The Story of People Power Brum, Part 1: Broken politics, flatpack assembly & scaling up

This two-part blog is the story of People Power Brum, a new grassroots political movement and its campaign for the Birmingham City Council elections in May 2018, as told by co-founding member, Rich Mason. Rich writes:

We had some successes, and just as many failures. We aim to tell both as honestly as possible. This is written as a record of our journey as we look to the future, and it’s offered as a case study for other activists and democratic reformers worldwide, who we hope can take some lessons from our story.

Part One: Beginnings

People Power Brum was born at the end of October 2017. People who had never met before united by one thing: a deep dissatisfaction with the state of local government in the UK’s second city, and a desire to do something audacious about it.

Local politics in Birmingham is pretty moribund. Depending on who you talk to, many Brummies view their council with either disdain or indifference. Turnout at local elections is even lower than the national average, stagnant at around 30%, speaking volumes about how disconnected many people feel.

While the city recently had cause to celebrate being awarded the 2022 Commonwealth Games, recent political history is defined by a string of failures, including a 2017 bin strike causing mountains of uncollected rubbish on the pavements, and a gender pay gap scandal landing it with a liability in the hundreds of millions.

Brummies are understandably fed up. And with the Labour Party holding a safe majority on the city council, there’s little sense of meaningful change on offer.

 Credit: Thom Bartley
Sunny Sangha speaking at TEDxBrum. Credit: Thom Bartley

The spark that brought us together was a TEDx talk given by Sunny Sangha, where he finished with an open call – anybody wanting to build a new kind of politics in Birmingham “come and speak to me”. People did, and a week later, the first public meeting was held.

Some movements start with a clear vision first, and fit it to whatever context they’re in. Not us. Though Sunny’s talk focussed on a specific new idea (liquid democracy – more on that below), nothing was a given. We started with a blank slate and asked each other: What is our sense of this city? What does it need? What can we do?

This is an approach we’ve done our best to remain true to: resisting the lure of rigid thinking and concrete proposals; staying open, responsive and adaptive. And a fluid, open attitude has been the guiding principle of how we do things.

We’ve never formalised into a legal entity. We have no membership, no positions of authority. All our meetings are held in public, publicised online, and whoever turns up is given an equal voice in the discussion.

Our main organising tool has been a WhatsApp thread, open to anyone who came forward from our meetings wanting to be involved. Among our very first organisers we found a community organiser, a professional coach and group facilitator, a poet with a background in finance, a former theatre producer, two PR and marketing professionals, a graphic designer and a couple of web developers. A dream team of talents for building a movement rapidly.

So what did we come up with?

We decided that our agenda was to create a radical new political culture in Birmingham. Our vision was where all citizens felt inspired, engaged, and included in the real decisions of local government. To translate this into a political proposal, we took and fused together two distinct ideas. One we borrowed from Somerset, the other from Buenas Aries, via California.

Flatpack assembly

In 2011, the town of Frome in Somerset saw the emergence of a pioneering political movement. The idea behind Independents for Frome was a simple one: getting dysfunctional party politics out of local government. The townspeople were fed up with bickering between two parties – seemingly more concerned with scoring points over their opponents, and bureaucracy for its own sake, than about making good decisions.

Formed by a group of friends, IfF wanted to sweep away the entire way of doing politics, and both sides along with it. In its place, they offered a slate of Independent candidates. As a collective, the Independents could hold the balance of power on the town council. But crucially, when it came to decision-making, they would act and vote independently. There would be no party lines and no voting blocs.

At a stroke, this simple idea opens up a radically better, more deliberative politics. Gone is the red-team/blue-team mentality and point-scoring rhetoric familiar to everyone living with party politics (and political careerism at the same time!). In its place, a conversation between collaborative independents, fostering ideas sharing, collaboration and compromise.

The results have been spectacular. Dubbed ‘The People’s Republic of Frome’ by the national media, the town has seen huge improvements in local services, from regeneration and green spaces, to a locally run credit union. Through the last two elections the Independents have held every seat on the council . IfF saw they had created a highly replicable model for radical people-powered government, calling it Flatpack Democracy.

In Birmingham in November 2017, we stood six months from a city council election. A city disaffected and out of love not just with the major political parties, but with the entire political culture. To be able to cut through and inspire people again, we had to offer a radical new option: the chance of a complete overhaul and a new paradigm of people power. At our early meetings, we shared the story of Frome and decided that Flatpack Democracy would be our pitch to Birmingham in May 2018.

 First PPB meeting at Impact Hub, Birmingham. Credit: Sunny Sangha
First PPB meeting at Impact Hbu, Birmingham. Credit: Sunny Sangha

Scaling up

However, as we started laying plans it became clear we needed something else. Flatpack Democracy has succeeded in Frome (population 26,000) and been replicated elsewhere, but never on the scale of a city like Birmingham, home to 1.1 million people.

This massive shift in scale meant we had to think about messaging, and about governing itself.

In messaging terms, how do we tell people that we’re not simply a new party, that we stand for a whole new kind of politics, in a way that’s concise and catchy enough to reach a million people in just six months?

And then, how can we guarantee to voters that our Independents if elected really would follow the principles of people power? If the whole point is to elect independents who don’t just obey their political party, what other assurance can voters rely on?

The accountability of individual politicians changes between a small town such as Frome, and a large city where most people don’t know each other personally. Moreover the relationship from citizen to representative changes when each councillor represents not hundreds, but roughly 10,000 people.

For the missing piece, we returned to the TEDx talk that started our movement, and a concept called liquid democracy. Liquid democracy is essentially a hybrid of representative and direct democracy. As in direct democracy, in a liquid democracy most decisions are made by the people in referenda. However, there is an additional option to delegate your vote on any decision or issue to another person.

One player advocating for liquid democracy on a global scale is Democracy Earth. This group emerged from Partido de la Red (The Net Party), who formed in 2012 with the mission – like ours – to contest local government elections in their home of Buenos Aires. Unsuccessful in their first campaign, they shifted direction, working instead to build an open source platform enabling new types of democracy.

Now based in California, their aim is to build the technical tools to enable liquid democracy worldwide. Through Sunny (who was their UK Ambassador), we has a link to DE, and were able to draw on their knowledge and experience, thinking about how we could apply this radical new democracy in Birmingham.

In liquid democracy, we felt we had an element to complete our political picture. Our vision for a revitalised, people-powered Birmingham politics was implementing a liquid democracy at a city scale. Flatpack Democracy would be our tactical playbook, and the promise of sweeping away politics-as-usual a key part of our message. Liquid democracy provided a ‘soundbite’ able to grab attention and signify the radical nature of what we were offering compared to traditional parties.

And finally, it provided our answer to how it would all work if we should win. How individual citizens really would be empowered, how our Independents would be held to account, how it really wouldn’t just be more of the same.

We had a vision and we had a target. In six months, we planned to find 101 candidates (one for each available council seat) to stand as people-powered Independents. Our pitch to Birmingham would be this: vote for one of our candidates for a chance to completely revolutionise the political conversation, for an end to pantomime party politics, and for an entirely new political system where individual people really are counted.

It was an extremely ambitious goal, with terrifyingly little time to have a go at it. Would our strange new combination of political dreamwork be able to get us there? We were going to find out.

Part two will be published soon…

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