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.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle