Spokescouncils – learning from Stop New Nukes

Photo: Stop New Nuclear

Hinkley Point nuclear power station was successfully blockaded on Monday 3rd for an entire day. The Stop New Nuclear organisers had decided in advance on an affinity group model of action, and therefore that communication and decision making would happen by spokescouncil.

I joined the fray on the Saturday to help facilitate the spokescouncils both at the camp and on the blockade itself. From Saturday to Monday I facilitated 4 spokescouncil meetings – 2 at the camp, 1 during a camp-wide practice blockade, and the fourth and final one at the blockade itself. With the exception of the practice, on the surface at least, the others seemed to go well. The practice spokescouncil hit problems, but that’s why we practiced!

In fact I was amazed by all of the meetings I facilitated or witnesses at the camp, whether spokescouncils and general camp info meetings. They all ended on or ahead of the scheduled time and ran pretty smoothly. There was a real will to co-operate that you can’t assume will be present.

But why ‘on the surface at least’? I think there were some real issues bubbling away under the surface. Nothing insurmountable, but issues nevertheless. So what was going on?

Experience and understanding

The most obvious was the challenge that spokescouncils presented to those less versed in the ways of affinity group organising. Some of the folk attending were not just new to consensus, but had also only formed affinity groups a few hours (and in some cases a few minutes) before their first spokescouncil meeting. I wonder whether some of the ease with which we got through the meetings was caused by the mild daze that some people were in, trying to catch up with a process that’s pretty weird if you’ve never encountered it before.

There were no scheduled inductions to consensus, and I think the quality of information at the welcome tent very much depended on the volunteer who greeted you. Some probably took the time to talk to people about how the camp worked, but I don’t think that was a universal experience. A few sentences from me at the start of the meeting don’t compensate for a proper induction.

Perhaps it’s also a comment on the nature of affinity group action here in the UK. It’s fallen out of favour in recent years. Somehow “affinity group based mass action” has become just “mass action” and affinity groups have become the preserve of long-standing activists from the peace movement and Earth First! We need to remember that in actions like this blockade it’s not as simple as stating that it’s an action configured around affinity groups and expecting everyone to know what that means and to have experience of affinity group processes. And even if folk understand all of the above, they aren’t necessarily part of an affinity group at this point in their lives.

So more induction and more awareness raising of the realities of affinity group activism, and the undoubted benefits that it brings.

Spokes 1: Fishbowls 0

By the time I arrived at the camp the first spokescouncil meeting had already taken place. It would have been good to have been there, but life’s busy and it wasn’t possible. Having said that there weren’t really any significant decisions to be made so it was treated more as a practice run. Everyone was welcome and affinity groups sat behind their spoke in the traditional ‘pizza slice’ formation with spokes effectively working in a fishbowl. However it was discovered fairly rapidly that groups weren’t content to communicate through their spoke and lots of other voices tried to make themselves heard. The result was that by the time I arrived the camp organisers had already decided on a ‘spokes-only’ model for the remainder of the camp.

On one level that made things easier – smaller meetings, fewer distractions, crystallising the role of the spoke as a representative and so on. It’s a shame there wasn’t time and energy to keep working at it though and use the experience to build better individual and collective meeting practice. But nuclear power stations don’t blockade themselves and the action was understandably the focus.

Inevitably though the remaining spokescouncil meetings draw other people to them like flames draw moths. So at my first spokes meeting one or two people came along as observers. Did they just observe? Don’t be silly. They (though to be fair, not all) were amongst the most vociferous and tangential voices there. So we agreed to enforce the spokes-only ruling from then on, making an exception only for note takers where groups chose to send one.

Rule number 1: you can’t impose consensus

I said it was all fine on the surface. I’d go as far as to say that for most people the spokescouncil meetings were fine full stop. But there were definite signs of dissent, of people not buying into the authority of the spokescouncil to make decisions for the collective.

And why should they? After all they hadn’t been consulted on that decision, it was simply part of the model of action that the organisers had decided on. On one level you can say “if you don’t agree with these parameters, this actions not for you”, but the reality is people will still turn up because they’re passionate about the issue and it’s the only show in town. It’s not like there’s a choice of blockades, each with a different organising ethos so you can choose the one that works for you. People don’t necessarily think about the process until it becomes an obstacle to them taking action in a manner that fits their vision for the day.

This dissent began to manifest itself after the first action spokescouncil on the day of the blockade. One person sounded off to me, at length, about a decision, despite consenting to it in the meeting. Another activist made an announcement over the PA system that a consensus decision had been taken about an idea they were keen on and that we would “all” take their preferred action at a set time. In reality no such decision had in fact been made. A misunderstanding? That’s certainly the line I was given when I had a gentle word with them. An attempt to hijack the process? A response to being politely but firmly denied more time to talk on their subject by the facilitator (me in this instance)? We’ll never know. Suffice it to say that they were passionate about an idea and wanted to think that everyone else would be too. It’s also fair to say that they were representing personal rather than group views – not the role of a spoke.

Practice makes perfect

I alluded to a less than perfect practice run. The day before the blockade I co-facilitated a practice run. The original plan was for another nonviolent direct action session, but the previous ones weren’t generating that much interest or energy (no fault of the trainers). So I’d suggested that we change tack and invite everyone at camp for a full group run through. We created a few ‘scenarios’ to give folk a chance to practice their responses to aggression (both ours and the cops) and to practice the spokescouncil in a quick-decision context.

What happened was that whilst the spokes met and talked about the initial vague information they had, the group gave way to police pressure and cleared the road. By the time the spokes had got the full picture it was more or less too late. Some of the spokes were seriously annoyed that the authority of the spokescouncil to decide when the blockade should clear was clearly lost. Lessons were learnt about who makes the decision and about how long even a ‘quick’ decision would take in reality.

I left the blockade part way through the day to begin my journey home. The spokescouncil facilitation was left in very competent hands. I’m told one of the characters mentioned above came back for more and continued to “misunderstand” the process. Did it matter? In this action probably not – the police were playing it low-key and allowing the blockade to happen. In another action, with confrontation, fast-moving dynamics, the potential for injury and arrest? Of course it matters, which is why we need to continually reflect and learn.

And so to summarise – what I’d do differently next time

Some thoughts on what we could do to improve spokescouncil consensus for future blockades (and it’s just the start of a very long campaign….). I offer these with a great deal of respect for the organisers of this camp and blockade, and recognise that a small group of people simply doesn’t have the capacity to make all of these happen:

  • Don’t assume knowledge of the process or mechanics of spokescouncils – make space for people to find out more. We had prepared a written briefing for groups. I would have liked to see this given out to everyone, but only a few were ever printed, so I think the impact was negligible. But I think there also needs to be regular face-to-face briefings – whether for 15 minutes before meetings, informally over a meal, twice a day scheduled into the programme or whatever.
  • Communicate the rationale for using consensus, spokescouncils and affinity groups to support people in building an affinity for them.
  • Take the time to formally get consensus on using consensus, even if that means one long and difficult meeting to help you get to a process that is faster, more efficient and still consensual – like the spokescouncil.
  • Keep working at the model of meeting that allows affinity groups to sit in with their spoke. It’s going to take more patience and more practice to build a culture that understands and values why we sometimes ask groups to speak through their spoke, but if we never do it, we can never learn.

And what worked well…

It’s also worth reflecting on what worked well at Hinkley:

  • Negotiating a specific mandate at the last camp spokescouncil to facilitate action spokescouncils more firmly than would feel appropriate in an ordinary meeting. By which I mean keeping people focused, moving at an appropriate speed for an action setting, challenging over-contribution more quickly than might otherwise be the case, and so on. The spokes welcomed being asked and were happy to consent. I think the blockade practice had demonstrated that the role of spoke can be difficult, and any help they could be given to stay on topic and working together as fast as the situation demanded was appreciated.
  • Ask all affinity groups to empower their spoke to make decisions without reference to the group in situations that require a quick decision (which in this instance we defined as less than 15 minutes). Our practice showed that very quick decisions with reference to the affinity group were unrealistic.