Demfest 2016 – a festival of ideas

DemFest 2016 was a 2-day celebration and discussion of democratic ideas. A wide range of people and groups assembled in the Flintshire countryside, with workshops and speakers looking at the crisis of democracy, and the alternatives.

It was held in Gladstone’s Library, a unique residential library in Hawarden, and co-organised by the library, the Raymond Williams Foundation and The Democratic Society.

Assemblies for Democracy hosted a session looking at remaking democracy, exploring how citizens could create a democratic constitution. Julie Timbrell, from Assemblies for Democracy London, opened the session with a presentation about constitutional change initiatives from across the globe – from crowdsourcing conventions to randomly selected citizens deliberating. Currently both Greens and Labour support some kind of citizen-led constitutional process, while there is growing support from across the political spectrum for a constitutional convention and the involvement of citizens.

The challenge is to ensure the scope is broad enough to tackle our democratic deficit, inequality and the environmental crisis. The meeting debated if this meant devising a new written constitution and whether this is needed; how the American constitution had been devised by landowners and merchants and enshrines their interests; the need to allow flexibility and change; and how we might take inspiration from both Iceland and Bolivia who have championed Rights for Nature during recent citizen-led constitutional processes.

Keywords sessions revisited the work of 20th Century socialist thinker Raymond Williams, whose work was based on what he called the long revolution, a process of democratising through education and that would transform society. In his Keywords essays, Williams examined the history of more than a hundred words that are familiar and yet confusing: art, bureaucracy, culture, nature, radical, society, welfare, work and many others.

For example, the session Keyword: Democracy, examined the multiple and changing meanings of a word which has been claimed and reclaimed by all classes in modern society.

In Democracy and the media, Dan Hind, Daisy Cooper, Jonathan Heawood and Leah Borromeo looked at new media that might hold the promise of greater citizen control, and asked what needs to happen to democratise the media in general. One suggestion was to have a general levy on the population, the money from which could be spent on media projects, and the subjects for which would be chosen democratically by citizens. The people need to be involved with the decision-making and the production process of the input and subjects for investigation.

In State of Emergency: War, Terror and Democracy, human rights lawyer Margaret Owen looked at how democracy can be re-made in states emerging from conflict and war. She described the situation in Rojava, in north east Syria, home to about 5 million Kurds, “the only safe place in Syria”, where a new anti-state, anti-capitalist society is being built, with co-operative principles, sustainability, gender equality, and the re-education of the people at its core. She described it as a revolutionary attempt to build participatory democracy.

There was a screening and discussion of the film The Citizens Network, about how Bolivia is asserting its political and economic independence with a homemade Internet network, taking control of technology instead of just using it and providing free software to the people. The film follows a young working class woman senator, Nelida Sifuentes, who is leading the project with the support of president Evo Morales. The film’s director, Leah Borromeo, said the new network was being created in the name of technological sovereignty.

A talk by Green Party leader Natalie Bennet focused on the impossibility of separating environmental from economic democracy. “You can’t start telling people who are switching off their heat in winter to save money, to worry about global warming. You can’t talk about food waste to people who are struggling to put food on the table.” Before you can ask people to cut consumption, you need to ensure everyone has enough, she said.

Progress and Poverty: Understanding Capital and Inequality looked at Henry George’s famous book Progress and Poverty, which has remained in print since it was first published in 1879. William Gladstone’s annotated copy indicates that he was sympathetic to its socialist idea. The central proposal was a land value tax, as it is the community who create most property value and the community should share the rewards. Land Value Tax was nearly adopted in the early 20th Century and is an idea many economic justice campaigners still advocate. The Tax Justice Network is a strong supporter, as part of comprehensive tax reform. It is a kind of wealth tax and is a key recommendation in Thomas Pickety’s excellent Capital in the 21st Century.

The session on Democracy, Culture and Art looked at participatory theatre in Wales, and the National Theatre of Wales’ “Big Democracy Project” (which Assemblies for Democracy Swansea took part in). The NT Wales is an idea, not a place, which frees it to approach theatre in a way that breaks out of the performer/audience structure, to create participatory, political and citizens’ theatre. The Live Art agency supports artists who want to challenge the status quo, and the Liberate Tate project was given as an example of an artist-led intervention. They have recently succeeded in ending the sponsorship deal between Tate and BP.

Digital Tools for Democracy (Beyond Boaty McBoatface) was a practical session looking at how the Democratic Society has helped government to involve citizens. Some inspiring examples included a game looking at solutions to climate change and platforms to facilitate participatory budgeting. The facilitators said that to get a good outcome it is important that people are able to contribute meaningfully to the debate.

On the Friday evening, participants were welcomed into the library itself, lit by the glowing twilight outside, for “Radical Readings” by some of the DemFest participants. They ranged from Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” to Captain Rainsborourgh’s speech from the Putney Debates to a powerful extract from the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. This part of the event was Gladstone Library’s contribution to the national Night at the Museum programme.

DemFest 2016 achieved its aim of encouraging people “with a shared interest in democratic change, to convene in a single site for a short period of intensive and convivial interaction, exchange and cooperation”.

Writing in Open Democracy, co-organisers Nick Mahony and Derek Tatton explained: “Democratic and political changes could be fomented from a well-designed constitutional convention, but this would be more likely if such a convention was twinned with an exciting national programme of rolling public events and festivals oriented around the pluralisation of democracy and the democratization of everyday life…”


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