We can all dream of a more equitable world; a world where a sense of fairness determines access to land for cultivation or for providing a place to live; a sense of proportion in respecting the needs of other people and other beings normally outside our sphere of awareness, a sense of a more general participation in the society of power and influence.
These fields of social justice, land-use, property, power and distribution of wealth are all profoundly Political concerns, yet common wisdom currently has it that politics is a dirty business steeped in self-interest and remote ideological squabbles. I, too, share the hope that we might, as Shelley`s “Unacknowledged Legislature”, effect a cultural shift through cultural endeavour – and this is a necessary, if long-term, project. Yet sooner or later the actual shift will need to be endorsed by Political institutions if they are to have real material influence. Our frequent reluctance to sully ourselves with Politics means that we too often effectively leave these matters to grubby, self-interested ideologues for whom such concerns are not anywhere near being on the agenda.
I’d like to tell you about an experiment I have been taking part in for the past four years. Here in Frome back in January 2011 we’d just had the third in a series of packed public meetings called to oppose heavy-handed austerity measures and inappropriate large-scale town centre developments. This evening it was a scheduled Town Council meeting at which it was proposed to cut, by 100%, the support grant given to the ‘Cheese & Grain’ – a large community hall used for markets, bands and bingo alike. This would certainly have meant its closure. There were probably 150 people at the meeting and many calmly stood up, each in turn, to present well-reasoned arguments against the proposed cut. At the end of this, the councillors engaged in no debate, nor did they acknowledge any of the points raised in the presentations. They simply put it to the vote and resolved to cut the grant. Afterwards in the pub there was outrage. Yet, although this was a critical moment, it was really only another symptom of the underlying malaise.
It is shockingly widespread wherein parish and town councils have come to embody mean and withered cultures which do not serve their constituents well, if at all. A significant proportion of councillors are routinely co-opted without election into vacant seats, or else elected unopposed because insufficient candidates can be found (being usually recruited from the diminishing and increasingly stagnant pools of party membership). They are predominantly retired and not a few have at some time been persuaded to stand as ‘paper-candidates’ only to find themselves inconveniently elected. Some are likely to be ‘professional councillors’ with (paid) seats in District and County Councils. It is, above all, certain that many of them will have been there for decades. We may, on occasion, find ourselves inclined to applaud government proposals to give more power to lower levels. But the reality is that many councils at these levels are moribund, dysfunctional and even downright corrupt.
Even before this fateful meeting a group of us had decided to try to mount a challenge at the upcoming election having seen an opportunity for greater town council influence in the Localism Act. Among our number were several with previous experience in Local Government, and even included a former CEO of a couple of big councils. We called ourselves Independents for Frome (IfF) and we soon found the full complement of 17 candidates. We ran a quirky and positive campaign and won 10 seats (against 4 Lib Dems and 3 Tories).
That was four years ago – so how did it go? Well, notwithstanding inevitable setbacks and frustrations along the way, it has gone spectacularly well. It hasn’t even felt too difficult since we re-jigged the management structures and built up a really top-quality staff team. In the last few months Frome Town Council under our control has won a regional award for ‘Greenest and most pro-active council’ against some far bigger players. Among our achievements are: acquiring land to provide 100 new allotments (clearing the waiting list), acquiring several green spaces and putting these into trust in order to protect them in perpetuity for the town, installed 80 PV panels on a Town Council building, produced a Neighbourhood Plan in which One Planet Living and Self-Build neighbourhoods are central pillars, provided free electric car charging points and formed an electric and hybrid car club, paid a fundraiser to give free fundraising advice and assistance to local community groups which has had a net gain to these groups of £135k over two years. . . But the full list is too long to report here – except to say that we did save the Cheese & Grain. Not only that but we borrowed £500k at a fixed rate over 25 years from the Public Works Loan Board to revamp the whole building. It now includes rentable meeting, office and classroom spaces and a new cafe and bar so that it is now self-supporting and no longer needs the grant. Our loan repayments are £10k/pa less than the grant had been.
So now our four year term is almost over. We’d originally considered being a one-term council, mostly because we didn’t want to slip into the kind of cautious timidity of previous councils and, indeed, governments, perpetually clinging to power without having the vision or the courage to use it. But the truth is that we’ve got a number of significant unfinished projects and a staff team already engaged on them. So we have, once again, 17 candidates including 11 new ones. These 11 are to be inducted into our ‘Ways of Working’ and this task has fallen to me.
A lot of thought has gone into which factors have enabled our group of 10, not necessarily like-minded, people to work so well together; to have almost always reached consensus and not to have factionalised or fallen out with one-another during our four years. I would like to take readers through this thought process and finish by listing our Ways of Working. I want to do this as a kind of analysis into how politics can be engaging, co-operative, extremely effective – and fun! Of course, I’d like to see more groups such as ours challenging the status quo – and we’re by no means the only ones, but these principles are readily transferable to other types of organisation engaged in doing what might be termed ‘good work’.
I’d spent four years previously as an Independent councillor at a District council and experienced the sticky, bureaucratic and painfully slow process of decision-making, and the even harder process of turning decisions into real action. I’d seen sycophancy and character assassinations by gossip whenever someone started to gain traction on a particular issue. I’d seen arrogance beyond belief and policy made according to ideology and against all evidence. I’d come to understand that good and bad councillors don’t divide neatly on party lines. I’d seen a public service organisation looking only inward. So why, I asked myself, have we had it all so easy?
It’s true enough that we had a good majority, but we’re not a party; we’re a group of independents. We didn’t all know each other before the campaign started and we held diverse
opinions ranging from bright red through deep green to pale blue. The risk of factions within the group were clear. Yet this didn’t happen.
I recalled a concept I’d once read in A Guide for the Perplexed by E.F. Schumacher about two types of problem: convergent and divergent. Schumacher uses the example of the design of a human-powered two-wheeled vehicle as a convergent problem. No matter how many different people provide input into this, the various proposed suggestions will tend to converge into what we recognise today as a bicycle. But ask a group of people how best to educate their children and the solutions will diverge like repelling magnets. Divergent problems occur says Schumacher wherever they involve life, and people. Every position is mirrored by an equally valid opposite one, thus: Justice and mercy, tradition and innovation, order and freedom, risk and certainty, growth and sustainability. Each divergent problem will have at least two logically valid solutions according to which premise is used, and these will tend to be mutually exclusive. So how can we reach a resolution?
The traditional party-political method is to force one’s favoured premise forward whilst diminishing and attempting to eliminate the opposing one; indeed the traditional parties can even be identified by their favoured premises, for example, the ‘freedom’ party versus the ‘equality’ party. Schumacher, on the other hand, uses the famous French ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ as a way forward. Divergent problems, he says, cannot be solved, they must be transcended. Liberté and egalité are clearly mutually exclusive, but can be transcended by fraternité, which could be seen as a kind of love. The practical outcome will be some sort of agreed amalgam of both positions through a process of ‘give and take’ made possible within the ‘transcendent’ culture of empathy, trust and respect.
I believe that we, in IfF, have created such a culture within and, to some extent, beyond our group through such things as weekends away together where playfulness has been the touchstone and monthly meetings involving plenty of laughter. And even though we don’t all mix within the same social circles, I’d go so far as to say that we’ve cultivated a tangible family kinship together.
IfF February 2015
The Ways of Working
IfF candidates will be asked to agree to cultivate the following:-
- A willingness and ability to participate in rational debate leading to a conclusion.
- An awareness of the difference between constructive debate and personal attacks.
- A preparedness to be swayed by the arguments of others and to admit mistakes.
- A relative freedom from overriding dogma or ideology which would preclude listening to the views of others.
- An avoidance of identifying oneself so personally with a particular position that this in itself precludes constructive debate.
- An acceptance that ‘you win some, you lose some’; it’s usually nothing personal and there’s really no point in talking defeat to heart.
- Trust, confidence and optimism in other people’s expertise and knowledge.
- Confidence in the mechanisms and processes of decision-making that we establish, accepting that decisions of the majority are paramount.
- An agreement not to engage in public squabbles or point-scoring in the letters pages of local newspapers.
- A determination to resist the temptation to engage in sniping and gossiping behind people’s backs.
“THE NOBLE ART OF LOSING FACE MAY ONE DAY SAVE THE HUMAN RACE”