Flatpack Democracy

A DIY guide to creating independent politics
by Peter Macfadyen.

(As featured in the Guardian’s AnywhereButWestminster and Fraudcast News with Peter’s thoughts in Independent Democracy recorded here).

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

1
After Brexit….
2
Beech trees and Brexit
3
Can ‘No’ be positive?
4
How do we get rid of you?
5
AnywhereButWestminster
6
Mind the gap
7
How to Do It
8
Dictatorships…..
9
Non Violence?
10
How Wild To Go?

After Brexit….

brexit

Three weeks after the EU Referendum during which I – like many people – have heard a lot, read a lot and thought a bit.  I’ve also had two sets of inspiring and engaging interactions with groups of people bringing some really different perspectives.

The first brought Helle Engelbrechtsen and Brian Fradsen (key players in Denmark’s Alternativet Party) to Frome for 10 days including 24 hours of workshop with some top people both thinking and doing democracy.  The Alternatives proved to be a blast of fresh air in bringing real integrity to everything they did with us, wrapped in humour and goodwill.

The second 24hour stint was with Compass on their annual away weekend (Compass is ‘a home for those who want to build and be part of a Good Society; one where equality sustainability and democracy are not mere aspirations, but a living reality’).  Fifty people bringing many different experiences to discussions on how to take advantage of the brief moment upheaval of this nature creates.

Inevitably both gatherings had had the raw feelings associated with the Brexit vote – overlapping with those I meet as an undertaker dealing with unexpected death – anger, denial and a going over the detail of what might and should have been.  But in both cases we were also able to also focus at what opportunities there are for a real change in the way we do politics and ‘democracy’.

For me the core of our work in Frome remains absolutely essential:  We have to find ways to reclaim politics.  To enable real engagement and decision making to involve a far far more people.  To build a literacy of political discussion whereby the conversations most of us have all the time are linked in to decisions.  I worry that even a Progressive Alliance will simply rearrange the deckchairs and unless a fundamental movement to values based decision making, built from the bottom up, is nurtured then what really matters won’t really change.

Much of the post Brexit analysis looks at the disempowerment of the vast majority of the population – yet we continue to focus on a political parties of which 99% of us are not members.  Without a huge concerted effort to change the way we do business nothing really changes.  And that lets a more right wing Tory government steam ahead with idle promises of supporting those most in need – just like David Cameron’s 2009 promise to ‘…take the power from the political elite and hand it to the man and woman on the street….’.

 

 

 

Beech trees and Brexit

temp beech

What has a beech tree to do with Brexit and Trump?  I’ll tell you:  There is a huge and very ancient beech tree in Frome.  It is not well and over the last few years has become increasingly dangerous to the point where it really does need to be felled.  As a Town Council, when we heard this we planned to let people know, explain carefully why and let people do whatever they need to do to respect a living member of our community that has seen much of Frome’s history.

The District Council, which has the responsibility, took a different line and made it known on Friday evening that he tree would be felled on Monday.  No conversation with the neighbours, no significant warning, no explanation and – key to this piece – no taking of the opportunity to engage with people.

It seems completely obvious that when people are consistently crapped on by those in power this builds the distance between the people and those making decisions – the politicians.  Cynicism, disengagement and eventually active animosity grow.

In a State where protest is increasingly difficult – both dangerous and largely ineffective – opportunities to wave two fingers at the headmaster are quite rare.  The referendum in the UK and the rise of Trump in the USA represent just that.  The powers that be are telling us what to do (as usual).  But this time we have power to do the opposite – vote to leave the EU or crown Trump.  Logic and facts go out of the window in the glorious opportunity.

My view is that this starts with relatively small acts of oppression and exclusion.  If the District Council had thought for a few moments about the wider impact of their beech tree decision, they could have paused and taken the opportunity to engage and empower.  Their decision is the right one – it’s the ‘how’ not the ‘what’.  Each time the people are squashed down they remember and sooner or later will play their Trump card.

 

 

 

Can ‘No’ be positive?

no2

I’ve just been looking at the website of the No Party.  Essentially they support independent candidates just like I do…..  And it is a protest movement against Party politics – something I have ranted against too.  But then our paths start to diverge.  I feel unnerved by that word ‘Party’ which led me to read their website more carefully.   And as reading goes on I realise I am unnerved too by connections to my early upbringing in Ulster and memories of Ian Paisley who found an extraordinary number of ways to say “NO”.

The No Party’s Ideas and Pledges page is a magnificent list of 23 NOs (with more being added).  These include ‘NO – to Europe’ and ‘NO – High taxes on fuel’.  This becomes a NONefesto created by someone somewhere and which, presumably, candidates sign up to, which I suggest removes their independence?

This is an important issue for groups of independents : How to be a group but not a Party.  But yet it seems to be essential to work together to have any chance of challenging the well funded political Party machines.  Our answer in Frome has been to develop Ways of Working which describe how we will operate and how we will behave once elected, rather than attempt the impossible task of achieving agreement on what we’ll do in a given situation.  This seems a much more honest approach to me, as well as being based on the principle of ongoing participatory democracy, rather than seeking a mandate every 4 or 5 years then doing what you like.

I shall continue to watch the No Party because they are one of a fascinating bunch of initiatives fed up with the status quo.  I don’t know yet if they are closer to the Alternative Party in Denmark – which strikes me as an exciting initiative…… or Donald Trump, who strikes me as exactly what to expect when a  dysfunctional system  goes into meltdown.

How do we get rid of you?

walk the plank

I’ve asked six people if they have heard of the Gladstone Library now.    The score is 6-0 against.  I went there last weekend for DemFest – a festival of Democracy run by the Democratic Society.  Both the library and the festival were magnificent.  The former is an extraordinary legacy by Mr Gladstone, who personally wheel barrowed his 30,000+ book collection to the residential library he established.

For 364 days a year the silence or study and contemplation reigns – but for one night sound is allowed.  Last Friday this took the form of 21 democratic readings.  First up was a really moving set of extracts from the Declaration of Human Rights….humankind is certainly doing well at shredding them.  My ignorance cascaded around me as we ventured into Paul Larfrage’s 1883 essay on ‘The Right to be Lazy’.…readings from the Levellers and Marx; James Connolly’s last statement from Dublin Castle before his execution and 16 others, including Tony Benn’s five questions that he believed those in positions of economic, social and political power should always be asked.

“What power have you got?”

“Where did you get it from?”

“In whose interests do you use it?”

“To whom are you accountable?”

“How do we get rid of you?”

Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system,” Benn explained….  Great questions from a small part of a highly stimulating event,  in a truly great venue.

 

AnywhereButWestminster

guy fawkes

I once bicycled to a room with a projector, computer and screen to show a film that had been quite widely advertised by Sustainable Frome.  One person turned up.  She was really keen to watch it so we did…. she went on to be a key member of the group and I’m really glad I hung on in there.

I have something of the same feeling this week as relatively few ordinary individuals, who have decided enough is enough and are standing as local councillors in tomorrow’s elections, have been in touch.  In Sutton Coldfield – Britain’s newest and largest Parish Council – Independents are contesting every seat; in Winchester City there is a solid core in the City itself.  In Uttlesford and Wivenhoe there are different ways of doing things, but the same basic message that while Localism and Party Politics are patently failing to provide at community level, there are people prepared to give a bit of time to change things.  There are others – and plenty I am not in touch with of course – and as we know “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” (Margaret Meade).

John Harris perfectly captures the essence of what motivates this very British ‘revolution’ in his third Anywhere but Westminster film: it’s a mix of frustration, anger and the recognition that change is possible.  Those that are elected may well find themselves one of a few independents in a council firmly stuck in the dark ages, which can be a depressing place – Independents for Frome have had the luxury of majority rule.  My hope is that enough independents will be able to persuade enough of the old guard to enter the 21st century and that starts to inspire more capable people to join them in engaging with this crucial lowest level of our democracy.

 

Mind the gap

mind the gap

 

I spent Friday evening in the company of students from Frome Community College and Mohammed Nasheed.  A surprising mix especially given he is in the UK for only a short while courtesy of the Maldivian government and will return to prison to serve the remains of a 13 year sentence for terrorism.

The students made a series of presentations on human rights; gender equality; democracy and climate change – following research on the Maldives.  With support from Bath University students, they’d put together a mass of information and views which were refreshing in their frank analysis of the poverty of democracy not just in the Maldives but the UK; and in the perversity of Cherie Blaire being funded by an impoverished government to support their case against  Mohammed Nasheed.

The Ex President (winner of innumerable major awards including UN Champion of the Earth (and slighly weirdly one of David Cameron’s top five people for his stag weekend)) took us through some of the human rights abuses he’s been subjected to.  In a gloriously simple way he showed how conviction and sticking to ideals and principles places him in a totally different league from most current politicians.

What struck me most was the powerful clarity of the young college students (mostly women)…. and the poignant gap between their engagement in politics now and the lack of engagement and interest most people retain in later life.  The college’s hope – and mine – is that the simple and very moving principles espoused by Nasheed will stay with at least some of the students and audience, encouraging them to join the dots between the lifestyles we lead and the impact this has on others.

How to Do It

 hands

Heading home from ‘How to Do it’ – Creating Bottom up Political Participation, a couple of days that brought together academics, political activists and community organisers to contribute to the working out of a question central to the current political climate: ‘how can we create progressive and effective political participation?’

Like most such events, I find a range from ‘kind of useful’ to ‘totally inspiring’ and the last two sessions (and allied lunchtime conversation) were certainly the latter.  These were on how to organise political parties and urban assemblies, taking inspiration from Podemos and Take Back the City (as well as Frome) and for me raising one fundamental question:  Given that the prevailing political system is so manifestly unfit for purpose, are we brave and strong enough to replace it with one based on how we will work together?  Putting how we will work together to make decision and what our ethics will be above promoting what we will do when in power?  I was deeply struck by how many of the core aspects in these areas that we have found effective in Frome are shared by Podemos in Spain and are the aspirations for Take Back the City.

The lunchtime conversations inspired me because Florin – now heading home to Transylvania to take on the corrupt old-guard in local elections in May and Eleanor, the Women’s Equality Party Lambeth leader – full of the energy of new radical politics (each now armed with their copy of Flatpack) are less than half my age.  Indeed, the majority of those at the weekend will have enough years left to make a difference and on a weekend when a significant number of people hauled themselves off the sofa to protest at the hypocrisy epitomized by Cameron’s dodgy investments.

 

Dictatorships…..

Untitled

There can be no bigger sign that conventional ‘democracy’ is defunct than the inexorable movement towards America selecting Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton as their presidential candidates. When either of these two is elected, some of what they say will represent a tiny tiny minority of the views of Americans. (Though Trump is already morphing into a reasonable gentle highly electable person as primary victory approaches.) Even I may well be applauding the fact that the corporations actually pull the strings as many of the Trump/Clinton views are so dangerous….

The real tragedy of this facade is that none of the proposals of Bernie Sanders will be heard of again – although they propose real change especially for poorer Americans. And all this is mirrored in the UK where the Tory 12 seat majority makes them all powerful – essentially a multi headed dictatorship.

Read More

Non Violence?

Non violence

 

After delving into the potential wisdom of a more violent approach to creating alternatives to dysfunctional democracy, in Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Ghandi, I have moved on to a more peaceful approach: Blueprint for Revolution is one of the most inspiring books I’ve read for years. There is much to learn for anyone involved in trying to engage the wider public with a view to regime change. Sroja Popovic’s experience is from his key role in undermining Milosovic’s Serbian dictatorship – and he has gone on to train and support uprisings from Tunisia to Syria. However, many of the basic ideas apply as equally Frome as they do to Egypt.

Central themes include: How to judge what actions are worth doing while staying alive; making oppression backfire; the importance of planning……. and the ‘demons of violence’ – how (he feels) that when the violence is succumbed to, the whole process can be undermined.

Many of the books examples are hugely inspiring – especially those that use ‘Laughterism’ – undermining the pompous Powers That Be in ways where they cannot engage without looking even more stupid. This is as relevant in Frome as in dictator situations* as we work to bring more people into political discussion and engagement and need to show the system up for what it is.
*(It’s increasinlgy unclear to me whether we do live in a non dictator situation).

So far non-violent wit has my vote…… BUT it’s got to be edgy enough to make a difference.

[Along with many great books, Blueprint for Revolution is available from Ecologic Books where you can buy it from a man who pays his taxes (or would do if he ever earned enough)]

How Wild To Go?

revolution

I’ve just finished ‘Molotov Cocktails with Ghandi’ by Mark Boyle. A challenging read for someone whose instinct is firmly towards non-violent revolt.
I’m totally in agreement with his analysis that ‘…our political and economic system has brought us to the brink of climate catastrophe, ransacking ecosystems and unravelling communities for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many’….. and I can increasingly see the need to upgrade reduce, reuse, and recycle: Mark’s three Rs are Resist, Revolt, and Rewild…. the last especially interesting given Frome’s recent delve into Rewilding with a packed audience at an evening of talks. That focussed on reintroducing the top species of animals – otters, wolves, and wild cats. Read More

Copyright © Peter Macfadyen 2014