The contributions to this Democratic Response to Covid-19 blog series eloquently press the case for increased participation and deliberation to improve decision making and to hold the government to account.
The question is whether those in power care. Government ‘policy’ seems to be ‘The Shrug’. I doubt central government cares much, if at all, about the participation agenda set out in these blogs. I see no evidence that they have any desire to notice, never mind enter, our activist bubble.
I was one of a group of citizens, none of whom had been councillors before, who stood to move the council on from political party bickering.
Many contributors also propose that government needs greater public trust. Too right it does as they ask us to wash our hands, wear masks, receive vaccinations, not visit our relatives and so on. But why should or would we trust people whose own behaviour – both personal and professional – is so contemptuous of those outside their cabal? In too many areas of our lives, a very few people hold the information and thus the power. Power over not power with. It has always been thus. The powerless look to the powerful to be told what to do. That sort of works when you want to send millions of people to die in battle, or take their money through eternal debt. But not when you need them to cooperate.
But, if we move away from the centre, as others in this series note, things get much more interesting. This is where I have particular personal experience. For 8 years I was a town councillor in Frome, including spells as mayor, as leader and chair of key committees. I was one of a group of citizens, none of whom had been councillors before, who stood to move the council on from political party bickering. As far as is possible, we took advantage of the Localism Act to better prepare the town for both austerity and climate change.
Simply replacing one set of councillors with another is not the answer.
What we offered the good people of Frome was that we, a disparate group in terms of backgrounds, views, ages and experience, would stick to a set of values. One of these is: ‘Trust and have confidence and optimism in other people’s expertise, knowledge and intentions’. So we moved towards much greater participation, recognising that we could not genuinely represent all the people and that they obviously had much greater experience, knowledge and skills etc to deal with many, if not all, of the challenges we faced.
At the time we primarily offered upbeat (and offbeat), ambitious, exciting change. Our ways of working evolved over time as we instigated initiatives like People’s Panels to define strategy and Participatory Budgeting. The shared values were, however, crucial in keeping our focus on what we had in common and not reverting to the normal confrontational model.
The Shrug of ‘higher’ levels of government consistently undermines the local and further alienates the people from engagement and ownership.
In this case, we took over the level of local government nearest the community (parish, town or community council) and worked to give people the confidence and experience to engage in ways that clearly led to results and rebuilt some of the trust that had been lost. The FlatpackDemocracy2021 campaign we are now running aims to inspire others to take this route, based on the experiences of Frome and a few dozen others who have made a similar journey.
Central government purports to support capacity building at this most local level. My experience is that it fails to do so. The Local Government Association, the National Association of Local Government and the Localism Act itself all fall short of empowering people in their communities. The Shrug of ‘higher’ levels of government consistently undermines the local and further alienates the people from engagement and ownership. There is little help from above to drag local councils into the 21st Century.
Simply replacing one set of councillors with another is not the answer. This is where the pandemic experience of local action (shared in many of the previous blogs) is so crucial. Not just the newly emerged Mutual Aid and other networks, but the profound recognition of deeply embedded community groups that have occupied this space for generations. New or old, these groups are unlikely to have a written ‘set of values’ but they are likely to have trust for each other at their core, with common purpose trumping personal (or political) differences.
The democratic promise is a local council that sees its role as facilitating, empowering, supporting and resourcing community action, coming from a place of service, decency and values. Their key role must be to exert power with.
The only way is for the local structures of power to reposition themselves as facilitators of listening, or if that fails, for people to take their right to speak and be listened to.
But in too many places we find no community council or no elections for years. For me this is where the courtship must start with the community. We need a national movement to counter The Shrug, so we can move fast enough to a place where people demand to be trusted, rather than where a bemused government is surprised at our lack of loyalty. Our FlatpackDemocracy2021 campaign, the extraordinary number of people currently engaged in the free Trust the People course and many of the contributors to this series are examples of what this might look like. I’d like to see more established organisations that purport to support community empowerment throw their weight in this direction.
The mega shitstorm of recession, Brexit and climate change is here already. If we wait for central government to change the systems that retain its power, or to start representing the people rather than their rich donors, then it's game over. We need to stop looking at Westminster and further support the Local to reclaim politics. The only way is for the local structures of power to reposition themselves as facilitators of listening, or if that fails, for people to take their right to speak and be listened to. Only then will we have at least some level of resilience in the times ahead.
This piece is part of the "Democratic Response to COVID-19" series curated by Involve and the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University.
Peter has worked in areas of social justice for over 40 years. In 2010 this took him into local politics, co-creating a new relationship between local government and the people as a councillor in Frome and the writing of Flatpack Democracy. Central to this is a belief that we need to move from a politics based on fear and confrontation to one of listening, empathy and co-operation: views that he shares through writing and campaigning. His work and lifestyle see humankind as a small part of the wider ecology with a constant focus on the climate emergency. Recycling, reusing, organic growing, cooking, bicycling, community and family are all central.