Doing Democracy in Frome - democratic discussion + practical politics

There's no place like it. All roads lead there. It is, I'm told,  where the heart is. Perhaps Frome residents have already had their fill of bad (and inaccurate) puns (NB: it's pronounced like the cyclist and rhymes with 'groom') , but we were just getting started. The positive response to some of these groanworthy jokes perhaps gave us an early clue that Frome locals only made up a proportion of the audience: people had come from across the country - from Scotland, Cumbria, the North West, the South Coast.... And we had all congregated in Frome to learn more about their local successes - and to get active ourselves. From the very beginning we set the tone for the event: this was to be an afternoon to get stuck in-  we wanted to hear as many different ideas, thoughts and experiences from as many people as possible in the space of 4 hours...

To achieve this, we gave our panel of opening speakers a matter of minutes to kick things off. John Harris of the Guardian, Pippa Goldfinger from Independents for Frome, Elsa Gonzalez Simon from London Podemos Circle and Neal Lawson, Chair of Compass, provided a pithy, stimulating start to a day of discussing not only what isn't working in our current democracy but, crucially, what we are doing and could do to fix it. Most of all, people spoke about the power of having confidence, and taking action. Despite doubts, practical hurdles and lack of experience, people can be inventive, resourceful - and successful, surprising themselves with what they can accomplish. 

You are so much more powerful than you think you are
— Neal Lawson, Compass

The proof of this came from our next panel - voices from the front line of the Independents movement. Sharing their experiences of Doing local Democracy were Pam Barrett from Buckfastleigh, Susanna Rustin from Queens Park, Mike Dudley-Jones and Rachael Grantham from Alderly Edge, Cheshire and of course Mr DIY Democracy himself, Peter Macfadyen who helped to drive the Frome revolution. Although local challenges and concerns varied, the panel agreed that, overcoming a lack of confidence led to the potential for real change. This was bottom-up politics, by true Brits..

And for Independents, it had also meant bypassing traditional routes to power and taking the lead...

With these rousing words, everyone else was raring to go and it was time to break into working groups. There was quite a range to choose from: green activism with Fossil Free Bristol; the future of UK political parties ; Engaging Women in politics; more about Independent revolutions;  lessons on working circles from Podemos.... A fair few minutes of wandering, hesitating, being tempted and rearranging chairs developed into full-blown democratic dialogue as people found their voice...

In every group, the debate was on point and participative. Skipping between different groups became hard and people were quickly absorbed into the discussions.

This is what democracy looks like

A few hours after Labour had sworn in their next leader, people were eager to talk about what this meant for all major parties in the UK..

Our 1980s Twitter board offered some quotes from the day's discussions, and provided another space to keep the conversation going...

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The environmental campaigning group talked about concrete ways to ramp up activism. People can feel overburdened with the scale of the problem, but finding practical yet meaningful steps helps engage the public.

We also heard from the fantastic Engaging Women in Frome group, who spoke about making politics friendly and sociable! 

 

There was a real sense of purpose: it is invigorating to talk about better democratic systems, policies and institutions whilst participating in better democratic dialogue. People soon realised the power of practice: we weren't just there to discuss democracy in the abstract, but also to bring it about through focused debate. Everyone was encouraged to challenge one another, ask questions, be direct and disagree. The substance and the process of political debate are tightly bound up with one another. 

Then came Open Space, where participants took to the floor, assembled beneath banners and grabbedthe reins. Yet again, many groups were intent on finding solutions to problems and taking up the baton....

If you’re not going to do it, who is going to do it?
— Pam Barrett, Independent, Buckfastleigh

Debates spanned the local, national and global and took many twists and turns. The sheer number and intricacy of suggestions generated was too much for some eager tweeters...

After the Open Space, we all shifted about to face the stage and were given a last dose of oomph from Clive Stafford Smith who, with dry humour and real enthusiasm, picked up the conversations he'd heard throughout the afternoon, and urged us to go forth and gather recruits. Drawing on the richness of the ideas put forward, the message was clear - let's keep it up! Bring people into the debate, be prepared to listen - and appreciate a good joke.

The day finished with a clear message: this carries on! It doesn't stop here. There is too much energy, interest and potential in hands-on democracy to stop the movement. During the final plenary, I overused the word 'Buzzing' and John (almost) cried. If that's not a sign of democracy well done, I don't know what is. Next event is already being planned, so stay tuned....