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Flatpack Democracy

Writer and campaigner Peter Macfadyen tells us about Flatpack Democracy’s mission to make decision-making in councils participatory – and the upcoming Flatpack 2021 campaign.

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Peter Macfadyen co-initiated Independents for Frome (IfF) in 2010, which stimulated the writing of Flatpack Democracy, a guide to creating independent politics. Peter served as both mayor and leader of Frome Town Council but, along with the other original members, did not stand again in 2019. In the 2019 election, IfF again won all seventeen seats on the council, which is currently focusing on coronavirus recovery, health and climate action. Peter has just published Flatpack Democracy 2.0 and launched the Flatpack 2021 campaign.

What is Flatpack Democracy?

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.

How many places have followed the Flatpack model?

I don't know, because 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.

Zetteler Flatpack Democracy Peter Macfadyen Profile

Peter Macfadyen.

Photo courtesy of the Mayors Chains series by David Partner

And what about Flatpack 2021 - what’s that?

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.

What about places that don’t have parish or town councils?

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!’

What other organisations are you working with?

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.

Why shouldn’t people just join political parties and change them instead?

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.

What do you get out of it?

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!

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