Flatpack democracy

flatpack-democracyThe little Somerset town of Frome may not be the first name to spring to mind when thinking about radical grassroots democracy, but something rather interesting has been going on there in recent years. In 2011, a group of people up-ended the local council by offering a real alternative to party politics. They ran as a group of independents, calling themselves Independents for Frome.

As a group of independents they had no manifesto or stated policies, and no obligation to vote in any particular way. What held the group together was a set of core principles:

  1. National party politics are unhelpful on our town council
  2. Improvements can and should be made in the town
  3. There should be more openness and involvement in decision making
  4. The town needs strong representation and
  5. We can all make the town cleaner and greener

Remarkably, they won 10 of the 17 seats. On their first day, they voted to suspend the committee structure and devolved power to working groups instead. They limited private meetings and have tried to make everything open to the public, while getting on with supporting local business, improving parks and making the town more sustainable. They are experimenting with consensus decision making and open space.

Whether or not Independents for Frome stands the test of time and can rally the support for another election, it’s a bold experiment in local residents taking power. For towns (like mine) that are locked in endless rounds of obstruction between jaded factions of national parties, it’s a real breath of fresh air.

The experience of IFF has already inspired several other groups to have a go, and to help them along, Peter MacFadyen of IFF has written a book about it. It’s called Flatpack Democracy – A DIY guide to creating independent politics, and you can find out all about it at the Flatpack Democracy website.

8 Comments on “Flatpack democracy”

  1. Jim Campbell April 9, 2014 at 1:20 pm #

    What a fantastic idea, I will have to read more about this.

    Your town may be ‘locked in endless rounds of obstruction between jaded factions of national parties’, but you should pop over to Northern Ireland and check out the party politics here 😦 We also have the added ‘benefit’ of having the whole sectarian thing too. Its just a big horrible mess and a bit of a joke. We are also reducing the number of councils in the country so they are going to end up as huge ungainly monsters, basically unanswerable to no-one.

    Jim

  2. Ben Niblett April 9, 2014 at 1:22 pm #

    The thing I like about having political parties is that it gives you an idea of what they might do if they win an election – sounds like you’d lose that with this approach, though ‘cleaner and greener’ sounds like a good mini-manifesto to me.

    • Jeremy April 9, 2014 at 2:34 pm #

      That’s true at the national level, but much less so in local politics. The idea of oppositional parties in town councils is unproductive, since most of the decision making is done by the executive anyway. At the local level, party politics may well make it harder to keep councils accountable.

      • benniblett April 10, 2014 at 8:30 am #

        that may be true at town council level but for a larger council with more powers, a lot more of the decisions are political not just operational, and having party positions gives a bit more transparency about what direction the people you elect want to go in. Or is there a flatpack route to offering that ?

      • DevonChap April 10, 2014 at 8:34 am #

        Party politics in local councils can breed cronyism and corruption, especially ones with a ‘natural’ majority party (think Labour in former mining areas, Tories in parts of the South East). The big but is that it also does give an element of clarity to voters about who they are voting for. Most voters don’t have time or inclination to give much thought about local government. A non party system could just get lots more cranks elected. The trouble being these cranks, not coming from parties, wouldn’t be as used to the necessary compromises needed to run councils serving people of a wide range of views.

  3. Jeremy April 10, 2014 at 9:11 am #

    I haven’t had a chance to read the Flatpack Democracy book yet, so I don’t know if they have an answer to bigger councils. It seems like an idea that would work in a smaller town, but it would scarcely be feasible in Luton. We have 48 councillors, 36 of whom are Labour, so you’d need an enormous pool of competent and like-minded people to challenge that.

    I think the danger of electing cranks is easy to overstate, as in order to get enough votes, they would have to engage with the general population enough to overcome the default vote for the majority party. We had some bonkers independent candidates in the general election in Luton, but they all lost their deposits. For one of them to win, they’d really need to be known and trusted. And in the process of doing that, you’d know what they stood for.

    The benefit of this kind of coup is that it re-invigorates local politics. If the council can be seen to be run by the local citizens for the local citizens, people might engage a bit more. The turnout in Frome that elected the independents is considerably higher than previous local elections, for example.

  4. Peter Macfadyen April 11, 2014 at 9:30 am #

    I thought I left a post here yesterday – sorry it got lost……….. I cover the issue of ‘higher’ councils in the book, and yes, I agree, the Frome model is mainly suited to the most local levels. BUT Jeremy’s original post lists our ‘Principles’ which are a sort of broad manifesto….. and are NOT what keeps us together. This is another list! It’s our ways of working, which set out how we’ll operate together as a group and the ethos of that group…. too long to set out here, but that’s the key element that makes what we are engaged with in Frome work. Peter (Macfadyen)

    • Jeremy April 11, 2014 at 3:13 pm #

      Thanks Peter. I will have to read the book and get all the details.

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