Robin McAlpine: Letting Go

CommonSpace is experiencing some technical problems so Robin McAlpine’s regular blog has been posted here instead. This week, he talks about his joy at discovering that Common Weal was winning campaigns that he didn’t even know about.

Last week I was meeting someone in the cafe of the Scottish Parliament when another table of people shouted over at me ‘oh, are you here for us?’. I knew them as Common Weal activists but didn’t know what they were talking about. Hearing the story lifted my heart and reminded me of something very important.
It’s that control crushes creativity, innovation and inspiration, delivering (at best) only efficient bureaucracy. Control is not your friend…

This is the story. This time last year Common Weal published a report jointly with Living Rent on why Scotland needs rent controls. (It’s not a long read Scotland REALLY needs rent controls).

Common Weal has local groups all over Scotland and Jean and Graham Kemp (not in their first flush of youth…) are very active in our Dundee group. I’ve known them both always to have an interest in things that make a difference for younger people.

So they decided they want to pick up the Rent Control policy and try and see if they could get support for it. Later last year Labour MSP Pauline McNeil proposed a backbench bill that was very similar to our proposals, so Jean and Graham got in touch.

It proved difficult to get support for the draft bill I’m afraid all my experience on this is that the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government have been repeatedly and excessively generous to private landlords (who of course have a well-funded lobbying set-up).

To try and give the draft bill some kind of a chance Pauline McNeil’s team very reluctantly watered it down. This took it further away from our proposals, but Jean and Graham called up our head of policy and discussed whether it could still be something we support.

What is now being proposed isn’t enough, but between them they decided that given how difficult it is to get any protection for renters (who of course DON’T have a well-funded lobbying operation and so who get no love from Holyrood) it was a start that could be built on.

But even watered down the draft bill was struggling to get support. Cross-party working in the Scottish Parliament isn’t brilliant and building alliances isn’t easy. So Jean and Graham took matters into their own hands.

Put bluntly they just decided they were going to pester relentlessly various politicians until they got support. So they did. Like the best of citizens they email, phoned, met up with and did anything else they could to get through to MSPs of all parties.

And it worked. They got enough extra votes (including Willie Rennie and at least one Tory) to let the bill proceed. Now there is at least some chance of Scotland getting some limited-but-at-least-its-something protection for the many people in this country who rent their home (predominantly the poor and the young who just don’t get political traction).

What did I do to help this? Nothing. In fact I didn’t even know about it until they’d already won. What did Common Weal as a whole do (other than publish the original paper)? Some encouragement over the years, a bit of support on the specifics of the policy and a lot of trust. Otherwise, nothing.

So when I bumped into them in the parliament they asked for a photo with me, there I am, standing with our Dundee team (Graham at the left, Jean of course was taking the picture…) as if it had anything at all to do with me which it really didn’t.

Robin standing with CW Dundee in the Scottish Parliament

Almost nothing comes closer to my idea of a democracy working than this; people who are not veteran campaigners or lobbyists just deciding they want to make a difference, trying to make a difference and then making a difference.

This is not all completely natural for me. Formative parts of my career took place in a newsroom (as centrally-controlled as if gets) and then Westminster (where they absolutely fetishise control).

I worked in the media and politics and mine was the generation of ‘message discipline’ and ‘the grid’ and ‘check your pager for today’s line’ and ‘shout loudly down the phone at people who don’t submit to control’. Everyone believed it was the only option.

I even believed it as late as early 2013. By then it was clear that Yes Scotland wasn’t awfully effective and that it was going to be down to the grassroots to pick up the slack. Someone asked me if I was optimistic about that. I think my words were “disorganised enthusiastic amateurs never win”.

I didn’t think it could amount to more than the sum of its parts but it did. What it did was unlock a massive, embedded resource the knowledge of activists. Had the centre not been so weak, that resource would have remained hidden, untapped.

I learned my lesson. When it came to setting up Common Weal about 18 months later I started to read about how to organise without control (a lot of people take this book by French author Frederick Laloux to be the key text).

I’ve always instinctively felt and empirically found that trust repays itself 99 times out of a hundred and frankly the one time in a hundred you get screwed over is worth it. But all the culture of organisations and project management that I knew were based on the implementation of procedures that seemed to be about anything other than trust.

So when we tried to create a decentralised organisation it felt risky. Now? It just feels normal. Frankly not trying to control everything not only made my life easier but made people happier and as a result just made everything more innovative and more productive.

(I should say that it’s not anarchy; for those who know the Laloux model Common Weal describes itself as ‘Teal-Amber’ flat and participatory in the design phase, sharply hierarchical during execution. Very pleasantly, I quite often find myself pretty far down that hierarchy with Tiff or Shafi or Craig running the show and me doing only what I’m told…)

It works. It definitely works. In fact I largely think the success of Common Weal has been me recruiting really brilliant people and then staying the hell out their way until they actually need me for something.

But its much more than that. If this principle works, this principle works. The research which shows that giving people power and trust almost always leads to them living up to the trust and using the power well is extensive.

Its why I became such a massive believer in decentralised, participatory democracy. Some supporters seem to see it as a matter of justice, others as an essential check and balance. I just see it as the best way to unlock a massive, unused resource in Scotland.

Stop paying officials to parachute into a town and ‘fix it’; let the town fix itself. It contains within it vastly more skill and talent and imagination than even the very best official.

So the Scottish Parliament and the business lobby are patting themselves on the back at having successfully prevented the devolution of business rates to local authorities. They seem to think they’ve saved commerce and capitalism from the wild, unruly councils who wanted nothing more than to set punitive tax rates until all business was finally destroyed.

Personally, I’m 100 per cent certain they’d have used the powers sensibly, responsibly and responsively. Even those massively insufficient 32 local authorities (remember, the most centralised democracy in the developed world…) would between them have produced a better national tax plan than Holyrood and its lobbyist-pleasing.

People like Jean and Graham are heroes for me. They fight against a democratic system that doesn’t really value their participation, wants always to control ‘the mob’ and impose its much ‘superior’ central management philosophy. That democracy then uses its power and control to try and hide all the evidence that this philosophy isn’t superior at all.

I do sometimes despair about this. It’s not that politicians oppose decentralisation, it’s that you can’t even get them to talk about it for long enough to oppose it. Mostly they just don’t seem to care.

This will change one day soon. When it does Scotland is going to be scratching its head saying ‘what the hell were we doing?’. Letting go is productive; learn to love your lack of control…

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