"Traditionally, politics is all about confrontation, and what we were looking for was politics of collaboration"
In 2011, the little town of Frome saw a small-scale political revolution when a group of individuals called Independents for Frome (or IfF) won all the seats in the Town Council. This group, fed up with traditional party politics, set out to achieve a more inclusive political system labelled as ‘flatpack democracy’. With traditional democracy now being questioned in many countries, what can we learn from Frome? Peter MacFadyen, initiator of IfF, talked with us about his small town revolution and his DIY Guide for ‘Flatpack Democracy’.
Britain today – like many countries – is struggling with their political system. Many politicians are arguing for changes that follow the needs of their political party, and seem to neglect the needs of local citizens. In Frome, a small town 25 miles away from Bristol, this scenario is different. Six years ago, a group of local residents took control of the Town Council and decided to make politics constructive and fun. ‘Flatpack Democracy – a DIY guide to creating independent politics’ is the story of what happened in Frome and at the same time a manual for taking political power at a local level.
Peter MacFadyen, initiator of Independence for Frome and author of the DIY guide, sat down with us and offered a step-by-step approach on how to enable people to have a greater say in the decision-making process. The key: keep it light!
Let’s start at the beginning. In your book, you state that democracy is in a state of crisis. Where do you think it all went wrong?
It’s a big question! Democracy is clearly in crisis. The whole system has gone wrong, fundamentally. For some reason there has come a huge gap between the people who run our complex systems and communities of people at the bottom. Politics itself is alive and well. It is party politics and the democratic systems that are not. For example, only 2% of the population are members of political parties in Britain, 98% are not. This is insane – it means that those 2% are creating the menu, which the rest of us choose from. And the real problem now is that if the people don’t fill the gap, it will be filled by extremists in one form or other. And that is really dangerous.
There are a lot of people displeased with what is happening in their towns. How did you actually manage to go ahead and make a change? How do you go from a few people being angry in a pub, to actually taking the power?
There are some things that are really useful. Finding the ‘right moment’ is one. It really helps if there is one incidence, or thing that is going on in the Council, where they essentially got it really wrong. So in our case, we have got this public building, a big old market hall, run by a charity and subsidised by the Town Council. The Council was unhappy by how it was being run, so they said they wanted to take it back. They held a public meeting, which they handled really badly: the public was not allowed to speak and people were told to sit down. Basically, it put the councillors in a really bad light. That incident was really helpful to us.
We were a bunch of ordinary people – an initial group of 5 – meeting at the pub and moaning about the different things that the town council was not doing. There was a constant battle going on in the Council between the liberal democrats and the conservatives, who would always oppose each other and would waste a huge amount of energy in doing so. At the same time they were missing opportunities in the town.
Luckily, in Britain, we were at a time when ‘localism’ had just been invented. It basically meant to take the power from the elite and give it to the people in the street. And there was legislation that went with that. So there was an opportunity to really get some power to the grassroots level and do something with it. And also, we really needed to get rid of that bickering bunch of people.
‘We really needed to get rid of that bickering bunch of people’
So, what did we do? We held a meeting. We invited about 30 people, and about 80 came. They could not fit in. At that first public meeting, it turned out about 20 people were interested in standing in the local election. We already had more potential candidates than those 17 seats available in the Town Council. We never really meant to get elected, and certainly did not plan to run Frome. We wanted to have some fun, stir things up, and put things on the agenda. So, it was a bit of a surprise when we were elected and found ourselves running Frome.
Can you explain what makes Independents for Frome unique?
The very first thing we did was to completely change the whole way the Council worked, to make it more accessible. Because none of us had been politicians before, we kept asking ourselves: “Why did we do that?” and if the answer was: “Because we always do”, it was gone. That is not a good enough reason.
There are two separate things going on here. The first is about us as a group. Independents for Frome is a structure, it is not a party. We don’t have a manifesto, we do not have agreement on anything – we are a group of individuals working together. But in order to work together, we needed to have some rules, some ways of working. They were essentially about good behaviour. But more than that, they were about being able to listen to another person’s view, and to accept that your view might not be right. Traditionally, politics is all about confrontation, and what we were looking for was politics of collaboration.
‘Traditionally, politics is all about confrontation, and what we were looking for was politics of collaboration.’
The other thing that we said we would do was to maximise engagement and participation. As Independents for Frome we are not experts. In the end I am just an ordinary person, so therefore, my role is not to have been elected and then to make the decisions for you. No, my role is to hear what needs to happen and bring in the expertise to reach a decision. Why would I know anything about bicycle footpaths necessarily? And that expert might just be someone who lives in this area and knows what happens. I do not mean ‘experts’ in the sense of someone with a degree in that subject, although we might want that too. If you have 17 individuals in the Town Council who come from a whole range of interests, skills, backgrounds, ages, and politics, then you bring something that more accurately reflects society.
You said in your book that you also used facilitators. Would you say that is essential for anyone who wants to embark on a similar process?
Yes! We used facilitators at the beginning. They are professional people, who came in to help us to run meetings – and we continue to do that. It is essential, because otherwise you get a de facto leader. The person who sets things up, who runs the meeting, who chairs, will almost inevitably become the leader. And if you are a group of individuals, you do not want that. In order to retain the fact that all of you are in this together you need to use a facilitator.
‘We’re not a party, but we can party’
Another thing I would say is essential is making it fun. Going out there, talking to people, inventing ways of doing things. It is a mixture of social and hard work. We have regular meetings where we all go off somewhere, sometimes for a whole weekend. We call them ‘party conferences’, which is a joke because we are not a political party, but we can ‘party’ – if you see what I mean. You know, it is voluntary at this level – you are not getting paid –, so why would people go to meetings if they are boring? We wanted to make meetings interesting; to retain the capacity to joke, and it needed to be really informal.
Keep it light, as you say in the book?
‘It’s all about political literacy, explaining to people why you are making the decisions.’
So it is a very democratic way of working together in the Council. But what if someone would come with a very extreme view, and who for example would be very much against refugees coming to town. What would you do then?
We would need to discuss that and deal with it as a group.
What if you get a scary majority in the council in favour of this, would you still go through with it?
Yes, because that is what I am committed to. You have to have that discussion and make that decision. There has to be acceptance that you win some, you lose some. Although at our level, town level, the most extreme thing we had to deal with was whether or not to have a supermarket in the middle of town.
Is there also a certain degree of selection bias, in the sense that people who get involved are already quite active citizens of Frome? When you consult the population of Frome, how do you hear the voices of people who may also have something to say, but are not yet involved?
Absolutely, that can be a real challenge. We reluctantly realised that the council meetings that were on finance, and health and safety – we still have to do those – will get the same 3 or 4 members of the public that are always there, and they know all the details more than we do. We were never going to get 30 or 40 people to come to those meetings.
One of the ways we got around that situation, on particular topics, was through an idea that we pitched from Podemos. So, on specific topics, where we wanted to look at strategy – in our case sports – we organized three, well facilitated, two hour meetings at all the different sports clubs. We invited everyone we could think of, promoted it big on social media and press. All of the meeting places have a bar, so there is a degree to which it becomes a social gathering. It is world cafe style. That was working really well, we did it for 5-6 different areas and brought in much larger groups of people than would normally be involved, and they are definitely not our normal group of people. For the latest meeting, we have got 100 people participating. The idea is to make a decision on how we are going to spend money on public events this year.
‘With a few exceptions, we are not doing direct democracy. What we are doing, effectively, is understanding the view, but ultimately it is our decision, as councillors.’
How do you make the choice between when to apply direct democracy and when to take the decisions as a council only?
At the moment, I would say we are cautious about some of these elements of direct democracy. For example, Brexit is a complete and utter disaster, which is what the majority of people in Britain now recognize. Because we went for direct democracy, people were given a choice in that moment of ‘yes or no’, ‘in or out’. It is a disaster to do direct democracy unless you have got a well-informed population. It is a group decision when to apply direct democracy so to say. Well, we are experimenting with different ways of engagement. One of which is participatory budgeting.
I can imagine that for some people it can seem a bit elitist that you take the decisions for them.
Yes, but most people do not care. They don’t mind the majority of decisions coming from the Council. It is public money and somebody needs to take a decision. They are happy there is a volunteer who is prepared to make the decision on their behalf. It does not matter that much. At our level, we will not kill anyone. We are not making big medical decisions or changing education, it is community level stuff.
How exportable is the Frome model to other contexts, considering that Frome is a town of 27,000 people? Take the case of Amsterdam, which is much bigger, and has a more heterogeneous population. Do you think it is possible to apply the ‘Flatpack democracy’ model to other settings and levels?
I always thought it could not be scaled-up, until I met the Alternative Party in Denmark. They are at a national level, have the second largest membership and produced twelve MPs. They are a significant political force in Denmark, with the same essential approach of ‘this is how we will do it’.
Taking power is relatively easy. But what you do with it is much more difficult. So the fact that we got re-elected in Frome, against a really big opposition, is much more interesting. I think that that is because people at our level really appreciate and really understand the values-led process. They really want to vote for someone who they feel they know a little bit. The problem comes when you do not know how you feel about something. That is the problem with the model. So at the Amsterdam level for example, there are issues that really do entail more serious things, where each process matters.
Is it an issue of scale then?
I think so. I think what is wrong with democracy, generally, is that we have no personal relationship of any sense with the people who are making the decisions for us. As you get higher up, you get surrounded by more and more people telling you what they think you want to hear. So, even Amsterdam’s politicians would find it tricky to just sit in a pub and hear what people think. You would have people lobbying you, and so on. So, you need a functioning grassroots, community level that has a proper say and it is really making decisions for people. This way, the information is filtering up, so that the highest level is making the decisions about life-changing matters based on a common understanding.
You said something before the interview about neighbourhoods in big cities (London in this case) functioning as towns in themselves. Would that be a possibility for implementing the Frome model?
Absolutely, and my understanding is that quite a lot of that happens in Amsterdam, as well as in Ghent, where for example they closed the streets and turned them into gardens for a while. There will be potential to do that. For example, in the United States, cities and states have a great deal of power. Cities are forming neighbourhood networks. They can balance at least some of what is happening at a presidential level, by doing it at their own community level. The trouble with cities is often that people move in and out, so you have quite a mobile population.
To conclude, what are the plans for the future? What is next for Peter MacFadyen, following the guide to ‘Flatpack democracy’?
I am writing Flatpack II. It is about taking power and what to do with it when working in different groups, because that is really more interesting. My hope is to understand those groups, the joining of the dots, which might or might not save human kind, rather than my book. It is not about ‘Will Frome work for you?’ It’s about ‘What works for you? What springs off it?’
Notes to self:
The political transformation of Frome shows us that it is possible to change local politics from the bottom-up. People are losing their faith in representative democracy, in what it stands for – yet Peter MacFadyen, together with the others from Independence for Frome (IfF), prove that viable alternatives can be found.
Of course, one should not mistake the ‘Flatpack democracy’ guide as the ‘to-do’ list for success and take it for granted. There are issues which Peter himself agrees on are problematic, the most important being the issue of scale. Keeping things light and fun can be difficult in larger cities dealing with social and economical inequalities. In a small town like Frome it is possible to have a personal relationship with your chosen politicians – according to Peter an essential factor for success – but in cities, or at a national level, this becomes problematic. Still, this does not mean that we cannot draw inspiration from the Frome model: how to work together as a group or how to make politics more inclusive.
One element that stands out in the story of Frome is determination. What IfF did in Frome should be seen as an example that when you are unhappy with how things are going in the place where you live, you as an individual can actually make a change. As the old saying goes: ‘Where there is a will, there is a way.’
This article was written in collaboration with Monica Ciovica.