Accordion Content

Flatpack Democracy is the title of a book, but it has now become a sort of shorthand for a methodology of running community-level councils, town and parish-level councils. The key elements of that are a group of people who are individuals, independent of party politics, working together with some sort of agreed ethos or set of values. They’ve agreed how they’re going to work together to form a group, so they’re focused on the task of supporting their community.

And the other main facet is a real push towards much more participatory democracy. It’s not a group of people who are elected and then ‘represent the people’; it’s aimed at a different model, in which the council are facilitating and catalysing activity within the community.

We’re still finding places, people who bought the book and did the thing. There are around 15 to 20 places where there are majorities of independents with a similar sort of model. People take some of our ideas and then do whatever works for them in their community.

There’s about another 70 or 80 that I know of where some people were elected, of whom there are about seven or eight which are at higher levels [of council]. There are two or three places where people who stood as independents are now in cabinets, because they’re part of an ‘anybody but the Tories’ coalition. So there’s always a chance of that happening.

Flatpack 2021 is a campaign to support anyone else who wants to get involved in a similar model, people who want to do community-level councils in this kind of different way. The government agencies, the Local Government Association and the National Association of Local Councils do what they do, but they’re putting out stuff that’s about doing the work of councils in the same way as before. And we don’t think that that works.

Flatpack 2021 is slightly piratical, one of those slightly annoying, poking-things-from-the-outside bunch of people who are voluntary and who can say things that don’t get said otherwise, and make things move.

It’s really difficult to get independents in any significant numbers into a Metropolitan Council, like Sheffield City Council. There is a right to form community councils under the Localism Act, but there’s a huge problem. There’s a growing number of people, who will be now in the hundreds of thousands, who’ve taken part in a process of asking for a community council. They’ve had referendums, they’ve had votes, they’ve had meetings, they’ve asked for it, and then a few people in a darkened room have said, ‘Nah, we don’t want you to.’

The higher level of council can still say no. I think there’s potential for gathering all of those people who’ve demanded this and go, ‘Hang on, what is this? This Localism Act needs rewriting!’

One is The Parliament Project. The Parliament Project was set up to encourage women to get involved in standing for and becoming elected in parliament and then supporting them once elected. They’ve opened up their training and their workshops and their support circles to people of other levels.

One of the things we wanted to really do was not to replace one bunch of old middle-class white men – i.e. me – with more of the same. We wanted to see a lot more women candidates and women supported in being councillors. And the same for black and ethnic minority communities. We’d love to find ways to support people who wouldn’t normally be a councillor.

Because political parties have a membership of around 2% of the potential voters. That membership will be people who understand the current dysfunctional system. They believe ‘the way’ is to win power in the totally undemocratic paradigm we have. The confrontational methodology of [political] parties is totally unsuited to making decisions at all levels of government.

This is not just getting a few non-party people into the current system; this is radical change from primarily representative democracy to primarily participatory. There is no evidence that the parties can, or want to, change. And we haven’t got the time. We have to DIY, and DIY quickly.

You get the huge pleasure and stimulation of meeting and working with people not in your bubble. The excitement and adrenalin of making changes that really impact on real people’s lives. Fun and all the wellbeing that comes from that. Do it!

Short Answer
Our political system means only a very few people make decisions for the rest of us, without really knowing what’s needed or what is going on. Our local councils are largely ineffective but can be reactivated to work with communities to understand and act on those needs, reclaiming politics for the people.

Long Answer
Personally I no longer vote in national elections. Yes, I know millions all over the world are fighting and dying for this right, as they did in the UK until very recently. But the truth is, in nearly every case we have been fobbed off with something that is very far from democracy as most people understand it. A ‘democracy’ in which their vote makes no difference. A few thousand votes in a handful of constituencies will swing an election. I live in a place with one of the largest Party majorities in the country. My vote won’t change that and I have the luxury of not taking part in a process I consider morally bankrupt. However, I’ll happily vote in a local election. There is a very good chance I’ll get a choice of people who tell me what they plan for my community. I can find out if they plan to make decisions for me, or build a relationship with my community by listening and learning. I can vote for people who are independent of national political parties because I want them to make decisions based on local needs and knowledge, not National Party ideology. These independents are the ones I seek out at a local level. Over the last few months we have seen strong local groups emerging to co-ordinate incredibly important and meaningful actions to support those most hit by Covid19. Where there have been well functioning local councils, they have been able to work with these groups as well as take their own actions, and in doing so making a real difference. On the other hand there are far too many examples of where councils have been totally sidelined simply because they are simply unfit to deal with the scale of the challenge their community faces. It is a fact that most local councils don’t even have elections because there are not enough people prepared to stand. Looking at how some councils operate you can well see why they struggle to attract quality applicants or candidates. They are lumbered with systems and regulations that seem designed to solely maintain the status quo. No wonder turnout at elections is utterly pathetic. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Tradition has its place, but all too often is peer pressure from dead people. Most of the rules can be changed. But this will only happen if many, many more people work together to encourage good candidates then vote for them. Covid19 has shown that people working together can do astonishing things and these are the kind of people I want in my council and these are the people I want to vote for.

Short Answer
Local councils in England can do anything that is legal. Raise taxes, borrow, spend, buy…. Currently most are ludicrously un-ambitious and do very little, but it doesn’t have to be like that.

Long Answer
In around 10,000 places, all over Britain, groups of people meet every month or so to make decisions that directly affect their local community. Most of the people not in these groups don’t even know they exist. Those that know mostly don’t care or believe that what they do is largely irrelevant. But these parish and community councils are the hidden force that could potentially create the type of democracy many of us are desperate for. When the Greeks cooked up ‘democracy’ they were talking about power resting with the people. This didn’t just mean a vote every four years, almost no consultation and scraps of information from those who really pulled the strings. It meant most people, regularly, asking for things that then happened. So where is the link between the sleepy, ineffective parish and community councils most of us don’t know about, and real people power? Firstly, these councils can decide they actually want to work with the people in their community, rather than just make decisions for them. Secondly, they have the power to raise local taxes and spend them with on the things people want and need. Thirdly, they can decide to help build and support local voluntary groups with staff time and money. They can work together with them to bring in more funds from groups like the National Lottery. In fact, as long as the clerk who works for the council has some basic qualifiations, these local councils can do anything they like as long as it is legal. They can borrow money, run social enterprises, promote activities of all kinds, buy land….. The challenge is that most people have no idea what can be done. So not enough people with vision and drive try to get elected onto these. So the people in power carry on doing what they’ve always done – which is very little except mince about in fancy dress and open fetes. Now, while that might have been sort of OK a few decades ago, the ravages of austerity followed by Covid19 mean that local areas are massivly under-resourced and are struggling to replace services that might have once been provided by ‘higher’ levels of councils. Brexit and Climate Change are lining up to increase the pressure. We need to find ways of breaking this circle of missed opportunity. And the answer is simple – get ourselves elected, then work together for the benefit of our communites

Short Answer
Old male white middle class people can do a great job of understanding what old white middle class people need. Local councils can be rebuilt to reflect the communities they work in, but throwing stones from the outside will only break windows.

Long Answer
Given that, for right or wrong, we live in a capitalist society, it has meant you have to acquire things – houses, cars, electric toothbrushes and so on to be considered a success.. to acquire these you need to earn money and how much you earn tends to become the key measure of success. Of course there people who volunteer, often the old or well-off, so that they can put something back into society, But it is young people who have to put every effort into ensuring they are on the ladder to gain qualifications, employment and a decent place to live. Then once they are earning, there are saddled with loads of responsibilities and expenses that mean for a few decades they have no energy left for anything voluntary. And things like becoming a local councillor is a voluntary activity: it’s a bit like becoming a school governor or the Bored (and I do mean bored) of the Hospital Friends. There is a glaring and fundamental flaw in this scenario. Many of positions in our communities are voluntary but they have great power and influence. We allow the vast majority of these positions to be held by elderly white middle class, usually men, who perpetuate the views and desires of, well…., elderly, white, middle class men. It’s not their fault. They make decisions based on their own experiences. This means that if the young, women and people of non-white backgrounds don’t seriously engage , we will continue to see their views not heeded and their needs not acted upon. There is a chicken and egg issue in here, The systems, language and culture of many of the places, like local councils, where decisions are made frustrates and excludes those who might otherwise get involved. In some cases this is deliberate, but usually it’s not. What we need is. people, who are not the usual suspects, to step up and show the way. Often they have a really hard time of it – pioneering is never easy. But there are great examples now of where people have hung in there and brought different ethnicity, gender and age to these bastions of conservatism and they have made real changes. They also need to know there is a growing number at community council levels who are ready to up the challenge. But we need still more and the Flatpack2021 campaign is there to let them know they are not alone and that support is there for them. Help is just a click away

The Citizen’s Assembly is a quite complex affair with people chosen from the community by sortition. To do it well for a community of around 30,000 would cost about £20K. I suspect you meant ‘People’s assembly’ to which the answer would be ‘yes’

It’s where everything people need is within a 15 min walk, school, health, work, everything. Paris is redesigning itself along those lines

Peter Macfadyen says:
My reply would be to think through what you are offering. My ideal is that you are saying

1) this is how we as a group of individuals will work together and this is how we will work with you – the community.

2) This means lots of REAL participation and engagement from which you form your constantly evolving manifesto.

So, while you may want broad areas of ‘manifesto’ that are hard to disagree with, like ‘We will take actions to make Bude cleaner and greener’ …. don’t do more than that. Amongst other things, you will deter possible candidates who may have other priorities – even if they share those green ideals.

Peter Macfadyen says:
Yes! The second Flatpack book is all about that. Holding the ‘ways of working’ and keeping to the ideals is really hard

Peter Macfadyen says:
It is harder, but there are some great examples of ‘Flatpackery’ making inroads. If you want to take that route register through the website and we can put you in touch with others.

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