Frome. Rhymes with broom. Nice small town in Somerset. Home to the Guardian’s John Harris, who brought attention to the fact that in May 2015 the local electorate booted out political parties from the town council altogether, in favour of a loosely aligned group of independents known as Independents for Frome.
The ringleader behind it all – though leader is probably an unwelcome word – is Peter Macfadyen. He’s written a call to arms / guidebook on why and how to repeat their success.
The book’s only a 100 pages long – so you should probably just order a copy. But here’s a precis just in case.
Flatpack Democracy tells the story of the group’s initial success in winning control of Frome’s town council. As the title suggests, the book portrays the idea that with a bit of help, a friend or two, you can quite simply put together a better designed, better functioning local politics. And it won’t cost much.
Macfadyen – who became chair of the council – is guided by a premise that political parties don’t belong in local politics. They bring cleavages from the national level that only hinder progress at the local level; they mean that people stop playing nicely, they prevent the building of consensus – ultimately they prevent councillors from actually doing what’s best for the local community. Macfadyen and others’ frustration at this boiled over, and ‘Independents for Frome’ was born.
Along the way, the independents realised that the sort of democracy that is practised in local town halls and council chambers is thoroughly out-dated and puts off most people who aren’t retired or aren’t from the typecast (old white men). Meetings of councillors are filled with archaic language and rules about who speaks after whom, with levels of deference and hierarchy no longer appropriate in a 21st century polis.
After a couple of chapters on the state of democracy (it’s not great) and why anyone should bother (because new media; because if not us – then growing disenchantment and risks of extreme positions; and – interestingly – because the localism agenda introduced by the coalition govt does give more opportunities for local action), Macfayden goes through the entire process of winning control of a council: how to call the first public meeting, how to choose candidates, how to work as a group while remaining independents, how to campaign, use the media, and then how to govern.
The most interesting of these is how to work together without being a party. To highlight a few aspects:
– The group needs to establish ‘Ways of Working’ and some common ‘Principles’
– One way to establish both of these things should be to hire an independent (from the group) facilitator – a dedicated professional to play this role helps draw out everyone’s points of view and helps the group move towards consensus
– In Frome, these Ways of Working include: ‘understanding the difference between constructive debate and personal attacks’; ‘avoidance of identifying ourselves so personally with a particular position that this in itself precludes constructive debate’; ‘preparedness to being swayed by the argument sod others and admitting mistakes’… and so on.
– The principles are something more traditional to a political party, but are wide enough to encompass a pretty broad church. Examples from a different ‘Independents’ group include Independence, Equality (in the ‘of opportunity’ sense), Honesty, Truth and Local Pride. Frome’s were similar, but leaned more in a policy direction by including a principle of ‘Cleaner and Greener’.
– The group should have fun – it’s pretty essential that this group of people – thrown together by some shared values, but hopefully from varying walks of life – have the opportunity to bond and get along. Cakes and ale are Macfadyen’s route.
Another good section is on how to govern – what you actually do when you win control of the council. Critically, you need the support of the council staff. Shortly after the election, Frome’s chief exec suggested that he saw his job as ‘protecting Frome from you lot’. Out he went, and a new structure and working relationship was born, which set the good council staff free to do good work. The new councillors also made the meetings much more open – doing simple things such as allowing anyone to speak or ask questions, using first names not titles, advertising meetings on facebook, holding a “Participation Week” and so on.
The new council appears to have been successful. Scattered throughout the book is glowing feedback from residents and specific examples of things the new councillors were able to achieve – a new market, a new community-run development company, a renewable energy co-op…and so on. As Macfadyen writes: “Our ethos…is to build confidence and facilitate opportunity…An atmosphere of achievement and ambition breeds more of the same.”
The book is let down by the apparent absence of any copyediting or proofing – ‘Barak’ Obama anyone? – but this is forgivable when Macfayden was clearly just trying to get down lessons for others to follow, presumably as quickly as possible.
It’s not clear to what extent the group relied on Macfadyen. It would seem like (at least) one highly passionate individual is required to make this sort of thing happen. Macfayden – who spearheaded the idea in Frome while taking a break from high-level charity work in London – might be a bit of a one-off.
But Frome’s example is one worth spreading. And there have been equivalents – some successful, some not – in Liskeard, on the Isle of Wight, and in Northamptonshire. Democracy needs some good news stories.
You can buy single copies of the book at flatpackdemocracy.co.uk – or better still, buy 10 at a discount and pass them round.