On Saturday 7th February 2015 I helped to bring around 80 people together in Huddersfield for Local Democracy for Everyone – We’re not in Westminster any more.
I’ll say more about the event elsewhere, but this blog is about how (and why) I got here…
On the eve of LocalGovCamp in June 2009 I made some little badges for me, Mari and Steve, with our twitter avatars on. I still have my badge, along with the little orange badge that we were given on the day. I treasure my badges, but they aren’t the only thing I kept.
I remember that feeling of anticipation in the room as the crowd quietened down just before the introductions, the sheer thrill of standing in a room that was jam packed with like-minded people. I didn’t know it at the time, but I think my #notwestminster journey started that day.
Some of the intervening years have been inspiring, some largely wretched. I’ve lost people, lost my place and very nearly lost hope along the way. Over the past two years in particular I haven’t always known where my heart or my head or my courage have been. I’ve had more than one foot out of the door. But my #notwestminster journey has changed that.
In some ways I feel like a latecomer to the LocalGov Digital family. In other ways, I’ve been here all along. Either way, it was a surreal moment walking into Cafe Ollo on Friday (where I’m often found drinking “a tea with a bit of extra milk”) and seeing the LocalGov Digital gang gathered around a table in the middle of the room, in readiness for the Huddersfield PechaKucha Night.
Strange how it’s taken the arrival of so many people who have never been to Huddersfield before to make me feel at home again.
It’s been a bit of a whirlwind three months of preparation for what eventually became #notwestminster, something that began life as a conversation between Carl Whistlecraft and Dave Mckenna. When Carl decided to press the big red button on our as-yet-unnamed event to bring together advocates for local democracy, we had no money, not much time and no idea how things might turn out. But I didn’t take much encouragement (if any) to make that leap of faith.
I already had my benchmark.
In December 2014 when I applied to UKGovcamp for a grant to support our event, one of the things I said was that “the experience of being part of LocalGovCamp in Birmingham on 20th June 2009 has stayed with me all these years. I could tell you what we talked about on the train home. More importantly, it didn’t stop at the talking.” And I meant it.
Could we possibly do something, together, that left people on the train home from Huddersfield feeling that something had changed? Could we even get people here in the first place? And if we could, could we find any money to feed them with?
We had plenty more questions to ask of ourselves over the coming weeks. What I tried to hold on to was our shared belief that if we got the right mix of people in the room, something good would happen.
We knew from the start that we wanted not just other enthusiastic local government officers to be there, but also councillors, academics, digital makers, campaigners, community activists and young voters. David Bundy has described it as being like making a good stew – we just needed to find the right basic ingredients. To this mix David brought the University of Huddersfield, both staff and students, and members of the Kirklees Youth Council, amongst others. Vital ingredients one and all.
The same is true of the project team. We began with me, Carl, David, Spencer Wilson and Aggie Wilstrop, who all work for Kirklees Council as our ‘day job’. To this mix we quickly added Andrew Wilson who organises the Hannah Festival and has collaborated with me on various neighbourhood projects.
Between us we figured out a structure for the event, found a venue (our friends at the Media Centre in Huddersfield have been fantastic), stuck up some basic web pages and swiftly announced our intentions to the world.
As things progressed we were joined by Andrea Robinson (also from Kirklees) and Jane Wallace, a politics student at the University of Huddersfield. And between us we set about ploughing through all the tasks on our ever-growing list. This one is my favourite, though I know that my geekboy friends will probably say it’s an “acceptance criteria rather than a task”.
The other thing we were adamant about was that it should have some local character. The radical heritage and creativity of Huddersfield are pretty amazing. We didn’t think we could host an event to celebrate local democracy without also celebrating the place that we would be gathering in. This train of thought developed into hiring a local artist, Amy Hirst, to help us print a banner, creating our own manifesto, making placards for our Ideas Bazaar and setting up our badge making station.
In early January Spencer arranged for us to be shown around Tolson Museum by Richard Butterfield, a visit which led to us putting those lovely replica banners at the heart of our event and adding touches of our democratic heritage wherever we could find a spare corner.
We also made contact with Discover Huddersfield and the Huddersfield Local History Society, who offered to run a guided walk around some of the town centre locations that feature in the story of our radical heritage.
We were inspired by our local heritage, but we were also looking firmly to the future. We talked a lot about how to focus our participants on the “doing” of local democracy. Andrew helped us to look at different models for structuring the event, and we opted for inviting workshop pitches in advance. We also decided to set our workshop hosts a big challenge – to come up with 3 ideas for redesigning local democracy in each workshop.
The upshot was that, well, to paraphrase our long-distance partner in crime Dave Mckenna, we only went and did it.
Somehow all of it came together – and the clans gathered in Huddersfield for an energetic and inspiring day.
Many people have remarked about the amazing mix of #notwestminster participants. It’s already been discussed online, at a community meeting in my neighbourhood and in my workplace. I live in Newsome, the electoral ward where the event took place, and was delighted that my councillors took part. You may have met them – they were the ones with the pigeons 🙂
And for me, something definitely changed. For the better.
This is why it means a lot to me that…
Sarah Lay said “you are changing things just by getting together”
and quoted “if you want to go far, go together”
Carl Haggerty said “Remember this date”
(and made all the participants give themselves a round of applause)
Dave Mckenna said “It certainly felt to me like a game changer” and “Remember,
if we are not in Westminster anymore then maybe we are somewhere over the ….”
Carl Whistlecraft simply (and repeatedly) said thank you
between us, we just made it happen.
I’m delighted to have sent people away with badges and ideas and new-found friends and aspirations for the future. I could not have wished for anything more.
Somehow I have been behind the moon and beyond the rain and on an amazing journey, then found that I have been home all along.
Then I woke up… and you are still here.
p.s. This is the only version of Somewhere over the Rainbow that you should ever listen to. Them’s the rules…