Real democracy matters to me. I’ve written a 450 page book on the subject, and in the last eight years I’ve competed in four local elections in an effort to introduce it to England, for the first time ever. Real democracy matters to me.
So two weeks ago, when I had to overturn a democratically made decision, it stuck in my throat a little bit. But that’s exactly what I did. Here’s what happened.
I’m the secretary of our local social club. Until recently it was a working men’s club with the same traditions and attitudes of similar institutions all over Britain. Up until I became involved with it a couple of years back it still forbade “lady” members from being “full” members, and from voting in general meetings, and from standing for election to the committee. I changed that. Real democracy matters to me.
I was elected secretary about a year ago (no one else wanted the job… neither did I, but that’s another story). Secretaries are significant people in British working-class organisations. I made it very clear at our first committee meeting that I would not remain part of the committee unless it conformed to a proper democratic decision-making process (well, as proper as the club rules permitted). I also informed the club’s employed steward that I refused to be his “boss” – that he worked for the committee, not me. In spite of that, tradition dies hard: the club steward – who had been the backbone of the club for over 20 years – still considered me his “boss”, and some old members of the ten person committee still expect “top table” (chairman, secretary, treasurer) to make the decisions.
Grantham Pigeon-racing Club is a small group who base themselves at our club. Pigeon-racing has deep traditional roots in British working-class culture; so although I’m not personally interested in it, and pretty much ignore the pigeon-racers’ infrequent gatherings, I quite like the club’s connection with the pastime.
A couple of weeks ago we had a normal monthly committee meeting. One of the issues brought up was that the pigeon-racers were using the club’s large function room when they met in order to do whatever it is they do to prepare their birds for a race, as they need quite a lot of enclosed space. This was thought to be a “health and safety” risk, and it was proposed to ban the pigeon-racers from using the club building. The person proposing the change can be loud and given to semi-hysterical outbursts. He banged on and on about the “health and safety” concern, without offering anything in the way of concrete proof for his argument. But “health and safety” is the cattle-prodder for many debates, and triggers alarm bells in most authorities as visions of law suits and damages claims instantly flash through their minds. Although I opposed the motion, and voted against banning the pigeon-racers, the rest of the committee supported the move… with immediate effect.
I duly wrote a letter to the secretary of the pigeon-racers’ club (who also happens to be our club steward), telling him of the committee’s decision.
Two days later he comes to see me, quite visibly upset. He explains that there are only two more race meetings this season, one of which was just two weeks away. The second and last meeting is scheduled for September. He goes on to explain that it’s really short notice for them to arrange an alternative venue for the meet in two weeks time. I can see his point. I’m also very aware of a back-story: some of the committee have long carried some personal vendetta against the club steward and have tried to push him out of his job – possibly for deeply cynical reasons. But that’s another story.
So I overturned the committee’s democratically made decision, and told him to continue with his meeting in two week’s time, but I also told him I couldn’t justify allowing the meeting in September to proceed – by which time they could make alternative arrangements if necessary. I said I would raise the subject again at the next committee meeting (August), to see what they have to say about it.
A couple of days ago we had an extraordinary committee meeting about a completely unrelated subject. At the end of that meeting the would-be racing-pigeon banner announces that he wants to complain about the fact that I overturned a committee decision. I’m totally on the defensive, because he’s obviously right, and real democracy matters to me. But I’m unrepentant, and still perfectly content that I did the right thing. Why? For these reasons:
Firstly, for real democracy to work as it should, good and proper information needs to be available to the decision-makers. When we had the committee meeting which banned the pigeon-racers, good and proper information was not available. We did not know (and still don’t know) what the alleged “health and safety” concerns were, nor how plausible they might have been. Neither did we know that the pigeon-racers only had two more meetings, one of which was just two weeks away, and about the inconvenience of finding another venue for it at such short notice.
Secondly, no decision should ever be set in concrete. There must always be a certain flexibility to interpret or change the decision according to new information or changing circumstances – which is why we have an appeals system in law.
Thirdly, any decision must always be carried out with as much humanity as possible for those adversely affected by it.
Fourthly, if you believe a decision is wrong and inhumane, you should refuse to obey it – no matter how it’s made.
I believe in real democracy because I don’t know of any better way of making decisions that affect groups of people. But that isn’t to say it’s always perfect.