Can Democracy Work? is a three part series for Radio 4 fronted by the BBC’s Political Editor Nick Robinson. The first episode was felt to be “a disappointment” in the Telegraph’s who felt it had “only scratched the surface” – and I basically agree, though am content to wait until the final episode before a final judgement. My gripe so far would be that the focus was entirely on parliamentary democracy, with too much time given to Nick’s well publicised spat with Russell Brand on whether people should vote at all – I’m sure their argument was entirely created to draw attention to the programme!
I took some time yesterday to read useful summaries of how new Greek and Spanish political parties are organising themselves. These groupings (Syriza and Podemos respectively) have emerged incredibly quickly from mass dissatisfaction with the impact of ‘austerity’, using new ideas on how active democracy can work, born out of Occupy and the social movements that have sprung up in both countries. They are both using an inspiring mix of community level meetings and interaction alongside social media to enable mass decision making. The challenge is to find ways of engaging with the – essentially dysfunctional – parliamentary system to gain elected representatives, in order to change the systems themselves….while not becoming part of those systems and alienating the energy of the people.
I’ve been re-reading a book I bought a few weeks ago called “From Arrogance to Intimacy”. It’s another step in the journey of us understanding more deeply how and why democracy has become a charade in this – and many other – countries. I find myself deeply saddened by a potent mix of arrogance and incompetence, in which each of these seem to prop the other up. Recent examples include: David Babbs (main man of campaign group 38degrees) who was treated with complete contempt by a group of MPs last week (“You’re not here to challenge, you’re here to be challenged…”); our District Planning Committee agreeing to a new food store and chip shop despite near universal local disapproval and rejection by the Town Council, with no one from Frome voting (and my comments disregarded because they were deemed ‘political’); and the inflexible arrogance of a similar committee who have now caused a highly acclaimed local herbalist to give up and head for Cornwall – in the process behaving unbelievable arrogantly and aloof. I could go on and on and on…..
I’ve been involved in some great discussions and meetings in the last few weeks, as groups of people fed up with dysfunctional democracy, move towards doing something about it. For all plotters there is a tricky decision as to when to ‘come out’. This may mean some less discrete conversations or it may be a fully blown public call for action. At a certain point it means there is no turning back and from then on things start to move in ways not always under control! For each group the answer will be different – the first movers are moving, but risk peaking too soon, while the casual tortoises may trundle to victory – or not get their act together!
This time of year has death written all over it. The Day of the Dead reflected in Thanksgiving, alongside Remembrance Sunday, autumn leaves and political parties.
I’ve spent a number of evenings recently tucked away in Guy Fawkes style meetings in darkened rooms with groups of tentative revolutionaries in towns around here. Ordinary people totally and utterly fed up with watching the arrogance of politicians preparing for elections with the usual bickering and unfulfilable promises.
“How much time does it take if you are a councillor?”….. “How much does it cost to get elected?”…… simple questions from people on the edge of stepping out and up to take control of more of the decisions that affect their own lives. Is there a moment at which enough people recognise that our current democracy is a sham from top to bottom?
Russell Brand helps to spread that message, but maybe too many people think he’s joking and can’t don’t quite grasp the reality? I’m enjoying testing the tipping point.
I’ve rather neglected this blog to write in other places. This has led to significant articles in STIR, Transition Free Press, Resurgence & Ecologist and (soon) Red Pepper. All fine and good except these are not seriously mainstream and probably share many readers. That’s why I was so excited to be rung by the Telegraph. I missed the first call but when they rang again I was poised to expound upon how Frome is indeed to making (Tory) Localism work and how we’ve supported subsidised charities into viable business….. Then Telegraph Man asked “So, have you ever read the Telegraph?” (I declined the 30% off offer that followed). My sadness was partly relieved by a helpful reference in Saturday’s Guardian ‘The Green party surge – and why it’s coming from Bristol and all points west’…. but I really want to talk to the Daily Mail!
I know, I know, to make a blog work there needs to be a constant stream of inspiring, controversial, insightful postings – and in this I have failed. This is because I am simply overloaded with networking, emails, conversations, meetings…. most of which relate to building a more Active Democracy and more functional voluntary sector in Frome. AND I’m reading my way through From Arrogance to Intimacy which great excitement – and will be back to this place to discuss what’s exciting me as soon as I can. In the meantime, if you want to hear what’s behind my thinking and Independents for Frome, here is a Podcast from the Unicorn Village Camp made this summer….
Many of those who voted YES in Scotland were primarily voting NO.
NO to the distant and remote governance of Westminster;
NO to a dysfunctional voting system of winner takes all;
NO to the disconnection between different layers of government;
and, I suspect, theirs was a vote of disgust at the failure of significant genuine participation in decisions that affect them.
This is felt not just in Scotland but throughout the rest of the UK (and most so called democracies). If Frome had a vote for Independence many people would vote YES with their hearts because they are fed up with a Planning Board at the District with one representative from Frome (who boycotts meetings); fed up with apparently arbitrary road changes arriving from the County; fed up with no apparent way of ever being properly heard. Yes, at a very local level we can make some changes, but the non-delivery of ‘Localism’ means we are hampered at every turn where decisions are greater.
So for us the one good thing that might come out of the Scottish referendum is kick up the arse of Localism….. but don’t hold your breath.
My written words are slightly diverted at the moment by a series of Top Tips on revitalising local democracy on the Transition network blog. The more I engage with the work of Frome’s Town Council – and as Mayor meet sections of the community I have not before – the more I feel this is the crucial focus: enabling people at community level to be properly heard.
Sometime soon I will switch to positive news of a New Dawn for Democracy, but first a brief comment on my encounters with life somewhere else. Last week we brought local councillors from nearby Parishes together to meet each other and to hear of an opportunity to compete for EU money aimed at supporting rural areas. The Powerpoint contained a lot of words but it slowly emerged the money pot contained pretty little money. It also emerged that this is tightly linked to projects aimed at economic growth and that the economy is all about money. Just money. Nothing that might benefit the environment, wellbeing or anything social. This narrow outlook misses key opportunties and frequently results in a nett loss in term sof everything but income.
Repeatedly I see reality at a community level moving in one direction, with real energy and verve and the juggernaut of the past chugging towards the rocks. This month’s Transition Network asks ‘Is Transition political’ and I will unashamedly pinch a quote from Rob Hopkins’ blog which summarises where I want to be and where I want Frome and other local communities to be: Read More