"Passionate about their community, know what the issues are – and sick to death of party politics" John Harris on the new local power


We’ve been waiting on the Guardian to bring out John Harris’s piece - on what it meant, at the recent English and Welsh local government elections, that a very big number of “independent” candidates (at minimum, not identifying with any major party or ideology) were elected as councillors. The increase in independents was three-fold. (See our blog and editorial on the initial results).

John lives in Frome, the home of the localist movement/method Flatpack Democracy. Its founder Peter Macfadyean blogged recently about local parishes and towns changing hands, inspired by FD - including Buckfastleigh; Brixham; Frome; Bideford; Bovey Tracey; Chudleigh; Cuxton; Ecclesfield; Hadleigh; Minehead; Portishead; Shaftesbury; Sidmouth; Tavistock; Totnes; and Whitehill & Bordon.

Peter notes in a tweet on this Guardian piece that “it’s emerging that many so called ‘Independents’ elected in the local elections are anything but” (we’ll need more info on that, Peter), while praising Harris on covering “the real thing”. The ethos of the more inspiring independents is this:

This kind of local uprising has started to occur all over the country… Tangled up in that is the proliferation of organised groups [such as BIG, the Buckfastleigh Independent Group], that reject traditional party labels and seek control of the lowest tier of government – town and parish councils – where creative possibilities have tended to be lost in a sea of protocol and tradition.

Councils at this very local level may be associated with parks, allotments, bus shelters and litter bins. But, thanks to the Localism Act 2011, they can – in theory, at least – do whatever they like, within the limits of the law.

…Macfadyen reckons there are between 15 and 20 town and parish councils being run along the lines of the Frome model, “with a non-confrontational way of working and a participatory approach to democracy”. They include a large number in the south-west, places in Yorkshire and County Durham, and even New Zealand. Another 20 similar groupings, he says, have taken seats, but are yet to assume local power.

Why does he think the idea is spreading so fast? “Every other system of so-called democracy is now totally dysfunctional and non-representative,” he says. “And with Brexit, and what’s happening in central government, that is bound to have an impact downwards; people thinking: ‘My voice is not being heard in any way.’”

Harris picks up among the towns and parishes he covers in his feature - including Dartmouth, Queen’s Park, Alderley Edge, diverse areas socio-economically - that official party-political positions and identities are stoutly rejected:

“If you look at our 16 candidates, we have got leftwing people and we have got a supporter of the Brexit party,” says Dartmought councillor, Ged Yardy. “We have not been elected on the basis of our previous politics. Party politics is not in the room.”

…“It’s so irrelevant at this level,” says Rachel Grantham from Alderley Edge. “For me, it’s a realisation that normal people want to make a difference in their areas. There is a real feeling of people saying: ‘We can make a real difference in our patch.’ That is snowballing.”

There’s a democratic wave here - and it pushes in a different direction to that of the Brexit populists, more quiet and more concrete. Our interest in localism - see the category - has always kept open the possibility of citizens taking a run at representative office - but only if they embody a spirit of ground-up power and autonomy. We will continue to showcase and amplify the best examples of that, in the UK and globally.

More here.