Last night was the Shaftesbury Ward Let’s Talk event. I’ll confess surprise at the turnout, especially as it was not the most clement of evenings, and should perhaps review my previous scepticism to this type of meeting because of the way the meeting self-managed.
I will save most of the topics raised for another post because I want to focus on that self-management aspect.
While I think the turnout was good, that is a relative term. It was good compared to previous meetings, but I think using the maths I applied to our last meeting the attendance was still 0.00% of the ward. When you have small numbers it becomes easy for a small number of people to dominate.
Last night it was a group of residents from the Nightingale Square temporary accommodation hostel. This is a council facility for the homeless in Balham. They came , led by Pastor Des Figueiredo, to complain about issues there – lack of wi-fi, play facilities and poor relations with neighbours were the ones I noted – and that they had not had a meeting with the council to discuss these. As it turns out such a meeting was taking place at the hostel today, which does call into question their attendance last night.
In even criticising them here I’m aware I’m attempting to tread a fine line of concern about their tactics without appearing unsympathetic to what may be legitimate concerns. But they repeatedly tried to interrupt other discussions and cut in before Shaftesbury residents who had been called could speak. They also used the presence of their children, for whom it was late, to justify a platform (this I particularly disliked, since it was little more than emotional blackmail, despite it being their choice to bring children to give “testimony” at a meeting scheduled for 7.30-9.00pm). The more I think back, the more I think it was deeply irresponsible and reflects badly on Des Figueiredo’s motives.
But if I run the risk of appearing unsympathetic in detailing it here, imagine how much harder it is to handle in a live meeting. Do you take an easy approach and let them have their say? Do you take the hard-line and insist it’s a meeting for Shaftesbury residents and local concerns? Both approaches have their pros and cons.
In fact, mob rule took over, and mob rule did a superb job. Every time there was an attempt to interrupt the meeting, local residents reminded them it was a Shaftesbury meeting and moved the business back to local issues. There was remarkably little need for a chairman at all, when it came down to it the crowd were self-chairing.
Even when the Nightingale Square delegation persevered the audience suggested giving them one opportunity to speak and say their piece, since they had come up from Balham, but would then have to allow residents their meeting back.
It was a fine example of the wisdom of the crowd in action, and I’m not sure any individual chairman could have handled the situation as well as a few dozen residents did.
I haven’t fully changed my views on public meetings; I still think they are often used when other forms of communication or consultation would work better. However, having seen and reflected on last night I can’t help feeling that I’ve been deeply unfair in underestimating the ability of an engaged audience to make a public meeting work in spite of its drawbacks.