As far as local government meetings go, it's an unusual one. I am seated at a large wooden table in a low-beamed kitchen; it's late evening, the red wine is flowing liberally and a stranger to my left is enthusiastically relating an anecdote about loincloths. Now, for most people, the words “local government” will conjure up torturously dull images of grey, fusty, middle-aged doctrinaires sat in drab council chambers, but I'm in Frome, Somerset: a town which has a group of councilors quite unlike any other.
This is their “unofficial” monthly meeting and the man talking about loincloths, Peter Macfadyen, is an elected councilor. He is describing the costume he wore to a recent parade in the town centre; an event that also involved the Mayor, some giant palm leaves and copious amounts of gold body paint.
Peter and the nine other councillors sitting around this kitchen table together form the core of “Independents for Frome” (IfF). It is a project that was first instigated in January 2011 by a rebellious band of disenchanted local people; united in being fed up with their town council's institutional wrangling and party-political self-interest. IfF resolved to address the apathetic disengagement, which plagued local ballots by empowering ordinary people to reclaim responsibility.
In an election that May, after encouragingly boisterous early debates in pubs and community halls, the movement selected and fielded seventeen independent candidates (united under a common set of values) to contest every ward seat in the town. The ensuing campaign saw IfF sweep to victory; their candidates claimed ten of the ward seats, took control of the town council majority and caught the established parties completely off guard in a triumph of local democracy.
Since then, this merrily heterogeneous gang has set about making their town a better place to live. The story, which emerges during the three or so hours I spent in their company, is an irresistible tale of mayoral pub crawls, wearing shorts to meetings and unassailable community spirit. Moreover, the real changes in attitude they have brought about locally were kick started in reaction to failures of governance, which are a familiar story across the UK – not least in Westminster itself.
Frome is a market town and former industrial centre of 26,000 souls located on Somerset's hilly eastern fringe. The clanking mills and factories which at one time underpinned the local economy have long since fallen silent, and these days roughly 50% of the working population commute to office and service jobs in nearby Bath, Trowbridge or further afield. In stark contrast to the depressingly familiar pattern of post-industrial desolation in northern towns and cities, Frome has successfully regenerated itself to become a bustling hub of arts and culture. Unemployment is below the national average, few shop frontages stand empty along the steeply sloped cobbles of the scenic town centre and the area is highly sought after by young families – so much, in fact, that there aren't enough houses to go around.
In the years preceding IfF, residents had endured a string of bungled projects and failures of consultation by an out of touch, politicised town council. Immediately after their election victory, the new cohort wasted no time in dismantling the counterproductive, overly-bureaucratic council structure; replacing that moribund system with a new model based on cooperation, goodwill, common sense, and most importantly, putting Frome's best interests ahead of party interests.
All ten councilors agree that the quarrelsome, point-scoring culture of party politics stifles genuine initiative and debate, and should therefore have no place at local level. Their new emphasis on empowerment favours consulting with community members who have relevant expertise and then actually entrusting them with responsibilities: “The attitude we have, that the established parties never did, is that just because we're elected it doesn't mean we know everything”, ruminates Dave Anderson, a local builder and councilor for the Keyford ward, “top-down governance doesn't work at the local level; it's the people who live in Frome that know what's best for the area”.
Projects currently under way include a re-modeling of the town centre, investment in sports facilities and the planning of new homes. The IfF councilors are a slightly mischievous bunch; their anti-red tape, can-do approach means they aren't averse to ruffling feathers or, on occasion, even indulging in a bit of casual rule breaking to make their point. The ten have frequently faced hostility, stonewalling and outright non-cooperation from the established parties and the District Council, who are still no doubt somewhat miffed at having their quiet boat rocked.
The attitude of Mel Usher, councilor for the Market ward, is to rise above such pettiness and not get drawn into any mudslinging. Furthermore, he believes it a sign of strength to be able to apologise when mistakes are made, as inevitably happens on occasion: “It's very disarming for your opponent”, says Mel, “when you are able to stand up and admit you got something wrong... these people thrive on argument so by being honest you take their artillery away”.
The reaction of the townspeople themselves has, overall, been substantially more positive: many agree that there has been a noticeably cheerful shift in local mood. The 2011 election saw an incredible 75% increase in voter turnout; demonstrating an optimism which has been maintained through the first eighteen months of the four year term. With new converts still being picked up along the way, what do the councilors put their success down to? For Dave Anderson, it's simple: “Listening”, he shrugs, “and openness... we make ourselves approachable”.
In many ways, the Independents for Frome story is emblematic of the national failure of politics in the United Kingdom. Research data and polls such as the British Social Attitudes survey paint a dispiriting picture of apathy, disillusionment, misrepresentation and falling voter turnout across swathes of the country. In Westminster as in Frome, most elected officials toe their party line and avoid contentious issues; maintaining the status quo to the detriment of progressive debate. Always eager to discredit their opponents, but much more reticent when it comes to their own ideas on subjects such as, say, the third runway at Heathrow (yet another hot topic delayed until after the next election), the sole aim of the main political parties is not public service, but to get power – and once they have it – to cling on at all costs.
In contrast to this partisan deadlock, the IfF councilors are proud to point out that their differing ages, backgrounds and variegated political hues have in no way held back their ability to make decisions. In fact, they have not yet once failed to reach a democratic consensus on any issue. Admittedly, one thing they are divided over is whether their achievement is something that is scalable to a national level.
They are planning to put together a “Flat pack Democracy” guide to encourage others to try and replicate their success, but are keen to emphasise that every community must shoulder the responsibility for itself. Mayor Pippa Goldfinger sums it up with a favourite quote of hers from the academic Susan Fainstein: “At the level of the neighbourhood, there is the greatest opportunity for democracy but the least amount of power. As we scale up, the amount of decision making power increases but the potential of people to affect outcomes diminishes”.
So what of the future? Well with characteristic sense of fun, the councillors are planning their upcoming “party conference” (“It's a party and a conference combined!” says a gleeful Pippa), and they will of course continue to fight for Frome's best interest on local issues. After the term ends in 2015, post-IfF plans are more varied: the possibility of contesting the district authority is “a debate yet to be completed”, and at least one of the councillors is planning to run for parliament.
Others intend to bow out gracefully, but one thing they all agree on emphatically is that things can't simply go back to the way they were. In the meantime, many others in the UK would do well to heed their example. The wine has long since dried up and people are preparing to hurry home, but before they leave for their respective wards there's just time for a parting shot. Asked to sum up the IfF ethos in one sentence, they all without hesitation reply: “Just do it!” I couldn't have put it better myself.