Despite what many of us believe few of us, if any, live in a true democracy. I think the last time we came close was in Ancient Greece.
When the Greeks invented Western democracy, they did not use the electoral system we do today. Instead they would randomly select citizens to hold key positions and developed vast citizens assemblies
, so that an even wider proportion of men could regularly contribute their views.
Of course, by excluding women and slaves this early attempt to create a truly representational democracy could not be called ‘equal’, but it does represent an attempt to create a system in which many people’s voices were heard.
In the most powerful democracies in the world, the voices of women, non-white and non-Western people are systemically excluded.
The Greeks didn’t believe in the fairness of an electoral system like the one we use today, because they reasoned that the person with the most money would end up with the most influence. This idea was picked up on by the Romans, who introduced the idea of electoral democracy precisely because
they wanted to protect the interests of a wealthy few. There is evidence to suggest that the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the United States knew that they were designing a system designed to keep power within a small percentage of people. Over 90% of successful 2012 congressional candidates were those who spent more on their campaign
It seems that representative democracy is working exactly as it was designed to do: to represent the wishes of the most powerful. Look at the United States, Britain, Australia, India, Brazil for a start, and we see a picture developing countries steering away from meeting the needs of their poorest citizens, towards those of their elites.
This is how we’ve come to a situation where in most countries of the world there is some form of elected government that supposedly represents the best interests of the people and the planet, but fails to do so. In the most powerful democracies in the world, the voices of women, non-white and non-Western people are systemically excluded, and nature is seen as a resource to be mined and extracted for capital gain.
In recent years we have seen some moves towards creating a more sustainable relationship to our natural environment - for example with the ‘rights of nature’ movement
- but there are still many question marks as to what will happen in the future.
If this is the global situation, what’s going on when we zoom in? Is it possible to find a thriving, inclusive democracy in communities of townships, villages and towns? Mostly, no. Even in modern societies where basic needs are largely taken care of, participation in the political system is still low. To take a recent example from Dorset, UK, only 33 out of the 163 eligible areas elected a candidate to their local council
Eight years ago I founded Frome’s Transition Towns movement with the intention of raising awareness about climate change and building a community strong enough to deal with the consequences of living a three planet lifestyle, on one planet. When I originally went to the town council, they were uninterested.
Rather than saying what needed to be done, we talked to people about what they needed.
After meeting with a few others, it emerged that there was a significant issue of political party allegiance - even at this lowest level of Government. Councillors made decisions based on national ideology rather than local needs, and confrontation on that basis took up much of their time. At the same time, a national policy of austerity was starting to hit Britain, which meant that funding from central government would be significantly cut. We realised that if we didn’t take action to take care of our own needs as a community - housing, mental health care and social benefits - then no one else would.
In 2011, UK Prime Minister David Cameron launched the ‘Localism Act’ which promised to ‘take the power from the political elite and give it to the man and woman on the street’. With the potential of Localism to provide more power and funding, along with the looming threat of austerity, we devised a model which would take the parties out of local politics and allow local politics to better focus on the needs of the community.
We created an agreed ethos for ‘Independents for Frome’ - the name of our party - which directed how we would behave as a group. We agreed to move away from a representative approach to a participative one — rather than saying what needed to be done, we talked to people about what they needed, and then work with them to achieve it. We had no ‘manifesto’ of promises as to what we’d do, because we couldn’t predict in advance what people needed or wanted.
In 2011 the people of Frome, a town with a population of over 25,000, elected 10 out of 17 Independent party candidates to be their local representatives. In 2015 and 2019, all representatives were from the Independent party. Our success sparked attention across the UK and inspired others to take up the same model.
As a result of the success of this movement in Frome I wrote a book called ‘Flatpack Democracy: A Guide to Creating Independent Politics’.
One key feature of the Flatpack Democracy methodology is a massive reduction in formality. We need to accept that the agenda of central government does not reflect the interests of a majority of people. Instead, we need to create local governance systems that belong to the people, are highly accessible and work to support members of the community in their ideas and proposals. We need local governance systems where people are engaged with budgeting and spending decisions, where local people have the opportunity to take ownership of decisions and play a key role in enabling them to happen.
Central to this is our response to climate change. Only a resilient and well-functioning community will be able to meet the challenges ahead, as resources are stretched way beyond capacity and change happens fast and in unexpected ways.
I firmly believe that grassroots politics at this level can play a central role in shifting our societal paradigm to one that is more collaborative, healthy and ecologically sound.