Alternative Editorial: The Wave Is Building
Over a six-month period, Greta Thunberg shook up all the Western major global institutions (EU, UN, Davos, Vatican, Nobel Prize) with her siren call to a climate emergency. In the last three months we saw the School Strike for Climate and then Extinction Rebellion take the streets of capitals across the world, successfully sparking national and international headlines.
That resulted very swiftly in first the Scottish and Welsh and then the UK Government announcing a national climate emergency (see post this week). Then today’s results for the UK local elections have shown a deep shift no-one really anticipated - a shake-up in our democracy. Maybe, given these turbulent times, we should be taking that in our stride.
However, the way we interpret that shift, the story we tell about what is really happening at this moment in history, holds the key to how we move into the future. Above all, this is a soft power battle – a struggle of narratives.
The mainstream news is pointing only at the losses for the two main parties. And the media is only amplifying the leverage this gives to the usual political suspects to push on with a Brexit deal – one that, until now, could not get through the parliament. In other words, the survival of the two-party system comes first, above any other considerations that this period of huge instability has surfaced.
But we’re not pointing at Tory losses – they were expected, in the light of the spectacle of Westminster Brexit breakdown. We’re not even pointing at Labour losses: they’re part of the same overall discredited political culture, although many believed the parliamentary Left would benefit more from the government’s failures. The gains of the Lib Dems also could be seen as a direct beneficiary of these losses – in particular, the Tory ones. Together, according to this chart, they amount to 75% of the vote.
Our first question would be: who makes up this category of ‘Other’, swollen in this election, that together account for as much as 1,475 seats and 25% of all votes cast? Broadly, this number includes the Green Party who won 200 new councillors to get up to 265. And UKIP who fell to 31 in total. It also includes 119 who represent local Residents Associations, 8 for Health Concern and 7 Liberals.
This leaves 1,045 broadly described as “independents” - almost doubled from the last set of local elections.
What kind of independents are these?
Given that these numbers record only district level and above, they won’t include many of the grassroots independents that have succeeded in record numbers at the community level: town councils and parishes. Notable exceptions will include Herefordshire County and East Devon District Council – the first fully independent council. The majority are more likely to be disillusioned and ashamed Tory and Labour councillors, unwilling to go down with their national party.
However, they are a broadening gateway to something else quite remarkable, and now moving into the space of people’s politics. A new wave of local people who are taking it upon themselves to be responsible for what happens in their local community, how the money is spent and how decisions are made.
Given that over the past three years turnout for local elections has fallen to 33%, leaving 67% technically open to persuasion, the margin for an upset is always large. In 2013 this was the entry point for UKIP. With only one MP and later 2 MPs in the UK Parliament to represent them, they used the power of narrative and social media to characterise this localism as a people’s vote in favour of leaving the EU.
Yet there was no new mechanisms on offer to give people any more agency in the political sphere – even locally - it was all coming from above. After the Brexit referendum they were more or less deserted by their leaders and are now heavily regarded as a spent force.
In hindsight, nevertheless, it is possible to see UKIP and the Leave vote as important moments in the revolution of UK democracy. Not only has there been a weakening of the long-standing duopoly in British politics but it has stirred ambition for a better expressed people’s politics - a genuine alternative to the current political system and culture. Amongst other things, even as a phenomenon to grapple with, it gave birth to The Alternative UK.
The degree to which such a democratic emergency dovetails with the environmental emergency cannot be underplayed. They depend upon each other to achieve the transformation of our society we need to survive. Our own deep dive into this arena for over two years has revealed a substantial movement – appearing in multiple guises – of a new socio-political sensibility that links people to power to planet (I, We, World).
Frome Frome! The Flatpack model picks up speed
Within this, the “values-based” independents inspired by Flatpack Democracy in Frome are causing a storm right now.
The readers of the Daily Alternative, know this political model of citizen-led and participatory politics. The Independents from Frome were also one of the first towns to declare a Climate Emergency. But unlike the UK government, this came with a report of how to get Frome to zero carbon by 2030 and a commitment to deliver locally.
With the added phenomenon of Extinction Rebellion, leading a national and international campaign, becoming independent suddenly takes on another dimension – that of citizens stepping up to save our future, in the face of national-level failure to do so.
How many of the wave of newly elected independents below the district level were Flatpack Democracy aligned candidates, we won’t know for another day or so. In Frome where Flatpack was birthed, former Mayor Peter Macfadyen stood back after two terms to see a resounding 17/17 seats retained for IfF.
In Devon where we have been closely watching and working to create the conditions for the rise of Flatpack politics, remarkable gains were made at District, Town and Parish levels, many of them taking control of their councils.
I spoke to Pam Barrett, former Mayor of Buckfastleigh who reported winning 10 out of 12 councillors; 11/16 in Dartmouth, 9/13 in Chudleigh, 7/14 in Bovey (taking control with 2 non-aligned independents), Portishead 15/16. East Devon has become the first ever independent District Council in the country.
Meantime, members of the Torridge Common Ground, co-founded by XR initiator Jamie Kelsey-Fry, won two further District Council seats alongside their 6 at town level.
Says Jamie: “I’m somewhat rocked in my soul today.. we have a foot in the door and can start to change the way local power operates. We have people’s assemblies, listening, radical inclusivity and the consciousness of acting with the next seven generations in mind, all at the heart of how we do things. It’s impossible not to have hope right now”.
Standing where we have been for the past two and a half years, steadily charting and helping to generate the rise of a new politics, this month feels like a Mexican wave. With first Greta, then the school strike, then Extinction Rebellion, then the Parliaments, then the local independents, all rising to take the headlines in turn. Together they’re generating the sense of something genuinely alternative in the making.
Link rising movements to better practice
But knowing how these waves are designed to start up and gradually fall away, how do we embed them more deeply in the rhythm of our daily lives? How can we maintain the excitement in ways that not only keep the connection between these movements going, but open the door to many more?
One of the ways will be to match the focus on the movement aspect of what is now occurring, with the practice aspect. While both XR and the Flatpack independents create much needed energy as genuine alternatives to the mainstream, they also risk appearing within the old political framework as the new opposition to the old elites. Another party in the struggle, rather than a broad and inclusive front of people’s initiatives. Again, this is a soft power battle of narratives.
Both XR and FD are sources of new democratic and environmental practices that any citizen will benefit from adopting. Huge efforts can now be invested in sharing those practices with people everywhere, whether or not they are signed up members of the movement. Our ability to turn the climate emergency around will depend on their take-up.
But other players are being inspired by XR to distribute best practice. Two examples this week would be Greenpeace’s climate manifesto, which offers a clear 11 stage response to climate emergency. Another would be the recommendations from Business Green in their response to Extinction Rebellion. Here is a useful time-table for government meetings and supporting structures, as well as a list of innovations that could happen across society to enculture us to change. Most importantly, they challenge the complacency of their peers: those who think we are already doing all we can. One for any of your business friends who are sceptical about XR’s demands but offer no alternatives.
Secondly, while People’s Assemblies will do core work in decision making with those who are ready to turn up, we have to be relentless in our ambition to appeal to those outside our own comfort zone. The ambition for Citizen Action Networks (CANs), for example, is to offer containers and mechanisms for bringing those people who are not ready to join a movement, to nevertheless come into contact with the solutions on offer.
A Mexican wave
CANs are designed to connect everyone to the process and its benefits, whether they join in or not. Our experience shows there are many different speeds of entry – from those that require gentle conversation on their own terms to those that want to take non-violent but radical action to challenge authority now - that need to be catered for. That allows the integration of all of our efforts towards the climate emergency in the short time we have.
At the CTRLshift Summit this week in Stoke (see blog), 35 partner organisations broadly aligned with the values and goals of XR and FD, will be thrashing out how we can collaborate better to make those solutions accessible.
If you are an organisation looking for collaborators, join us in Stoke-on-Trent. On the other hand if you are either an XR or FD actor this week, you may be looking for a rest from a month of unprecedented breakthrough. Well deserved.
But if you are a Daily Alternative reader - watching that Mexican Wave as it moves towards you at great speed, and you are not quite sure yet how you are going to stand up when it gets to you - sign up now to be a co-creator and we will help you find your own special way.