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’.
So, people turn instead to try and engage with the system at its local levels. What I had not expected was a palpable anger at how difficult this is. The endless rules and systems invented for a Victorian world are hopeless in 2017. The internet gives greater access to information – now people want a way in influence decisions – and are frustrated in a world where all doors are shut or impossible to find. Given that the ‘lower end’ of the system is not only disempowered by the top, but also largely ineffective, then the vacuum I mentioned before is exactly where both populism and extremism can fester nicely.
My second realisation is that there is a real energy for us – the people – to reinvent the ways we run our communities, finding ways that people can really understand and influence the decisions that affect their everyday lives (unfucking democracy). So the story of Frome’s politics is heard partly with disbelief, but also excitement – that things can be different. I particularly enjoyed time with INDY Monmouth who have launched the ultimate surprise campaign, selecting 15 candidates just hours before the deadline, and bringing an ‘Independent.. Non-Partisan… Determined.. Yours’ option to the people.
All over the place there are examples of communities doing it themselves despite our political system – as austerity bites there is little choice but DIY. What those communities need is functioning local government to work with. While Susanna Rustin’s article ‘parish councils: an unlikely urban safety net’ makes the case for parish councils to plug the gaps, visiting towns makes it clear to me that we need to see local politics reinvented so that it can let the people in (symbolically achieved last week by reopening Frome’s Town’s Hall). My view is that most people – including councillors – don’t realise things can be done differently. We need a new relationship between local councils and citizens, a key part of which is recognising that the Parties are over, along with representative democracy which represents only a few.