One of the reasons – in fact, probably the main reason – why so many Liberal Democrats are relaxed about the Conservative Party leadership’s enthusiasm for the Big Society idea is the overlap between the Big Society and the traditional Liberal Democrat belief in Community Politics. That’s a topic I wrote about at greater length before Christmas, but what has struck me since is how little senior Liberal Democrats talk about Community Politics now.
Despite the frequent media discussion about the Big Society, which provides an opening to talk about the Liberal Democrat alternative/supplement (delete as you wish), Community Politics is almost completely absent. That absence cannot be blamed on the media being only interested in the Big Society, for it extends to words fully under the control of Liberal Democrats, either as a party or as individuals, such as the main party website and the full text of speeches.
And isn’t a time when a rival idea is so prominent – and moreover there are Liberal Democrats in government – a time to be talking about it far more than ever?
But that is so not the case.
Starting with the most obvious, a search on Nick Clegg’s Deputy Prime Minister website at the time of writing turns up no results for “Community Politics”.
Looking through the speeches from Nick Clegg on the party’s own website, which has the more party-political speeches, there is just the one mention in a Clegg speech I can find – from September 2008. It’s a good speech and is headlined “I want us to reinvent community politics for a new generation” but that sentence in the speech itself is neither preceded nor succeeded by very much about the topic itself. And it’s only the one speech.
Nor is it a matter of other Liberal Democrats busting their oratorical guts to talk about the topic. The Liberal Democrat website has no speeches mentioned Community Politics since the general election and only two which pre-date that (one from Simon Hughes and one from Julia Goldsworthy).
Nor is it a matter of the party’s news releases often referring to what should be one of the key concepts through which the party views policy proposals or political challenges. Full marks to Paul Burstow for being the only Liberal Democrat Parliamentarian I can find to have used the phrase in a news release since the general election, but he’s the only one. Just one mention in all the news releases since the general election.
Nor is it a matter of the issue cropping up time and again, but just not in speeches.
Andrew Stunell and Simon Hughes deserves a mention for their presence in a pamphlet on community politics – but again it is only the one and it is in a pamphlet came from the local government sector rather than from ministers or the party centrally.
Looking again at the main party website, I have managed to find a pre-general election policy consultation paper that mentions the topic, a section in the post-election strategy consultation paper (which is authored by one of the ‘inventors’ of community politics, Gordon Lishman), a passing mention in the page about local councillors, a trio of mentions in old federal conference documentation and a few mentions in the biographies that Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians have provided about themselves, all of which pre-date the general election. And that’s all.
That’s not good.
It’s as if at the moment when the party has an unparalleled opportunity to foster Community Politics, when it suits many of the demands of the political age and when the concept itself risks being crowded out by the Big Society, key parts of the party are willing to let the concept quietly die in a corner somewhere. I’m sure that is not a deliberate intent, but even an accidental death is one that all of us should work to ensure is avoided.
Note: Having had to deal with various press stories about why Liberal Democrat websites apparently did not mention certain issues during my years working at party HQ, I’m very aware of the risks of over-relying on a quick search and concluding that what the search found tells you what the website contains which in turn tells you what the party has been saying. So I’ve checked the information on which this post is based in various ways and whilst I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few mentions which haven’t been picked up in the web searches I have run, all the evidence I’ve checked shows that they do paint an accurate overall picture. For example, cross-checking site internal search engines with site-specific Google searches gives a consistent picture and I’ve not found the text of any of the major speeches I looked for to be missing from the relevant sites.