Speech to the US Conference of Mayors 86th AGM

This speech was given to over 300 Mayor’s present at the US Conference of Mayors 86th Annual General Meeting in Boston MA on the 11th of June 2018.

Fellow Mayors, distinguished guests. The movement of people has been a fact of human civilisation ever since there has been human civilisation, but the challenges and opportunities we face today are more complex and dynamic than they’ve ever been. EU member states received 1.2 million first-time asylum applications in 2015 – sparking a political and humanitarian crisis, the ramifications of which are still unfolding. It certainly contributed to the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU. But according to some estimates as many as 200 million people could be climate-change refugees by the middle of the century. If the EU struggles to control its borders when 1.2 million people move, what would happen if 200 million do?

The current configuration of nation state politics is directly and indirectly creating and compounding migration push factors such as inequality, climate change, tensions and political insecurity. It’s then failing to deal with the consequences in a way that recognises the equal worth of migrants or provides political stability. Of course individual political actors and parties play a role in this. Policy matters. But there is a deeper problem at work here in the inability of the nation state with its historic commitment to boundaries, control and defined identities to support the kind of political leadership capable of meeting the migration challenge in front of us.  Nation states may simply lack the tools to meet the challenge.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, both of our countries had powerful stories about who we were and what we were – that generated an extraordinary collective energy. But in the last few decades we’ve seen those simple narratives become increasingly brittle and fractured.

Despite having British blood that goes back centuries, there are no national conversations about identity and belonging that fail to leave me a little concerned. It seems increasingly clear to me that the national level alone is incapable of renewing a compelling vision of shared identity that is fit for purpose in the 21st century.

And of course when it’s a mess at the national level, the international level is just mess squared. Our interdependent world needs leaders with emotional intelligence, mutual understanding, multi-dimensional world views and empathy. Instead we get crassness and obstructionism better suited to the binary, zero sum world when the interests of discreet nation states could be pursued irrespective of the interests of others.

People have always moved around and they have always come together, forming and growing cities, for education, culture and employment, growing national economies. Cities are growing at a rapid rate again and that’s why people are looking to city leaders like us in a new way. It’s in cities we are better placed to bring difference together for the common good.

As for my own story I am product of migration. As the first directly elected European city Mayor of African descent with a family heritage that finds origins in England, Wales, Ireland and Jamaica, an American wife, Jamaican aunts, uncles and cousins, a Swiss brother-in-law and an Indian heritage sister-in-law, the dynamism of diversity is part of who I am too. The catagories we are required to fit into are too simplistic.

In Bristol my colleague Cllr Hibaq Jama is a former Somali refugee and was elected to sit alongside me as a city leader. My Deputy Mayor Asher Craig is – we are led to believe – Europe’s first Rastafarian Deputy Mayor. My other Deputy Mayor Craig Cheney comes from a white working class background. One of 13 children he experienced the extreme poverty on occasion eating his food from a bin. Today as my head of finance me overseas out £1bn budget. My Chief of Staff grew up on one of the poorest estates in Bristol. His family still live there. Together we lead, close to our city in the city’s interest: refugee, migrant, child of migrant and indigenous. We can do this at the city level.

It’s at the city level we can talk about identity as something that is multi-dimensional rather than the single dimensional approach nations take.  In Bristol, like other cities, we are developing a one city plan, bringing together city partners, business, volunteers, communities, universities and city institutions; to deliberately plan the future and set targets the whole city is pointed at – for an inclusive growing economy where nobody is left behind.

As city leaders, let’s bring our strength and our optimism to bear in reshaping the way politics works at the national and international level. We need global governance to move into its next iteration and that means the representatives of international networks of cities sitting alongside national actors in shaping the national and international context in which we live.

At this moment we find ourselves trying to lead a 21st century world with 20th century structures. People have always known this. That’s why nations banded together. They looked up and across to collaborate. They now need to look in to and across from their cities.

The political innovation migration needs will come from international collections of cities. We create new best practices. We have shown that. We now need the space to create the new internal politics. This won’t be a Big Bang but a collection’s of smaller impacts and agreed not merely between national governments but between empowered cities across national borders. Three weeks ago I was invited to speak at the negotiations on the Global Compact for Migration at the UN.  Surprisingly, until that point there had been no formal city input.

And yet, as I pointed out in my speech:

  • most migrants leave cities, go to cities and return to cities
  • roughly twenty per cent of migrants worldwide live in just 20 cities
  • over 70% of the draft Compact’s objectives can only be fully realised with the active participation of city authorities
  • and I would add cities can lead even where national governments are failing to deliver, or even opposing, the compact

Its authors know they need to make it real and that cities are critical to that. The challenge they face is how to harness the collective and legitimate voice of cities in support of the Compact’s aims, and that’s why they are so keen to come to the Global Parliament of Mayor’s Summit, held in my city of Bristol this October and they will continue their dialogue with us there.

I am involved in the Global Parliament of Mayors, we want that organisation to help bring together the different networks and put Mayors at the front of decision making.   Ensuring networks work for city leaders and not the other way round. Cities and city networks must get better organised, more coherent across the geographies and the many issues around which they gather. The prize of doing so is greater influence. The price of not doing so is diminishing returns from the many city meetings city leaders are asked to attend. If we don’t get our networks organised, we’ll be charged with having a confused voice on the issues that matter and key decision makers will move on without us.

If we don’t get organised, that which made us a success will be our downfall. We need to move into the next stage of city organisation to enable world governance to move into its next iteration: where networks of cities sit alongside national politicians as they shape national and international policy.

We need to work with interdependencies – name the big 6 networks we need working together. We need to get them to coordinate their diaries to ensure that we as mayors aren’t pulled in 15 different directions and our impact diluted.

The Global Compact for Migration is an exciting opportunity for cities to influence that will be before us at the Global Parliament of Mayors Summit in October, and there are others on other topics such as public health and security. But there’s an equally important challenge that we will also be taking on, about how we organise ourselves and those networks and how we collaborate well with all city partners.

In my city I’ve worked to develop an approach we call “Big offer, big ask”. We say to people, rather than coming and asking for things or demanding them, come and make your offer. Tell me what big thing do you want to get done for the city and then tell me what do you need from me and the city to enable you to do it.

In that spirit I make you all, an offer:

Bristol and many cities across the world will back you in the stands you’ve taken on issues such as migration and climate change.

I ask that you lead. We look to US cities as a source of political hope at this time.

This means understanding the role of US cities not only as nation shapers but global shapers.

Mayor’s and cities in the US lead the way as a source of leadership and accountability and we are campaigning to make the UK develop regional devolution on your model, passing on real powers to the people who live in the community, who look citizens in the eyes every day, and away from distant pillars of abstract decision making.

You are welcomed to Bristol in October and let’s amplify our voice together. Let’s work together to target the international bodies whom we want to have a formal cities presence.

This moment has found us: national governments not delivering, people disillusioned with politics, services failing, global economic, people and environmental trends beyond our control: leaving people vulnerable to being seduced by charlatans proffering the wrong answers to the right problems. We have no choice but to step up. So we have to get organised.

Power won’t come neatly wrapped in government parcels. It’s a social force and it’s got by organising. Conservative or liberal, republican or democratic – we can’t look around and think we’re making a good job of this planet.

We are interdependent. You fought to move from dependence to independence. Stephen Covey says the highest state is interdependence. I now ask you to fight for that. Thank you.

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