Flatpack Democracy

A DIY guide to creating independent politics
by Peter Macfadyen.

(As featured in the Guardian’s AnywhereButWestminster and Social Innovation Exchange, Danish and Belgian TV here).

Get the revolution started: Buy 8 copies for only £40 and free p & p

1
Once Upon a Time…
2
Rules Rules Rules
3
When is a Movement?
4
Danish Icebergs
5
Rethinking Activism
6
What now?
7
My kind of manifesto.
8
Dogs, mines and parties.
9
Where the politics is….
10
Indy Monmouth

Once Upon a Time…

One step forward, two back, three forward…..  I’m gradually bringing together the pieces of Flatpack Two, which will aim to set out what can be done with (local council) power once it’s been grasped from the hands of those who chose either not to use it well, or not to use it much at all.  Or at least, I’m trying to work out in what order the pieces should go ….when actually I need to stop messing about and just write them and sort that later.

I’ve had plenty of practice putting thoughts together recently with a little rush of ‘political tourism’ to Frome – Danish TV, Belgian authors, visitors from other councils and a clutch of academics.  They come – I believe – for two main reasons.

Firstly, the old story of our moving on from Party Politics at this level of local government by winning all 17 seats in 2015.  I’ve slowly realised that while this was an important statement of independence, it’s what happens next that is really more interesting and has more potentially long lasting impact – which is the second story people want to hear:

A Guardian article on Frome a few weeks focuses firmly on the community there is in Frome – and as a town council we have concentrated on building the links, reducing the barriers and enabling the community to take on austerity imposed from above.  Frome has real examples of the ideas George Monbiot and Shaun Chamberlin present in their new books – ‘Out of the Wreckage’ and ‘Surviving the Future’ (both of whom talk about these at the Gaia Foundations Winter Talks in the next few weeks).

What their books and talks tells me is that this is A MOMENT.  There is widespread recognition that democracy and our current political systems are terminally failing us at both local and planetary levels.  George’s subtitle is ‘A New Politics for an Age of Crisis’ – I see it as an old politics needing to be reclaimed.

The task of Flatpack 2 is to provide inspiration and instruction on moving from ideas to actions which can make a real difference quickly.  It might also look at how those local ideas scale up to impact on a much larger scale, or it might not!

Rules Rules Rules

In the first few hours of yesterday I found myself confronted with a series of events all linked by a common thread:  the creation and use of rules.  This links to a conversation I am following that has been taking place amongst groups of Independents forming both in the UK and Belgium.

Firstly, I read about ‘The war against Pope Francis’ whose traditionalist opponents are looking to remove him via the only means they can – proof of heresy.  This rests on a footnote in an article he wrote suggesting that it might be possible to give communion to some divorced or remarried couples.  This has been ruled out by previous Popes, and what a previous Pope says is the word of God, so it would be heresy to challenge that ruling…. If he has done this he can be removed.

Secondly, the morning news included the Australian government losing its majority after the Deputy Prime Minister was found to have dual nationality which is against the rules.   Seven MPs were found to contravene this rule – dual nationality had been conferred to them at birth or by descent and they claimed not to know about it.

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When is a Movement?

I am sometimes asked about the ‘Flatpack Movement’ and I struggle to explain the concept. The Flatpack tag comes – obviously – from Flatpack Democracy, the title of the book I wrote which set out to show how the independents took power in Frome and to provide some simple steps for others to do the same at a local level.  It’s the story of what we did in Frome, and now, making a list of the further 10 or so groups who have done the same, has given some clarity to my thinking.

As well as the 10 groups I know where independents hold power, there are another five who hold some seats, and a further 35 places that we know of where a group is clearly working in that direction.  To a lesser or greater extent these have used the ideas expressed in Flatpack Democracy in some way.  There is an actual ‘Flatpack Party’ in Belgium alongside two other groups there well engaged with the principles and interestingly it was a Belgian who talked about ‘Flatpackery’ – a comment on many things as well as his fine grasp of English!  There are another 3000 ish copies of the book out there doing who knows what. As well as the groups mentioned earlier there are another seven I know of who are, in effect, local parties. However, the one thing they all have in common is their rejection of Party Politics.  If that alone were enough to define them as a Movement, then perhaps they are.

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Danish Icebergs

I and Annabelle (my partner in plotting and in life) have just returned from Aarhus in Denmark and the remarkable Rethink Activism weekend.  Although part of Aarhus’s year as Cultural Capital of Europe, Sager de Samler seemed to have remarkably little support in organising 250 activist events over three days, reoccupying a range of largely redundant buildings.  In part this was undoubtedly because they chose to stick to their strong ethos and insist on placing decision making with activists and those at the forefront of some quite edgy projects.

Annabelle and my input was to share some of Frome’s experiences to fit into the festivals aim of ‘rethinking democratic participation by giving focus to a rising capacity for action…… to highlight the activism of our time, which defies passivity and replaces confrontation with creativity and empowerment’.  We performed, ran a workshop and took part in a conversation on taking back the power, with Danish and Spanish activists.

Early on – after taking nearly 3 days to get there by train – we’d reflected on whether these brief contributions could possibly be worth it?  Who knows what ripples our pebbles thrown into the mix will cause or not, but personally I gain so much from just being with people doing what needs to be done.  I have two images to savour.  The first of is of pixels – all the tiny dots of activity, sanity and extraordinary creativity brought together in one ex-industrial estate for 36 hours, together forming a picture that makes real sense.  Then of this multiplied up and extended to include all those elsewhere on the planet.

This links to icebergs – stimulated by an essay I read in Denmark: ‘Economic Meltdown or What an Iceberg can tell us about the economy’, by Katherine Gibson (one of four booklets providing a feminist perspective on the economy).  The essay is on how we fail to see the hidden economies of everyday exchanges from gift giving to care work to lending and even theft that exist within, behind and next to the dominant economy, because we place them below the surface.  Instead almost all focus is on the tiny tip of the iceberg that flashes at us and leads humankind in our decision making – when the vast bulk of what really matters lies underexposed.

I feel the simile applies equally to the everyday politics so many of us are engaged in – the vital community level activity that occupies many of our lives is below the water line, while the froth of Party  Politics occupies the Twitter storms and front pages.  Events like Rethink Activism play a vital role in helping us all to recognise the real priority most of us know in our hearts.  I’m not remotely interested in the Party Conferences currently occupying the British media because I think activists – like these (working with Sager de Samler) are much more likely to make a future worth living, when we recognise their part in forming a massive picture of a viable alternative.

Rethinking Activism

My blog output is small not because I have nothing to say, but because new ideas pile in so fast I struggle with which to choose or how to combine them!  Top of the pile this morning is my realisation that the lack of true democracy we face here in Frome is the norm.  The conventional view is that ‘over half the world lives in a democracy of some kind’ (123 out of 192 countries).  The devil is in the detail of ‘some kind’.  How many of us live with a system of government in which citizens have any meaningful say in how they are governed?

 

More than anything Flatpack Democracy has led me into interesting conversations and massive personal learning since it was published.  Last week I met with Els and Koenraad from a small Belgian town where it would be a complete joke to describe their local council as representative.  The week before I met with nascent revolutionaries in a small town near home where the extent of representation or participation is worse than pathetic.  Today I have an email from a man in South Korea ‘….full of disillusionment we felt of our systems and leaders….’.

 

In all three cases there is a growing awareness that the systems we currently operate are simply not fit for purpose and ultimately this serves none of us. At a different level of government, that’s the message big time from Carne Ross in Accidental Anarchist: Life without Government (BBC4) which I watched with huge admiration.  An ex senior British diplomat who makes absolutely clear that the complexity of our modern world requires constant attention to the communities at the base of the pyramid, as the ‘leaders’ cannot possible function in the ways of old (a case he also makes in the Leaderless Revolution).

 

To change all this requires a rapid acceleration of activity at all levels, across the planet. With that in mind, Annabelle and I are hugely excited to be heading for Aarhus in Denmark to take part in Rethink Activism.  Alongside the more predictable events of Aarhus as cultural capital of Europe, the three day event aims to ‘….raise awareness in society that each one of us can be part of the transformation of the world. By using our creativity and capacity to act and most importantly by actually doing something, we want to show that it is possible to change our lives and the society that we live in, if we collaborate and mutually support each other……’  I’ll report back on whether thousands of people at 150 events aimed at rethinking the city from the bottom up have been able to move the process forward!

What now?


I’ve not written here for a little while.  Annabelle and I went to Poland when the UK was suffering the general election and I’ve fallen out of the loop of politics for a few weeks.  I was more than happy to do that at the national level – for the first time in 40 years I didn’t vote.  It simply seemed wrong to engage in a system that I have complete contempt for – a view enhanced by my bedtime reading ‘Beasts and Gods – how democracy changed its meaning and lost its purpose’ by Roslyn Fuller.  I can see it’s exciting that Jeremy Corbyn defied so many critics, but we now have a government that sees bribing a bunch of extremists with public money in order to stay in power as acceptable….. and that having a garden makes Michael Gove a suitable man to oversee our environment.

But yesterday I re-found where I need to be.  Sitting in a small room in a town near here with a group of energetic activists.  Angry and frustrated at the utter hopelessness of their town council, but excited and inspired at the opportunity a local revolution could bring.  These are people commitment to community activity and organisations with a desire to see change, fed up at the lack of support and endless rejection of their ideas.  For me there is nothing politically more hopeful than their desire to reclaim local democracy and use it to move on from the stale negativity which blights most local councils.

I’m giving evidence to the ‘Commission on the Future of Localism’ on Monday in Bristol.  I’m feeling emboldened by these new revolutionaries (as I continue to be by those of Bradford on Avon, Monmouth, the Haswells Community and their like…).  If the Commission can do anything, surely it has to call for changes to make it easier for more movements like these to emerge and thrive.

 

 

My kind of manifesto.

I was invited by The Alternative UK to provide my own take on an ideal manifesto for these elections.  This was framed to improve on those put forward by the political parties.  I’ve said I can’t do this.

I’ve had enough of playing along with the farce of our election system, and the fictional wish-lists that political parties produce are the sharp edge of the nonsense so many of us play into every few years.  Apparently the Tories broke 20 promises in the last 2 years (admittedly the Mirror may not be a totally reliable source….. but ‘lots’ will do) and no party is able to keep their promises; any coalition will have to compromise and not do what they said; new policy is added because things change; and pre election lies just seem to be the norm…. so we end up arguing about speculative desires.

What I can do is say how I want those in power to behave together and in relation to the public.  This is one of the ways our Campfire Conversation in Frome turned last week where Pete Lawrence joined us to light the fire…… then Pat and Indra of Alternative UK (along with a clutch of Frome’s artists) deepened our look at reimagining politics.  A chance to ‘catapult our bubbles into the dewy dawn’ as Liv Talk so perfectly described it in her summing up poem.

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Dogs, mines and parties.

Chris Hood sent me this ‘Story of the Haswells Community Party’ last week.  I publish it in full to offer you an alternative to the farce that masquerades as democratic process which currently dominates the media:


The saying goes that you could stick a red rosette on a passing dog in some parts of the North East and it would get elected.  Analysis of the last six General Elections shows there is plenty of truth in that often-heard phrase.

Well in just 13 weeks, nine people came together with their family and friends to help generate a 40% turnout out of voters, the third highest in County Durham, and complete a clean sweep in the Haswell Parish Council elections, replacing the entire council and its chairman – a standing Labour county councillor.

All in a place where there hadn’t been a parish council election for over a decade.

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Where the politics is….

I’ve really been enjoying my politics this last week!  While the French election results drifted past, the various mayoral and county council elections happened, and vast amounts of energy went into the pacts, facts and alternative truths of the Westminster election.  My attention has been elsewhere.

I’ve been at the epicentres of uprising.  With Indy Monmouth, who’s magnificent seven are the largest group on the council after their whirlwind campaign.  With Ideal Bradford, 10/10 for effort, campaign, humour…. and 10 seats won in Bradford on Avon. And with The Haswells Community Party, who  generated the third highest turnout in County Durham, and  a clean sweep in their elections, replacing the entire council and its chairman – a standing Labour county councillor – 13 weeks after they first came together (full story coming up later).

Amongst these 26 people there is a spectrum of experience, views, beliefs and differences.  What they have in common is a desire to spend some time getting deeper into the issues of their community and responding to what they hear without any constraints, ideology or instructions from political parties.

I know there are many more – especially in revolutionary Durham.  There are also many places where independents have stood against the system and found how hard it is to broach the walls of the higher levels of government.  Well done the Cynon Valley Party which  came second in 8 wards and first where Gavin Williams was elected as their first councillor.  But their real triumph includes holding 38 public meetings; nearly 300,000 viewings of their videos; 2250 Facebook followers and developing a positive vision for their valley which is out there snapping at the heels of the party politicians.

Just by standing as independents – elected or not –  ‘ordinary’ people have changed the shape of  local democracy, moving it towards real interaction between community and local government and reclaiming politics for the people.

Indy Monmouth

We thought you might like to read, in its entirety, the speech with which Rachel Jupp launched Indy Monmouth just a few short weeks ago. From a standing start – to a full slate of prospective councilors today – Indy Monmouth is the latest in a string of new independent, Flatpack, groups aiming to take over their local council.

Wish them luck in their elections on 4 May. Please tell everyone you know, who knows someone in Monmouth, to check them out.

Indy Monmouth, all at Flatpack Towers say ‘May the Fourth be with You’

Follow them on Twitter, their website and Facebook

Rachel Jupp’s  speech to launch Indy Monmouth

I’m here this evening because of a book. Flatpack Democracy and its author, Peter Macfadyen.

A little bit about myself:

I’m a mother of five. I have absolutely no time for doing this… but I figure that if we all say ‘I’m too busy’ what we’re all saying is just ‘I don’t think this is a priority’

And if the environment you live in and the town you live in isn’t high on your list of priorities, what is?

I’m from Monmouth – I grew up here, went to the Comp, returned here to bring up my children, and by a lucky coincidence (because they like it here too) I’m surrounded by family.

I got involved in local politics because of my local playground on Chippy. Now I don’t mind where you stand on this issue, the fact is when I went to the Town Council I was defeated. Not, I think, because of what I was saying in particular, but because of the way I was going about it. In retrospect I should have joined the Conservative party and started bribing the public with M&S vouchers in the time-honoured tradition, to get my way.

Instead, First of all, I went to them. Big mistake! No-one from the public ever goes to town council meetings, what was I doing there? A few councillors even deigned to look around at me, a member of the public, in the public gallery!

Second, I told them …

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Copyright © Peter Macfadyen 2014