Why an alternative approach for the Town Council must be the way forward

Last evening, potential independent candidates for the elections to Bradford on Avon Town Council in May met together for the first time. I really hope that a sufficient number can be persuaded to stand to offer a viable alternative to the current offer.

The challenge is to present a sufficiently different agenda to mobilise people’s support away from the status quo of Lib Dem or Conservative.

The search for a different approach is the subject of a new book that I’ve just got hold of, called simply The Alternative. It’s based on a recognition (hope?) that (to quote the blurb) “cooperation among progressive thinkers and doers could reinvigorate politics and inspire a credible alternative to the status quo – that those who want a good society can and must work together – and, by doing so, they can deliver better answers and more inclusive government. The Alternative sets out a base of core values around which progressives can unite, proposes a number of big policy ideas that embody those values and, crucially, explores an urgently needed new form of politics to achieve them”.

The challenges that impact us all, no matter what our age, are highlighted by one of the essayists, The Guardian’s Zoe Williams. She notes that “underneath, something real has changed. Conditions have changed for everybody. All under-25s, excepting those from extremely wealthy families, emerge from education with a life- altering amount of debt. All under-forties, including those who have done everything right, from their hard educational graft to their excellent life choices, are facing housing insecurity and attendant financial pressure”. That has massive implications for them but also for those of us past our 40s.

She continues: “Successful movements are born when conditions, injustices, exigencies emerge that feed into one another and affect, if not everyone, sufficient people at least that the engagement is both communal and personal, not distant and by proxy. I believe that moment has arrived”.

And she concludes: “There must be space created for those who seek genuine change based on their own experiences, not just because they have chosen to engage with the party political process”.

That holds especially true at the level of a town such as Bradford on Avon, as for the country. Few people in the town are engaged in what the Town Council does, mainly because they see it as having little or no relevance to their own concerns – or certainly little ability to change anything.

But that is not the case for all councils. Frome is the shining local example of how townspeople can effect change for the better. One of the key drivers behind that change is Mel Usher, one of the new independent town councillors.

This is what he said at the end of Flatpack Democracy, written by Peter Macfadyen, another founder of the Frome independents: “Most of us in Frome don’t want to be passive consumers… Many are searching for greater action and collaboration in public life. We want to encourage them, indeed the more the merrier. Why shouldn’t Frome people ‘do politics’, involving themselves in innovative work to help re-energise the town through identifying hyper local issues of concern and making dynamic changes over issues they care about?”.

We need a council that by virtue of its roots is able to provide the leadership we need for the benefit of everyone in the town. That means working out a strategy for implementing the neighbourhood plan if it is successful in being passed in the referendum. And if the referendum rejects it, we need a council that will pick up the pieces and persevere with a strategy for the future of the town that is soundly based on local needs and aspirations, that is responsive and not in thrall to the interests of one group or another.

This town is rightly celebrated nationally and even internationally. But what makes it great for us and for those visiting needs to be nurtured as it evolves. And it must evolve. We can’t take it back to some mythical paradise. But we can take it forward and use the energy unleashed by a new independent politics to create something new and truly exciting.