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.

Reclaiming politics
Drowning in the zeitgeist….
Is this a moment?
Time for the Pirates?
The vortex of irrelevance
My shit dream.
Process or Product?
After Brexit….

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.


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?


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?


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.

The vortex of irrelevance


This time last week I was at the first meeting of Devon United in Newton Abbot.  The meeting was called primarily to gauge interest in a new approach to politics ahead of the 2017 County elections in Devon.

It was also an opportunity to refine the possible way in which this might work:  Devon United is seen not as a political party in itself, but as a grouping of citizens supporting candidates who commit to a new way of working.  Information was provided on the core values, ways of working and approaches of others.

All good so far and there was a great turnout in numbers (though not in age range!).  We heard great talks  from Pam Barret mayor of Buckfastleigh (a place in danger of overtaking Frome in its radical new council meetings);  Paul Hilder, founder of Open Demnocracy.net and Indra Adnan of Soft Power and Compass.  They offered us inspiring comments on why and how real alternative is both essential and possible.

Then a bit of warming up and we broke into tables for a range of discussions….. at which point something happened which I find intriguing, depressing and fascinating.  By far the largest group centred on existing local politicians, intent not on forging new paradigms of doing politics, but on stitching up deals for the next election in an anti-Tory pact.

I ask myself:  ‘Would a new bunch of non-Tories – operating in the same highly confrontational ways, without shared values or ways of working, be that much better than the current lot?’  And I answer myself ‘probably not’.  Until we realise that the current system is rotten from roots to branches and back again – not the political parties per se and certainly not the individuals – then we are trapped in a politics which few care about and which has little hope of taking the big decision we need.

What’s more, that vortex of irrelevance is a perfect place for someone to dive into and pick up on the anger and rejection of increasing numbers of people.  I see I am back to Mr Trump.



For the second time in a few months Frome has had the galling experience of an ‘inspector’  deciding that against the recommendations of both the Town and District councils, large scale housing should be dumped upon us.  Not just any housing, but high density crap with minimal investment in the town.

There are many reasons why this is wrong, but the most galling is that David Whatsit (the last prime minister) launched his Localism initiative by saying “…we must take the power away from the political elite and hand it to the man and woman in the street”.  The potential movement of power to local communities was part of what created Independents for Frome.  But the reality is constant centralising of power which will make it impossible to attract and keep good competent local councillors – in the words of one yesterday “why did I waste all my time at those meetings”.  (And for the often consulted and continually ignored woman and man in the street “why not stick it up ‘em and vote Brexit/Trump”).

On top of the planning nonsense come plans to cap local ability to raise taxes.  Ideologically driven, this will stop us potentially raising small additional amounts of money from Frome to spend on projects in Frome agreed by the people of Frome.  So how, with services collapsing by the day, are we meant to encourage local volunteerism (councillors are volunteers) or fund the things desperately needed at a local level?  I see Passport to Pimlico coming next (1.10secs into the clip).

My shit dream.


I woke recently from a dream in which the world’s sewage systems have become totally blocked by humankind’s over consumption.  Sewage spilled out from manholes and back up toilets.  Experts were everywhere trying to work out what to do – where to divert sewage to, how to hold down the manholes and block up the leaks.

In my dream I suddenly realised that the only people not being included were the workers – who (as ‘real sewage workers’ do) operated underground in tunnels, with chainsaws to cut through congealed fat…..).  I dashed about in the growing rivers of sewage trying to tell the people with clipboards that they needed to talk to the workers….  Like many dreams, I can’t remember the end…..

We remain in a ludicrous situation where the 1% are engaged in politics and flounder about failing to make sensible decisions; while the 99% who have the answers are excluded by the system and themselves.  Reclaiming Politics – or perhaps Rebranding Politics – is the only way out of the shit.

Process or Product?

temp donkeys

Last week I chaired one of Frome Town Council’s two committees – the first ‘Town Matters’ meeting.  It was either the worst meeting we’ve ever had – demanding resignations and inducing apoplectic fury, or the best – drawing in around 60 people with hugely engaged lively discussion.  24 hours later when the dust had settled a bit we could unpick the pros and cons.

Essentially the meeting brought to a head the constant struggles between Process and Product and between Participatory and Representative Democracies.  The meeting was set up in the round with public and councillors mixed and little of the formal structure associated with council meetings to hold on to.  More normally, councillors sit behind a table and the public are an audience with limited rights to speak.

Some people sit more comfortably at one end of the Process and Product spectrum than others – some preferring to ‘just do it’ others to ‘talk everything through’.  And some issues absolutely require discussion – others require a simple decision.   With more than one issue on an agenda, it proves hard to move between open discussion and tighter decision making as the best fit changes.  Put another way, once the public are unleashed, it proves hard to get them back in their box!

In the end councillors made the decisions we needed to make and no one died.  Most of the public probably felt enlivened to have been there.  But the process certainly pushed the boundaries beyond where many felt comfortable and there is a strong case that the ability of councillors to hear views, then to make informed decisions was lost in the informality.  The need for greater preparation and different skills to run a highly participatory meeting than a conventional chaired one was also clear.  My personal view is that we don’t play enough – it’s hugely creative – but all games need some rules if they are to be either enjoyed or productive.

What’s important to me is to keep pushing the edges as we increasingly recognise that the gap between the public and politicians at all levels of governance needs to be minimised, with every opportunity taken for the community to reclaim politics.  Especially pleasing is that Independents for Frome’s ‘Ways of Working’ survived the pressure and the strongly felt criticism could be aired and heard before learning and moving on – without this becoming personal, which is much more difficult to recover from.

After Brexit….


Three weeks after the EU Referendum during which I – like many people – have heard a lot, read a lot and thought a bit.  I’ve also had two sets of inspiring and engaging interactions with groups of people bringing some really different perspectives.

The first brought Helle Engelbrechtsen and Brian Fradsen (key players in Denmark’s Alternativet Party) to Frome for 10 days including 24 hours of workshop with some top people both thinking and doing democracy.  The Alternatives proved to be a blast of fresh air in bringing real integrity to everything they did with us, wrapped in humour and goodwill.

The second 24hour stint was with Compass on their annual away weekend (Compass is ‘a home for those who want to build and be part of a Good Society; one where equality sustainability and democracy are not mere aspirations, but a living reality’).  Fifty people bringing many different experiences to discussions on how to take advantage of the brief moment upheaval of this nature creates.

Inevitably both gatherings had had the raw feelings associated with the Brexit vote – overlapping with those I meet as an undertaker dealing with unexpected death – anger, denial and a going over the detail of what might and should have been.  But in both cases we were also able to also focus at what opportunities there are for a real change in the way we do politics and ‘democracy’.

For me the core of our work in Frome remains absolutely essential:  We have to find ways to reclaim politics.  To enable real engagement and decision making to involve a far far more people.  To build a literacy of political discussion whereby the conversations most of us have all the time are linked in to decisions.  I worry that even a Progressive Alliance will simply rearrange the deckchairs and unless a fundamental movement to values based decision making, built from the bottom up, is nurtured then what really matters won’t really change.

Much of the post Brexit analysis looks at the disempowerment of the vast majority of the population – yet we continue to focus on a political parties of which 99% of us are not members.  Without a huge concerted effort to change the way we do business nothing really changes.  And that lets a more right wing Tory government steam ahead with idle promises of supporting those most in need – just like David Cameron’s 2009 promise to ‘…take the power from the political elite and hand it to the man and woman on the street….’.




Copyright © Peter Macfadyen 2014