An evening of effective democracy

Jonathan Dawson explains the going on of a mid-week meeting and what a "heart-keeper" is.

A mid-week meeting is called. The subject is planning – specifically, how we are going to develop the new stretch of land in behind the Universal Hall that is likely to gain planning permission in the next year.

On the surface, hardly the stuff that wild nights out are made of!

In the event, 70 people cram into the community centre – before the meeting has begun, there is floor-sitting space only. We begin with a rousing song. There follow four short presentations from community members. A number of significant differences in perspective and approach are evident.

Questions at this stage are limited to those seeking clarification.

A ‘heart-keeper’ has been appointed to hold awareness of the quality of communication and attention. Every once in a while, as we begin to get lost in the heady discussions, she sounds a meditation gong and we take a minute or so of silence. Some close their eyes, others look as though they are processing new ideas and insights – the aim is to create a space in which to relax, breathe and remember that all is well.

We break into small groups to give everyone a chance to speak their thoughts and then we reconvene in the full circle for debate. The key fault-lines and challenges are now becoming clear.

Will decisions about development be made by the 90 or so community members who have bought shares in the company that owns the land or by the community as a whole? How could a community of 500 or so engage in decision-making at this level without slowing the whole process to a crawl as we seek for a high level of consensus?

Should the housing development be undertaken by the Community Development Company that has recently been formed – i.e. by the collective body – or by individuals or groups who would be invited to buy the plots?

What mechanisms could we use to ensure that a good proportion of the housing units are affordable to rent or to buy? Could housing cooperative or housing association models work for us?

Perhaps most important of all, how can we ensure that a good proportion of the escalating property values remain within the community (that collectively makes this such a desirable place to live) rather than with those who are able to afford to build their own homes? What would this mean for those selling up and relocating to somewhere else where property prices have also increased?

Arguments and counter arguments flow. Communication is clear and direct. Assumptions are questioned and assertions challenged. The meditation bell brings moments of silence. here are murmurs of approval for one woman who suggests that we recognise that most of us, to greater or lesser extents, carry most of the voices being aired within us: ‘Not much value in creating beautiful houses if we treat each other like shit’.

This is the kind of evening that effective democracy is made of. I have seen countless meetings like this in rural Africa, with villagers sat round a fire in the evening discussing community affairs. Here is where communities move way beyond neat principles of justice and equity to explore the messy business of applying these principles to the imperfect and compromised world in which we live.

In so doing, we develop muscles – of patience, of quality listening and of compromise. We also develop the practice of grappling with tough ethical questions rather than leaving these to the ‘professionals’.

Television, of course, has put paid to mass participatory democracy of this sort in the West.

I am a profoundly political being and have always voted in elections – indeed,
I have been an active canvasser in many of those. However, democracy at the community scale feels more real somehow.

My wish is that as we head down the energy descent curve, locally-based decision-making structures along the lines we have kept alive here will re-emerge as people truly engage in empowered self-governance.