It’s an unseasonably warm September evening, and around 70 people are gathered in St Matthew’s Church in Kingston-upon-Hull. Amidst the dust sheets and barricade tape – the building is mid-renovation into a community hub by local housing cooperative Giroscope – attendees pile up their plates with pie and mash, free of charge, before sitting down and turning their attention to a woman holding a microphone.
“Raise your hand if you trust politicians,” says 30-year-old Gully Bujak, addressing the room from in front of the old sanctuary. One man uneasily lifts up his arm.
“One guy, thank you for being brave, […] I appreciate that,” she responds.
“Okay, raise your hand if you’re worried about the cost of living crisis.” Everyone raises their hands in unison.
In Britain in 2023, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Once a booming fishing port, Hull’s story over the last half-century is a familiar one: industrial decline, economic hardship, a disinterested council and low voter turnout. Crowned City of Culture in 2017, and now home to a major offshore wind manufacturing site, various initiatives have promised to turn its fortunes around. Yet it still has some of the most deprived suburbs in England – and has struggled to shake off the title of the UK’s “crappest town”.
Those leading this evening’s proceedings hope to have part of the answer to Hull’s woes. Bujak is a co-founder of Cooperation Hull, an organisation with the aim of nothing less than creating “a new civilisation” in the city – one that is “fit for the 21st century and the next seven generations”. Founded on the conviction that local people know best how to transform their own lives, Cooperation Hull’s starting point is with ‘people’s assemblies’, for which this ‘neighbourhood assembly’ in the postcode of HU3 is a test-run.
Most of Cooperation Hull’s organisers, however, aren’t actually from the area themselves. In fact, the majority are former climate activists who have moved to the city from other parts of the UK. But what does building a little utopia on the Humber estuary have to do with tackling climate breakdown? And do a bunch of washed-up Extinction Rebellion activists really have much to offer the people of Hull?
Saying no to doom.
For Bujak, the seed of the idea for Cooperation Hull came in late 2021 after three years of volunteering with XR full time. Like many other activists, Bujak’s approach in the early years of XR had been to “go really hard, sit in the road, get arrested as many times as [she] could,” she tells Novara Media. “There was a group of us that around the same time started to step back and be like, ‘This clearly isn’t working in the way we hoped it would’.”
One problem was that XR had hit a ceiling in terms of growing the movement, which they initially tried to address through mass-mobilisation drive Project 3.5 (Bujak now argues this was “too little too late”). Another was the theory of change: the idea that if they could just get enough people on the streets, or enough people arrested, the government would have to meet their demands and they would “solve the climate crisis”. Now, Bujak says, she can see that even in the unlikely event that political leaders did agree to full decarbonisation, “that wouldn’t be the transformative, massive-scale revolution we actually need”.
Whilst still supportive of XR and similar groups such as Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil, Bujak and others wanted to try something different. Rather than focusing on ‘just stopping’ the crisis (“we’re hurtling past 1.5C of global heating” and “I’ve accepted that we can’t just save everything,” she laments), they wanted an approach that faces up to this new reality, acknowledges that those in power aren’t coming to the rescue, and asks how we’re going to respond.
Felt in Britain not primarily as extreme weather events, but as crushed wages, soaring food and energy prices, rising social tensions and an increasingly authoritarian state, the climate crisis will no doubt prompt some to adopt an ‘every man for himself’ mentality. But for Bujak, the answer isn’t to bunker-down as individuals or in family units, but to grow our collective strength. It’s to build communities that can take care of themselves – whether that’s from the climate crisis, the cost of living crisis, or any other assault on ordinary people.
“I just feel like there’s an opportunity to create something better,” she insists. “Not just to survive, but actually do something better.”
In and against the council.
This wasn’t a totally new idea. Before Cooperation Hull, there was Cooperation Jackson.
Founded in 2014, Cooperation Jackson grew out of the Jackson-Kush Plan, developed by Black organisers in the US to transform Jackson, Mississippi from the bottom up and empower its poor, Black and Latino residents. The plan – which was explicitly anti-capitalist and eco-socialist – had three main planks: to build worker cooperatives and supporting institutions (a “solidarity economy”) to meet people’s material needs; to build people’s assemblies to direct decision-making; and to build an independent Black political party (with candidates drawn from assemblies’ ranks) through which to engage with the state.
“The thing that inspired us about what they tried to do was that they were taking a much more holistic approach,” Bujak explains. “Not change one thing – not just target power, or organise outside of power – but do it all at once.”
Drawing on the learnings of Cooperation Jackson and other experiments elsewhere (from Porto Alegre in Brazil to Rojava in north-east Syria), plans began to take shape for a network of communities nationwide under the banner of Cooperation UK. Its vision is based around five “pillars” which cover the different areas of work needed to ensure any new society “serves people’s needs whilst protecting our planet for future generation”: democracy (being led by people’s assemblies), economy (setting up cooperatives), ecology (embedding a new relationship with nature in all they do), education (a community education programme), and action (using the tools of civil disobedience when they need to). They decided to start in Hull.
This wasn’t a random choice. First, Hull has both high levels of deprivation and high risk of flooding, and so its communities need to be resilient. Second, the group’s founders already had good connections with organisers in the city, such as Adam Hawley – a part-time teacher with years of experience building local democracy in Hull, who the group had met through an earlier initiative. Third, there are already a number of flourishing community projects in Hull, from Giroscope, to tool-sharing initiative the Library of Stuff, to the Hull Delivery Coop, which Cooperation Hull hopes to connect, strengthen and make part of a coherent strategy.
And so in April 2023, the first four of the group joined Hawley up in Hull. More followed over the summer, and now nine of them live across two houses in two different parts of the city. Working part time to support themselves – rent is cheap enough in Hull for many to just work a couple of days a week while living communally – the rest of their time has been dedicated to getting Cooperation Hull off the ground.
For now, the climate crisis is very much taking a back seat. Rather, the group’s initial focus has been on building relationships, and empowering people to understand that – as Hawley puts it – “they can just do lots of the things that will make their lives much better, materially and otherwise”. So far, they’ve been having hundreds of conversations, on doorsteps and at street stalls. Ahead of a citywide people’s assembly in spring 2024 – the first of its kind in the UK – they’ve also been running ‘neighbourhood assemblies’ across Hull to find out what matters most to local people.
In HU3, a postcode with a significant amount of deprivation, there’s a lot of agreement about what these issues are. Job losses, child poverty, fighting and littering are high on the list. So too is Hull’s postcode lottery when it comes to education, healthcare and social services. There’s also a lot of agreement over who’s at fault – politicians who only look out for themselves, regardless of party, and a council that’s “failed to do what it’s supposed to do”, as one local claimed – along with a powerful sense of both local pride and class consciousness.
But people’s politics in HU3 – like people’s politics anywhere, or within any of us individually – aren’t always coherent. Conspiracy theories, such as that of 15-minute cities, are never far from the surface. Neither are so-called ‘culture war’ issues like that of trans rights – all raising questions as to what promising calls for a ‘revolution’ actually mean.
The biggest hill to climb, however, is on the issue of immigration. In recent decades, new waves of immigration to Hull, managed “without a great deal of thought, especially at a time when services for everybody are really stretched,” says Hawley, have led to more and more people to fall prey to dominant political rhetoric and misplace blame for their misfortunes.
This wasn’t something Bujak felt prepared for. “The first few conversations I had doing outreach were a bit of a wake-up call,” she confesses. “I knew intellectually [that anti-migrant sentiment was widespread in Hull], but there’s a difference between knowing it and […] living in a place where that’s a real issue.”
This presents a challenge for Cooperation Hull. What if – in the worst case scenario – a high proportion of people think the best way to “transform their own lives” is to chuck out immigrants? On the one hand, people’s assemblies need to be open to everyone, including those with reactionary or conspiratorial views (“All those who think Jeremy Corbyn was a commie spy, or whatever – I want them in the people’s assembly,” says Bujak). On the other, they don’t want racism or prejudice of any sort to get a hearing.
For Hawley, this problem speaks to a wider tension: that between their “five pillars”, or indeed any underpinning ideology, and “wanting the people’s assembly to be the source of action”. He describes a spectrum between “Kofi Annan politics” (flying in all the ‘experts’ and doing ‘a thing’ for the people), and an approach where you take “a room full of […] people who disagree on all sorts of things and [expect them to] come up with a coherent political strategy”. Cooperation Hull sits somewhere in the middle of the two – and that tension is just one they have to get comfortable with, he argues.
The task at hand, then, is to earn people’s trust – both in terms of the group’s intentions and in the effectiveness of their plan.
On the former, Bujak and Hawley feel they’re on the right track. So far, they haven’t been rejected as outsiders – “I think because […] people can see that we’re genuine, that we’re committed,” says Bujak.
Cutting through the cynicism could be more difficult. “People are really sceptical at the moment that change is possible,” she explains. “I think our big challenge is going to be proving – quite soon – that we can do this process, for people to see and feel the results individually and in their communities […]. So they’ll come with us.”
In the neighbourhood assembly in HU3, small-group discussions are drawing to a close.
In one group, that cynicism has found its voice. “I made the decision a long time ago that if I want something, I’m going to get it myself,” says Govind, who’s lived in Hull for 23 years. “I’m not gonna rely on anybody. Nobody’s gonna help me.”
In another, it’s a different story. People reel off the ways that they and their neighbours have supported each other in the past – breakfast clubs, after-school clubs, showing solidarity with Black Lives Matter or Pride, or just helping their neighbours down the street – and chat about how they can do this better in the future.
“That’s why I came today,” says local resident Christine. “Because this is the first step.”
Cooperation Hull’s founders don’t claim to have all the answers. But they’re pushing themselves, and the orthodoxies of the wider movement, by embracing discomfort and uncertainty.
“I think when I was in XR, I was scared all the time, in so many different ways,” says Bujak. “I was doing things that were scary, and I was really scared of failing – and of climate change.”
“But now, I’m challenged to think differently, to see people differently, to have my preconceived judgments turned on their head. Now, I don’t feel scared.”
ZNetwork is funded solely through the generosity of its readers.Donate