Flatpack Democracy

A DIY guide to creating independent politics
by Peter Macfadyen.

(As featured in the Guardian’s AnywhereButWestminster and Social Innovation Exchange ).

Get the revolution started: Buy 8 copies for only £40 and free p & p        The Rights of Spring poster is available here.

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People Power
2
Rights of Spring
3
Did it work?
4
‘If at first….’ Robert the Bruce
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Extinction Rebellion 2
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Extinction Rebellion
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An imperfect storm
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Real politics
9
Taking the P out of politics
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Whose role is it anyway?

People Power

Over the last few weeks I have started to write a short blog dozens of times.  Usually there has been too much to say, often someone else says it just as well before I get there. Last month my focus was very much on the groups organising themselves to stand in May 2nd local elections as Independents.

That was swept to one side by the extraordinary activity of Extinction Rebellion (XR) focussed on London.  They had three demands and it was the third that surprised and interested me most from the start: That the ‘Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice’.  My involvement led to speaking in Parliament Square and Marble Arch to introduce this demand, before very large numbers of people engaged in impromptu People’s Assemblies (these underpin XR’s decision making process and will be used to inform future strategy).

Meanwhile, over on Waterloo Bridge hundreds of people from the South West of England formed the core of protesters who turned it into a focus of a positive future for over a week.  Amongst them, Annabelle (my partner in all things) was amongst the many arrested from Frome.  This comes as no surprise and I am now inordinately proud that amongst Frome’s new councillors there were five arrests. Read More

Rights of Spring

As comedians Laurel and Hardy said: “Well , here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into “….. Why so many? Why endless dead ends and unanswerable conundrums? If we’d written fiction to demonstrate that the Party political, system with elected ‘representatives’, is totally unfit for purpose, it could never have been as well put together as the farce we see before us.
Elsewhere that mashup of fact and fiction is becoming reality as 41-year-old Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who plays a president in a popular Ukranian TV series, gained twice the vote of his nearest rival in the first round of Presidential elections. He’s following in the footsteps of M55 Five Star Movement in Italy, founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, which gained more votes than any other party in 2018 elections.
Do the people really want to have comedians in charge? Well, if it’s going to happen, why not have a professional comedian rather than those who fall into that role by mistake? A similar idea comes from Greta Thunberg ‘….and since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago’. Let the children and fools step up. Her powerful words remind us constantly that the system and leaders we have somehow chosen are simply not capable of dealing with the complexities of Brexit, let alone climate change.
At the root of all this is the gap we have built between the representatives and the people. (Which is inextricably intertwined with the ever increasing gap we have created between rich and poor.) The latest of John Harris’ Anywhere but Westminster short films comes from Wigan where a significant majority voted to leave the EU. Despite everything we now know, most of the people John talks to would still vote leave. He concludes that ‘the tragedy of Brexit is that places like this have been all but forgotten in the Westminster drama, more than ever they have things to tell us and we ought to listen’.
Listening is the key. The energy of 6m people voting and 1m marching last week is all redirected into anger and frustration when it is met with someone’s fingers in their ears. The tragedy is that this will not change quickly. I don’t see it change with a different government either because they are all so entrenched in the current system. The new Independent Group of MPs ‘Believe that our parliamentary democracy in which our elected representatives deliberate, decide and provide leadership, held accountable by their whole electorate is the best system of representing the views of the British people’. Based on current form, they are simply wrong.
We cannot wait to be ‘consulted’ then ignored. On the largest issue life on earth faces, Extinction Rebellion (XR) has clearly recognised this and head for London on April 15th to demand change. And at a local level, Frome’s Independents (ifF) have taken initial steps in showing what can be done by committed and organised locals outside of Party Politics, looking to change the focus to inclusive participation and ownership of decisions by the community. Placing these together in one paragraph is very deliberate. If we have any chance of facing the climate emergency without extreme chaos, it will be through political engagement at a community level (the sort of work the Alternative UK and her partners are embarked upon in Plymouth).
IfF return to the polls on May 2nd, along with at least 40 other groups of Independents in other towns – committed community activists who have had enough of not being listened to. I believe both these Movements are essential, the high profile approach of XR, alongside a steady tidal wave of people reclaiming politics. Reclaiming it not only from the Political parties, but from the money which funds their dominance.
(The Rights of Spring poster is available from www.flatpackdemocracy.co.uk)

Did it work?

I’ve been poor at writing in this blog space for the last few months.  This has mainly because all my writing brain has been putting together Flatpack Democracy 2. This will be the story of what happened after the 2015 elections including how Independents for Frome (IfF) made a clean sweep of the Council getting all 17 elected members. While Flaptpack 1 covers how to get elected, the sequel will ask ‘was it worth it’, covering the whole 8 year IfF experiment.

Peter Andrews and I hope to get Flatpack Democracy 2 published within the next three months. However with the upcoming local elections on 2 May, we thought those of you who have bravely chosen to go down the ‘independents together’ route would be interested in my observations on what made the 2015 IfF campaign such a success. So, if you want a sneak preview of Flatpack Democracy 2 we would be delighted to send you, free of charge, what will probably be Chapter 5 – the one that deals with getting elected.  All you need to do is go to the eco-logic books website and send us an email by way of the ‘contact us’ tab.

I’m in touch with people from 15 communities who will be putting forward a group of Independents in those May elections.  If you are another one, or know of others, I’d love to hear.  Please do this either through the Flaptpack Democracy Facebook page, or the contacts tab on the Flatpack site.

There has never been a more important time to reclaim politics!

‘If at first….’ Robert the Bruce

I’m delighted to hear that Rachel Jupp has been elected as a Town Councillor in Monmouth.  It is 18 months since she first stood as an Independent for Indy Monmouth, failing narrowly then and repeating that in a first by-election later, before yesterday’s victory.

I have fairly frequent conversations with people who have attempted to enter these ‘lowest’ layers of our political system and initially failed.  Most recently, these have been with Belgians who put a huge amount of energy into creating groups standing with a set of values, in their recent local elections and failed to see anyone elected.  There, although their proportional representation system is much fairer than ours, it is still incredibly hard to get your first person elected.

What they have done, though, is up the game.  They have forced people to take notice and – in some cases – to take ideas from the new groups, especially around a more participative democracy.  It may feel poor consolation to someone who has tried so hard (and failed) to be fobbed off with what sound like platitudes of ‘things will never be the same because you stood’.  But it’s true.   Equally, there are places where one or two councillors are really making a difference despite their lack of obvious power.  The Cynon Valley’s one successful candidate continues to do a great job and the Alternative Party in Denmark may only have nine MPs but they continue to attract a disproportionate amount of interest and coverage for ideas that constantly challenge…..and so on.

Rachel joins a group of Independents in Monmouth who have sometimes struggled to impose in world that can find change tricky.  I’d argue that now is the time when local and global really comes into its own.  Town councils must step up to fill the chasms of need created by austerity at a local level – and also add their voice to the global issues that affect their citizens by, for example, declaring a climate emergency.  What next for Monmouth?

 

Extinction Rebellion 2

I am very aware of not having written here for a while.  Mainly this is because I am busy writing Flatpack 2 (This Time it’s Personal) but also because I’ve been frantically busy communicating in other ways.  This has involved events with George Monbiot in Bristol; at the Economics of Happiness; the Tree Conference in Frome and most recently with Forum 21 in Minehead.  The most impressive thing about all of these has been the appetite for conversation, information and engagement.  This is equally true in the ones with ‘big names’ as those brought together from within their communities.

Perhaps two things are converging?  After the debacle of the Brexit referendum, is there an unconscious desire to be better informed, should anyone ever ask us for an opinion again?  And, as we are bombarded daily with information regarding the future (or lack of it) of a human presence on the planet, a sense that we need to really engage?

As I type, a posse of people from Frome are making their way to the kick off of Extinction Rebellion in London.  Their website starts ‘TELL THE TRUTH….  CLIMATE CHANGE = MASS MURDER’.  The Frome group are going as a result of the meeting held in Frome Town Hall as part of our Uprising series.  They did indeed tell the truth – and mighty uncomfortable it was (see my previous blog).

Many of this initial party have been engaged with conversations, workshops, meetings and events in Frome for over a decade.  Working on themselves and others in the slow unravelling of the stories we’ve been told about growth, happiness through consumption and the possibility that we can continue to live as we have done for decades.  This work has often been linked Joanna Macy’s ‘work that reconnects‘ that forces engagement with humankind’s insane distruction of our biosphere.  And to that of the Transition Town Movement.  Transition has focussed minds on climate change, peak oil and the limits to growth all over the world – perhaps in doing so it has helped create foundations from which the dedicated action of Extinction Rebellion will really take hold in the next few weeks….. and perhaps that will force a government which continues to demonstrate a complete and utter contempt for their moral duty towards future generations, to turn and face the catastrophe approaching.

Extinction Rebellion

Last night’s talk from Extinction Rebellion was never going to be an easy ride.  Part two in Frome’s trio of uprising events to try and raise the stakes a bit in climate awareness.  Extinction Rebellion’s presentation is based on research which shows that telling the climate truth will indeed alienate some people (why the Green Party hangs back from this), but it also brings some to a much more active and engaged position.

And the truth is not good.  In fact it’s deeply shocking. I’ve said before that Brexit is a picnic compared to the changes, actions and decisions that need to be made around climate action – and of course Brexit is a massive distraction in that respect.  So Extinction Rebellion plan mass non-violent protest later this year against what effectively amounts to the premeditated extinction of…. well, everything. Their case is that once we know and don’t do enough, we are complicit in the continued act of poisoning our planet.

In the context of these short blogs, I was especially interested in the second of their demands (the first is actions to reach zero carbon by 2025).  In order to arrive at decisions which meet the needs of life on earth – rather than those of the paymasters of the Political system – they want to see a People’s Assembly.  This would involve sortition to ensure something close to actual democracy and a body capable of making decisions and recommendations based on evidence.  This is the first time I’ve seen climate activism looking at links changes in decision making systems and I agree, the two must meet.

Will all this work?  Roger Hallam’s view is ‘it’s the only thing that might’ and I’m strongly inclined to agree.

An imperfect storm

It’s a stormy morning in Frome.  Battered by the edges of hurricane Florence – exacerbated by climate change we seem unable to recognise.  And a collection of inputs over the last 12 hours that add to a river of thought:  Firstly a Town Matters council meeting yesterday in which people from three organisations stood and told us in stark terms what new county council cuts really mean.  We move in minutes from positive moving stories of people’s lives changed by simple inputs, to ‘Our funding is being cut this year and I’m being made redundant in December’.  I am not alone in feeling a mixture of horror, shock and anger – and powerless.  Although we have knows this was coming for years, the visceral impact of hitting rock bottom is different.

So I went home and finished reading John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ in bed.  (Dustbowl Oklahoma’s farming populating heading West in desperation, hitting both the worst and best of humanity).  Stories from then mixed with life of now.  Inequalities in Britain are greater than at any point since the nineteenth century, with over a million people considered to be destitute and rural England in the mix as much as anywhere.

Hope – or at least options – comes in my breakfast reading.  Hilary Cottam’s ‘Radical Help’.  Focussed on how we could remake the Welfare State, she simply exposes how we’re continuing to use systems designed a century ago to do a job that has completely changed.  The challenge facing us all is how, when we know what to do, is can we get the drivers of these vast ocean liners to change course?  In health, in education, in work, in political systems, even with climate change, humankind has the information we need to get out of the mess.  But…..

 

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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Copyright © Peter Macfadyen 2014