“Politics does not have to be a grim thing – sitting in a chair listening to someone talk at you for hours. We want it to look and feel like a festival – have a good time and decide stuff.”
In the run up to the Changing Narrative sessions at OPEN 2018 we interviewed Indra Adnan, Co-Initiator of The Alternative UK with Pat Kane, and contributor to CTRLshift about the evolving landscape of real, local politics. The Alternative UK recently convened a “Friendly” meeting in Plymouth as part of The Alternative’s work on engaging communities in people centred politics – a far cry from the male dominated madness and general machismo of Westminster – The gatherings aim to build practical and replicable community-based initiatives – and partnership in which men actually listen to women.
OSB: How did your Plymouth and South Devon “Friendly” on June 12th, in Devonport Guildhall go?
IA: It was extraordinary. We’ve been working on it for three months, planning how to get all the micro communities which never meet each other together; the entrepreneurs, poorer communities who can benefit from regenerative capital, and the people who have come down from London. Plymouth is a port, with a nuclear base, a major hospital and cultures from many different parts of the world, plus a massive population of students.
Someone described it as a meeting of “the people who were doing stuff” and “the people who are having stuff done to them”!
We tried to open up discussions about the future for Plymouth and South Devon. Plymouth council swings between Labour and Conservative so it can be a space of contestation rather than unity. The micro-communities are quite boundaried and communities rarely talk to each other so, after a lot of dialogue with the different groups, we invited everyone into a space called a “Friendly”. Using Eventbrite – and lots of leaflets, saying “COME and join us! P.S. Free food and drink!”
Then we got a radio spot with Gordon Sparks on BBC Radio Devon and people really started turning up.
OSB: Were the people that came ready to talk about a new kind of politics?
IA: No, in fact the ‘p’ word more often keeps people away. It’s a two or three step process, to develop community politics. Our opening salvo is about how only 2% of the UK are members of any political party – and only 30% vote in local elections. Which means the political discourse is just a small bubble of people talking to each other. We’re saying, let’s decide what we want to talk about, as a community. Start our politics from here …
A lot of people we spoke to told us they sometimes vote either way: Conservative one time and Labour the next. They’re not invested in any particular tribe, they want to be the drivers of their own policy.
We try to build “trust through friendship”, using local artists and musicians, there’s no panel of experts or authorities to contend with at Friendly events. We use facilitation to create a sense of belonging. In our pre-event meetings we met mostly women working and organising at the grass-roots level – and we try hard to find people who are connected to diverse groups that are not being seen or heard yet…
There were some poignant discussions. It was noticeable how some of the big questions like, “How do you feel about the future?” produced a split between confident and upset. Then we asked, “Do you feel that you have any agency – can you do anything about the future?” and amazingly most people said yes – it might be dangerous or tricky but they think they can. Politics is notorious for not letting people do anything other than tick a box, but really people want to be involved in making the future.
The next step in the process is the enquiry. We ask the same people “What works in this community?”, “What doesn’t?”, “What can we give rise to…?” That might be citizens networks, standing for council seats, initiatives in the regions… on loneliness or responding to the threat of automation or anything else. People want to feel expressed.
We’re at a whole new phase now where we’re asking, “Can the community be the core unit, so we can get the needs of people met at a local level?”. “What do we want to do about work? Housing? Energy? Our lives?”
OSB: That sounds great – we clearly need more of that. Transition Towns did some great work and some community energy projects were started but it can be hard to move from talk and plans to action sometimes…
IA: This is a key moment of opportunity we’ve not been in before. Transition Towns connected people to planet – that was a core piece of the work, getting us to think more holistically. Now, with our networked way of working, changes and possibilities can happen much faster than they used to. I know Transition Towns have been actively working below the radar as they don’t want to be co-opted by old political ideologies about what’s possible.
We’re in a new moment of “bottom up” thinking which is trying to meet “top down” – not within Government but with our communities and our technologies, becoming more autonomous. But there’s not much evidence yet that political parties really see us.
This is a “hold your nerve moment” – just like with energy policy in the UK. At the moment, you can’t actually come off grid. It’s not practical. You’re going to have to be dependent on the grid – buying and selling energy – it’s not much better – but every month there is a breakthrough in a how communities can be more self-sufficient. For example, we heard about “Heat from the streets” which is a new way of harnessing energy from the sewers under our roads that might help us get through the winter without reverting to the grid.
What I’m trying to point out is while many will say our hopes are cyclical – they come and go – we are saying there is a genuine possibility of a tangent now. We could lift off. Maybe I’m naive but I sense that, because of the way we connect and how we have access to information, something is possible for the first time. It’s more fractal than scaled. Breakthroughs in different parts of the world can be copied and repeated in other parts of the world – shared knowledge is accessible to anyone – things can go faster now – it’s so different from even 20 years ago… everything was top down then but now nothing stops us – if there’s a new tech we can get it and use it… We have to hold our breath, be calm and build trust in our communities to become the owners of that future.
People need to be aware how they are being swept away by the prevailing narratives. They can be trapped by old 20th century ideologies, but also new polarising narratives pedalled by the Cambridge Analytica and similar initiatives that manipulate our emotions.
We try to help people reclaim their autonomy on a personal and community level – moving towards something together. Not a central body that controls them, but a series of values and ideas, methods and practices they buy into – a new community oriented political culture. Think how learning happens in global networks; how we can learn from something that happens in Detroit, Singapore or Hong Kong. Some people have terrible hardships and we’re saying “don’t grin and bear it – find the connection you are looking for – by learning from each other and other communities”.
Maybe I’ll be proven wrong and it will be cyclical again. But the younger generations are more insightful than before – they can see the connections between causes and effects more easily. So, I feel hopeful.
OSB: Me too – there’s a definite sense of synergy. Can you tell me more about the citizens’ networks? It’s sometimes harder to encourage continuation and ongoing conversations when people are not always able to meet face to face – how do you hope to sustain momentum in your communities?
IA: It’s going to be an evolving space of ideas and creativity. There are a lot of people feeding back on how useful social media can be for sharing, not just facts but enthusiasm. We have 100 people in a closed Facebook group posting ideas – this is what’s already happening in a short space of time. And there are some funny comments and moments which humanise the space… people get to know each other. But it’s equally important to build community around physical spaces and events you can organise. Our event was in the Devonport Guildhall, an imposing building with huge pillars – it looks like the birthplace of democracy! But it’s a great space for the community to initiate projects. For example there’s a beautiful bakery there, you can smell the bread all night. But from the outside it looks like it has been gentrified so it feels a bit intimidating. We’re hoping that we’ll soon have a meeting at Devonport Live – a nearby cafe that not only has a very diverse audience but also offers classes and activity groups for the local estates. We need to be like a bee – buzzing between different gardens – making connections in alternative spaces….
Building a citizens network, which people will buy into and help design, is part of the challenge. It’s kind of like a sortition type space – it might give rise to citizens assemblies, or other ways of quickly taking the pulse of a community. We’re trying not to do the technology without the relationships – so everything can happen at a pace that people can control.
People talk a lot about the coming automation and robots – but often can’t imagine how different the future could be. Although they take it for granted that women, for example, do vital work under the radar, making it possible for the excluded to somehow stay in the picture, they haven’t imagined what it might be like if a lot of women were more influential in the public space. Bringing their more holistic sensibilities to the arenas where power is visible. For example, Tess Wilmott, an urban gardener came into a rather civic looking Guildhall with plants and baskets to help decorate the space and it completely changed the way things felt. Earlier we heard stories about local women who were working in estates doing yarn bombing – groups of people knitting in the street – cover the railings. I don’t want to give the impression it’s about softness, fuzziness. But it is sensual. At our event Toby G, a hip-hop dancer from Street Factory, made people get up and move and it was such good fun – nothing awkward, it was closer to a show than a political meeting – much more sensual.
Politics does not have to be a grim thing – sitting in a chair listening to someone talk at you for hours. We want it to look and feel like a festival – have a good time and decide stuff. But you can’t just drop it on people and say “this is our brand”, it has to rise from them – as something that feels like them.
OSB: That sounds much more like the kind of politics I’d like to be involved in! You mentioned “a sortition type space” – can you explain a little more about what that means?
IA: I was borrowing that term really. Sortition is the means by which a jury is selected from the electoral role of a region – a random selection of people is what people trust to be the wisdom of the crowd. They come together and spend time together to discuss and have time to change their minds and ideas… they’re obliged to sit and hear each other. And that’s the basis of the citizens assembly. There’s a very establish example from Gdańsk in Poland. The town now expects the big decisions to be made by this process – 25 randomly selected people will take on the job of making a particular decision and all the information is made available to them. The experts they ask for come and present to them, so over 6 months they become experts themselves and make a decision. The real deal is the town council agrees to do what they decide. It’s a new piece of software – with more control at the community level.
That’s the qualitative shift – there’s no more excuses that the council can’t reach the people – or don’t know what people want. Politicians should not be telling us they can’t hear – but what types of politicians are going to listen? We don’t see a party that is invested in this… Labour has a notion of ‘handing powder down’, but it tends to be within their frameworks and on their terms. Where is the politician that gets it’s the people that are asking for more than that? We need a politics that is committed to listening not just to how much people might be hurting, but to their considered ideas for how things can be improved.
OSB: I couldn’t agree more. I spent some time consulting for Southwark Council and was amazed to hear the leader of the council imply they were “in charge” of making decisions. Last year, I attended an event with a male MP who was very clear that he thought his role, once he had been elected, was to make decisions and not to listen to people. I tried to point out that the reason he was elected was presumably that people thought he would listen to their views but he was adamant that was not his job. He explained how he ignores emails from constituents and deletes ALL the emails he receives from campaigning groups. I worry that this is the norm across much of local and central government.
IA: Well they can carry on thinking like that but the numbers are against them – around 70% of people are currently disengaged, but could become engaged at any moment. In the US they have a term – ‘the pitchforks are coming’ – which is a bit alarming, but nevertheless has a numerical logic. People are increasingly asking themselves why they are in thrall to so few people. What’s different today is that we’re talking and reading everything – whether it’s new critiques of power or new ideas for how to make change happen. But people have to find their own strength – to use technology to support their considered ideas. Not everyone feels like they can stand up and say what they want – but they can, just like with OPEN 2018 – you’re sharing and showing what’s possible. If you can create a community or a network people will come along – that’s the point of the citizens assemblies – they take people with them on a moment of opportunity.
OSB: You mentioned common values are a great way of uniting people and of building community. I agree with that, it’s essential. But how much emphasis do you put on common values versus shared purpose? Surely, shared purposes are more useful for getting stuff done?
IA: We have to unite behind purpose – the ideals is to have both. What worries me is to have one without the other. Take for example, the “campaign to overcome X”, or a referendum – that’s a shared purpose. But if you only have the purpose without the values we are in danger of betraying others as human beings. We can behave badly – we could win an election but if you’ve not understood others you don’t get a new society – just a new position of power! And we don’t want that – that’s the weakness of any political party that says “We’ll be able to do this for you”. Whereas a people’s movement is about a society doing it – a more multidimensional thing – with more agency. It’s about soft power – about joining with the things you want to do – being open and welcoming – creating belonging – meaning as well as purpose. If you only get power there’s no telling what will happen after you have done that.
Monbiot talks about the need for belonging – for control of your own life – of emotional needs. You can’t buy them – people with money can’t always get them either – this is the society we’ve created – a society focussed on economic growth – built upon the idea of Homo economicus, which we know is resulting in the death of the planet! So let’s work with purpose yes – but purpose has to be pursued with values.
OSB: I wonder if part of the problem is that we have been operating from old values to date. It seems to me we need a new set up assumptions about how the world works – we need to recognise that we live in a complex adaptive system and things don’t flow linearly from A to B in every instance in every context – webs of connections and complex systems have emergent behaviour… What sorts of actions should we take, and activities should we pursue, to get the results we want to emerge?
IA: We’re all in the business of trying to identify best practice. To move from the idea that progress is linear to the idea that what’s needed is a kind of awakening – that wasn’t there before.
We know increasingly that systems are complex, but when we think of how to scale up complexity we stumble around. Rather than scaling up centrally, we need to build great prototypes and copy them, adapting as we go.
We need spaces to come together – safe spaces for a waking up process – so we can wake up to complex news and the state of the world – the things we’re doing – they ways we eat and consume – so we can evolve new responses, new kinds of behaviour. A good example is what happened to my son, and the people around him and me, when we learned about Veganism. It was a shocking awakening – the meat industry – people don’t want to know – but if you show them gently what it took to get the meat to their plate – they wouldn’t allow it – they wouldn’t do it. We only accept it because someone else is doing it for us. How have we allowed this – what has happened to our heads?
Macro thinking happened a lot in the 60s but there was no structure or tech that would enable new institutions and initiatives to form – and so we stayed in the same place… out of our heads.
If you look at Occupy or the Arab spring – these were great moments but there was nothing to capture the energy so these moments were easy to smash. What is emerging now is the stuff that can support the awakening.
This is the moment we have to build – it’s the most exciting of times. We can sense what is possible – what people are doing – people are coming up with ideas every single day, to build this and that – building the software. I might be over romanticising it but it feels like watching a field of flowers come into blossom. There are so many good ideas – and the only core idea is that they need to connect with each other so the different pieces of the puzzle begin to become a whole picture. That’s why we started the Daily Alternative – to help them see each other.
OSB: I share your enthusiasm, and don’t think it’s romanticised! More and more people are waking up to the idea that another world is possible – and that we need to create it for ourselves. But it feels like, if we want to have an impact, we need to get organised – that we’re failing badly on that front?
IA: We need to develop a partnership between men and women. It’s a moment for men to listen to women as well. In Northern Ireland for example, no amount of clever ideas were going to solve anything until the women came forward to show them what was missing. There’s a partnership that has to happen.
I went to the Social Making conference – about how artists work in communities doing their thing – and how people want to do things with them – it makes them come alive. It’s more like the ethos of social workers – you don’t start with the idea that “I’m doing this to you” – more – “you and me need to get these things done”, it’s ontologically different. You talk about “organising” but to me it’s more about a feeling of caring and coming alive – it needs to be a relationship. When you start to look below the radar, you see that lots of women never get paid for their work on this – plus they have to do paid jobs too. But lots of women don’t want to step in the limelight – don’t want to tool up like men – to be strident. They want to carry on doing what they do – which they do very well. This needs to be a partnership – real communities working together for the benefit of everyone.
And it’s not about “scaling up”. Take Frome’s flat pack democracy for example. Power in the local council was split between three main parties – and only 30% of citizens would vote. Decisions were made by the council – and if you wanted your say there were lots of procedures to follow to get your three minutes – then you would have to leave and the decisions would get made without you… So a group of people in the pub decided to take over the council. They thought “well, if 70% of people aren’t voting – we’re going to make it participatory” – and it didn’t take much to get a majority. In the second round of elections they got all 17 seats. That’s a model of people waking up and deciding to do something. They wrote it up as a book called Flat-pack Democracy, and now the book is everywhere.
We don’t want to scale it up – we want it to be fractal. It’s not about one group scaling things up – but ideas which can be copied everywhere – if we get the perfect microcosm – doing something in a meaningful and sensible way – if you get that right, people will copy you – It’s more about blueprinting – prototyping – its you now. You have to make this happen.
Indra will be discussing “The Changing Narrative” at OPEN 2018, in London on the 26th of July.
Photos by Dom Moore.