I was amused, shocked and saddened by the Handforth Parish Council video clip that went viral last week. I am delighted that the wonderful and eloquent Julia Unwin DBE has agreed to guest blog this week and share her reflections on the debacle…
Last week, an unusual thing happened. The internet was buzzing with a story about a parish council. Was this local governance getting some publicity and attention at last? Was social media going to finally help the public understand better the personalities, and the behaviours that are part and parcel of local community democracy? Sadly not. What we learned from a recorded and edited version of a Handforth Parish Council meeting was something rather different.
We could treat ourselves to the sight of technology tripping up a group of mainly elderly citizens. Then we could roll our eyes at the display of petulance, bad manners and temper tantrums, and gawp at the endless bickering over arcane standing orders, and finally, we could join in congratulating the stoicism and diligence of the clerk – there was even a hashtag #ImwithJackieWeaver to accompany a round of admiring media appearances.
We witnessed a number of men railing at a woman who was trying to introduce order. We watched as they proved themselves completely incapable of dealing with running a meeting without shouting and insulting others. And we witnessed the way that the rules of engagement – the much pronounced standing orders – did nothing to help matters progress. Small wonder that we looked on with horror, and anyone who has never engaged in any local or community action, made a silent vow to avoid any such activity in the future.
Well, right now we can all do with a laugh and a viral clip of a disastrous meeting hit the sweet spot for many of us. But along with the hilarity, it’s worth thinking about four other things that the recording showed:
- It is hard to imagine that any woman, who has ever attended a meeting – parish council or otherwise – did not wince with recognition at the naked and aggressive misogyny on such blatant display in this event. The sight of a woman, keeping calm and carrying on, when all around were bawling at her, insulting her or laughing at her maniacally is an all too familiar one to those of us who have been involved in making the hard slog of local democracy and community engagement work. Of course, this was an extreme example, but a quick poll of women friends and colleagues showed I was not alone in having flashbacks to many an unpleasant and difficult meeting. And sadly none of us were remotely surprised that no one intervened to stop the appalling behaviour. Not one of the people on the call seemed to have either the awareness, or the willingness, to speak out against such bad behaviour.
- We all talk about the need for difference in community organising. We know how important it is that younger people join in and take on leadership roles. That they are made available to people from black and minority ethnic communities, disabled people and with all of us so they can genuinely reflect the rich, diverse and varied communities they serve. This was an object lesson in understanding why that desire needs much more than talk. As I laughed at the video, I also knew that all too many meetings actually seem just like Handforth’s, and that if you are new to this work, it will look as bizarre, as ill-mannered and as intimidating as this one did. We have to behave differently. And that take practice and serious attention.
- Handforth’s travails also highlighted that skills and training are needed when people who care passionately about their community, are put in a room together and start talking. Time after time we talk about the importance of engaging residents, of involving those with ‘lived experience’, of the importance of ‘local participation’ – and then we expect people just to get together (on zoom or for real) and we stand back. Then we are either amazed or delighted when things go wrong. Board members of PLCs get training, and expensive board evaluation. So do those sitting on the boards of housing associations and hospital trusts. But members of community groups are all too often just given an impossible task and told to get on with it. If they are given any rules, they are often in a format (those dratted standing orders) that do nothing to help genuine engagement; that give no ideas for generating vital and authentic debate and that do nothing at all to protect the voices that are too often shouted down or ignored.
- And yet local democracy has never been more important. We’ll never get through our current terrifying predicament without people prepared to get involved and make change happen. If they suffer abuse, are laughed at and challenged with hostility, can we be surprised that they don’t come back? If the rules are so obscure that they are either discarded, or they dominate proceedings, can we wonder that community engagement is so hard?
A few years ago I wrote a slightly tongue in cheek piece about how to undermine community involvement. In Communities – Nine ways to break them – I talked about the overloading of community groups, the disrespect we show and the lack of support we offer. If I were doing it now, I’d write about aggressive and undermining misogyny, a woeful lack of attention to the skills training in those involved, and a set of processes that do nothing to enable active and supportive involvement. And I’d conclude again, that if we are really serious about the importance of local democracy, we’d take it all much more seriously. But I’d still want to stand with Jackie Weaver!