Behind the scenes at the Catalan National Assembly

The ANC is without doubt the heart of the Catalan independence movement. I believe we need a similar organisation in Scotland. A non political, well organised, funded, staffed and supported core organisation.

Cycling down past the Sagrada Familia, towards the coast line that skirts Barcelona, through the thinning late morning traffic, is a wonderful way to head home after a meeting. However, the trip was also slightly dangerous as my head buzzed with amazement at just how incredible successful the Assemblea Nacional Catalana had been in forcing (or at least facilitating) the push for Catalan Independence.

The ANC is a civic society that brings together people from all parts of Catalan society. The ANC has one aim: to win, peacefully and democratically, Catalan independence.

My hour long meeting with the ANC had been with the Head of Press on what was a beautiful April afternoon. Their office on Carrer Marina sits on the edge of one of the hills that guard Barcelona. My decision to take the bus, rather than jump on the BiCi (the city’s almost free bike hire scheme), seemed ever the wiser as we gradually snaked higher and higher into the hills.

Living in Barcelona you will find the ANC hard to miss, especially during the build up to their massive million people plus strong “La Diada de Cataluña” demonstrations, which take place every 11th September. Of course I’ve attended a few of them and I’d even bought a demo t-shirt or two.

the diada event 2013
Now is the time

As I put together a live engagement strategy for the Yes Campaign, I can clearly learn a lot from the ANC’s approach to events.  However, I also believe the entire Independence movement in Scotland has a lot to learn from, what is, a similar struggle here in Catalonia. The ANC is without doubt the heart of the Catalan independence movement. I believe we need a similar organisation in Scotland.

Behind the scenes at the Catalan National Assembly

The ANC is like a Yes Scotland that didn’t dissolve. Strikingly the ANC was formed in March 2012, just two months before Yes Scotland; one organisation grew to greatness and one disappeared.

In order to for the wider Yes movement to learn from the ANC, I’d like to initially compare it to the organisation set to lead the grass roots (non political party affiliated) independence movement in Scotland: the Scottish Independence Convention.

I hear that things are a foot with the SIC. This is great news, as for many within the movement, the SIC is a mysterious, celebrity led group, existing only (if you don’t scroll past page one on Google) on Facebook. However, the SIC does release the odd press release and organise the odd event like the “Build” conference.

I assume the revamp of SIC is on hold until after the June General Election and this will hopefully give those at SIC an opportunity to pause to reflect on the meaning of a “grass roots” movement and to learn from their daring Catalan brothers and sisters at the ANC.

The Catalan National Assembly inside the building

As the ANC has been in operation for almost five years it wouldn’t be fair to directly compare it to the SIC; to do that would be to place Queen of The South on the same field as Barcelona: the ANC and SIC are simply in different leagues. Hopefully after the revamp a comparison may look less awkward.

Behind the scenes at the Catalan National Assembly
The Press Room at ANC Head Quarters

The key facts on the ANC:

  • 584 local assemblies
  • 38 foreign assemblies
  • 52 social and professional interest-based assemblies
  • The national secretariat consists of 77 elected members who sit on various committees. Heads of committees meet weekly.
  • The group is “non political” and has no official relationship with any political party.
  • It is entirely funded by its members: 38,000 “full time” members and over 40,000 “associate members”
  • They have offices in Barcelona, with ten full time staff.

Impressive for an organisation less than five years old, and this shows the scope of what is possible for a grass roots movement pushing for Independence.

So what of Scotland and its grass roots organisation? Who should lead and what should that movement look like?

Well, as far as I can see no one is asking “the movement” who should lead. So I tried to start the ball rolling. Although hardly the biggest sample (Twitter poll below) it seems to me that our movement is saying only one thing clearly: we want / need a grass roots organisation. It is less clear which organisation should lead, or how that organisation should be structured.

#scotref events

From June onwards everyone within the movement, not just a select few, should be involved in helping to create and structure the organisation that will lead the #ScotRef movement. If that body is grass roots in name, it has to be grass roots in deed.

 

Searching for ScotRefEvents

Let’s start with this scenario. I am a possible “Yes” supporter. I voted “No” in 2014 but my faith in the Union has wavered. I still have my doubts, but I am willing to engage to find out more. I would like to go to a few events to find out some more information. I’d like a list of upcoming events, that would be helpful. So, where do I start?

Google generic search

If searching for ScotRefEvents I would surely start with a Google search:  “Independence events in scotland 2017″ would seem like a reasonable search term. However, no list of relevent events is to be found. Links to the fantastic Independence Live and the equally magnificent Woman for Independence appear. Following the link to Independence Live’s Facebook page ends here:

A dead end in the search for upcoming events

The Woman for Independence link does show THEIR upcoming events, but of course this is far from a definitive list of events for the movement.

You won’t land in the right place with a general search term, so you have to get pretty specific to find an event on Google, and even when you do, you may not land on a live event.  A search on “events about a Scottish currency 2017” lead to an Eventbrite (more on Eventbrite below) page for an event that took place in Galashiels in March. Close, but no cigar.

So, here we are, no nearer to finding any future events (apart from the Woman for Indy: “Knit Your Own Pussy Hat”) To be honest, we can’t be too surprised at not finding individual events. The Search Engine Optimisation needed to drop a local event onto the first page of Google is beyond the reach of most indy groups, and paid for adverts on Google are a non starter.

As I noted above, we did find an event on Eventbrite, via our Google Search, so let’s look at that platform in detail.

Eventbrite

Eventbrite is the Facebook and Google for Events. It is effectively a micro search engine for events, or as Eventbrite calls them now, “experiences”.

Running your event on the platform that sits behind the world’s most popular search engine for events will increase the number of people who find it. Not only are people able to find your event directly via the platform, but your event is likely to rank higher with Google if it is on the Eventbrite platform. So, let’s take a look.

I used the search above and found the following events:

As you can see, it wasn’t long before Eventbrite suggested the totally irrelevant (second recommendation is way off!) but at least I found one live event that would, in our scenario, be of interest to that possible “Yes” voter, the CommonWeal event. But that’s it. One event.

So at this stage, I think it’s fair to ask the following question: As a movement are our events easy enough to find? Well, not so far,  so let’s have a look at finding our events via Twitter?

Twitter hashtag

Most people use hashtags to find specific areas / things of interest on Twitter. The most obvious #tag would be #ScotRefEvents but that leads to “no results”. Searching on “#ScotRef” leads to thousands of tweets. Using the search function for “scottish independence events” again leads us nowhere.

Unless you are following a specific Yes leaning organisation (and in our scenario this isn’t that likely), you aren’t going to see anything about their events. There is of course some chance of finding out about an event as people retweet information. But we can’t rely on that as a way for people to find our events. Twitter, at the moment, seems like another dead end. So let’s have a look at the most popular social network: Facebook.

Facebook

Last year Facebook really beefed up their events offering with EventMangerBlog suggesting that “Facebook Will Change Events Forever”, it is a platform that event organisers can’t ignore. For many of the grass roots events, Facebook is THE destination page for their events. So, surely, it should be easy for our No voter to find our events. But no, it’s the same old story:

ScotRefEvents
Dead End here as well.

I used two different search functions. The generic one and the event specific one. Searching on “Scotref Events” did, finally, return a live independence event! The GNW Scotref launch. I am sure this is a great event! But after such a long drawn out search our No voter would probably be too tired to attend.

So, searching via Google, Twitter, Eventbrite and Facebook our potential Yes voter found TWO future events. That’s it. TWO EVENTS. I know we can do better than that. There’s little point putting on an event if no one knows about it.

It is crucial that we engage as much as possible with those who seek information and engagement in a live environment.

For our movement we can’t do the field of dreams: “build it and they will come”, we have to think about how people find our events and we have to do all we can to help them find them. 

If you are interested in contributing to my work on a live engagement strategy for the YES movement please get in touch.

ScotRef Social Mobilisation

The number of people taking part in demonstrations matter. Social mobilisation is a crucial means to an end. 

It seems to be all the rage at the moment to compare Barcelona to Glasgow. So I thought I’d continue that trend, and add my thoughts about social mobilisation in Catalonia and Scotland. To do this I’ve looked at a two events held in Barcelona last month. By looking at these events I will hopefully demonstrate my concern for the forthcoming second independence referendum in Scotland. I will set that thought out here: our events will have little impact if the current trend of low numbers continues.

First up is a Monday morning demonstration that was held outside the Higher Court of Justice in Barcelona. Artur Mas, the ex President of Catalonia was on trial for supporting a symbolic vote on Independence for Catalonia. Yes, you read that correctly, on trail for organising a referendum. You can probably start to see some potentially scary similarities. Here’s the details from Señor Mas:

“More than 50,000 people from around the country, many having got up very early, have come out on a Monday morning. The people always teach us a lesson: unity and social mobilisation.” 

Yup, there really was 50,000 outside the court on a Monday morning.  This wasn’t any kind of anomaly. Catalans demonstrate regularly and often bring tens of thousands on to the streets.

A week or so later an estimated 160,000 took to the streets on a Saturday evening to demonstrate against Spain’s intransigence with refugees.

Catalan politicians know that social mobilisation is important and so do Catalans:

“Puigdemont (current Catalan President) calls for social mobilisation before the referendum”

I wonder if Scottish politicians and the YES movement have realised that numbers really matter. And if so what they plan to do about it?

The Divisive Scottish Referendum

Once again a monumental display of democracy will be tarred with the brush of being divisive.

It’s easy to drag up any old anecdote to bring a poorly founded argument to life. The neighbours no longer sharing a doorstep and a coffee. The brothers now drinking at different pubs. The 11 aside football team; now split and playing 5s. That referendum it was so divisive. The debate on a second referendum in the Scottish Parliament has been high on anecdote but low on facts.

When anyone plays this anecdote game, it’s just as easy to “prove” the exact opposite: neighbours, brothers and pals reunited, cry the other side with equal vigour. So to analyse the real outcome of 2014 and to put to bed the false claim of division, we must look at the impact it had on the most powerful of indicators: the social capital created directly from the campaign.

So I thought I’d call Robert D. Putnam as a witness. America’s leading political scientist, via his enlightening books Bowling Alone and Our Kids, should be able to shed some light on the “divisive” nature of political discourse.

Social capital is a form of economic and cultural capital in which social networks are central, transactions are marked by reciprocity, trust, and cooperation. It is generally perceived that a society which is high in social capital is lower in many of the ills of society. High social capital reduces poverty, illness and crime. It removes dishonesty, greed and deceit. In fact it does so much more. Perhaps the best way to describe it, is to search for a word that would sum up a society which is low in social capital. That word would be “divisive”

The “divisive Scottish referendum” campaign provided an exceptionally strong burst of social capital within Scotland. The following four examples score very highly on the social capital index:

High voter turnout – especially the youth vote

The turnout for the 2014 independence referendum was the largest democratic vote in modern political times in the UK; breaking a generational trend of voter apathy. Voter turnout is one of the key factors sociologists look at when judging the community engagement within a society.

It was the first time that the youngest adults in our society had the opportunity to engage in the ultimate act of democracy. Voters under the age of twenty had previously been the most difficult to engage. Social capital generated by the young can have a much longer impact on a society.

Birth of organisations

The campaign gave birth to scores of organisations including, to name but a few; Common Weal, Woman for Independence, Independence Live, RIC and Business for Scotland. Robert D. Putnam speaks of similar groups in the US as “a useful barometer of community involvement” and “one facet of social capital” These types of organisations are rich in social capital. The  social capital they create extend into the wider society.

New media outlets

During, and in a few months after the first independence vote, new media outlets, including a daily newspaper The National were born. New media gave birth to Wings Over Scotland, Common Space and Bella Caledonia. These outlets created a new way of reporting, engaging with, and making news. In giving a community a voice they greatly increase social capital.

Crowd Funding

Crowd funding is an internet based source of community funding and is one of the highest scoring ways to increase a society’s social capital. Almost all of the groups mentioned above, and many, many more have brought people together to support a common cause, and as a by product have increased the social capital in Scotland.

“Divisive, divisive, divisive” is already the calling card of the lazy hack and the politician set on division. That claim should be as easy to dismiss as it is to disprove. As every sociologist  or political scientist will tell you: no matter the result of the next referendum Scotland, through an explosion of social capital, will be richer for it.

#scotref events

Event organisers have to be quick off the mark. Less than 24hours after the First Minister’s announcement of a second independence referendum, news of YES and NO events filled twitter. And not everyone was happy with the initial #scotref events!

By lunchtime fellow CommonSpace contributor @mrmcenaney had seen enough. Can it be that we have event fatigue already? Well, not if we look at the 3K+ who have signed up to a “March for Independence” on the 3rd of June hosted by All Under One Banner.

To find out more about this planned event, and the reaction to it, I followed an STV thread which announced the event. And there I found the most interesting, event related comments of the day. A good old clearing the air took place as our movement started to question our live engagement strategy. @derekbateman2 suggesting that marches have had their time! (By the way, he’s wrong. It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it)

As an event organiser who has set himself the challenge of coordinating a live engagement strategy for the YES campaign, these comments are exceptionally useful and also encouraging. Because, you may remember we ran 1000s of YES events and WE LOST. So, here’s how  I view the future (and the past) put succinctly by @douglasdaniel:

So that’s what we are up to. Running and planning events right out of the block.  But the speed of an organiser should not be how you measure their success.

@scotlandinunion ran an event, which must have been hastily (and therefore quite impressively) put together before the FM’s hat had even hit the ground.  However, @davidtorrance wasn’t that impressed.

I noticed David in the audience at SIC’s Build conference in January and it would be interesting to know what he thought of that event. There was certainly less Tweed, but the age of the audience and the muddiness of the discussion were similar. So, let’s not judge a campaign by a single event. Or we are all doomed!

However, following DT’s tip, I was keen to check out the “opposition” via their Twitter feed. It looked pretty professional, although rather corporate. And I loved the giveaway earplugs! “Scotland Spoke, why won’t the politicians listen” the packaging said: nice. However, the event was entitled “Project Listen”. So that was confusing.  But one thing struck home: the NO events will not be lacking in cash.

To this organiser, the pictures above did say a thousand words. I wonder what they say to you? David picked up on the fashion (not surprisingly), the age of the audience and the lack of clarity in the arguments. We can but hope that these weaknesses in the NO camp continue throughout the campaign, but I picked up on something different.

This NO event was about “listening”: it was about YOU listening, about being telt what to do and what to think. It was an old school event. And without doubt it will be a template followed by the NO campaign. We should avoid this template at all costs.

Our events have to be very different from their events and our events in 2014. The YES campaign must have participants and not an audience. Our events have to engage and empower, and they have to at least hint at the Scotland that we envisage. Events can do all these things, and quite easily.

If our movement embraces a new way of running every type of event, our events can, this time, really make the difference.

If you are interested in contributing to my work on a live engagement strategy for the YES movement please get in touch.

Behind the scenes at Independence Live

From initially broadcasting other independence events, to creating their own, Independence Live cement their important place within the movement.

There’s little glamour at IndyLive headquarters on Morrison Street on the south side of Glasgow. Brightly painted walls do their best to welcome you into the collection of nook and cranny spaces that Independence Live call home. A “Yes” banner, gaffer taped to the wall, hints at what lurks inside.  With a small office and a slightly larger (but totally empty) meeting room, they are clearly in the settling in stage. The reception (which they share with another organisation) has to double as the studio.

That makeshift studio can only be constructed once the staff from the other office have left for the evening. So with a 7pm start the plugging, unplugging, testing and wiring begins in haste. The clock is ticking. Welcome to the world of live broadcasts.

The Road To Yes
Going Live
With the few audience members seated, shushed and supplied with coffee, the “1.2, 1.2”,  – as much a ritual to the broadcasting Gods, as of actual use to the engineers – seem hurried. Instructions boom from the huge frame of the floor manager. Going live approaches. “It’s OK if we don’t start exactly at 7?” asks one of the apprehensive crew.

 

The broadcast “No 2 Yes” with two “Labour Men” in the shape of Eric Joyce and Steven Purcell is the real focus for the evening. Two die hard Labour, former Better Togetherers, set to vote yes in #indyref2. They shuffle in their chairs as they prepare to set the record straight, on why their views have shifted.

Success in the second independence campaign will be built on stories and journeys like these. The growing number of tales will provide vital social proofing to others,  outside the 45. They contain clear evidence that is it OK to change a previously strongly held view, plus the knowledge, that you are far from being alone.

Both Steven and Eric, of course, cite Brexit’s defining role in their transformation. However, the central reason for their support for independence, was the realisation – in the form of Jeremy Corbyn “leading” a disintegrating Labour party – that a second No vote would lead to two decades of right wing Tory rule from London.

In assembling this panel Independent Live show they have the nose for a story, as much as an eye for a camera angle. They have demonstrated over the last four years that they are central to the independence movement in Scotland.

Consider supporting their crowdfunder appeal if you want others to see the stories that matter.

Scottish Independence Convention Presents – Build

I nipped on to the Convention website a week or so before the event only to see that it had “SOLD OUT” This is great news for the organisers and certainly highlighted a demand from the movement for an event like this. But a bit annoying if you planned to attend! 

However, with a four month old and a twenty-two month at home in Barcelona, the chances of getting over to the event in Glasgow were always going to be slim. Over the winter months it is impossible to get to Scotland and back to Catalunya in a day: something I am sure will change once we welcome two independent countries!

So I watched the The Scottish Independence Convention Presents – Build, online (and you can still watch it!) courtesy of the excellent independence live. However, rather than just watch the event, I decided to review it. I would hope that my twenty years plus of organising events would provide an interesting and useful view for those in the movement who plan to run Indyref2 events.  

Events like this will play an exceptionally important role in the Indyref2 campaign. This event, for many, marked the un/official launch of the Indyref2 campaign so it seemed like the best place to start.

I imagine that many people will comment on the content, choice of speakers and the politics of it all, so my review will focus on the area I specialise in: meeting design. Or, I suppose, the art of making meetings less boring and much more useful for all involved. I would strongly argue that better meetings for our movement can play a positive role in winning the campaign. 

It’s worth stating that I have organised most of my events in a similar not for profit / charity environment, so I should be able to gauge roughly the constraints and difficulties of the organisers as well as the possible outcomes of such an event. I also have to say that my review is meant to be 100% constructively critical (because it is critical) and is made very much in the spirit called for during the event as those “with knowledge and experience” step forward and offer help. I imagine that many of the thousands of upcoming Indyref2 events can learn from some of the mistakes made by SIC.

Indyref2 events
Scottish Independence Convention Build

What “Build” promised

The event stated:

“Speakers and interactive sessions will explore what the independence movement needs to do now to get strategy, policy and movement building in place to secure victory in the next referendum”

The programme (below) added some more detail.

Build For Independence programme of events
Build For Independence programme of events

The day was split into three distinct sessions: Policy, Strategy and Movement. Both of the first two sections would finish with one of the hour long interactive sessions, mentioned in the website blurb. These “Interactive Discussions” would follow speaker to audience style presentations of 1hr and 1hr30.

As a meeting designer, of some seven hundred similar conference style events, I couldn’t quite see how the initial programme could live up to the underlying idea of an interactive event. Of the 18 sessions, only 2 appeared to be interactive. If you are going to highlight the interactive nature of an event more than two of the sessions should be interactive. This is the type of thing you would expect a meeting designer to pick up and mention before the event.

Some delegates and speakers mentioned the other things the event should do,  alongside the “exploring what the movement needs to do now” as outlined on the website. Tommy Sheppard called for “energy and substance” One comment on the Common Space website called for “comfy seats” Events, I thought, have to do so many things!

Logistics – the bread and butter

The Radisson Blu hotel in Glasgow seemed like the perfect venue (numerically speaking) for an 800 strong audience. Running an event on a Saturday, no doubt allowed the organisers the opportunity to step up from a church hall or similar lower budget space.  It was a bold move and one that other events should follow if possible: the space for a meeting is very important.

Throughout the day there were many logistical issues (big and small) that a professional event organiser would have picked up on earlier, or would have totally avoided. It was clear that the team were doing a good job, but lacked a professional eye. Running events is pretty easy; running seamless events, that deliver maximum value to all, is very hard.

Watching online gives you a quite different view from an attendee as to the logistics of the event.  Although not in the room (obviously) the online audience did have a nice little extra: a live audio feed in the run up to the event. This, accidentally, allowed us to hear some interesting, rather panicked discussions as the event rolled past its scheduled start time. However, after a 15 min delay, no doubt to register the 800 attendees, the conference was underway.

Like many events there was some initial communication issues (I can’t imagine Elaine C Smith being the easiest person to give a Chair’s brief to!) and some tech problems around the use of handheld mics, but these really were minor, and overall the onsite team did a good job.

Important as they are, I mention logistics in passing, it is the strategic stuff I am interested in: what the event set out to achieve, and how it attempted to achieve them.

What were the objectives of Build?

We’d had an overarching vision for the event as the “what we should do now” for the movement. That’s a BIG call for one, six hour event. So I had looked for meaningful and realistic objectives. This is what I would always do if I was supporting a client to run the best possible event.

It’s impossible to know if an event has been a success without an idea of the objectives for the event. Of course, without clear and shared objectives, how does an event know what it is supposed to do? Earlier this year I had a chat with Robin McAlpine, who’s Common Weal seemed to have been the driving force behind the event. I asked him, “What were the normal objectives for Common Weal events?” 

Robin answered that he was a fan of simple objectives like: “Don’t lose money. Keep everyone happy. Be noticed. Get a crowd.” Simple indeed, but hard to deliver, hard to measure and hard to be of much actual strategic use. So I sought some clarity from Elaine C Smith’s introduction.

Elaine’s welcome identified the core (and eminently achievable) objective for the day: “we want to know what you (the audience) have to say” This backed up the “interactive” undertone of the conference blurb. We want interaction and we want to hear from you. Brilliant! What’s the point of gathering 800 campaigners in a room if you aren’t going to listen to them? Hold that thought. 

Elaine noted that the audience was full of “big brained people” and now was their opportunity to speak to, rather than hear from, the “big table” of speakers that appear at other similar events. This was the one clear objective and the event failed to deliver. 

Interaction is more than a word or a session; it’s an entire framework for a conference

Even if all of the interaction that was planned on the programme took place, the event would have never achieved the objective of “hearing from the audience” It’s pretty simple: if you want to hear from the audience, you do not have sixteen sessions delivered by speakers from the platform.

There are many tried and tested ways to ensure any event is interactive – even with 800 attendees. With some meeting design, “Build” could have achieved that objective. There are so many tips and techniques that I couldn’t even try to fit them into one post! If you are planning an Indyref2 event and want to know how to run a genuinely interactive event (even for 800) drop me a note.

So in terms of interaction, I think it would be best to cover what Build did, rather than what they didn’t.  And you can judge if this was an interactive event.

  • As I said above, there were 18 speaker led session and only 2 advertised as “discussion” sessions.
  • There were very few opportunities for questions from the audience following any of the speaker led sessions.
  • The audience gradually grew restless as the day went on and shouting disagreement became the only “interactive” outlet.
  • Of the two “hour long” interactive sessions, one lasted only 48mins. The other managed the full hour.
  • The session led by Lesley Riddock was exceptionally well facilitated and very professional. Lesley paced the floor. She was engaging, probed the audience and properly facilitated the discussion.
  • The other sessions was different. Robin McAlpine spoke for 41minutes of the 48minutes “discussion” that he “facilitated”. I know this because I actually timed it. I’ve met Robin you see. During the session the audience voted on what actions, the  excellent, Common Weal will take forward. I think this was what happened, as it was done at such a breakneck speed I can not be at all confident.  The 800 were asked to vote (the 500 online didn’t have any chance to interact), on around ten of the most fundamentally complex and important questions facing our movement. That’s approx 4 mins per question! It is a stretch to call voting interaction, but it’s certainly better than nothing. As Peter Curran watching online said “If this is participation, I am Gordon Brown”.
  • The second interactive session did include comments (around 7 mins of that in the 48mins) from social media and this did add some genuine interaction which was well handled by Angela the “Social Sidekick”

Can those who organise conferences really make such obvious mistakes? Unfortunately, it is easy to seek an interactive event, but much harder to deliver it.

To be interactive a conference has to be designed. Information has to flow between those on stage and those in the audience. And most importantly: that audience has to be redefined as “participants” In seeking interaction and not finding it “Build” will not be alone in the Indyref2 campaign. Unless we listen and interact with the event management profession.

How to run an interactive Indyref2 event

I’ve seen many events start with the genuine desire to turn the “audience into participants” but dole out the familiar roles on the day: speakers speak and the audience listen. To run an interactive event, those running it need an understanding of the rules of event management and experience or knowledge of how to support participation and engagement. Unfortunately for the 800 attendees and the 500 odd online, the event did not achieve this most crucial objective.

If this crucial mistake is made by other Indyref2 events it is the movement that will take the hit, along with the bored attendees. A movement is hamstrung if there is little interaction within it. We’ve got to build better events. The advice, knowledge and experience is out there, those in the movement just have to interact with it.

If you are an IndyRef2 minded organisation and would like some support to run better events then please do get in touch.

If you are a skilled and experienced event organiser who would like to support the movement drop me a note.

Barcelona sets limits on new hotel rooms

Since the moratorium on new hotels passed by the Ajuntament de Barcelona (The Barcelona City Council) in June last year, the local government headed by Ada Colau has been working on a plan to find a balance between the demands of the tourist and the demands of the local.

This was always going to be an impossible task. On one hand, you have a multi million euro industry – which contributes 12% of Catalan GDP – and on the other hand, some very, very noisy locals, and trust me, Catalans can be particularly noisy.

The results are out and the locals are reacting

Announced in March The Special Urban Plan for Tourist Accommodation (PEUAT) “promotes a sustainable urban model to make tourism compatible with residents’ basic rights” and it has without doubt curtailed the tourist sector in Barcelona, as the number of new beds allowed will fall way short of demand.

The headline figure from the PEUAT is that a maximum of 12,000 more hotel beds across the whole city will be allowed over the next six years. The 12,000 figure is still, of course, a substantial number of new beds in what is a relatively small major city, but overall the barrios, the local areas, will see the stymying of many planned hotels as a victory. However, for some, it is a small victory.

Twelve thousand new beds would still mean approximately 8% rise in the number of beds available in the city. And for many locals, the city already has too many tourists.

Does Barcelona have too many tourists?
I didn’t think they needed to change if from “Space Invaders”

As Barcelona sets limits on new hotel rooms, hotels struggle to keep on top of current demand

Following a detailed census, we now know that Barcelona currently has around 130,000 beds in hotels, apartments, hostels and pensions. Following bumper visitor figures for each month this year, we know that occasionally those beds just aren’t enough. This was clearly demonstrated by Mobile World Congress, which takes place in Barcelona each Febraury, with the event maxing out the hotels in Barcelona this year. That event is set to grow every year (it will be in Barcelona to at least 2023), so you have to wonder, will 12,000 new beds even just keep up with that event?

As well as demands from the “right kind of tourists” (the ones that attend Mobile World Congress, rather than the partying tourists) there is substantial pressure from the “wrong” type of  tourists.

The number of expected tourists is likely to pass the 8m mark in 2016, with demand continuing to grow year on year. Adding 12,000 new beds in Europe’s third most visited city will do little to match demand.

So if 12,000 new beds will do little to appease the tourism industry, how will this number affect those locals? Well, it depends where you are local to.

Where will the 12,000 new tourists go?

The regulations and restrictions laid out in the PEUAT are different for each area, with the tourist sector in the centre of Barcelona facing the greatest restrictions (detailed zone by zone can be found here). In summary, the legislation will be more relaxed the further away from the centre you go. Sectioning the plan into zones will push tourists further from the old parts of the city. However, those 12,000 beds need to go somewhere and certain barrios have the potential to go the way of Barceloneta – the once quaint fishing port now transformed into Barcelona’s very own little costa. 

Poble Nou, the barrio where I live, sits in the zone known as 22@ and will be greatly affected by the PEUAT. As you can see from the image at the top of the page, the locals are not happy, and quite rightly so.

As detailed by the citywide plan, over the next six years there could be 3,200 new hotel beds in 22@, with the majority in, or at least very close to the most popular barrio Poble Nou. On those numbers alone, you can take pity with the locals who think they are being “invaded”.

As Ada Colau was keen to stress the plan seeks “to preserve the rights of residents to housing, rest and privacy” but for those in and around 22@ the idea that 3,200 more tourists would preserve their rights seems as unlikely as they are to accept the plan in its current form.

Puigdemont and Salmond to meet in London in May

It happens with friendships. You don’t speak to each other for a while and despite your shared interests and similarities you drift apart. Time passes and the things that brought you together slowly disappear from the memory. But as we know, sometimes it just needs one thing to bring friends back together. For old buddies Scotland and Catalonia, SP16 was that moment.

For the first time both Scotland and Catalonia have a majority of pro independent members of parliament represented by more than one party. Now more than ever we have to share the successes and failures to date of our respective campaigns.

At the highest political level Catalonia and Scotland should be the best of friends. We should see MPs who support independence from both countries sharing platforms, arranging flying visits to their respective capitals and generally acting like best buds. But this isn’t happening.

During the run up to the Scottish elections (and with the date for Spanish elections having been recently agreed) I looked for Scottish MPs or MSPs speaking in Barcelona; it was like searching in the same city for Irn Bru: fruitless. So this week I was delighted to see that the new Catalan President Carles Puigdemont will meet Alex Salmond in London and I hope this starts a more formal dialouge. As demonstrated by Puigdemont’s visit, the Catalans seem very keen to build the relationship. And he’s not the only one. Last year Ramon Tremosa an MEP for Catalonia, said in an interview with CommonSpace:

“Catalonia and Scotland have much to learn from each other on the road to independence. Scotland has set the precedent for a binding referendum in Catalonia, which has contributed enormously to the democratic credibility and feasibility of independence there. Catalonia has shown an example, in Scotland in terms of popular organisation and mobilisation.” And he is right, the precedent set by the UK is a powerful one for Spain to ignore and Scotland has a lot to learn from the actions of civic Catalonia in forcing through the political agenda.

So how does Scotland view the importance of Catalonia?

Last week the Catalan News Agency interviewed Michael Keating, Director of the Edinburgh-based Centre on Constitutional Change stated that, “Catalans need Scotland more than Scotland needs Catalonia” His rationale was that because the Scots “have in recent years been doing much better than the Catalan independence people: they got a referendum, they got the right to self-determination and they got more powers” Now, considering Catalonia will welcome independence in 14 months or so (according to the Generalitat de Catalunya’s time table) he is speaking utter mince, and if this is the prevailing belief in Scotland our movement is in serious trouble.

Since the loss of the referendum we had spectacular SNP victories in both the UK and Scottish elections, however Scottish Independence is not a foregone conclusion. I would hate to see a movement shift from gallusness to arrogance: we have to learn what we can from the Catalan struggle. For the #Indyref2 movement, we must learn three things from the Catalan cause:

  • how to build a successful cross party support for independence
  • how to create a timetable for indepndence, that everyone signs up to and
  • how to move more people to openly demonstrate their passion for an independent nation

Sure, we have a lot to give but we also have a lot to gain. Let’s remember what friendships are for and build bridges and links at every level.

Mr Puigdemont and Mr Salmond are rekindling that relationship and collectively, our independence movements need to meet for a beer and remember why we grew so close in the first place. And that might be easier than you think, because believe it or not the Catalans actually like Tennent’s.

Tennent's In Poblenou.

Balancing Tourism in Barcelona

In Barcelona the walls very often come to life: “this community is not for sale” reads the statement painted on a new hostel development in Poblenou. The city’s citizens are hostile.

If you’d just been reading the business headlines you certainly wouldn’t think this was the case. The tourist industry in Barcelona would succinctly sum up by saying “we’ve never had it so good” That industry is of course made up of thousands of individual bars, hotels, nightclubs and restaurants. And within these establishments there are doormen, chefs, cleaners and managers, and every one of them would lift a glass in celebration: Salud! Las turistas!

The impact of a successful industry ripples prosperity across the community that supports it. For Spain, Catalunya, and Barcelona in particular, tourism is a super successful, money making enterprise.

The importance of tourism to Catalunya

The entire tourism industry generates 12% of Catalunya’s GDP (to give you some comparison, tourism is only 5% of Scottish GDP) Tourism is widely credited with cushioning Barcelona from the recent global financial crisis. Some 120,000 jobs in the Catalan capital are fuelled by tourists.

From a purely commercial perspective the strength of this sector is  regarded as an unmitigated success. That view would see Barcelona proudly placed in an enviable position, looking down on other tourist hungry cities. However, scratch the surface and you will find that many of the capital’s Catalans abhor the wider negative impact of tourism; for them, they have never had it so bad. And it is only set to get worse.

In 2016, with many tourists fearing terrorism, should they venture from continental Europe, Spain, Catalunya and Barcelona will welcome more tourists than ever. Actually, as I am finding out, walking the streets and talking to locals, “welcome” is definitely not the correct word.

So when did the love affair with tourists end?

Spain has always found it difficult to find a balance between welcoming tourist money and cowering from their habits. Under Franco in 1959 the greatest of all compromises came in the two cupped shape of the bikini. As the ultra Conservative government scrambled to find a solution to topless, sunbathing foreigners, a thin strip of material allowed seaside Spain to reap the rewards from Tourism, while the Spanish state maintained its decency.

Throughout the following years Barcelona locals have seen, at an increasing rate, areas of their city taken over by tourists and tourist hungry businesses. It started with Las Ramblas, one of the city’s most important historical centres. The street that had seen pitched battles between rival factions in the Spanish civil war has lost the battle with tourists.

Tourist traps gradually spread out across the Barrio Gótico and Ciutat Vella – the two oldest parts of the city – then increasingly touched areas further from the city centre, all but consuming the tiny ex fishing community of Barceloneta. All to the chargin of locals.

The idea that the “success” of Barcelona as a tourist destination was anything but a blessing appeared on the horizon for many foreigners for the first time in 2014. Coverage of the “anti tourist” documentary Bye, Bye Barcelona hinted at the negative impacts of this massive trade. In a rather one sided take of the complex issues at play Bye, Bye Barcelona was never going to be able to cover the difficult balance that the citizens and especially the city’s legislators now face.

A less than quiet revolution

Take a walk through any of the large barrios in Barcelona and within ten minutes or so you will more than likely come across something that more than hints at the local dislike and distrust of this increase in tourism. It may be a homemade banner in Barceloneta that reads, in English, “Tourists Go Home”, or a recent magazine article posted to a pillar in Poblenou. The noise is constant and growing.

Poblenou a worrying and major focus for low cost tourism
Poblenou is fast becoming a new major focus for low cost tourism. And its residents are not happy

To understand why the volume has been turned up to 11, you just need to look at the numbers. Barcelona (pop. 1,604,555) is now the third most visited city in Europe, behind London (pop. 8,539,000) and Paris (pop. 2,249,975). A record 8 million people are expected to visit Barcelona this year. With roughly 5 tourists for every 1 resident it is hard to argue that Barcelona may on several levels struggle.

It is not tourists per say, but the rate of the increase where the real issue lies. In the last twenty years the city has seen tourist numbers quadruple and many believe that the city and especially the locals can no longer cope. The complaints fall broadly into three categories:

  1. Barcelona is attracting the “wrong type” of tourists
  2. Accommodating tourists is pushing residents from their homes, and businesses from the high street and
  3. The identity and cultural heritage of the city (and the wider region) is disappearing

With these three areas in mind Ada Colau, the charismatic new Mayor, has a plan to re-balance the tourism sector’s interests more in line with local residents.

The wrong type of tourists

“Low cost” tourism is a particular pain to the Catalans. The Barcelona authorities are at pains to suggest that there is no “drunken tourism” in Barcelona and have for several years taken steps to ban pub crawls and booze cruises. However a short walk on any summer night through El Born, or down Passeig de Joan de Borbó, across Gràcia, El Raval or Eixample will bring to life the issues. Tourists are literally reveling in low cost accommodation, food and entertainment in Barcelona.

Poblenou during Carnaval
Poblenou during Carnaval

There are of course “desirable” tourists and even the left wing Mayor is keen to point that out, for example the 80,000 extra visitors heading to Barcelona at the end of February for Mobile World Congress are this town’s type of tourist.

The Mayor’s support for this event proves that she is trying to find a balance. Mobile World Congress provides a multi million euro injection every year into the Catalan economy and Barcelona’s new Mayor has offered to support the organisation in the city beyond the current agreement, with Barcelona continuing to host the event until at least 2023. Tourism is crucial to the success of this thriving city and it has the Mayor’s support. 

Accommodating the tourist market

Following on from her predecessor, Ada Colau’s administration took two brave steps to redress the balance in accommodating locals and tourists. One of her first decrees, introduced in July, was a one-year moratorium on new tourist accommodation. The move is “provisional and precautionary” said Colau in an interview with Catalunya Ràdio. “Tourism is an asset that the city needs to take care of and make more sustainable, because it created tensions”. As a former anti eviction campaigner Ada Colau knows all about dealing with tensions.

The decree affected eight of the eleven new luxury projects in Barcelona, stymying thirty hotels in total but it is not just hotel chains which are under the spotlight, those offering their homes (or in some cases – their rental investments) for short term rents are under the spotlight too. Airbnb has not had an easy ride in this city.

Airbnb and similar platforms pose a direct and measurable threat to affordable housing. In many popular areas rents are increasing quickly, pushed ever higher by speculative properly purchases.

In Catalunya all establishments used by tourists must be registered with the City Council or the Catalan Government and a tiny tourist tax of 0.65€ is due in Barcelona. The Generalitat has already taken direct measures to slow the flow of properties going online by imposing the first €60,000 fines on AirBnB in January. The Generalitat opted to fine the site, rather than the individual owners, for the unregistered short term lets appearing on rental sites.

The Barrio in which I have chosen to make my home Poblenou is particularly affected. Sitting in the larger district of Sant Martí, between 2012 and 2014 almost 900 homes with the official “Los apartamentos de uso turístico (HUT)” have been listed, however the actual number available and openly advertised is likely to stretch into the couple of thousand.

The identity and cultural heritage of the city is disappearing

Two of Barcelona’s most famous “attractions” have started to limit access to tourists. Groups of tourists are now strongly discouraged in La Boquería the largest market in Barcelona, with security guards expected to operate over the busier months this year. Parc Güell, which was originally built by Gaudí and opened as a public park in 1926, now sets a limit each day on the number of available tourist places to visit the park. The locals are making their move and they now have a very supportive Mayor and regional Government.

Spend any significant amount of time in Catalunya and you will find that Catalans are exceptionally proud of their heritage and culture. This cultural defense has spread from Barcelona. At the end of last year as part of the deal to invest a new Catalan President, the political party CUP called for the abandonment of BCN World, a huge 800 hectare project that would have seen a competitor to EuroDisney in Catalunya.

Millions of Euros would have been spent in the region and in fact the inflow of money was one of the reasons for a popular party not to support the development. The quiet decision to mothball BCN World was made with the knowledge that in Spain, when such large sums of money flow, corruption comes along for the ride.

The message is clear from local resident groups to the Generalitat. Las Ramblas can’t house more tourist tat. Poblenou can’t have any more hotels and Catalunya is not the home for a super casino and an extended theme park: enough is enough. There is a balance to be found, and many in Catalunya believe the scales have tipped too far in favour of the tourists. 2016 is still to redress the balance.

An independent Scot's view on the search for an independent nation