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Debate: Flatpack Democracy

Flatpack 2021: building a new culture

Flatpack 2021 is a quiet revolution. It doesn’t have any policy prescriptions and it isn’t promising to overthrow the state. It aims to build a new politics with only five unassuming prerequisites for its independent candidate councillors. Yet these small asks could set flatpackers on course for creating a radically new political culture.

Let’s take just one of them for now: Flatpack 2021 candidates are expected to establish “positive, inclusive ‘Ways of Working’”. How is this going to transform our deeply corrupt, inept political system?

Flatpack 2021 isn’t just about getting independents elected. In fact, independents at the local level tend to be either extremists excluded from their parties, or single-issue campaigners with narrow motivations for winning a seat. Simply bringing these people into power is no recipe for radical change.

Peter Macfadyen, one of Flatpack’s early pioneers, says the “main difference” between Flatpack candidates and other independents is establishing a set of ‘Ways of Working’.

These are the simple group agreements that all new councillors commit to. Here are some examples from Peter’s group, the Independents for Frome (IfF):

  • Avoid identifying ourselves so personally with a particular position that this in itself excludes constructive debate
  • Trust and have confidence and optimism in other people’s expertise, knowledge and intentions. Talk to each other not about each other
  • Be prepared to be swayed by the arguments of others and admitting mistakes

These are uncomplicated commitments to building a constructive, collaborative culture. They testify to a faith in the ability of groups of people to reach the best decisions, by committing themselves not to a specific ideology, but to practices that allow everyone to participate.

One reason our democracy is so stagnant might be that most people see politics as a nasty game of backstabbing, deceit and revenge. If satire indicates how people really feel about something, then the popular British TV show The Thick of It – with its cast of cut-throat, competitive, envious politicians – raises the question: is it any wonder that no one wants to get involved? Politics has become a sad game where the only people left playing are the most unscrupulous.

The IfF have demonstrated the rewards of practising a cooperative culture. A small example: in one passionate discussion, Nick White, a conservative-minded IfF councillor, was arguing for a supermarket chain to set up shop in the centre of Frome. After hours of debate, he lost the final vote. In traditional politics, you could expect this to have left Nick feeling bitter and vengeful (his wife had at one point said “Nick White and Peter Macfadyen in the same room. This will never work”). But, as Macfadyen puts it, the conversation ended with: “right you bastards you really stitched me up there didn’t you, anyone want a drink?” And that was that.

Focusing on common ground, starting to genuinely care about each other, replacing competition with cooperation: this isn’t everything, but it is a key part of what some municipalists call the feminisation of politics. It breaks down the current conditions of politics, where the loudest, shouttiest, typically male person accumulates control and everyone else either leaves or becomes absorbed in macho, zero-sum competition. Flatpack 2021 doesn’t brand itself as an explicitly feminist campaign, but by rejecting and replacing the culture of competition, dominance and revenge in politics, they’re dismantling a deeply embedded patriarchal system.

In the last season of The Thick of It, we see a principled woman, leader of the opposition, sabotaged by her own staff because of her perceived lack of strength. It’s this culture that Flatpack 2021 challenges, and the alternative it offers could make it massively popular.

Pirates find treasure in the wreckage of UK politics

Flatpack Democracy is a municipalist political movement reclaiming local authorities in the UK. It is trying to redefine how politics is done, returning power to everyday people. The Flatpack 2021 campaign is gearing up for the next elections in May.

Spycop revival, lockdown debacle, planning deregulation: the recent turmoil of the Westminster regime paints a bleak picture for British democracy. But beneath the noise, in late September, a quiet revolution got underway.

Historians looking for its inaugural moment might point to a call held among a few dozen people involved or interested in a new grassroots movement to “upgrade UK politics”. Called Flatpack 2021, it aims to empower communities across the UK to reclaim their councils from the behemoth political parties.

The organisers are ambitious. They want to reclaim all 5,000 local council seats in next year’s double-bill election. They argue this could be a solution to alienation, inequality and even ecological collapse.

This, they hope, is “another chapter in a global story of people who have found a way to do something different and start building a better system”, taking inspiration from Cooperation Jackson, Barcelona en Comúu, Y’en a Marre and the countless other movements for radical democracy.

Yet under a third of UK voters turned up to council elections last year. And for many, local councils suggest park maintenance and bin collection more than life-changing societal transformation.

But Will Franks, an architect of the campaign, says this is “the level where building a new politics is both possible and achievable”.

To understand these possibilities we need to understand the revolution in local politics that precipitated it. Nearly ten years ago, a group of independent candidates from the market town of Frome in South West England won every council seat. They ran on the promise to rise above the party politics that had been keeping the council from getting anything done.

They then began a crusade of community revival, facilitating new projects and demonstrating new ways of making decisions collaboratively. They attracted £4 million in new investment to Frome, started a renewable energy project and saved many of the town’s green spaces.

The story of Frome, chronicled in the book Flatpack Democracy, inspired a wave of over a hundred independent candidates to reclaim their local councils from party politics.

This level of electoral politics appears relatively unguarded by the political machines that dominate the national stage. Many of the seats go uncontested. Pam Barrett of the new Buckfastleigh Independent Group says, “I’m not aware of anyone who’s tried to do this at parish level and hasn’t been successful”.

It seems to be a direct enactment of the old slogan that calls us to ‘build the new world in the shell of the old’. But what kind of world does this campaign want to build?

By design, the group isn’t prescribing any detailed blueprint. They’re seeking to unleash local democracy for its own sake, on the basis that if we “trust the people” to make the best decisions for themselves, a better world will emerge.

But to help ensure everyone is able to participate meaningfully in making those decisions, there are five simple ideas they want to inject into the culture from the start. New independent councillors should get the community involved, be ambitious about what they can achieve, lift the voices of marginalised groups and work cooperatively with each other and with existing organisations.

These five simple ideas have radical implications, which we will explore in future blog posts. The headline is that this is a different way of doing democracy from the deadening, rigid, conflict-ridden grasp of party politics.

The grand challenge of this campaign is to make local politics feel like a space in which radical transformation is possible. And given recent polling suggests not everyone shares the view that party politics is the problem, there is a need for powerful storytelling.

Speaking to these challenges, Will says “this campaign isn’t about councils, it’s about pirates”. “This is a project to empower the people of the UK to be pirates, reclaiming hordes of ships from the rich colonialists and repurposing the riches for the good of all.”

Pirates were early pioneers in building diverse, autonomous, democratic communities, but they were also successfully demonised by the interests they threatened. Local councils and participatory democracy suffers a similar kind of reputational damage. To win, this movement will need to carry on excavating stories of people finding and wielding their own power.

Since the original campaign in Frome, the stakes have got a lot higher. The first Flatpack project was founded out of desperation over the impacts of austerity. Now, with the compounded effects of Covid-19, the climate crisis and the economic fallout of Brexit, a more potent brew of desperation could reach boiling point right around the May elections. Flatpack 2021 could be a lifeline for people in communities seeking to support one another through the coming crisis.

If you live in the UK and are interested in joining the pirates, join a launch call near you to find out more.