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Debate: Flatpack Democracy

Learning to trust the people

In the campaign’s launch calls so far, whenever the question of what these new, non-party political, community councils should do once in power comes up, the response is ‘trust the people’. What does this mean? In this context it’s both advice and an invitation. 

First the advice. The flatpack campaign is aiming to be part of systemic change to the social and political culture of the UK. It wants to revive local democracy and transform the nature of power and decision making from the bottom up. It’s going to take more than winning seats to do that. In addition to courageous, collaborative independent candidates, we’ll need an excited, connected community to create the agenda of an independent council.

This is easier said than done. After all, how could you possibly involve everyone in decision-making? And don’t meetings tend to last too long already? 

This is where the invitation matters. Trust The People (TTP) is also the name of a UK-wide movement of facilitators, organisers and community democracy builders. And it’s starting to answer many of these questions. TTP is built around a five week course, of a few hours a week, delving into the art and craft of facilitating, organising and connecting communities. It is a vital resource for prospective flatpackers and a key part of the strategy. 

Through the course and the community, I have come to learn of wildly courageous experiments in community democracy happening across the country. From mass Black Lives Matter assemblies in parks in London to community discussions in village halls in small rural towns, the tools needed for cooperation are being practiced, refined and shared.

If you’re curious, there are plenty of examples of reclaimed town councils taking participation seriously. Torridge Common Ground in Devon runs a regular Peoples’ Assembly style open meeting. The Haswells Community Party in County Durham based their campaign on priorities set by the community in open meetings and by asking people door-to-door. And Frome in Somerset developed the People’s Budget, where everyone could decide how part of the council’s budget was to be spent.

These experiments have a lot to learn from one another, and a lot to teach a new generation of community transformers. 

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.