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Winter of discount tents

Is there anything that conventional politics can learn from the Occupy movement and their general assemblies?

Is there anything that conventional politics can learn from the Occupy movement and their general assemblies?

The Occupy London Stock Exchange camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London looks set to remain in place through the winter. A lot of attention has been paid to the location of the protest, from the crisis in St Paul’s to the City of London Corporation’s changes of mind over legal action to remove the camp. Looking beyond those controversies, we can see a diverse organisation trying to represent the views of its members in a way that is strikingly, and consciously, different to a British political system that they see as restricting power to those in a wealthy elite. Does their alternative political model offer anything useful for non-protest politics?

The Occupy movement’s claim to represent 'the 99 percent' – as opposed to the 1 percent who own the banks and other financial institutions – means that the group needs to be seen to represent more than just an activist minority or even a simple majority view. The response has been to shun any form of leadership and simple majority voting and to embrace consensus decision-making. The best-known part of this is how participants signal agreement, uncertainty and disagreement: using hand movements described in the minutes of one meeting as ‘shaky hands’ raised, middle and lowered. Using these signals and a few other procedural ones (see the Seeds for Change website for more information), the daily general assemblies debate proposals ranging from the practicalities of running the camp to responses to major events such as commentary on potential litigation or stating solidarity with strikes. Issues are raised or proposals put to the group, who then discuss and explore the subjects at length. For proposals to be passed, they must be agreed by consensus, with no-one blocking the decision (on the grounds that it 'fundamentally goes against what this camp is trying to achieve'), rather than simply a majority vote. The protesters reject party-based, majoritarian politics; their consensus system puts a real emphasis on the ability to convince and persuade in order to reach an agreed policy. Arguments and compromises have to be made to persuade individuals to agree, rather than simply bringing on board party or interest blocs.

At a point when those who feel that the way Britain is governed requires 'a lot' or 'a great deal' of improvement outnumber those who feel the system works well by two to one (64% to 31% in a recent Hansard Society study), does consensus decision-making suggest a new way of doing things? There is clearly a desire for change; perhaps the Occupy movement’s procedural ideals have some utility beyond the protest setting. A committee’s recent proposal to the assembly for consensus-based ‘people’s assemblies’ across the country had objectives not a million miles from the Coalition Government’s rhetoric of ‘localism’, wellbeing and social mobility: “full social and political participation”; “a new and popular democratic sovereignty”; and a new “political economy that delivers social equality and well being for all”.

With the Government’s stated aim of giving power to communities, the occupiers’ consensus-building methods could provide a model (perhaps without the easily-mocked ‘shaky hands’ signals) for communal decision-making if this devolution is truly to reflect local opinion rather than those this with the loudest voices. The consensus system is certainly a lesson in openness and it has passed its first test at the end of November as the Occupy protesters in London put out their first set of policy statements. Even if it cannot change the laws or economic decisions made in Westminster, the consensual emphasis of the movement’s decision-making could be a useful accompaniment to the localism agenda.

Institute for Government

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