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).
I am travelling back from Amsterdam and a packed day with Pakhuis de Zwiger. Through various Pirate Party connections they’d connected with Flatpackery and asked me to take part a set of workshops. Lucky Amsterdam having Pakhuis as such an extraordinary resource of place and people to catalyse and ferment!
The afternoon brought a collection of activists together to look at how elements of Frome’s experience might enliven and inform possible entry into City elections next year. The evening event placed four of us on stage surrounded by an audience invited to join the conversation in ways so much more effective than usual. What’s so impressive for me is the energy there is for real alternatives; the IT options increasingly available to be used in really novel ways; and the desire , depth of knowledge and political thinking there is available!
Speaking of alternative….. what I missed in the UK was the launch of the Alternative UK – a new political platform (not a party) set up to ‘….catalyse a new politics that goes far beyond our current reality. To focus on engagement more than elections, on values over ideology, and on futures that include, not exclude. ….’
This chimes perfectly with everything I heard in Amsterdam and later in conversations with Thomas Goorden who has driven ahead with adopting much of the early Frome Flatpack methodology in an amazingly active group established in Antwerp. Key to their ethos is a set of ‘Ways of working’ based on Independents for Frome’s and with clear overlap with the core values of Alternative Denmark.
The challenge now is for the UK and Dutch energy to move from workshop and screen to lists of candidates and face to face engagement in the way Thomas is in Antwerp. At this moment there is plenty of energy and excitement looking to do just that.
I am increasingly taken with need to reclaim politics from politicians and the Party Political process. If politics is ‘…the process of making decisions applying to all members of each group…’ what we have allowed is a small group to ignore the fact that most of us are constantly engaged in the process and for them to make the decisions on our behalf. My initial experiences with Frome Town Council were exactly that – a small, unrepresentative (largely unelected) group who made key decisions that affected many of us, driven by ideologies not based in this community.
Over the last 6 years we have worked to change that relationship and reposition councillors and civil servants as part of a network of actors within the community. At a town level this has contributed to our becoming a much more resilient community – stronger economically and in many aspects of wellbeing. The opening of the Town’s Hall in a few weeks, as a nexus for community cohesion, has the potential to further redefining the role of council and councillors (politicians) – it should further help burst the bubble in which we still sometimes sit.
My experience of 17 independent councillors, working in a common direction, increasingly integrated into the community, is that shared ownership of decision making processes – sharing politics – results in greater outcomes and overall wellbeing.
At a national and international level reclaiming wide ownership of politics may have a much more fundamental role. Robert Eaglestone (speaking about 10 minutes into Melvyn Bragg’s Radio 4 ‘In our Time’ this morning) described Hannah Arendt’s views “…totalitarianism arises when people are disconnected and when social bonds aren’t as strong…. a movement or strong man arises and offers a story, an ideology, which claims to explain why people are unhappy …and that story becomes more powerful…” Arendt (a survivor of the holocaust) concluded that if people are contradicting each other in civic engagement, and articulating their disagreement this creates a strong civic culture and respect for others and prevents totalitarianism. The Party Political system polarises disagreement into conflict between Parties, rather than allowing public disagreement.
The scenario Hannah Arendt describes in which totalitarianism ferments is alive today. What we have seen recently is false use of populism (‘support for the concerns of ordinary people’) imposed on democratic systems easily manipulated because they are chronically out of date….. the end result (in America) feels horribly close to totalitarianism. To counter this we need a reclaiming of politics. Zoe Williams ends her article yesterday “…..perhaps Arendt’s most profound legacy is in establishing that one has to consider oneself political as part of the human condition….”. I absolutely agree – but would add that we then need to move aside those who claim the monopoly on political decisions.
Presidential inauguration day. Hurray, at last we are clearly being shown a key ‘democratic’ ritual as the facade it is, with unchecked global corporate power lathered all over the place. Donald represents one way to turn when democracy isn’t working – placing blind faith in someone who promises to do it for you (while showing equal blindness to costs). The President of the United States! Apparently the most powerful role in the world – basically next to God….if he can’t sort things who can?
This armchair approach to sorting the world (sit back and wait for Trump/May/Putin etc to do the job) has a number of problems – primarily the aforementioned corporate powers who pull the strings and have an agenda that is not that of either the people or the planet. But it is also ultimately deeply dissatisfying because it leaves you and I with no role
An alternative response to the collapse of a functioning political party system is to look local. To take control of what we can really change ourselves. That’s what we did in Frome in 2011 and how we did that was of enough interest for me to write Flatpack Democracy. However, what’s really much more interesting is what happened next and our (sometimes bumpy) ride towards repositioning the role of the Council as a facilitator of community initiatives.
As Frome continues to innovate and to wave two fingers at austerity at a local level, I find myself drowning in requests for support and information on what we are up to. Within this are a myriad of fascinating links and connections to other towns, communities and individuals experimenting with ways to find a real politics which I want to find time to understand. Each of us needs to be able to draw on nuggets within the other’s struggles, to build a real alternative for our own unique situation.
So, I’m trying not to notice what Trump’s up to and stick to the knitting and somehow find the time to unearth the gems of real politics in the everyday activism of families and communities.