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).

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1
Independence?
2
My shit dream.
3
Process or Product?
4
After Brexit….
5
Beech trees and Brexit
6
Can ‘No’ be positive?
7
How do we get rid of you?
8
AnywhereButWestminster
9
Mind the gap
10
How to Do It

Independence?

passport

For the second time in a few months Frome has had the galling experience of an ‘inspector’  deciding that against the recommendations of both the Town and District councils, large scale housing should be dumped upon us.  Not just any housing, but high density crap with minimal investment in the town.

There are many reasons why this is wrong, but the most galling is that David Whatsit (the last prime minister) launched his Localism initiative by saying “…we must take the power away from the political elite and hand it to the man and woman in the street”.  The potential movement of power to local communities was part of what created Independents for Frome.  But the reality is constant centralising of power which will make it impossible to attract and keep good competent local councillors – in the words of one yesterday “why did I waste all my time at those meetings”.  (And for the often consulted and continually ignored woman and man in the street “why not stick it up ‘em and vote Brexit/Trump”).

On top of the planning nonsense come plans to cap local ability to raise taxes.  Ideologically driven, this will stop us potentially raising small additional amounts of money from Frome to spend on projects in Frome agreed by the people of Frome.  So how, with services collapsing by the day, are we meant to encourage local volunteerism (councillors are volunteers) or fund the things desperately needed at a local level?  I see Passport to Pimlico coming next (1.10secs into the clip).

My shit dream.

sewage

I woke recently from a dream in which the world’s sewage systems have become totally blocked by humankind’s over consumption.  Sewage spilled out from manholes and back up toilets.  Experts were everywhere trying to work out what to do – where to divert sewage to, how to hold down the manholes and block up the leaks.

In my dream I suddenly realised that the only people not being included were the workers – who (as ‘real sewage workers’ do) operated underground in tunnels, with chainsaws to cut through congealed fat…..).  I dashed about in the growing rivers of sewage trying to tell the people with clipboards that they needed to talk to the workers….  Like many dreams, I can’t remember the end…..

We remain in a ludicrous situation where the 1% are engaged in politics and flounder about failing to make sensible decisions; while the 99% who have the answers are excluded by the system and themselves.  Reclaiming Politics – or perhaps Rebranding Politics – is the only way out of the shit.

Process or Product?

temp donkeys

Last week I chaired one of Frome Town Council’s two committees – the first ‘Town Matters’ meeting.  It was either the worst meeting we’ve ever had – demanding resignations and inducing apoplectic fury, or the best – drawing in around 60 people with hugely engaged lively discussion.  24 hours later when the dust had settled a bit we could unpick the pros and cons.

Essentially the meeting brought to a head the constant struggles between Process and Product and between Participatory and Representative Democracies.  The meeting was set up in the round with public and councillors mixed and little of the formal structure associated with council meetings to hold on to.  More normally, councillors sit behind a table and the public are an audience with limited rights to speak.

Some people sit more comfortably at one end of the Process and Product spectrum than others – some preferring to ‘just do it’ others to ‘talk everything through’.  And some issues absolutely require discussion – others require a simple decision.   With more than one issue on an agenda, it proves hard to move between open discussion and tighter decision making as the best fit changes.  Put another way, once the public are unleashed, it proves hard to get them back in their box!

In the end councillors made the decisions we needed to make and no one died.  Most of the public probably felt enlivened to have been there.  But the process certainly pushed the boundaries beyond where many felt comfortable and there is a strong case that the ability of councillors to hear views, then to make informed decisions was lost in the informality.  The need for greater preparation and different skills to run a highly participatory meeting than a conventional chaired one was also clear.  My personal view is that we don’t play enough – it’s hugely creative – but all games need some rules if they are to be either enjoyed or productive.

What’s important to me is to keep pushing the edges as we increasingly recognise that the gap between the public and politicians at all levels of governance needs to be minimised, with every opportunity taken for the community to reclaim politics.  Especially pleasing is that Independents for Frome’s ‘Ways of Working’ survived the pressure and the strongly felt criticism could be aired and heard before learning and moving on – without this becoming personal, which is much more difficult to recover from.

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.

 

Copyright © Peter Macfadyen 2014