About eight months ago, a fascinating social change began to affect hundreds of British neighborhoods. Given the flood of news that has happened since then, it’s easy to forget how extraordinary it all seemed: crowds of volunteers who were captivated by the community spirit who came together to help deliver food and medicine to their vulnerable neighbors, checking on the well-being of people who experience poverty and loneliness, and much more. From a wide range of places across the country, the same essential message came: the state was either absent or unreliable, so people had to do things for themselves.
All of this prompted a couple of tantalizing questions. Would at least some of the energy and creativity that had been unleashed beyond the pandemic be sustained? And if that happened, could any of the people involved turn their attention to politics? Unfortunately, before the answers became clear, the end of the first lockdown saw that many local efforts were seemingly running out or fading.
Take a closer look, however, and it is clear that in many places the basic structures of self-help have stayed in place. And, in some areas, what seems to have kept the spirit of early closure intact is the fact that work on the ground has relied on municipal and parish councils that were once barely visible; These are now led by energetic community activists who have used recent localism laws to take your work beyond basic responsibilities like parks and bus shelters. Now they are paving the way for a new kind of ultra-local government.
I live in Frome in Somerset where, in 2011, a town hall with an annual budget of about £ 1 million was taken from the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. A new group of self-described independents began to run things, with an accent on participation, sustainability, community well-being, and rejection of traditional party politics. The same basic idea has now spread to 15 other places: his name, coined by an inspiring advisor named Peter Macfadyen, is “flat pack democracy”.
In the first phase of the pandemic, the agile and open way with which the city council now works gained strength. The downtown venue that was previously used for concerts and indoor markets was turned into a bustling food warehouse. Banners suddenly popped up everywhere, suggesting that we all check five of our neighbors. Cyclists raced through the city leaving food and recipes. This work, which also includes aid to local businesses, has continued; the city council is now thinking hard about how to keep it beyond the pandemic.
Something similar has happened in Queen’s Park, London’s “civil parish” where a new community council held its first elections six years ago and has worked hard to help people overcome the crisis. But perhaps the most vivid story of all has happened in Buckfastleigh – a small Devon town on the outskirts of Dartmoor with high levels of deprivation, and a town hall run by a new force called Buckfastleigh Independent Group, whose prime mover is former civil servant Pam Barrett.
The Devon county council, he told me last week, gave the city just £ 500 for Covid response work during the first shutdown, around 13 pence per resident. But at the time, the independently run city council had already earmarked £ 20,000 for an aid program that ranged from food and medicine supplies to local children’s activity books to YouTube videos capturing the start of the season. spring for people trapped inside.
Now, says Barrett, new parents are concerned that their babies are growing into toddlers without having meaningfully socialized with other children, so the council is turning its attention to provision for the early years. “We no longer have any public sector in Buckfastleigh,” she explains: She and her colleagues are not only filling the gaps left by austerity, but they are basically reinventing local government from scratch.
There and elsewhere, the key story of the Covid crisis has been that of municipal and parish councils enabling people to engage in community self-help. But as Macfadyen, Barrett, and other flatpackers see it, the next chapter it is about moving in the opposite direction and trying to get people who have been involved in mutual aid to start managing the places where they live. As part of the local elections scheduled for May 2021, there will be elections for a large number of municipal and parish councils. Therefore, online launch meetings are now being organized to bring people together, and mentors are getting in touch with those who would like to apply as candidates. There is an accompanying initiative, partly rooted in activism around Extinction Rebellion, called Trust the People, who has just started teaching courses on community organizing, grassroots democracy and how to participate in local decision-making.
These are early and tentative moves. But even in the most orthodox parts of politics, something similar can be felt. In the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, the Labor council has worked on a new way of engaging with grassroots and volunteer groups that was helpful in tackling the pandemic (such as the center-left lobby group Compass put it, “A city council that works hand in hand with the community unleashed purpose, speed and agility”). From the other side of politics, it’s worth reading a recent report by Conservative MP Danny Kruger, commissioned by the government to seek “to maintain the community spirit that we saw during the confinement, in the recovery phase and beyond.” Kruger proposes a new Community Power Law, using deliberative democracy, the participatory budget and citizen assemblies “to create the plural public square that we need.”
Last week I spoke with Adam Hawley, a math teacher who is trying to push people to run for office in Hull, the city that has lately become synonymous with the virus and the crisis it has caused. His focus goes beyond the city and parish level, to city council seats. Party politics, he says, seems “horrible and shameful, and simply useless at the local level.” He talks about people’s experience of the Covid crisis and “the feeling that our institutions failed to respond in a very direct, not even human, way.”
If the 2020 grassroots policy can be boiled down to its core, he says, it has been “a huge increase in the number of people getting involved where they live and looking for ways to do more.” They sound like pretty simple things. But whether we can reshape our systems of power and politics to accommodate them seems to me one of the key questions of this crisis and of the uncertain and turbulent future to come.
• John Harris is a columnist for The Guardian
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.