Assemblies for Democracy ‘must develop teeth’ – by John A Smith

John Smith, who lives in West Yorkshire, attended the three inaugural Assemblies for Democracy held in London, Glasgow and Manchester. He is sharing this account of his experiences and thoughts on where we go from here.

For many years I’ve been a non-voter – they think they can run things better than the population. I don’t agree – the system rules regardless of who is in Parliament. Therefore I’m not represented – the system should be changed. Since attending various Luddites bi-centenary events I have become very interested in history, especially “peoples history” which has become very visible in recent years.

The English Revolution (and the times generally) brought the possibility of democracy to the people, a system that would allow them to rule themselves. This possibility remained unfulfilled, however. Voting was restricted and the King was restored. But with the Levellers an evolutionary process was started (or perhaps became more visible), continuing in subsequent centuries with the Chartists and the Suffragettes resulting in the “representative democracy” that we have today.

Still, the people have no system allowing us to rule ourselves. Therefore we need to work out what the next step in this evolutionary process is and take it. I first heard about the idea for Assemblies for Democracy at the Wigan Diggers festival in 2014 and after speaking to one of their representatives decided that this was the group and the cause that I had been looking for.

I attended all three of the first Assemblies for Democracy in London, Glasgow and Manchester and one of the organisers, Paul Feldman asked if I could give my thoughts, as well as ideas for future development. So here goes.

My purpose in attending the three Assemblies for Democracy was to learn how it’s done. The three venues though different in use provided fairly similar facilities. The London Assembly took place in a university lecture theatre with breakout rooms with chairs and oblong tables. In Glasgow, a community centre provided a hall comprising one space with round tables and in Manchester the Friends House had both a hall with round tables and breakout rooms. All the venues were easy to find.

The lecture theatre in London was a little unsocial compared to the tables in Glasgow and Manchester where more people seemed to introduce themselves to each other. People were more at ease when it came to the breakouts and discussions that comprised smaller groups formed around tables and seemed to be more productive therefore.

Each event had stalls or displays for various organisations to promote their campaigns. These were varied and interesting. It is tempting to suggest that a charge could be levied to help fund the Assembly. Hopefully this won’t happen as has been seen in the newspaper industry, sponsors and advertisers exert undemocratic influence.

The agendas looked impressive and some very good talks were included. London and Glasgow seemed to have a more logical structure compared to Manchester, though that may have been because I received a preliminary version by e-mail as the meeting itself was well rounded.

Some of the breakouts were better than others; the better ones were where the facilitator made a point of including everyone. The one exception was possibly in the afternoon in London. I joined the Kurdish session led by Memed Aksoy. The subject was Revolutionary Change and the Kurdish Movement. Despite having read much about the Kurds recently it was fascinating to hear a more direct account delivered with genuine feeling and it was quite a riveting talk.

Also in London I joined Margaret Owen’s group session on Women, Human Rights and Democracy. It was next to impossible to contribute. We were encouraged to campaign for acceptance of the Peking Protocols in to British Law, which was the positive outcome. These two breakouts may have worked better as “Lightning Conductor” items as per the Glasgow Programme. In Manchester I was in with David Malone on Democracy and the Power of Decision and the meeting began as a full group but people decided to split into different topics and this was better.

While I mostly enjoyed the breakouts, it seemed to me that the most productive were those where the facilitator was just that, a facilitator. The ones led by activists and politicians were less so as they had their own ideas that they tended to dominate. Glasgow had Lightning Conductors – speakers which would have been more appropriate for these people as the purpose of the breakouts was to get the opinions and ideas of the attendees rather than convince them of the ideas of the activists.

The feedback at the end however was quite good as we got a sense of having achieved something positive. Each Assembly included a lunch break. In London it was quite lavish. Glasgow provided sandwiches fruit and crisps and in Manchester, lunch was provided by local Diggers. Donations were requested by each Assembly to cover costs. It was a good idea to provide lunch as this provided a little space for people to network or just chat

In London there was a fun presentation on the Peoples Flag – green for the Levellers, Red for the Chartists and purple for the Suffragettes. People talked about what next; there was to be a further Assembly in Croydon following the election. Similarly at Glasgow a date was set for the next Assembly.

In Manchester the facilitator, Cormac Russell gave a round up. It was a fairly standard training day type summary, something more interactive would have been better. I felt that both the London and Glasgow Assemblies were better facilitated by organisers who were part of the group rather than someone that might have been hired to facilitate as in Manchester.

After the Glasgow Assembly, a party went for drinks. In London we were encouraged to attend the Occupy Murdoch demonstration taking place that day at the Shard. When I arrived, a comedian, David Mulholland (political satirist) was talking about the more extreme coverage in the Murdoch press. However, in Manchester we had the best of both worlds, as we were asked to participate in a No to TTIP demonstration and pose for the press as well as head for a drink afterwards. It was a good idea to promote protests that were active on the day. I would say that once Assemblies are up and running and people are organising them all the time this would be an essential part of the system. It can’t just be a talking shop.

In London we were asked to write what we hoped to get out of the day on a post-it for the wall. Before attending I had considered the idea of organising such a meeting in my home town/area and I attended thinking the discussions might be on local issues but that I would see how it’s done.

At some point though we need to think about how we turn the ideas generated in the Assembly into actions/happenings – I suppose that means building a movement or encouraging those attending to join existing movements There needs to come a point when the assemblies can say, like the Zapatistas in Mexico: “Here, when the people speak, the government obeys”. I enjoyed all the assemblies but Glasgow was the best – friendly people, one space, round tables, possibly more focussed.

Every City, town, village, hamlet and workplace should have an Assembly for Democracy. It’s the sort of event that anyone could organise at any time and any place. The danger is that the powers that be will want to create enclosures where such meetings are permitted with boundaries defined by the ruling elites. I see it as part of a cultural change. The assembly must become a regular part of our culture if it is to succeed.

People will only participate if there’s something to be gained so it must develop teeth or at least an active component of some sort. As Noam Chomsky put it in a recent article: “I think the activism of the 1960s had a very definite civilising effect on the whole society in all kinds of ways. So lots of things that by now are almost taken for granted were heretical in the 1960s.” I think this civilising effect is happening now and Assemblies for Democracy is a part of it.

How do we get the general population involved? What if we organise an Assembly and 5,000 people sign up? As Margaret Mead said, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

It is well put on the Assemblies for Democracy website: “There are a host of organisations and thousands of people actively demanding and working for democratic change in the U.K. Many are inspired by movements for democracy globally. The Assemblies aim to share ideas, views and information and explore how these individual voices can become a movement for change. Working together we can begin to create a real democracy, where people themselves decide what’s best for their communities, towns, cities and workplaces. We hope that Assemblies for democracy will take off in every community, town and city and, inspired by historic struggles, begin to challenge the present undemocratic system. Make your voice heard! Make a difference!”

2 thoughts on “Assemblies for Democracy ‘must develop teeth’ – by John A Smith

  1. I think it’s as well to state clearly for the record, Cormac Russell donated his time as did all the other speakers at the Manchester Assembly. Cormac supports active citizenship and community building through out the UK with http://www.nurturedevelopment.org/.
    All guests covered their own expenses, and were active supporters to the planning of the Manchester Assembly.
    We were very happy to work with Cormac, Penny, Fran, Paul and David. They made themselves fully available to anyone, for the full day. Links to information about them and their work in support of democracy was published before the Assembly.
    The first Assembly in Manchester made a decision to invite guests who could offer factual information and detailed analysis of the current democratic system to our participants.
    The process doesn’t end there, it simply begins.

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  2. In my article I say that Every City, town, village, hamlet and workplace should have an Assembly for Democracy, with that in mind, here’s an invitation to join the Huddersfield (West Yorkshire) Planning Group for the first Assembly for Democracy in Huddersfield. Interested, e-mail jas@anvil.uk.net

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