This article by Perry Walker first appeared in The Alternative UK. It is reproduced with their agreement here:

Flatpack Democracy seized its town for non-party localism. But they went for the whole council in Herefordshire. Here’s their story:

The Flatpack Democracy 2.0 book is going great guns – and we continue to draw inspiration from those “friendly revolutionaries” and their profoundly human-centred and democratic “ways of working” in Frome.

But we’re happy to hear parallel stories of citizens trying to evade the current political polarities at their local level, by using the current elected structures to instigate a new, solutions-focused, civically-active political culture.

So thanks to Perry Walker, a Herefordshire resident but also a co-founder (with Bob Bollen) of Talk Shop (blogged on the Daily Alternative here), and who runs OpenUp (another open discussion website). He’s written this piece below to tell us about It’s Our County (IOC), a set of principled independents who have achieved some representative success there, and are now part of a ruling coalition in Herefordshire Council.

Perry Walker: It’s Our County

Independents for Frome (IfF), who took over the council in the town of Frome in Somerset, are well-known, particularly because of the book ‘Flatpack Democracy’ by Peter Macfadyen, former mayor of Frome and former leader of the council. They have inspired many other town and parish councils.

But what happens when people seek to do politics differently at a larger scale? I know of two attempts to do this by setting up a county-wide party. One is the Yorkshire Party [Yorkshire’s indy politics well-cited in A/UK, see here].

The other, covering a much smaller area than Yorkshire, and with a much, much smaller population, is It’s Our County (IOC) in Herefordshire, where I live. This blog is about IOC.

IOC has both similarities and differences with Independents for Frome. In common was a desire to escape the grip of national politics and national parties. The party’s constitution, written in 2009/2010 begins:

It’s Our County is a new kind of political party. We are based in Herefordshire and have no affiliation to any national party. This means we understand local issues and local solutions. It also means we can work with whoever we need to in order to get the best deal for our county. Our policies are driven by local needs, not London politics.

IOC was also set up as a reaction to the existing independents, who refused to fight elections collectively, to have a manifesto or to have policies. IOC wished in effect to find a third way between the independents and the national parties.

I come now to the differences. Indra [Indra Adnan, co-initiator of A/UK] commented on an earlier draft of this blog, “What I love about Flatpack Democracy is that it knew from the start, that unless it could get a majority on the council, it would not be able to change the culture and begin to involve more citizens.”

Getting a majority is a much tougher challenge at this larger scale. Charles Nicholls, an early leading light in IOC, told me, “In May 2011 we successfully won 9 seats in Council. From a standing start just nine months earlier this was quite phenomenal!” It was, but with 53 seats in all, it was a long way from a majority.

Mark Hubbard, another leading light early on, told me that he thought IOC would always be in opposition. He’s now thrilled to be wrong. Following the elections in May 2019, IOC, with seven councillors, became part of a ruling coalition with the Green Party and some of the independents. They now have two seats in the cabinet.

Another comment that Indra made to me on my first draft: “What it sounds like to me is that IOC has a party political strategy but not a citizens’ engagement strategy – am I right?” I think she’s right, but by default, not by intent.

Charles Nicholls says that “after the election of 2011, our focus was inward rather than outward. Most of us were new to politics and the initial induction training sessions absorbed most of our energy.”

Holding the Conservatives to account, with very little in the way of research help, was a massive undertaking. I recall Anthony Powers, the previous leader of the party, telling me that he had had to read hundreds of pages of council documents over the previous weekend, in order to be master of his brief and to ask the pertinent questions at a council meeting on the Monday. The further task of developing alternative policies was yet more challenging.

Nicholls also told me that after the 2011 election, “IOC lost its contact with its supporters”. In 2012 IOC had 285 signed up supporters. But by 2015 it had fewer than 50.

Mark Hubbard reckoned that it would only have possible to engage lots of residents within the capacity of the party if there had been a single galvanising issue, as it provided, for instance, by the destruction of trees in Sheffield.

As part of its launch, IOC held open meetings across the county. They were all well attended, mostly by people with a local gripe. They didn’t always see the wider picture, and nor did they make a connection with other people in other areas with other gripes.

What now? Herefordshire Council can be described as traditional or as hidebound, depending on your point of view. The previous Conservative council seemed to have a version of the Mafia’s “omerta”, or code of silence. That is utterly at odds with IOC’s principles, stated below:

  • Honesty: Tell the truth. Decide openly. Admit mistakes.
  • Clarity: Share information. Communicate well. Acknowledge the facts.
  • Accountability: Accept responsibility. Say sorry. Welcome questions.
[See how this harmonises with Flatpack Democracy’s values and ways of working – Ed]. This clash – between the current culture of the council and these principles, which would be accepted by all members of the ruling alliance – implies a need for enormous culture change. That, too, risks pulling energy inwards.

Yet the council, like many others, has declared a climate emergency and is well aware that responding to that emergency means engaging with the whole population of the county.

That would be a depressing conclusion were there not so many examples in life of such dilemmas being transcended. I’ll end with one such, from a very different context.

John Humes was an American ambassador to Austria. He was given several boxes of Havana cigars. The USA had no formal relations with Cuba, so he could not be seen to have accepted them. On the other hand, he was determined not to waste them. His instructions to his deputy were clear: “Burn them – one by one – very slowly.”

I wish IOC and its partners the best of success in finding their own resolution.

Read the IOC’s recent manifestos and policy papers here.