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Pete Lawrence - 11 Oct 2017


I first heard Peter talking about Flatpack Democracy in Lewes at a 38 Degrees meeting in March this year and it opened up some new visions and ideas. It immediately made sense to me as a future direction for politics, in many ways able to engage people and communities (especially at local level) which didn't seem possible with the two major parties. I was keen to quiz him on various aspects of what Frome has achieved and where he / we can take things with 'Flatpack Democracy' to get things started...

Here's the forum thread as it happened last night and here is a digest of the questions and answers :

Frome was described by The Guardian’s John Harris as “the crucible of a new political movement.” How would you define the key points of that movement and how can it be rolled out elsewhere? Where is it most likely to happen?

Nice as that is of John, I’m not sure I’d call it a Movement exactly..... What we have conceived and evolved is a way by which a group of Independent (ie not elected with any overt allegiance to a Political Party) can work together in the interests of their community.  It’s hard for genuine Independents to get elected when facing the Party machine...... but it is also hard for people operating as true individuals to find their common ground, when all our experience of party politics is about difference and confrontation.

The key points are our Ways of Working

My book – Flatpack Democracy sets out how it can be rolled out – there are now about a dozen towns in the UK with a majority of councillors using methodology which Frome broadly shares (ie many have sensibly evolved their own versions); another 6 or so without a majority; another  15 really working at; and a final 40 where people are meeting to look at how they might take power in a similar kind of way.  This mostly happens where the voluntary sector of a town has grown so pissed off with the lack of action of their council that they want to do something about it!

What can we do on a practical level to start to change things? How can Campfire help to contribute to empowering people at local level, perhaps via its Beacons?

Democracy has been essentially eroded to a joke since the Greek empire faded.  The whole essence of their genius was that it allowed ordinary people to have real power.  That’s not been the case ever since.  I have huge faith in the intelligence of ‘ordinary’ people:  When they are given the information I believe they will come up with the right decisions.  Therefore we must find ways to reclaim politics from the political systems and to help people find their political voice.  Conversations are a fantastic way to do this – perhaps the only way?  They happen so rarely that Campfire and Beacons have a real role to play in creating the spaces where we refind our skills and confidence.

The Corbyn effect has clearly inspired a movement with many young people engaged in politics for the first time. Does this mean that we’ve finally found a mechanism for fundamental change which could bring about an end to neoliberal capitalism, a sense that ‘the many’ can have their voices heard and that socialism is now a desirable and realistic outcome? Or is Corbynism just a step in a broader process of fundamental change in politics? 

Possibly neither.  Obama campaigned under the slogan ‘yes we can’.  Once elected it emerged that he meant ‘yes I can’.  Is Corbynism about gaining power or about sharing power?  The Labour manifesto offers a Constitutional Convention that will ‘look to extend democracy locally....’.  I’ve been a town councillor for 7 years during which we have had the Localism Act which apparently gives us much more power locally.  It hasn’t.  I hope I am being over cynical, but to date no Political Party has ever gained power only to seriously share it.  As far as I can see the Labour manifesto reduces the voting age to 16...... but that’s it.  Where is any mention of proportional representation?  Nowhere because if elected this turkey is no different – it won’t vote for Christmas.  Momentum (Corbyn supporting group within the Labour Party) may be pushing for more real Democracy, but where will they be when he is in power?

You often reference political movements in Denmark and Scandinavia. What’s happening over there that excites you? 

What excites me is a system which can provide MPs who stand by a set of values, not by a manifesto of promises.  The Alternative Party in Denmark does its work with Generosity; Transparency; Humility; Humour; and Empathy.  Brilliant.  How much better than anything we have to offer.  I’m much more interested in HOW my representatives will behave in office and HOW they will inform themselves and HOW they will relate to me, than a set of promises which dissolve as soon as the election is over.

Give us a few examples of how things are different in Frome and how what you’ve already done there is shaping things up? What's most exciting in Frome at the moment? 

What’s different is a town’s hall that we can all be proud of; council staff who’s instinct is to say Yes not No; a mass of projects in which the Council and community are working in real partnership; big issues – like Climate change are on the agenda (with carbon zero targets for 2046).... and so are really local ones that matter to people like loneliness and dog shit.

I’d say we are 30% there....what’s exciting is that there is still the energy and will to move on the other 70%.

What priorities are there in the other 70%? What's your utopia for Frome?

Way way way more genuine engagement....  I think we need to move to a place where the Council is almost invisible as a catalyst but essentially working to find ways that the people's strategy is enacted.

(Jonathan Leighton) Hi Peter, I share your view that we need true democracy that listens to people's needs, but I am sceptical that people will necessarily make the right decisions given all the information, given how complex our world is and all the factors to take into account. What is your view of having a more technical decision-making apparatus that uses both reputable experts and decision-making algorithms to propose the best, most ethical solutions? Final decisions could still be put to a popoular vote, but the decision-making process would be transparent.

Spot on.  I’m a growing fan of systems which randomly choose people from the electorate and then work with them to really inform them using experts.... then the results of that are taken back to the representatives.  That’s exactly what Ireland has just done, looking at abortion – hardly an easy subject.... and the Mongolians are currently doing to look at changes to the constitution. 

(Ian Cuthbert) I like the idea independent politicians, with genuinely progressive politics, taking a greater role in our democratic systems. I'm a Labour Party member and activist, but I think plurality is a great thing in politics. 

But with the prospect of a very right wing government - possibly in power up to 2022 - setting the agenda for local as well as national government, I have concerns about the possibility of independent candidates inadvertently enabling Tories to win seats which they might otherwise not. 

Do you think we need agreed mechanisms to make sure that progressive parties and independent candidates co-operate to keep right wing candidates from winning and, if so, how might that work?

The model I espouse is essentially best suited to the really local level of Parish, Town and Community councils..... at that level I think standing as the representative of a Political Party is incredibly unhelpful.  By all means people can and should have political beliefs... I don’t mind if they are party members – but that should not influence the decisions they make for their community....  I’d like to see Political parties leave the community levels of local government to the community.  At higher levels, yes, I do think progressive Alliances are a good idea. (note Independents for Frome’s ways of working)

(Kimm Fearnley) Hi Peter, Has the new Council hit any real stumbling blocks where councillors have strong opposing views on matters that can not easily be resolved? If so how do you go about resolving this? If there are no examples of this then would it be fair to suppose Frome council works because you are all in agreement all of the time?

Good questions.  Lets do the second one first: No. We are not in agreement all the time.  We were not mates when we started and to a large extent are not now!  What we have agreed to do is work in a common direction with an agreed set of behaviour (we agree HOW we will work, not WHAT we will work on or agree on).

I can think of a few things where we have had real dissent – its not been perfect, but we’ve been able to draw on those Ways of Working and move on to the next pint issue.

(Ian Cuthbert) Do you think that the existing political structures, in particular the established political parties, are capable of learning and change so that they can better facilitate grassroots democracy? Or are they beyond redemption? 

I ask this because I have been inspired by the attempt to rejuvenate the Labour Party, through Momentum in particular, and reconnect it with the grassroots, with communities and with the party's own members. I accept it is a huge challenge - it is monolithic and carries a lot of baggage. 

See my answer #6 above...  I’d love to say Labour can really change things, but I am deeply sceptical that POWER is what’s in people’s minds not the massive fundamental change to systems we need if anything looking like democracy is to emerge.  I hope I am wrong by the way.

(Ian) Thanks. Yes, understood. I did mean at local level, although I guess I was thinking all the way through local government - from parish to county and metropolitan borough. I agree that the big parties in particular can have a controlling and anti-democratic influence on community-level politics. The Greens are much better at this, they're small enough to be able to put aside party ego. But I still have hope that this could change, for Labour at least, so they play a more constructive and community-focussed role. Again, Momemntum activism (I'm not a meber I should say) has shown some great examples.

Absolutely, I agree.  I'm green through and through BUT had I stood as  a Green party candidate I;d not have been elected.....better to get things done because they make sense for all (and happen to be 'green').....  my own experience of the Green party membership includes a fair amount of the usual conflictual agressive bollocks that turns all but the Party people off....

Do independents need a ‘tag’ (such as ‘Trailblazer’) to help distinguish a set of common values that might stand us apart from disillusioned Tories or disgruntled Greens standing on an ‘independent’ ticket? 

And could this go all the way to general election level? 

Q1. Possibly but it’s tricky!  We’ve just put together a list of about 70 towns where we know there is real activity towards groups of Independents working together in new ways.... but it turns out some don’t really fit the ‘new ways’ bit – they are simply a bunch of non-Political Party people running the Council.  That may well be better.  But it’s not the evolution we need!
So how to ‘brand’ a growing number of people and groups who (the clue is in the name) are Independent?...... linking them under one name may well help, but they sure as hell are not the same – they are NOT a Party!

Q2. Not while we have this electoral system.

(Debbie Golt) l have yet to be convinced that proportional representation is a viable way forward.... How are elected representatives accountable? How do we know who directly we are voting for? In the current system Yousleep and other far right groups have been squeezed out , yet they still get a significant proportion of votes ... l could see a resurgence with PR . It wouldn't work in a strike vote either. A long way to go for me! And l view myself as much further left than Corbynite Labour

I confess I don’t think I quite get this Q – and I don’t know what Yousleep is....  I’d say PR has to be better than first past the post, which is, frankly, a joke.   I’m not bothered by far right presence in a government when they are a minority – as they are in many European countries.  Once in parliament they are exposed in their full hopelessness.... The underlying issue your Q illustrates is that representative government has had its day.  Fine when our MP set off on a horse to London and we had no way to make contact with him (he was a he) for 4 years.... in today’s world the electorate can be constantly engaged... and the MP has way way too much to even begin to apparently know about.  No system of fully representative government can work today – we need to up the participation from community up.

(Yee-Lin Parford) Hi Peter. In your opinion, is the best way to affect change on a local level, to start working within the council - learn the ropes etc? 

No, better to work in politics in the community, then move in on the Council if they won’t change to a more progressive and cooperative role.

(Kimm Fearnley) What issues first galvanised a group of you to take over the council in Frome? Have these issues been resolved? What would you say are the main concerns of residents in Frome now and is it as easy as you thought to solve them now you are in power? If not, what are the main stumbling blocks?

That’s not a question Kimm, it’s 4!!  Here goes:

Q1: Dissatisfaction with the confrontational bickering of Party Politicians at a local level, linked to their lack of enthusiasm for change, and lack of potential to take advantage of the potential of a local council.

Q2: To a very large extent yes.  This is a different Council working with a different town than 7 years ago.

Q3: They are small issues that all communities face – dog mess; parking; lack of the ‘right shops’..... hard to deal with but much can be done by chipping away, and the BIG issues of issues relating to housing and poverty which, again, we have done a lot with but are really way outside our remit (which is to provide allotments and have one meeting a year).

Q4.  Lack of real power at this level of government.  We don’t control planning decisions is the main one.

Can we all be politicians?

We already are.

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