I am sometimes asked about the ‘Flatpack Movement’ and I struggle to explain the concept. The Flatpack tag comes – obviously – from Flatpack Democracy, the title of the book I wrote which set out to show how the independents took power in Frome and to provide some simple steps for others to do the same at a local level. It’s the story of what we did in Frome, and now, making a list of the further 10 or so groups who have done the same, has given some clarity to my thinking.
As well as the 10 groups I know where independents hold power, there are another five who hold some seats, and a further 35 places that we know of where a group is clearly working in that direction. To a lesser or greater extent these have used the ideas expressed in Flatpack Democracy in some way. There is an actual ‘Flatpack Party’ in Belgium alongside two other groups there well engaged with the principles and interestingly it was a Belgian who talked about ‘Flatpackery’ – a comment on many things as well as his fine grasp of English! There are another 3000 ish copies of the book out there doing who knows what. As well as the groups mentioned earlier there are another seven I know of who are, in effect, local parties. However, the one thing they all have in common is their rejection of Party Politics. If that alone were enough to define them as a Movement, then perhaps they are.
However, for me personally there must be something much more significant: It is not merely enough for a group of individuals to move aside another group (who were elected as members coming from a particular Party) if they do not then go on to create a radical and effective council. There needs to be a fundamental change to the way in which local government is conducted. A change in the relationship between council and people, a clear move from representation to participation and an upsurge in ambition and productivity at a community level. In the past these factors were not as crucial as services were handed down from central or regional government, but as this has all changed under the cloak of austerity it becomes crucial that effective local government plays its part in a vibrant community.
To achieve this kind of change, I believe councillors need to adopt new ways of working which step outside the paradigm of the confrontational, ya boo politics that sadly is the norm in the UK. A confrontation that is often extended from council chamber to the relationship with the community. At the core of this lies a power relationship which needs to change alongside a repositioning of councils so that they become just one player amongst many in the multilayered ecology of a community.
In looking at the list of places where new style councils are emerging, I realise some are on the course I outline above and others are not. For me, a group of places where new people have been elected does not make a Movement. If they then go on to catalyse deep and fundamental change in the way politics works and in what is achieved at a local level, we can really begin to talk about a Movement and the power of Flatpackery.