Oxford held its first democracy café on Saturday 7 July and I’m delighted to say that it was a tremendous success with more than 25 people attending.
It was held in the Arts at the Old Fire Station in George Street and began with participants splitting into groups to discuss what democracy meant to them. One person memorably said she wanted to have a form of democracy that didn’t frighten her. But there were many more interesting comments.
We then formed into a plenary session when the conversation switched to what participants wanted the café to be. For example, should they invite speakers? Is a citizens’ assembly different from a democracy (answer – yes)? Is there a natural link between the café and Compass’s new Common Platform policy (see more about this below)?
Some people wanted it to be more structured and research-based than Salisbury Democracy Café while others wanted to have some outcome, for it to be more like a pressure group. One or two thought it was just another talk shop. A newly-elected Labour councillor for Oxford City Council said he would like to use some of the money allocated to him to develop citizen groups to discuss local issues.
It was fascinating to see how the group had different ideas about how they wanted to evolve. I tried to answer some of the questions. In response to the ‘talk shop’ criticism I freely accepted that Salisbury Democracy Café was indeed a talk shop – but not like any other. Indeed its unstructured, free-wheeling format in which participants are encouraged to express their views without fear of being shouted down or forced into ‘winning’ an argument is precisely what makes it unique. Many of us belong to other organisations in which we do try to influence policy locally and nationally, but the democracy café is a breathing space where we step out of the tumbling torrent of life, deliberately strand our selves on a sandbank and quietly deliberate. It’s a time when we can recharge and personally I find it gives me a new energy when I paddle back out into the stream. And the very fact that it is light-footed means that it can be dropped into other venues as we start to have pop-up cafes.
Anyway, good luck to Oxford Democracy Café and its organisers, including Caroline Roaf who visited Salisbury Democracy Café in May.
In the afternoon we had Compass’s meeting for local group organisers, also at the Old Fire Station which we used to make connections and find out what’s happening in other parts of the country.
The main aim, however, was to introduce the new Common Platform, which has been described as the progressive alliance in peacetime – or a way to create more progressive symphony and less cacophony. Basically, this is all about bringing together thousands of people and hundreds of organisations across the country, and not just the political parties, to build the Good Society – one that is much more equal, democratic and sustainable. Initially, this means trying to find other like-minded groups and linking up with them. We have been trying to build this kind of capacity by forging links with groups like Salisbury for Europe, the RSA and Positive Money but one of the problems in Salisbury, unlike places like Oxford, Bristol and London is that there don’t seem to many organisations that have a political bent other than political parties. Maybe, however, there are some community groups that could fit the bill and, perhaps, that is an area we can look at in the months to come. I’m pleased to say that Salisbury and Oxford Democracy Cafés were held up as examples of the sort of thing that local groups could do.
An interesting idea that has emerged in Cambridge is an inequality fund which involves the well-off putting money into a pot – say their government fuel allowance – and then having a deliberative citizens’ assembly to decide how best to spend this money on reducing inequality. This is intriguing, although as I said at the meeting you would have to avoid the Tories using this as an excuse for reducing state funding even more – the Big Society syndrome. A whacky idea was to just go out onto the streets and talk randomly to people about inequality.
Anyway, it was then time to break and find a pub with enough bar space left to watch the second half of the England game and get caught up in the frenzied celebrations as the ‘town’ explosively took over from the ‘gown’. It was truly a day of two halves – Apollonian in the first and Dionysian in the second.