Flatpack Democracy

A DIY guide to creating independent politics
by Peter Macfadyen.

(As featured in the Guardian’s AnywhereButWestminster and Social Innovation Exchange, Danish and Belgian TV here).

Get the revolution started: Buy 8 copies for only £40 and free p & p

1
Real politics
2
Taking the P out of politics
3
Whose role is it anyway?
4
Flatpackery
5
Lasting communities?
6
A game of two halves
7
Frustrations and hopes.
8
Somewhere and everywhere.
9
Once Upon a Time…
10
Rules Rules Rules

Real politics

 

I spent an hour of yesterday evening talking with a group of ‘ordinary people’.  I use those inverted commas with intent, because that’s a meaningless term in so many ways.  This was a group of people somewhere in the east of England, sat on their sofas discussing how to reconnect what matters to them, with local political decision making.  They are ‘ordinary’ only in the sense of not being what most of us expect politicians to look like.

In this particular case, most of them are already local councillors who do not represent any Political Party.  They work hard to include and engage with groups in the town and to really understand people’s needs.  Their problem is that a significant number of other councillors are members of a particular national Political Party, and this comes a strong determination to keep spending down and taxes low.   The result is that the town is winding slowly down when the need for resources to bring in the enthusiasm and skills that exist has never been greater.

The group on the sofa are just one of many all over the country who have had enough.  They will find others in their town to stand with them in elections early next year and hopefully will join those that have found a way to extricate themselves from the stranglehold of irrelevant Party ideology.  That’s just the first step, but with enthusiasm, aspirations and risk taking it is possible to get out of what seems like an impossible situation.  By working with local people rather than dictates from above they can really make changes…. and do ‘politics’ in a totally different way.

I’m off to Byline Festival in Sussex now, to listen to a lot of hopefully interesting people, and to take part in a discussion with three Spanish politicians who just a few months ago were ‘ordinary people’ looking for better ways to do things – and now run cities.

 

Taking the P out of politics

Over the last month I’ve been variously involved in an inspiring set of activities outside of everyday Frome Town Council engagements.  I have conversations with (r)evolutionaries from towns and parishes on  an almost daily basis, but recently these have been augmented by a set of events .  At the core of all these has been a desire to find better ways to move on from the political systems that are so patently and alarmingly failing us.

In Denmark Annabelle played central roles in a series of workshops and talks with Fandenivoldsk Forandring (a new consultancy working with the link between the people and politics);  Folke Traeffet (a coming together of Transition Town and similar movements) and Sagerdersamler (supporters of radical activists).  The common theme of them all was seeking inspiration for reducing an increasing gap between political activists, citizens and their political representatives.  My feeling is that the extraordinary Danish achievements of the last 70 years – leading to top ratings for overall wellbeing/ happiness and ways of doing things that are the envy of the world – are at great risk of erosion.  Left to government ideology, much that is so special could disappear almost overnight.

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Whose role is it anyway?

I’ve had a busy few days on the Democracy Front recently – mainly pointing out that pretending we live in a democracy helps no one.  Indeed, my ‘provocation’ to the Open Government Network’s summit in Edinburgh aimed to take that slightly further, suggesting that the collaboration between central government and organisations which work to promote democratic engagement may have the opposite effect: I wanted to challenge the Network along with organisations like Locality, Involve and the Democratic Society to check whether their work leads to real change, or gives a false sense of progress which lets everyone off the hook.

These thoughts continued into Breaking the Mould – Frome Town Council’s unique conference for and with other local councils, which nearly 100 councillors and clerks attended.  Where was interest or support from the organisations funded to enable local level democracy to function?  The Local Government Association or National Association of Local Councils – which apparently ‘represents my interests’ as a councillor?  The conference was hugely appreciated by nearly all those who came – all provided at a cost of time, money and stress to Frome.  Were I into conspiracy theories, I’d start to wonder if here, too, there is a sense in which pottering on the edges suits those who wish to retain the status quo. (Key elements of the day are recorded here.)

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Flatpackery

Flatpack Democracy has certainly introduced me to some unexpected, often slightly surreal, situations in the last few years – who’d have predicted the book would lead to interviews yesterday with the South Korean documentary crew who have been in Frome for a week?

They follow others from Denmark and Belgium.  A significant number of people have come to Frome to live, having read the book (or maybe they liked the cover?).  On Monday I was in London talking to Swedish politicians (in a Hilton hotel basement) and am invited to the Scottish parliament soon to meet ministers. There are at least two PhDs and innumerable other studies drawing heavily on the methodologies Independents for Frome evolved and that the book described…. what started as a short story book with a good title has morphed into a Movement.

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Lasting communities?

Lasting communities - Rocks on a beach

The UK’s tryst with Siberian weather has brought out both the worst and best in people’s behaviour – mostly the best, as locals carry sandwiches to people stuck in their cars for hours and shelter is found for freezing rough sleepers.  So on Sunday, when the snow melts and we go back to endless Brexit news on how not to behave in neighbourly ways, what happens at a local level?

Hopefully some of the contact made while shovelling snow or shopping for neighbours will be retained and become the ground for deeper relationships.  George Monbiot’s recent article on links between community building and improved health (based on ‘Compassion is the Best Medicine’ in Resurgence/Ecologist) shows both what we can achieve and a direction that makes sense in every way.

The evidence – drawn from work initiated by Frome’s Health Centre – puts figures to the obvious fact that a well connected community will be a healthier place in which to live.  Why the work becomes newsworthy is that caring for each other saves millions of pounds and reduces stress on what remains of the NHS.

The Health Connections Mendip project is doing so well because it is built on many years of community building.  The project creates the link between existing community groups, the health service, and individuals in need.  Frome has had an enviable record of community activity for many years – the annual Carnival, for example, has raised thousands of pounds each year since 1929 – money that is quietly distributed to those who need it…. and around 400 other groups now perform  in other ways.

All this is great, but I believe that bedrock of engagement also needed a Town Council that was prepared to change the power relationship between community and Council, for something like the Health Connections Mendip project to thrive as it is.  Over the last 8 years the council has helped nurture community groups, hugely increasing support not just in money but in training and guidance.  Crucially this is being done as a partnership – with the Council recognising its ambitions should be met with a symbiotic relationship rather than the traditional paternalistic one.

[Incidentally, the thinking behind this – and much more – will all be shared at the Council’s Breaking the Mould conference in April.]

A game of two halves

I’ve just come home after chairing Frome Town Council’s ‘Town Matters’ committee – the one dealing with issues out in the community.  A game of two halves.  Much of the meeting was our response to the Local Plan Part Two.  Eight pages of detailed report that hours of staff and councillor time has gone into, looking at areas of the town which will be earmarked for development – or not.  If we don’t recommend enough space for housing then the whole thing is declared illegal and developers can do what they like – so it’s not an option to reject the lot.  And to make it worse, the District Council (who make the decisions) are so under resourced and under skilled that what we are offered is not a plan, but a set of one off options around the edges of the town with no strategic thinking….

So I am faced with a room full of bemused people, forced into approving things we can all see are madness.  What can I say to the group of local residents who want to know we have listened to their plea not to have a housing estate on an area that the District has previously declared unsustainable for development, but now put forward for development?

Come in Kafka.  This is local democracy at its most dysfunctional.  This is where ‘Localism’ is a joke.

And then the second half brings us plans for real engagement with the community supporting groups to take control at a local level of the things that matter to them.  And a report on fantastic work that has been done to enable struggling groups to emerge from near collapse to thriving action.  And a discussion with Harry’s Hydro – long supported by the council to bring hydro therapy to around 100 people a week.

I guess the moral is to pour energy into the things we can affect.   But the massive frustration remains that it is the crap planning that will stick Toy Towns in the fields around Frome, without forcing developers to provide the infrastructure needed and without even a nod to joined up thinking, that will impact more on lives in the future than efforts of so many at a local level.

 

Frustrations and hopes.

Independents for Frome has had two electoral periods of controlling the town council.  The first started in 2011 (when we had an initial 10/17 seats) and the second in 2017 (when we started with all 17).  In each period we have faced a bye-election just before the final year.  In each case the ward with the bye-election already has at least one councillor – so people are represented – and the new councillor will make no difference to the balance of power.  But the Political Parties seek power and – at a cost to the town of £6,000 – demand an election.

I respect their right to contest elections and that of the electorate to vote. What I am so disappointed by is the tired old crap that gets wheeled out which encourages the electorate to stay in the status quo we know is so corrosive.  Already leaflets are being delivered focussing on one unfinished project of the current council and listing a set of lies and half truths to demonstrate……. well what?  Presumably, that this group of councillors makes bad decisions.  Read More

Somewhere and everywhere.

 

Annabelle and I have been incredibly lucky to be included in the travels of some hugely inspiring young people recently.  Some come via our children and others from political searching – using ‘political’ in the sense of questioning, discussing, sharing, lobbying…. rather than the limited Political Party sense.

Recently there has been a common thread in hearing the different approaches many have in seeking depth or breadth…. or moving along this spectrum.  In some cases this has meant aiming to have studied widely across a whole area of interest – in others to really engage deeply with one aspect.  Often  discussion has touched on the pros and cons of settling somewhere and having relatively few very important relationships – or having huge numbers of contacts everywhere (usually through social media) and often all over the world.

Personally, I’ve been incredibly lucky to have found ways to spend enough time in Frome to develop the somewhere, while retaining links and work in the wider world – though the latter half of this balance is fading as I have given it less attention and my past skills become less relevant.

My bedtime reading is Wendell Berry who returned to the land his great great grandparents first settled on, to revel in knowing that land in a deeply personal way, finding joy in simplicity.  His pleasure is light years away from the mountains of Christmas presents and their wrapping that are already shuffling towards the landfill and oceans.  A mass of stuff briefly touched and quickly forgotten.

My hope is that by developing and tending the relationships we have with these travellers on the Somewhere/Everywhere Spectrum, Annabelle and I can share and provide some solidity in what the Quakers call ‘turbulent times’ …. while we can also feed on the inspiration and new perspectives that their hunting and gathering in the wider world harvests.

Once Upon a Time…

One step forward, two back, three forward…..  I’m gradually bringing together the pieces of Flatpack Two, which will aim to set out what can be done with (local council) power once it’s been grasped from the hands of those who chose either not to use it well, or not to use it much at all.  Or at least, I’m trying to work out in what order the pieces should go ….when actually I need to stop messing about and just write them and sort that later.

I’ve had plenty of practice putting thoughts together recently with a little rush of ‘political tourism’ to Frome – Danish TV, Belgian authors, visitors from other councils and a clutch of academics.  They come – I believe – for two main reasons.

Firstly, the old story of our moving on from Party Politics at this level of local government by winning all 17 seats in 2015.  I’ve slowly realised that while this was an important statement of independence, it’s what happens next that is really more interesting and has more potentially long lasting impact – which is the second story people want to hear:

A Guardian article on Frome a few weeks focuses firmly on the community there is in Frome – and as a town council we have concentrated on building the links, reducing the barriers and enabling the community to take on austerity imposed from above.  Frome has real examples of the ideas George Monbiot and Shaun Chamberlin present in their new books – ‘Out of the Wreckage’ and ‘Surviving the Future’ (both of whom talk about these at the Gaia Foundations Winter Talks in the next few weeks).

What their books and talks tells me is that this is A MOMENT.  There is widespread recognition that democracy and our current political systems are terminally failing us at both local and planetary levels.  George’s subtitle is ‘A New Politics for an Age of Crisis’ – I see it as an old politics needing to be reclaimed.

The task of Flatpack 2 is to provide inspiration and instruction on moving from ideas to actions which can make a real difference quickly.  It might also look at how those local ideas scale up to impact on a much larger scale, or it might not!

Rules Rules Rules

In the first few hours of yesterday I found myself confronted with a series of events all linked by a common thread:  the creation and use of rules.  This links to a conversation I am following that has been taking place amongst groups of Independents forming both in the UK and Belgium.

Firstly, I read about ‘The war against Pope Francis’ whose traditionalist opponents are looking to remove him via the only means they can – proof of heresy.  This rests on a footnote in an article he wrote suggesting that it might be possible to give communion to some divorced or remarried couples.  This has been ruled out by previous Popes, and what a previous Pope says is the word of God, so it would be heresy to challenge that ruling…. If he has done this he can be removed.

Secondly, the morning news included the Australian government losing its majority after the Deputy Prime Minister was found to have dual nationality which is against the rules.   Seven MPs were found to contravene this rule – dual nationality had been conferred to them at birth or by descent and they claimed not to know about it.

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Copyright © Peter Macfadyen 2014