Putting community politics back into election campaigns

This is a lightly edited version of the chapter I contributed to ALDC’s Community Politics Today publication a few years back. The context has changed rather since it was written – sadly the point about time being lost to elected office is now very different – but the overall message is even more important now than it was then.

It’s a common complaint – that modern Liberal Democrat election campaigns have lost the original campaigning and ideological spirit of community politics. Instead, so the critics say, campaigns have become a dumbed-down recitation of techniques, campaigning by numbers, where the only objective is votes and only the ballot box matters.

In this cynical caricature, petitions are primarily a means for gathering data, surveys are a way of dressing up gathering voting intention data and the original campaigning purposes behind such devices are incidental to the thrust of campaigning activity. As for what a campaign is – well, it is a photo on a leaflet, a petition on the reverse and – if you’re being really daring and it’s a big issue – a press release too. The implicit contrast is with pressure groups and lobbying organisations, whose membership is frequently far healthier than that of political parties, and for whom issuing a press release is more often the start of a campaign rather than its pinnacle.

This is of course a caricature of what Liberal Democrat campaigners actually do, but it does reflect the fact that as the party and its predecessors has grown in success since the early 1970s, an increasing number of key activists found their time taken up being MPs, councillors, MEPs, MSPs, AMs, GLAMs and even Mayors. There was far less time to go round on campaigning when so much time is now instead taken up running things. And not just the Allotments Sub-Committee, but multi-million pound organisations employing thousands of people. Many of the writings on community politics from the 1970s are really manuals for outsiders – yet these days, more and more Liberal Democrats have won elections, exercise power and are insiders.

Moreover, to adapt Oscar Wilde’s phrase about socialism, the trouble with community politics is that it takes too many evenings. So in areas with good local campaigners, they start off doing good campaigning, get elected and the campaigning then diminishes. (And if they lose power people often then drop out or are demoralised – so getting campaigning to pick up again is a great struggle). On the other hand, in areas without good campaigners, no campaigning occurs and neither does electoral success follow. Therefore for me a better starting point is to recognise the problems that success brings – as the former is at least the preferable of those two choices. If the party’s ranks of elected public officials were to be slashed back to early 1970s levels, there would be an awful lot more time on people’s hands to do campaigning. The shortage of time now is not something to be grieved; instead, it is something to be recognised as a sign of our success, and as a challenge to be more efficient and effective at growing the size of our campaigning base.

There are many other tacks to take on community politics, as the other chapters in this book show, but one is that it is a way to ensure that our campaigning is not simply dependent on a small number of activists who then get elected and run out of time to keep campaigning going in between carrying out their duties as elected officials. In this context community politics means listening to what residents are concerned about, working with them to change the world and empowering them to continue changing it in future.

My essential point is that – in addition to the important philosophical reasons for community politics, which are about far more than just campaigning for election results – there is also a more mundane, day-to-day, political and electoral self-interest. For by sharing the work with others, the workload becomes manageable and sustainable. Campaigning with the community to achieve concrete results for the local area and its residents can, if done right, not only involve far more people in campaigning – and so spread the load – but it is also the way to build a positive, personal reputation that insulates you against negative campaigning from the other parties at election time.

Moreover, if you are in an area that is not currently one of strength for the party, then even the most ambitious electoral strategy may not see us win control of the council for 8 or 10 years. Do you really want to have to wait a decade before starting to make a difference locally? Other people may get more enjoyment from Focus delivery than I do, but personally the thought of delivering leaflets for a decade in a hope that after that it only might be possible after that to do something to make a real difference to my area just fills me with boredom! And how attractive a proposition is that really to anyone else you are trying to get to be active or help? It’s far better to have an approach that brings results sooner. As an added benefit, delivering real outcomes brings credibility and support. You can (indeed must) still do the more political messages – but then they are more likely to be believed and there are more likely to be helpers to distribute them.

Having campaigning that is rooted in the wider community’s concerns and activities is also a good insurance policy against turning native when you do have power and meekly following the advice of officers (most of whom aren’t liberals) as to what is the best and must be done. It protects you against heading off in whichever way the winds blow from either council officers or central government. Getting people’s participation and input gives you an independence of purpose – and means you are more likely to set the right objectives.

It also protects against slipping into “activism without a purpose”, where the only objectives and plans are around leaflets and votes rather than about changing the area for the better, and the outcome frequently is disillusion and people dropping out of political activism.

Or as John Pardoe put it in The Liberal Road to Power, “Without political power Liberal principles and policies will forever remain in the wings … [but] we must never clutch the cloak of establishment too close around us or warm ourselves too well in its folds.” There is not much point in simply winning an election and joining the establishment – it will carry on quite OK without you, thank you. Having firm beliefs and convictions about what needs to change is another matter.

What does this all mean in practice? It means injecting a real passion to change the area and empower the community into our campaigning, with the added bonus that doing this means there are more hands to do the work. You get more resources by working with the community, setting up local groups and tapping into existing networks than if all you offer people is to sign up to a party political program.

There is no magic pre-ordained formula to follow, but here is a sample of points to check through:

1. Pick issues on which you can make a real difference: this is often easier said than done as there is a real art to working out on what issues you can make a difference. Residents might say they are concerned about the levels of anti-social behaviour in the area, but what is it you can work with them to achieve? Is it changes in the police’s patrol patterns? Is it securing funding to keep a youth centre going? Breaking down a big, deeply rooted issue like crime levels into a series of achievable local goals is a real skill.

2. Work with existing groups: many parts of the country have a vibrant network of local groups and networks, often somewhat hidden to the outsider. (A single non-parent can often misjudge just how effective and widespread the local mothers network can be for example at spreading news on relevant issues!). To work most effectively with them you have to be working for an outcome that they – normally cynical about politicians in the main and wanting to keep their organisations out of party politics – can relate to. Getting them to join in a campaign for a new school crossing is a very different proposition from asking them to back the Lib Dems. It’s about campaigning for results (which yes, brings electoral benefits to you and our party).

3. Set up local groups: there is always a temptation to be very possessive about campaigns, because after all, you don’t want another party muscling on your work do you? But it’s very New Labour, centralising top-down authoritarianism to think that only we can help people, rather than helping people to help themselves in future. Since a key aim of community politics to help people take and use power, this means getting the community running the campaigns rather than just participating in them or benefiting from them. Building links across communities is also particularly relevant in the current climate of racial and religious tensions in many areas. So the answer often is to help set up local groups where they are lacking. For instance, if there is a problem with poor bus services in the area, why not set up a local bus services pressure group (as Lynne Featherstone MP did with Bus Watch in Haringey)? This gives residents much more of a stake in the success of the campaign, and a longer term involvement in their own area, than simply campaigning on their behalf achieves. Empowering residents is, after all, a key part of what liberalism is about. It also helps spread the campaigning workload, which is useful too!

4. Do surveys with a real purpose: the classic Liberal residents’ surveys were invented with a purpose – to find out what people in an area thought, to find out their concerns and to pick up casework – so that action can be taken. Make sure your surveys do not degenerate into simply a technocratic data-gathering exercise that could be done by anyone from any party.

5. Get people to deliver leaflets for the campaign – not for the party. When you are running a campaign like a local pressure group, you will often find that people are willing to deliver leaflets for the campaign who wouldn’t sign up to delivering leaflets regularly for a political party. Asking people to deliver a petition flyer (which of course can mention the Lib Dems too) in their street about the local playground sounds more attractive to many than asking them to agree to become a political deliverer. This way you get more leaflets out – and of course some of these extra volunteers will in due course be willing to move on to delivering regular Lib Dem leaflets too.

6. Ask for money for the campaign itself in the first instance: as with delivering leaflets, some people will be willing to give money to support a campaign who are not attracted as much to giving money to a party’s general pot. Again, though, you also build up a wider pool of people who are then the obvious first attempts for recruiting members in the future.

7. Use the internet: more people now have email than vote in general elections – and that means for a typical local election, twice as many people have email as vote in it. Many residents’ associations and similar have already moved to doing the majority of their communications by email, which means there is a strong network of people talking to people about local issues by email. You need to get into this network too – and again, the trick is to work on issues rather than talk in-your-face politics. After all, you might forward to your neighbour an email about local parking policies, but how many of us would forward a political manifesto? Local campaigners have often also found that setting up a special single-issue website to support a campaign (which is clearly from the Lib Dems, but is branded as being for the campaign rather than being a party political website) attracts more interest and support than simply using the local party’s main website. You can use a tool like http://campaigns.libdems.org.uk to set-up your own site very easily. [Now defunct, but Google Docs, Mailchimp, Facebook and others all provide easy – and more powerful – alternatives these days.]

8. Don’t think that power only rests at the bottom of a ballot box: there is a huge range of local and national organisations which impact directly on local lives, including boards of governors of schools, health trusts and housing associations. They too can be the target of campaigns, their own election procedures can be participated in and – if successful – those elected can report back and keep in touch just like a councillor or MP.

9. Always ask yourself what the answer is to the cynical resident who asks, “but what have you actually achieved for my street?”

The Liberal Democrat approach to campaigning: the history and debunking some myths

Fail to understand what happened in 1997 and why and you not only fail to understand British political campaigning but also, closer to home, fail to understand the roots of more recent events involving Chris Rennard. more

The irony is that all this boils down to finding out what issue is at the forefront of people’s minds in an area, doing something about, involving them and telling them. Community politics and this – the classic Chris Rennard Liverpool/Leicester approach to campaigning – are complementary, not competing. If you are not in power, harnessing the insights of community politics is a way of getting things done without having to wait for the ballot box, whilst also give you more of a chance in the ballot box. If you are in power, then it is a way of ensuring you can still do those things you otherwise would not have time to do.

And the test as to whether you’re managing to do this in practice? It’s whether you end up in the bar at party conference talking to another campaigner about how many leaflets you’ve delivered in the last year – or whether talking about what achievements you’ve had naturally comes to mind instead. In the end, it is those achievements which politics should be about; campaigning, no matter how fun and rewarding it can be, is the means to that end, not the end in itself.

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