DIY Democracy: Festivals, Parks and Fun

Matthew Flinders
Matthew Flinders

by Matthew Flinders, Co-Editor of Policy & Politics

Wimbledon has been and gone, the barbeques have been dusted off, the sun is shining and all our newly elected MPs have just left Westminster for the summer recess. Domestic politics, to some extent, winds down for July and August but the nation never seems to collapse. Indeed, the summer months offer a quite different focus on, for example, a frenzy of festivals, picnics in the park and generally having fun. But could this more relaxed and self-organising approach to life teach is something about how we ‘do’ politics? Is politics really taking place at festivals and in the parks? Can politics really be fun?

The recent suggestion that the Glastonbury Festival provides a model for policy reform took many academics and commentators by surprise. ‘If you want to know how to achieve those things the politicians promise but never quite deliver — a ‘dynamic economy’, a ‘strong society’, ‘better quality of life’ — stop looking at those worthy think-tank reports about the latest childcare scheme from Denmark or pro-enterprise initiative from Texas’ Steve Hilton, the former Director of Strategy for David Cameron argues in The Spectator (20 June 2015) ‘just head down to Worthy Farm in Somerset… it’s got so much to teach us’. I’ve never personally been ‘a festival person’ (and yes, there is such a type) and the only thing the images of Glastonbury in the past have taught me is never to go there.

But the notion of festivals as the source of a new politics, of a new way of organizing society and for delivering and protecting collective goods without the ‘hard’ elements of the modern state (i.e. police, laws, prisons, etc.) keeps nagging at my mind. After studying political science for nearly two decades maybe I can no longer see the wood for the trees (please note the nice use of the park-based metaphor)? Have I become so fixated on the formal institutions and procedures of representative democracy that I no longer recognize the emergence of ‘insurgent’ patterns of engagement? The role of festivals as the source of new forms of ‘civic-ness’, as critical sources of political education and arenas of debate, as safe-spaces in which to reimagine how to think about the art of life…

Steve Hilton’s comments were not, in fact, that new. At a pre-election debate at the University of Sheffield in April the former Home Secretary David Blunkett and The Times columnist Matthew Parris both reflected on the growth and role of arts and culture festivals in terms of promoting public engagement in politics. Parris suggested that ‘festivals are the new political arenas’ adding that ‘conventional politics is out of favour and festivals have emerged to fill an important social function’. There are limits to this argument. Indeed, it is only a short intellectual hop, skip and jump before one takes this logic and ends up with Nigel Farage and his cliché that ‘every pub is a parliament’ but there is something about the ethos and culture of festivals, especially the smaller and less professional music, literary or arts events, that does resonate with the broader anti-political climate. Put slightly differently, in a climate dominated by ‘disaffected democrats’ is there something about how festivals ‘do’ small ‘p’ everyday politics that MPs might reflect upon during the summer recess?

I think there is but I am not sure exactly what ‘it’ is.

What does the existing academic research tell us about the politics and political implications of festivals? Very little, if anything, at all. The existing research has been captured by an economic lens that generally attempts to measure the financial value of festivals to a town, village or community – in this regard it tells us a lot about the price of everything but absolutely nothing about the broader social value. Apologies in advance if I have failed to find a crucial pool of scholarship but I’ve looked pretty hard.

So what might the ‘it’ be that makes festivals potentially important in democratic terms?

In reality it is unlikely to be just one issue and it is equally unlikely to be able to tangibly define, bottle or transfer this quality or essence to other forums but one crucial element seems to be letting the people govern.

‘Let the people govern!’ I hear our MPs cry in fear – as they pack their flip flops, sun cream and their already well-thumbed copy of Bernard Crick’s In Defence of Politics – but there is something about stepping-back, trusting the public and seeing what happens.

Steve Hilton gives the example of the Dutch town of Oudehaske where all traffic lights, road markings, speed limits and traffic signs were removed so that road-users would be forced to interact with each other and consciously navigate the streets. ‘When you treat people like idiots, they’ll behave like idiots,’ the project’s leader, traffic engineer Hans Monderman, said. ‘Who has the right of way? I don’t care. People here have to find their own way, negotiate for themselves, use their own brains.’ By removing external controls imposed by bureaucrats, the transport system was made more human. And everything improved: fewer accidents, better traffic flow.

In the UK the thousands of people that can be seen doing the Park Run every Saturday morning (9.00 start, don’t be late, all runners welcome) provides a wonderful example of the power of one person to make a big difference. In 2004 Paul Sinton-Hewitt had the idea of people in local communities coming together for a regular run in their local parks. You could try and win if you wanted but most of it all was for fun and personal challenge. Since then the Park Run initiative has emerged into a social movement. Run by volunteers on a rota basis there is no fee to take part, the internet and bar codes make registering easy and social media provides easy access to results and ‘nudges’ to come again. Over 40,000 people have volunteered to marshall races and over a million people participate each year. In 2009 Sinton-Hewitt was presented with the Runner’s World ‘Heroes of Running’ award for philanthropy for his work with Parkrun and in 2014 became a CBE in the Queen’s birthday honours 2014 for ‘services to grass roots sports participation’.

You might not think that running in the park is at all political – but it is. It is a perfect example of the ‘everyday politics’ that has a very real and direct impact on people’s lives. It is a mass participation activity for collective community benefit that is facilitated by the internet and delivered by volunteers. There is no profit motive (what a refreshing thought). ‘The implication being?’ I hear you ask. Well, the implication is not some neo-liberal Tea Party argument about the need to get the state and those meddling politicians out of our lives. But it is to think about the potential for unleashing similar participatory endeavors and most of all to think about how such projects and opportunities can be genuinely opened-up to all sections of society. Possibly even do a little detailed research…but I would say that, I’m an academic.

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