The first three hopefuls to run as independents in a movement calling for a “people’s majority” to cast out party politics in Birmingham’s council elections in May have been chosen.
People Power Brum wants to field a candidate in every one of the city’s 101 wards, promising to “return power to the people” by giving voters more say in the consequential decisions made by elected officials.
Its founder, Sunny Sangha, told HuffPost UK its councillors would use apps and citizens’ assembly meetings to give voters more control over what their councillors do in a model called liquid democracy.
At a public meeting in Birmingham’s Impact Hub on Monday night, the audience voted in favour of all three proposed candidates, who spoke about their connection to the community, their skills and experience and their vision for the UK’s second biggest city.
Shardia Briscoe-Palmer, 29, candidate for Newtown
“Going into a ballot box and ticking a piece of paper – that’s not politics, that’s just a formulation,” says Briscoe-Palmer, who comes from Newton ward near central Birmingham. “It’s time for change, it’s time for an update.”
“The recent elections in the last couple of years once again shone a light on how unreliable and how distasteful politics has become,” she told the meeting. “It’s more direct and visual now, and more in your face.”
The ward she wants to represent is near the city centre which has transformed rapidly with the creation of high-end shops and luxury retail buildings. “The recent developments and expansion are great for business, but the people that live there can no longer enjoy that town centre any more. It’s very expensive, it’s more of a tourist stop.
“Young people have to look at what’s been happening in Birmingham town centre – shopping centres that they can’t afford to shop in, but they can see them from their bedroom window.
“What I think that’s done is created a distance. If you live in Newtown you can walk to town, but it’s no longer your local area. It’s that type of conversation that I would like to be a representative of.”
Briscoe-Palmer is also concerned about the employment implications for local young people. “Whereas your first job at 16 could have been in Birmingham town centre, now the type of shops that are there don’t necessarily want to employ somebody who comes from the ward of Newtown. Your postcode no longer fits.”
The 29-year-old, who is a student at the University of Birmingham and also works for human rights organisation, the Gender Empowerment Movement, said diversity would be a key focus for her if she was elected to be a councillor.
“It’s about getting all those different voices heard… That can be done through creating a safe space for different languages, different creeds and different belief systems – different visions of betterness for Birmingham.”
She praised “politics with a small p” and local community activism, which she felt was the “root and the cause of politics”.
“People do care about politics, but you’re not giving them anything to care about,” she said. “You’re not giving them a platform to show what it is they care about.”
She said she had no issue with taking the ‘People’s pledge’ for People Power Brum, which means promising to consult with residents and follow their wishes if she was elected to the council. “Being that vessel to pass on and put forth the message is not a problem for me. It’s not what I think, it’s what the people I’m representing want me to bring forward.”
Gino Bellavia, 55, candidate for North Edgbaston
“I’ve only just realised, now that I’m semi retired, that I’m quite entrepreneurial,” Gino Bellavia told the meeting. “By that I mean I like to make change. I don’t accept walls, I break them or go around them.”
An ex-Labour Party member who is disillusioned with party politics, he has had a varied career, working in IT, education, research, sales, archeology and policy engagement. “I’m not a person who stays in one place for very long, hence the CV is very magpie, but I do like to leave a legacy.”
Bellavia has lived in Birmingham for 30 years and in North Edgbaston, the ward he will now stand to represent as an independent, for 17 years. It’s a new ward, thanks to boundary changes in the city, he told the meeting. “There are no incumbents. So actually we’ve got a fresh blank sheet of paper. If we’ve got an opportunity to get someone in place, this is a ward where that’s possible.”
He said he was inspired to apply to be a councillor after representing himself at an employment tribunal. “That experience – standing up for what I thought was right – has made me stronger, despite for a long period making me ill. So I’m now known as someone who’s not afraid to stand up.”
He now works part time at a digital business and walks dogs. “It means I met a lot of different people – a cross section of society. That’s the amazing thing about dog walkers.”
Bellavia is on his area’s independent police advisory group, including on a stop and search panel. “We look at stop and search records every quarter, take a random sample and basically tell the police if we think that they were fair reasons to stop and search people.” He’s also on a planning consultation group and is a residents’ leader for his street.
He joined Labour after Jeremy Corbyn became leader, “because I wanted to get involved and be active. The movement that that started felt good because there was a lot of grassroot movement”.
He’s since left the party, because of what he saw as entrenched tribalism. “People would come up to you and say are you a Corbynite or are you a Blairite? I’m neither.
“The other thing was the games, the politics with a Big P that were going on. I actually applied to be a Labour councillor but then withdrew because I realised it was not transparent. [Candidate selection] had already been decided way in advance of people making applications. As soon as I sensed the smell of that BS, I just had to walk away.”
But he felt his Labour experience would be useful as an independent candidate: “I have been involved in campaigning, so I do know what it’s like to knock on doors and talk to people.”
Asaybi Snape, 26, candidate for Aston
Snape grew up in Aston, a relatively deprived ward in the centre of Birmingham. She has also founded a human rights organisation called Gender Empowerment Movement or GEMs that aims to engage more young people in politics.
“The motivation for the organisation actually came from the area of Aston where I grew up,” she said. “It’s very heavily gang-affiliated, with loads of issues around domestic abuse, loads of ex-offenders being rehoused there, lots of crime and a lack of resources for young people.”
“So growing up I was really frustrated with that. I would go and meet Claire Short who was the MP at the time, and moan at her in her surgeries to make things better.”
She initially wanted to be a barrister and studied law, “so that I could learn what I needed to learn to go back and help the people in my community. But I realised that to be a barrister it means that people need to be able to pay you and have the resources for that help, but the people in my community don’t have the access to those kinds of funds or legal aid.”
So she decided to study a masters in human rights and became a youth consultant and activist. She lobbies members of government, especially the office of the children’s commissioner, helping to influence policy on young people. “Kind of just knocking on their door and irritating them.”
Snape has started a national campaign calling for human rights and British politics lessons to be compulsory in schools. “I know it’s something that can be taught in PSHE but it’s not compulsory. At the moment I have completed 300 questionnaires with a school in Birmingham. Only two of those young people said they don’t want to learn about it in school.”
Asked how to engage young people in politics, she said: “I don’t think they aren’t interested, I think they are interested but we’re not reaching out to them.”
“I want to put people’s voices, specifically young people’s voices, at the forefront of decisions. I want to engage with vulnerable groups: that’s ethnic minorities, immigrants, young people, the groups that are not usually represented.“I think I’d be a great people’s councillor because I am genuinely a people’s person,” she told the meeting. “My destiny is to help people, and I’ve been doing that for a very long time for free. I’ve not been paid, because it’s not about the money, it’s about the change that I can make long term.”