Author - Peter Macfadyen

1
Dogs, mines and parties.
2
Where the politics is….
3
The Parties are Over.
4
The people are revolting…..
5
New light?
6
Reclaiming politics
7
Drowning in the zeitgeist….
8
Hope?
9
Is this a moment?
10
Time for the Pirates?

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.

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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New light?

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.

Reclaiming politics

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.

Drowning in the zeitgeist….

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.

Hope?

Annabelle (my lifetime and political partner) and I returned 10 days ago from a week with the Alternative Party in Denmark. At the core of this trip was an invitation to perform at their AGM – primarily to members, some of whom are intending to stand in next year’s council elections. (The Alternative Party entered politics the ‘wrong way up’ – starting 3 years ago by getting 10 MPs elected, and only later concerning themselves with building party structure and representation at other levels). I use the word ‘perform’ because it was made clear that they did not want a lecture or talk, but something to enthuse and inspire as well as enlighten.

We chose to tell the tale of 30 years of activism in Frome – community engagement in various ways, as well as my more recently activity with Independents for Frome

As we put this together the relative importance of the community compared to the elected council became more and more obvious. The experience has further strengthened my clear conviction that the role of a council, as just one cog in the wider community, is to support initiatives which have their roots firmly with the people. Councils and councillors come and go – generations of people in a community remain. I realise this is not a novel thought – but perhaps working to position the council so clearly in the background (as we are doing in Frome) is less common.

I was deeply inspired by the energy and enthusiasm of the Alternative Danes. As we were there our son Ben was with many others at Standing Rock engaged in a protest which has brought indigenous people across the planet out to say ‘enough is enough’. Where is the link? For me it is in the conclusion of Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’ which is that it will only be when the vast mass of ‘ordinary’ people link together their disparate movements that the essential changes required to enable a sustainable future are achieved. The ‘ordinary’ Danes looking to radically change politics; the Sioux of Standing Rock; the Maori who supported them from afar; the movement pushing companies to divest from fossil fuels….. all these are saying that the system is fucked and their unlikely alliance – along with millions of other causes – has to be the hope amongst a fair degree of hopelessness.

Is this a moment?

temp-mickey

Trump’s electoral victory will have passed the vast majority of the world’s citizens by, too busy surviving. Even many in America – when they hear about it – will have simply shrugged at another distant twist in things beyond their control. For relatively few – but still a huge number – it will have been a visceral shock. A sickening blow to all they work for and believe in, leaving them full of fear. And for others it brings a moment of profound joy – opportunity to escape the remote power of the political elite who have promised much and delivered nothing.
As you’d probably expect I started in the ‘visceral shock’ category. Due to head off to Belgium and present at an event on democracy, my instinct was to hide under the bed. Now I am heading home after an inspired few days and lunch just now with three citizens of Ghent. In different ways they are each charged up with energy to confront and change political systems that are completely out of sync with the reality of our age. (A few years ago I’d not have bet on my sharing thoughts with an ex Belgian Pirate in Ghent). Humankind has got the political leaders it deserves – from Putin to Trump – because we have let them build and retain the political systems.
If (and it’s a massive if) Trump can be prevented from causing the mayhem and damage many fear, then the madness of America electing a deranged cartoon character as their Head of State may provide the catalyst for people to move en masse to reclaim politics.

Time for the Pirates?

temp-skull-and-c

So as we come to the Day of the Dead and spirits all over the planet return to be honoured and cast an eye over what’s going on…… will the Pirate Party in Iceland hoist a skull and crossbones over that island?  I’ve just read this interview with Birgitta Jonsdottir – their figurehead (crashing through the waves of disbelief).

What I like most in her words is the clear statement that elected politicians don’t necessarily know ANYTHING and we must find ways in which the wisdom of the people is engaged.  As I talk to more groups of people (most recently at the sold out 38Degrees Live event in Exeter) I am constantly struck by the hunger to be engaged in politics.  Alongside that goes a desire for factual critical information.  This lack is at the heart of so much that is wrong with our failing democracy.  While Party politicians have their own preservation ahead of the greater good and the press is almost entirely a pathetic insult to journalism, getting the right information to connect that desire of the grassroots to engage and decision making is a real challenge!

However, the internet does provide the capacity to find out what’s really out there.  If enough people at the community level can build networks and relationships that they trust, perhaps we can reclaim politics through those illusive facts.

Who knows what the Pirates might achieve if elected – but from what I read that’s exactly the realism and intent they are intending to inject into Iceland’s future.

Copyright © Peter Macfadyen 2014