tool that we can use to make our cities more liveable places”

Matt, along with other volunteers and supporters, wants Nottingham to be a place where cycling is a viable option for everyone, not just “the older, the fitter and the braver.”

Celebrating its 40th birthday this year, the organisation has a strong track record too, from publishing the first cycle maps for Nottingham in the 1980s to a current protest against barriers installed on bike routes by Rushcliffe Borough Council, which they say block out disabled and older cyclists.

But Matt says their biggest recent success is the new cycle lane along Western Boulevard, where they have turned road space used to park cars into a safe route to the city centre.

“You can now travel into the city centre by bike without interacting with motor traffic, it’s freeing and liberating, it’s relaxing.”

It was the area’s cycle routes that encouraged Matt, who lives in Lenton Abbey, to move to Nottingham after he had been travelling.

“We looked around all the cities in the UK and we came to Nottingham and we rode out to Beeston and we were shocked.

“And when we looked into how these things were paid for we discovered the workplace parking levy,” he says, referring to Nottingham City Council’s scheme which tackles congestion by charging employers who provide car parking, raising funds to improve public transport and bike facilities.

“They are making decisions that allow them to raise money locally and spend money on positive things for the city,” enthuses Matt.

But though Pedals’ work may seem less controversial than the work done by other groups, it isn’t hugely popular with the public.

Matt explains: “There are very few people who see travelling by bike as an option for them.

“They think that we are saying that they need to make all of their journeys by bike – we are just giving everyone the possibility and the opportunity to go places by bike.”

But he isn’t perturbed – for Matt cycling isn’t just a handy transport option, it’s the catalyst for better urban life.

He said: “When our streets have been redesigned to accommodate the high volume of traffic it drives everything out from the city.

“It means that the life which used to be in those streets is pushed away – children can’t play outside their houses, their parents don’t form relationships with their neighbours.

“Cycling also helps the problems we have where people are increasingly overweight and increasingly sedentary,” he explains.

Whether it’s bikes or Brexit, the popularity of groups outside mainstream politics puts Nottingham in the midst of a worldwide trend.

Matt Henn, Professor of Social Research in the Division of Politics and International Relations, Nottingham Trent University, says the thriving alternative scene in Nottingham is part of a global turn towards the fringes.

“It is not just a British thing, there is similar support across Europe, as far as the States and in some areas like Australia as well,” he said.

“People feel as if national governments of the mainstream are unable to manage effectively the really big crisis problems of today.”

According to Matt – who is an expert on political campaigning and young people’s engagement in politics – people can believe that there are “straightforward” solutions to big problems, whether that’s leaving the EU or climate change.

He adds: “That simple populist rhetoric connects with people who are just completely mystified by things.

“Alternative groups offer big solutions to big challenges in a way which doesn’t seem to conform with mainstream mediocrity by the big parties.”

In an era when claims of voter apathy and disengagement can seem inescapable, the flourishing of some alternative groups poses new questions about the future of British politics. It could also serve as a simple warning that mainstream politicians can never take past success for granted.

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