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

Lasting communities?
A game of two halves
Frustrations and hopes.
Somewhere and everywhere.
Once Upon a Time…
Rules Rules Rules
When is a Movement?
Danish Icebergs
Rethinking Activism
What now?

Lasting communities?

Lasting communities - Rocks on a beach

The UK’s tryst with Siberian weather has brought out both the worst and best in people’s behaviour – mostly the best, as locals carry sandwiches to people stuck in their cars for hours and shelter is found for freezing rough sleepers.  So on Sunday, when the snow melts and we go back to endless Brexit news on how not to behave in neighbourly ways, what happens at a local level?

Hopefully some of the contact made while shovelling snow or shopping for neighbours will be retained and become the ground for deeper relationships.  George Monbiot’s recent article on links between community building and improved health (based on ‘Compassion is the Best Medicine’ in Resurgence/Ecologist) shows both what we can achieve and a direction that makes sense in every way.

The evidence – drawn from work initiated by Frome’s Health Centre – puts figures to the obvious fact that a well connected community will be a healthier place in which to live.  Why the work becomes newsworthy is that caring for each other saves millions of pounds and reduces stress on what remains of the NHS.

The Health Connections Mendip project is doing so well because it is built on many years of community building.  The project creates the link between existing community groups, the health service, and individuals in need.  Frome has had an enviable record of community activity for many years – the annual Carnival, for example, has raised thousands of pounds each year since 1929 – money that is quietly distributed to those who need it…. and around 400 other groups now perform  in other ways.

All this is great, but I believe that bedrock of engagement also needed a Town Council that was prepared to change the power relationship between community and Council, for something like the Health Connections Mendip project to thrive as it is.  Over the last 8 years the council has helped nurture community groups, hugely increasing support not just in money but in training and guidance.  Crucially this is being done as a partnership – with the Council recognising its ambitions should be met with a symbiotic relationship rather than the traditional paternalistic one.

[Incidentally, the thinking behind this – and much more – will all be shared at the Council’s Breaking the Mould conference in April.]

A game of two halves

I’ve just come home after chairing Frome Town Council’s ‘Town Matters’ committee – the one dealing with issues out in the community.  A game of two halves.  Much of the meeting was our response to the Local Plan Part Two.  Eight pages of detailed report that hours of staff and councillor time has gone into, looking at areas of the town which will be earmarked for development – or not.  If we don’t recommend enough space for housing then the whole thing is declared illegal and developers can do what they like – so it’s not an option to reject the lot.  And to make it worse, the District Council (who make the decisions) are so under resourced and under skilled that what we are offered is not a plan, but a set of one off options around the edges of the town with no strategic thinking….

So I am faced with a room full of bemused people, forced into approving things we can all see are madness.  What can I say to the group of local residents who want to know we have listened to their plea not to have a housing estate on an area that the District has previously declared unsustainable for development, but now put forward for development?

Come in Kafka.  This is local democracy at its most dysfunctional.  This is where ‘Localism’ is a joke.

And then the second half brings us plans for real engagement with the community supporting groups to take control at a local level of the things that matter to them.  And a report on fantastic work that has been done to enable struggling groups to emerge from near collapse to thriving action.  And a discussion with Harry’s Hydro – long supported by the council to bring hydro therapy to around 100 people a week.

I guess the moral is to pour energy into the things we can affect.   But the massive frustration remains that it is the crap planning that will stick Toy Towns in the fields around Frome, without forcing developers to provide the infrastructure needed and without even a nod to joined up thinking, that will impact more on lives in the future than efforts of so many at a local level.


Frustrations and hopes.

Independents for Frome has had two electoral periods of controlling the town council.  The first started in 2011 (when we had an initial 10/17 seats) and the second in 2017 (when we started with all 17).  In each period we have faced a bye-election just before the final year.  In each case the ward with the bye-election already has at least one councillor – so people are represented – and the new councillor will make no difference to the balance of power.  But the Political Parties seek power and – at a cost to the town of £6,000 – demand an election.

I respect their right to contest elections and that of the electorate to vote. What I am so disappointed by is the tired old crap that gets wheeled out which encourages the electorate to stay in the status quo we know is so corrosive.  Already leaflets are being delivered focussing on one unfinished project of the current council and listing a set of lies and half truths to demonstrate……. well what?  Presumably, that this group of councillors makes bad decisions.  Read More

Somewhere and everywhere.


Annabelle and I have been incredibly lucky to be included in the travels of some hugely inspiring young people recently.  Some come via our children and others from political searching – using ‘political’ in the sense of questioning, discussing, sharing, lobbying…. rather than the limited Political Party sense.

Recently there has been a common thread in hearing the different approaches many have in seeking depth or breadth…. or moving along this spectrum.  In some cases this has meant aiming to have studied widely across a whole area of interest – in others to really engage deeply with one aspect.  Often  discussion has touched on the pros and cons of settling somewhere and having relatively few very important relationships – or having huge numbers of contacts everywhere (usually through social media) and often all over the world.

Personally, I’ve been incredibly lucky to have found ways to spend enough time in Frome to develop the somewhere, while retaining links and work in the wider world – though the latter half of this balance is fading as I have given it less attention and my past skills become less relevant.

My bedtime reading is Wendell Berry who returned to the land his great great grandparents first settled on, to revel in knowing that land in a deeply personal way, finding joy in simplicity.  His pleasure is light years away from the mountains of Christmas presents and their wrapping that are already shuffling towards the landfill and oceans.  A mass of stuff briefly touched and quickly forgotten.

My hope is that by developing and tending the relationships we have with these travellers on the Somewhere/Everywhere Spectrum, Annabelle and I can share and provide some solidity in what the Quakers call ‘turbulent times’ …. while we can also feed on the inspiration and new perspectives that their hunting and gathering in the wider world harvests.

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.

Read More

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.



Copyright © Peter Macfadyen 2014