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What is…flatpack democracy?

To most people, democracy means voting for a candidate from their chosen political party every now and then. However, the UK electoral system is finding itself in an increasingly challenging situation and nowhere is this more apparent than at local level. Voter turnout in local elections is falling rapidly - average turnout in South Tyneside in the recent May elections was just over 35%, with some wards seeing less 30%. Fewer people engaging with local politics means that decision-making is held in the hands of the minority, how can this be classed as ‘democratic’?

Since the start of the Covid pandemic, many people have looked for new ways to come together to help their communities, so why not make working together permanent? The Flatpack Democracy Movement has proved that local independent councillors, working together, can drive councils to operate democratically.

But what exactly is ‘flatpack democracy’?

In a nutshell, it’s the belief that councils should be run by local people for the benefit of the local community through a coalition of local independent councillors. These Independents are not politicians, simply local residents working together to represent all sections of the community. The key point is that a majority of Independents on the council can be good for democracy as they can represent the full range of views, with their sole agenda being to carry out the wishes of their local communities.

In 2011, Peter Macfadyn, an Independent councillor in Frome, Somerset, created an Independent Group with one aim - to give power to local people to have a say in how their community was run. He named it ‘Flatpack Democracy’ - it can be taken and set up anywhere, just like flatpack furniture! By 2015, the ‘Independents for Frome’ group had taken all 17 council seats.

Sounds a bit unrealistic? Over the past few years, this movement has been quietly gathering momentum. Independent Groups are taking root all around the country – Arlesey (Bedfordshire), Liskeard (Cornwall), Monmouth (South Wales) and Hexham, right here in the North East. Flatpack Democracy is a small-scale revolution bringing real change to local politics.

But how, or why, should communities consider an ‘Independent Group’? There are a couple of things to understand first:

  • it’s a structure, not a political party. There is no manifesto - simply a group of real people driving for real change;
  • diversity is key - the more diversity and range of skills and experiences, the more the community as a whole can truly benefit and;
  • ‘Independent Groups’ are keen to keep it enjoyable! Councils are places for people.

But, can politics be collaborative and used for the common good? Of course, there are valid questions.

  • Is this the beginning of a new, local level, politics?
  • Can local citizens work together in collaboration rather than follow party political agendas?
  • Will initial enthusiasm fade when faced with ‘real’ decision making?
  • Will it descend into factions and new parties? Will the old adversarial form of politics prevail?
  • Can this new ‘bottom-up’ approach bring more power to a real local level?

All very genuine questions to consider but now, more than ever, we need an alternative to our tired and increasingly rejected current systems. The growing feeling that the politics of our long-established councils fail to represent us, is a genuine concern - involved and empowered communities could transcend the traditional right-left divide and bring about a truly representative and inclusive society.