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
When is a Movement?
2
Danish Icebergs
3
Rethinking Activism
4
What now?
5
My kind of manifesto.
6
Dogs, mines and parties.
7
Where the politics is….
8
Indy Monmouth
9
The Parties are Over.
10
The people are revolting…..

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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The Parties are Over.

I recently completed my retrospectively named ‘Unfuck Democracy Spring Tour’ (T shirts available soon).  I can’t say it has been a total success in terms of unfucking democracy, but it did take me to some unlikely places and into some unfamiliar bubbles.  My crystal ball of a few years ago failed to anticipate sharing a Progressive Alliance table with Sir Vince cable in Richmond, or ranting in an alarmingly full nightclub in Brighton with 38 Degrees, or with the Cynon Valley Party in Mountain Ash Rugby Club.

I come away with two main thoughts.  Firstly, reconfirmed in my view that there is an alarming vacuum that sits beneath the upper layers of our ‘democratic’ system.     Given that the ‘top end’ are not going to suddenly find a moral compass, but will continue to prop up a system with the same noses in the trough and retain an unfair electoral system which keeps them in power, it is no surprise that there is a widespread rejection and cynicism in relation to democracy at the ‘top end’.

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The people are revolting…..

I am on my way back from two Flatpack linked events.  The first in Richmond – run by Compass – was on Alliance Building.  I’d been asked because Frome’s council could be regarded as a Progressive Alliance operating beyond an electoral pact that is just to gain power.  Vince Cable and Jonathan Bartley spoke from LibDem and Green perspectives and Barry Langford as a ‘labour man’ – though the Labour Party seems intent on ploughing its own furrow into oblivion.  All three spoke of why electoral agreements are the only way to avoid decades or Tory rule and potentially to get us to a working form of proportional representation, which is the only way to drag us back from the joke masquerading as democracy we currently have.  Klina Jordan – co-founder of Make Voted Matter then spoke – having the great pleasure of 100,000 signatories to their petition just being reached. (And I told the story of Frome).

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Copyright © Peter Macfadyen 2014