Written by Peter Macfadyen for The Alternative
Sometimes evidence for The Shift we are looking for – now in Week 43 – appears in unexpected ways. Last Friday evening a video of Handforth Parish council meeting went viral. Many of you will have seen it already, but for those who didn’t, here it is.
You will see a video recording of a highly dysfunctional Zoom meeting in which everyone disputes who has authority, the acting clerk evicts the chair and Julie’s Ipad holds court. You hear stumbling, bullying, barking and sulking and observe the surreal power of the Zoom host over all those gathered.
On Twitter #HandforthDistrictCouncil trended all day. National Association for Local Councils (NALC) volunteer Jackie Weaver (“refer to me as Britney Spears”) is an overnight sensation prompting merchandise, remixes (check the ‘drop’ in this one) plus a musical. LOL. If nothing else this is a moment to enjoy the humour and quirky creativity that social media generates during lockdown.
But why did the excruciating video get so much attention? Its original promoter, 17 year old Shaan Ali – who likes watching random council meeting as part of his A level politics research – says it was ‘relatable content’. The petty frustrations, the casual misogyny, the struggle to be heard: we’ve all been there. But the unguarded hostility shown here, the naked power-battles in this first tier of local government, takes Zoom frustrations to a whole other level.
Check this Handforth spin-off T-shirt, already being sold on Amazon for £13.99 which proclaims YOU HAVE NO AUTHORITY HERE. Looking back over the past 43 weeks since lock down began, that’s been a growing theme across the political firmament. We could be witnessing the competing authority between the medical establishment and the Prime Minister at the pulpit in 10 Downing Street in which the latter rarely wins. Or the two Presidents haggling over the outcome of the US Elections. Or shaman Jake Angeli claiming authority over the American constitution in the storming of Capitol Hill. The offices of state are increasingly being challenged, faced with the serial failures of politicians to serve the public well.
In many ways Covid has played a part in levelling the playing field. Seeing figures of authority on the same Zoom platforms as their constituents, often less competent at handling the gears, has made them more vulnerable to being mocked. The first time Downing Street used the video platform they made dangerous security mistakes. Ministers forgetting to unmute themselves, while making august pronouncements, deserves a smirk. In Handforth, Chairman Barry is wobbly on all fronts and not at all scary to the visiting clerk (despite quoting the rules repeatedly). If anything, he is a bit vulnerable.
But where does this loss of authority leave us? Are we stronger because the edifices are collapsing? Do we see feel safer because we can now see up close the bullying, the lack of expertise, the clinging onto protocols that only get in the way of people communicating well? Simply pointing out the weaknesses does not create a solution. In the worst cases – such as the interregnum between Presidential administations – it can have the unintended consequence of creating a vacuum of agreements between people, inviting extremist responses. Do we want to usher in an era of people just ignoring the rules on principle?
The old politics gives way to something less delineated
All across the political spectrum we need new and better structures that bring the wisdom of the citizens into a better relationship with those that are designated to make decisions, only some of whom are elected officials.
The old presumptions that those who choose to seek office know better than those who don’t are no longer valid. Not only because we all have the tools now to educate ourselves or access information about the facts and figures relevant to the decisions that impact our lives.
But also because, in this era of waking up to the reality of our collective plight, it is precisely our insights and self-knowledge about the way we live – in our homes, with friends and family, at work – that will make all the difference to our ability to survive and thrive.
In short, leaders should be hungry for participation from citizens: without their input, they simply cannot make the right decisions about the ways forward for our communities. This in a nutshell is the logic of Flatpack Democracy (which we’ve been reporting for nearly four years on this site). FD is now orchestrating a movement of citizens standing as Independents to take over their local councils. The precise intention is to harness people power and get better results for everyone.
But it’s not an easy task to deliver the message that you are tearing up the old rule book and writing another, at the same time. For example, if a Flatpack team succeed in taking over their local council, gone will be the three-minute rule that restricts the rights of citizens to make their case in front of the council. But in its place will be a culture of listening, responding and constructing an agreed agenda for change. This is not an offer to abolish rules but to transform the ways that new rules are decided and implemented.
In the process of change, there will always be a minefield of emotions, capacities and behaviours to navigate. According to Pam Barrett, the first independent Mayor of Buckfastleigh, the culture of bullying is endemic in small councils: the same groups of people hold onto their positions for years, using their power to deter any newcomers. Says Pam: “We have brought this issue up again and again with NALC but they have not been able to offer any support to tackle it”.
It doesn’t help that the same problem exists at every level of authority – all the way up to national government. While there are legal definitions of what constitutes bulllying, the broader society – itself in a process of understanding where power lies and unsure of how to distribute it better – is caught between defending the old system and bringing on the new. Too often a person showing vulnerability is labeled a “snowflake”, whereas in reality it takes enormous courage to stand up and make a complaint with the intention of making it better for everyone.
From the Handforth video, Jackie Weaver is a hero precisely because she doesn’t back down in the face of those furious at her attempts to change the way power is held at this council. However, she will also appear as domineering to those who stand to lose their traditional roles. These dynamics appear everywhere as the old gives way to something else less well delineated. Even in our own homes between genders, ages and different forms of privilege.
Inviting local councils into an alternative process
Having said that, Flatpackery is an attempt to model new and better relationships between all those potential conflicts from the outset. Peter Macfadyen has often described how the Frome council meetings traditionally had people at loggerheads with each other – former Labour and Lib Dem councillors, for example. Steadily, the Flatpackers developed a way of talking that led to new, low-stakes agreements.
There were less massive conflict resolutions, with compromises all round – and more friendly, patient listening, with pennies dropping about complex problems, and a generous giving-way to others’ needs. Human interaction at its best, creating the kind of relationships and trust that enables communities to progress quickly.
If a group of citizens manage to win more than half the seats on the council, thereby gaining control as independents, they have their best chance of moving into this new culture fast . The Flatpack manual details ‘new ways of working’ that emphasise – but also offer concrete tools for – collaboration, deliberating and creative responses to problems.
However, if only a few of the candidates win and become a minority on the council, it can serve to intensify the existing problems, when the Flatpack light is shining on them. Again, this tendency is seen all across the many sectors in which old authority is being challenged.
Those that stand to lose their privileges, even if they are otherwise very good and fair people, can become very aggressively defensive if they feel they are being blamed for society’s broader ills. They will deny they carry the same problems they might read about in the papers, in the same way that any of us would deny our personal responsibility for the broader culture.
The Facebook page for indy councillors (by invitation only) is a great support group for these fledgling councillors who need the experience of those long in the tooth to keep going. But it can still feel as if it’s a very steep uphill battle to change the working culture.
What would probably make the journey easier is more Flatpack Councils showing more proof of the value created with their new ways of working. Which is why the Flatpack 2021 Campaign is the right response to the many complex problems of authority appearing in all sectors of society. With almost seven years under their belt since the first successful takeover of Frome town council, seasoned Flatpackers have developed a deeper understanding of what it takes to move from thinking about standing, to running for election and then re-election.
Much of this wisdom is in the second book Flatpack Democracy 2, again authored by Peter Macfadyen whom we caught up with yesterday. In our Zoom update, Peter agreed that while it was tempting to jump on the Handworth bandwagon to shame and humiliate the failing councillors, it might not help the Flatpack cause. Once the whole world of local councils has been roundly pilloried, it’s hard to free yourself from the sinking ship.
Instead, the Flatpack team have come up with an open letter written to the people of Handworth, inviting them – and any other community minded citizen – into an alternative process as follows:
Open Letter to the Residents of Handforth Parish
Dear frustrated people of Handforth,
We understand how embarrassing it must be to be suddenly thrown into the national spotlight by the actions of a few members of your parish council. Local politics is far too often a comedy of errors.
If it’s any consolation, you are not alone; we at the Flatpack2021 campaign sadly have seen many examples of such behaviour from up and down the country.
Take it from us: it doesn’t have to be like this.
We at Flatpack2021 believe that a council should reflect and represent all the people in the area, not just the same old Brians and Barrys. We believe that by working together, free of party politics, a parish council can achieve amazing things. We’ve seen it happen, again and again.
A parish council is the basic building block of democracy. It has wide-ranging powers to make lives better for its residents. If you want examples of the excellent work that can be done by town and parish councils, just take a look at what places like Frome and Buckfastleigh have achieved. There are many more like them.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we are sure that, as a parish, you have come together in ways you might never have before, in order to do what is best for your residents. Why not build on that success, take over your parish council and continue this fine work?
It can be done – it has been – many times and in many places. If you think your community could do a better job of running your council, and if you want support or advice from the people who have done it before, visit the Flatpack 2021 website or, better yet, contact us now.
We’re with you,
Peter Macfadyen, author and former Mayor of Frome
As it stands, Flatpack 2021 is expecting another 20 groups to try to take over their local council in this May’s elections. But there’s a small chance that the perfect storm of Covid frustration, global power shifts and the Handforth stand off could lead to a more significant uprising across the country.
Could you be part of that wave of new democracy? If so, get on board with Flatpack 2021 – you’ve still got time.