Using community politics to build a liberal society

Reinventing the State - cover

This is the chapter I contributed to Reinventing the State, edited by Duncan Brack, Richard Grayson and David Howarth whose themes are still very relevant:

I have a secret to admit. I quite like big organisations.

Of course – as you would expect of a liberal – I think power should be kept at as local a level as possible, that organisations should be responsive to individuals, and so that smaller is frequently better – and that individuals’ freedom and rights get trampled on when Big Brother gets free rein.

But faced with the reality of actually trying to change the world, in however small or big a way, the inconvenient truth is that big organisations are good. Lobby Tesco or frequent my local organic food shop? Sorry to say, but doing the former is going to do more to change the world. The impact of Tesco’s decisions on the production and consumption of organic food has been, and will continue to be, far greater than the efforts of clutches of organic food shops scattered around the country.

Moreover, the volume of public pressure required to change a large organisation’s behaviour is, despite its size, frequently quite small compared to the scale on which electoral politics operates. Mars’s abortive switch in the ingredients of Mars Bars and other confectionery to include animal extracts was derailed in spring 2007 after 6,000 complaints. For Mars 6,000 was a large number – but that is barely enough to get a mediocre third place in a parliamentary election, and indeed is not much more than the number of votes piled up by winning councillors in some of the larger urban wards in England.

But – and this is the key – while the volume of pressure required to make companies change their course is often relatively small compared with the votes needed to win in even just one parliamentary constituency, the benefits can be commensurate with the organisation’s large scale. Persuading McDonald’s to introduce more humane treatment of animals – as it has done in response to lobbying from thousands of people – has done far more for animal husbandry, both directly (raising the standards of their suppliers) and indirectly (encouraging those who wish to become their suppliers to also change their behaviour), than if all those thousands had simply changed their own eating habits.

This is not to say that McDonald’s and Tesco are perfect or don’t do many bad things, or that they aren’t ever kept on their toes by seeing what smaller organisations are starting to do, but the brutal reality is that if you want to change the world, getting a big organisation to make a small change frequently has far more impact that a host of small-scale projects. Being good in your own direct personal behaviour is admirable and worthwhile, but it is not the whole story. Changing the behaviour of others usually has much greater impact, especially where the ‘other’ is a large organisation.

Small may be beautiful, but big gives the individual leverage to make large-scale changes to community or country. This applies particularly to organisations in Britain, for so many of them are international in their reach (influence them in one country and you may have knock-on effects on their operations in other countries too), and also to the UK government, which, with its – albeit somewhat variable – special relationship with the US, UN Security Council seat and membership of the European Union, is particularly well placed to influence others when the mood takes it.

It’s not just about the size of the state

This slightly perverse relationship between an individual’s influence and an organisation’s size – larger bodies may be less responsive to an individual than small ones, but the results of individual pressure can be massive – gives a clue as to what normally is missing in discussions such as those about the size of the state or the growth of multinationals, or policies for devolution and subsidiarity.

If you only talk about the size of the state and other bodies, you miss the important question of how to make large bodies more responsive to individuals’ pressure and how to help people influence them. Simply talking about taking some power and influence away from them neglects an important route for individual power.

Moreover, for many issues – such as global warming, Third-World poverty and animal welfare – it is only through this oft-neglected route that an individual can effectively exercise influence. Certainly, I can take good care of my pet goldfish but in the overall cause of animal welfare, the question of whether or not I can influence my local council’s meat-purchasing policies is far more important. A lifetime of responsible goldfish tending will not begin to equal the influence of the local council. Altering my individual behaviour may be morally correct, virtuous and even help set a good example to others (which in turn may effect others, which in turn …) but it has major limitations.

The answer, therefore, is not simply to think about large or small state, breaking up organisations or not, but to see the state (and other large organisations) as not only a boss but also as a tool. While most of the rest of this book is about the state and the boss side of the equation (what sort of boss? how big a boss? bossing over what?), this chapter is about the tool side of the equation: how do we help people and communities organise to make the best use of the state as a tool for bringing about the changes they want?

How people can drive the state

Influencing the state is about information, access and organisation – in other words, it is about community politics, where people organise to take power for themselves and for their communities, so that the state is a tool for people to better their own lives (rather than simply seeing the state as a repository of hand-me-down solutions).

Almost as soon as community politics became a phrase in use and debate within the Liberal Party in the 1970s, there came the complaints that it was only being seen or implemented as an electoral technique, rather than as a tool to reshape society and to enable people to have greater control over their own lives.

Some of the behaviour it has encouraged – principally residents’ surveys, regular local newsletters and taking up local issues through local campaigns – has certainly brought great electoral benefits, so much so that now both Labour and Conservative parties increasingly see merits in such activities too.

But that is not the whole story:

Community politics is not a technique. It is an ideology, a system of ideas for social transformation. For those ideas to become a reality there is a need for a strategy of political action. For that strategy to be successful it needs to develop effective techniques of political campaigning. Those techniques are a means to an end. If they become an end in themselves, the ideas they were designed to promote will have been lost. [Bernard Greaves & Gordon Lishman, The Theory & Practice of Community Politics]

What does this mean in practice? It means helping the public to effect change themselves. The practical implications of this fall into three areas: what it means for how Liberal Democrats go about campaigning, what it means for how the state and other powerful bodies should be organised, and what it means for how we directly help people organise and take power into their own hands.

How we behave in our own campaigns

For the question of how Liberal Democrats campaign, take graffiti as an example. What does a Liberal Democrat councillor or campaigner do?

He or she can encourage people to report it to them personally, raise it with the council, get it cleaned, report back to the person and also run a story in the next Focus newsletter. All well and good as far as it goes; the community is cleaner, with benefits quite possibly seen the next time ballot boxes are opened.

One step beyond that is carefully to tour the area and survey residents, find out about graffiti problems more extensively and more frequently and then go through the same cycle. Again, the result is a cleaner community and a bigger vote come polling day.

But that shouldn’t be the limit of our ambitions. A more imaginative step would be to find out more about why the graffiti is appearing and try to tackle the underlying causes, such as designing out features that make graffiti too easy or tempting, or improving local youth services.

Again, though, this is about the public being supplicants at the foot of the state. A listening and helpful state maybe, but essentially it is saying, ‘Get someone else to fix this’.

Providing people with the information to report graffiti themselves (which, particularly where the local council does not run a one-stop reporting shop, can be quite complicated, with a host of different numbers depending on where the graffiti is) is a step beyond that, as is providing graffiti-cleaning information and equipment for people who need to keep clean their own properties.

And if there is a public body that does not do enough to clean graffiti reported to it (be it the council, Network Rail, British Telecom or some other body)? Then the role is to help marshal local public opinion to bring effective pressure to bear. As for the long term, the more organised and vocal residents are, the more likely it is that all these various bodies will continue to keep on their toes in dealing with graffiti.

The risk is that the siren call of the ballot box tempts the councillor or campaigner into always wanting to do the casework directly themselves. Moreover, keeping people informed about local issues and how they can influence them can be time-consuming, and councillors and campaigners are not usually short of other things to do with their time, including fighting and winning election campaigns.

The more liberal and longer-term perspective is that the more people can take power into their own hands and deal directly with such problems, the more time the councillor and campaigner has for other issues and other actions. There is more time to keep campaigning, communicating and dealing with the council if you are not having to deal directly with each individual outbreak of graffiti – and indeed, it brings other benefits, as I have written on another occasion:

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.

Being the catalyst to organise a public meeting or set up a local campaign group, or simply using your local media contacts to generate press coverage all take campaigning against graffiti from being a mere secretarial funnel for individual items to helping to involve the community in organising and using its own voice.

For all of these tasks, holders of public office, or those aspiring to such, frequently have means to help out, such as having the relevant media contacts, knowing the names (and direct phone numbers!) of relevant public officials, getting notice of when key decisions are to be made, and so on.

The creation of local groups is particularly important not only because collective action gives a stronger voice to the community but also because they bring more neighbours together in a way which generally strengthens social cohesion and improves society. Therefore, the test for a campaigner is to ask, ‘How many local groups have I helped create or expand in the last year?’

Organising the state and other bodies

Turning to policies for structuring the state and other organisations so that they are more amenable to public pressure, beyond simply devolving power to the lowest level practical, there is a key choice to make about how democracy should operate. Should the number of elections increase or decrease?

Adding elected posts to bodies, whether health trust boards, transport-users’ committees or crime partnerships, adds an immediate veneer of democracy and responsiveness to public pressure. A plethora of different elections, though. requires an appetite from potential voters not only to cast votes but also to inform themselves about candidates and issues if the resulting democracy is to be meaningful. It is far from clear that this appetite exists at present.

The alternative is to give more power to existing elected posts. The drawback is that this bundles up a wider range of different decisions and issues into just the one vote, reducing voters’ ability to fine-tune their preferences through voting in different ways for different bodies and roles.

There is no easy answer to this difficult balancing act, but giving more power to individual councillors and individual MPs (by taking it away from both the government and the unelected) seems a surer way forward than creating more elections. Having more power rest on the outcome of existing elections is likely to produce more involvement in democracy than generating more elections for people to take part in – as the low turnouts in regeneration partnership board and foundation hospital trust board elections show.

Giving individual councillors and individual MPs more powers in turn opens up more power to influence by the public. The simplest example of how this can be done is with Private Members’ Bills in Parliament. They should provide MPs with a ready way of turning constituents’ concerns over specific issues into legislation. Yet only a tiny handful each year have a chance of making it through Parliament, and the whole process is designed so that procedural barriers waylay nearly all of them. Whether it is with Ten-Minute Rule Bills (pre-ordained to fail) or Private Members’ Bills debated on Fridays (when most MPs have conflicting engagements in their constituencies) the way Parliamentary debates are structured is heavily biased against an individual MP being able to legislate. It’s a relic of big-government paternalism and the view that only the government should set the legislative agenda. It reduces the impact of an individual’s voice massively because it is that much more difficult for a view that requires legislative change to triumph.

Yet – as other countries demonstrate – it is possible to structure Parliamentary business in a way which gives individual legislators a reasonable chance of making legislation. Proper scheduling of Private Members’ Bills, and scrutiny of draft legislation by parliamentary committees, would – amongst other measures – easily and significantly increase the power of individual MPs.

Looking beyond Parliament, many of the other bodies with elected posts have standards of election that would cause an outcry if used for MPs or councils. A good illustration of this is the British Film Institute (BFI) – not a direct arm of the state, but nevertheless an important body with a multi-million-pound budget, a Royal Charter, a key role in the country’s cultural life and indirect state funding. Yet when my ballot paper for its council elections arrive, I have had to sign it, right next to my vote. Ballot secrecy or any such old-fashioned ideals of probity? No thanks, and just explained away, when I have enquired, with a rather plaintive cry of ‘it’s OK, we don’t misuse the information’.

The BFI is by no means unique in this rather careless approach to democracy. At least in the BFI’s favour it is not biasing the results, which is not something that can be said for the financial sector, where elections for directors and the like are routinely accompanied by ballot papers with preferred candidates highlighted and lopsided accompanying publicity.

Even when the elections are more closely related to public elections – as in those for regeneration partnership boards – standards of democracy are frequently very low. Did you know, for example, that if you opt out of the full electoral register in an effort to reduce the amount of commercial direct mail that you receive, you therefore also opt yourself out of elections for many of these sorts of bodies?

The law only allows the edited register to be used in many of those elections, so only if you find out – by some miracle – and voluntarily opt yourself back in do you get to keep your vote. This is no accidental mistake in the drafting of a law, because it is a line the government has stuck to through several opportunities to revise it (I know, I’ve asked the civil servants several times and drawn a blank each time).

Yet it would not be that difficult to legislate to ensure that any body that receives public funding and holds elections should conduct those elections to certain minimum standards (secret ballot, fair definition of the electorate, equal publicity rules), nor to require the same of the (already heavily regulated) financial sector. Enthralling though the intricacies of the relative merits of the Meek and standard ERS ways of conducting an STV count are, electoral reformers often miss the bigger picture: standards of election are frequently alarmingly low, with the result that the public loses its voice.

Having fair elections in this wider group of bodies has become more important as, with the shrinking remit of central government, more and more power has been vested in them. Take the example of the utilities industries. Water, gas and electricity have been privatised, passing the theoretical ultimate controlling power from electors to shareholders and so putting greater reliance on the functioning – or not – of shareholder voting power. And where it fails to be exercised, the result is a ceding of power to those with the corporate lobbying and financial muscle instead.

Therefore, encouraging and ensuring high standards of democracy across the full range of elections and votes, and not just in the relatively small sphere of public elections, is an important part of a modern and meaningful form of community politics: people must be able to exercise their voices freely and effectively in whatever forums modern life offers them.

But simply having a free and fair vote is not sufficient. Effective exercise of individual power through elections and other means is most effective where it is easy for people to organise amongst themselves into order to be an effective collective advocate rather than just a collection of individual voices. This community-politics-based concept of communities organising and taking power for themselves can be fostered – or not – by the policies of the state.

How to help people take power into their own hands: giving people the tools

A simple example from the then Liberal Democrat administration on Bristol City Council illuminates this. They provided a simple online campaigning tool that made it easy for residents to run local campaigns – whether they were in favour of a council policy, against a council policy or indeed really about something else. This wasn’t a big council versus small council question but one of how best to enable people to take up the cudgels successfully on their own behalf.

It can be difficult to overcome the natural (and understandable, even if wrong) instinct for councillors to think, ‘why should I help people criticise me?’ But in the long run an active and engaged community brings better and more effective decisions. Rushed, botched decisions result in time being eaten up in dealing with the fallout, when a small extra investment of time before the decision had been made would have been a far better choice.

Traditionally, giving the public power in a council context has been seen by Liberal Democrats as meaning decisions such as letting individuals ask questions at council meetings, or allowing the presentation of petitions to councils. However, this is very much a top-down, one-to-one, communication – you can come and present your views to me, and I will listen, or not, as I wish.

The real power of community politics lies in unleashing peer-to-peer communication – getting people talking to each other so they can organise and lobby more effectively as an organised group. Aiding self-organisation and peer-to-peer communication is different from simply providing a few channels for individuals to directly voice their views.

This can be dressed up in Web 2.0 peer-to-peer internet jargon (and many internet developments have made creating such dialogues much easier) but at heart the idea is very simple – rather than simply having the state communicate one-way with different individuals, it should help individuals talk to each other and organise amongst themselves in order to influence the state.

Five-step plan for helping the consulted organise amongst themselves

So here are five easy small steps councils could make, three of which are based around the internet, but two of which are also applicable to anyone.

First, provide local organisations with space on the council’s website. Many will have their own websites, but building up traffic (and good search-engine results) is much harder than simply setting up your own website. Providing local groups with space and links from the council’s website gives a useful and immediate hand-up on both scores.

Second, run online discussion forums in parallel with council decision-making. Some councils already have some modest experiments in online discussion forums (e.g. mirroring their area or neighbourhood assemblies) but linking the council’s consultation processes, and committees such as those dealing with planning and licensing, consistently with online discussion forums make it much easier for people to find others of a like mind on a particular issue.

Third, copy Bristol in providing local residents with the tools to run their own online campaigns.

Fourth, consciously encourage the use of council premises for meeting rooms for local organisations at reasonable prices. Finding appropriate venues at reasonable prices can often inhibit local groups; they need not.

Fifth, provide local groups with space in council publications beyond the occasional phonebook-style listing, so that they can advertise their existence, build up their own audiences and memberships and engage more with the community. Large and vibrant residents’ associations will cause headaches for council officers from time to time, but this is a desirable part of helping people organise themselves.

(Of course the sixth point – as promoted by the Federated Union of Focus Deliverers – would be to use the planning system to pressure developers to provide all properties with sensibly located individual letterboxes.)

None of these steps would require major policy change or major financial investment, but collectively they add up to an attitude of mind – and it is that attitude which is, consistently applied in a myriad of different ways, so important.

Applied beyond the council level, what would this mean? Take two examples. First, it would mean the widespread provision for free of an accurate postcode-to-ward and constituency-lookup database. This matches up someone’s postcode with their ward and constituency, and is therefore a key tool in matching people up with other information (which across a whole range of data is often provided on the ward or constituency building block level) and also with their elected representatives. At the moment, this data has to be paid for – which immediately places an obstacle in the way of any pressure group or other organisation that wants to make it easy to link up supporters with the relevant political unit. There is a host of different ways in which the easy marrying of postcode to other data could be used, but by enforcing a cost the government is cutting off a stream of lobbying creativity.

Second, the petitions on the 10 Downing Street website [a system now mothballed] are – currently – an unfortunately good example of drive-by democracy: I see an issue, I take a few seconds expressing my view, and I then pass on by, never to engage with the issue again.

The 10 Downing Street system has a few bells and whistles – such as the confirmation email and allowing up to two replies from government – but the system essentially allows only just this very brief and superficial engagement with the issue.

Imagine, instead, a system designed to encourage peer-to-peer organisation, automatically created a new online discussion forum for each petition and providing a rich range of supporting tools and information, along the Bristol model. That would allow the petition to be the starting point for real engagement on an issue.

Taming the regulators through organised harrying

A final consideration should be given to the role of regulators. Regulators have huge power. The members of Postcomm, with their strong preference for free-market solutions, have had a significant impact on how the Royal Mail performs. ICSTIS, which regulates premium rate phone lines, has repeatedly fined Opera Telecom, but has still been willing to let them keep running the fraudulent phone-ins for GMTV that conned people out of their money and caused much media coverage in early 2007. In other words, in both cases the regulators have had real impacts on people’s lives. But in both cases they are, in effect, insulated from those same people.

Where are the confirmation hearings for the senior regulators? Where is the public questioning of their performance? Where, in fact, is any sense of accountability?

This raises a complicated issue for politicians, as the argument for independent regulators is that there is often good reason for providing a degree of insulation between their decisions and politicians. Ofcom is a good example: how comfortable would we be with politicians – whose media coverage is vital to their electoral prospects – being intimately involved with Ofcom’s deliberations? But insulation can too easily be taken as an excuse to leave regulators to their own devices.

The impact of Postcomm’s attitude to post offices or Ofcom’s to local radio stations can have a huge impact on communities. The answer is to use the community-politics approach once again to ensure that people can take and organise power, in this case through organised lobbying and engagement with regulators.

Using a community-politics-minded approach to help people organise themselves to have an effective voice allows this dilemma to be resolved – opening regulators to pressure without subjecting them to day-to-day political control. Indeed, by enabling more public pressure, you need to directly exercise state power – whether through law-making or through other means – less often.

The organised harrying which community politics encourages allows solutions to problems that would otherwise be beyond the reach of sensible regulation. Take the issue of food outlets at transport interchanges. Healthy eating options are only rarely available at most of them. Given the problems that unhealthy diets produce for not only the eater but for the NHS and the community as a whole, encouraging the provision of a wider range of choices is reasonable (especially as there is not an efficient free market operating here, given the limited number of outlets allowed and the intermittent allocation or removal of them from particular firms).

However, having central government regulate how many pine nuts should be on sale at Birmingham New Street on a Saturday morning is unlikely to be a productive approach. Instead, the community-politics perspective points at enabling and encouraging people to organise – and to pressurise and harry.

Conclusion: making the state a tool for people

It is very easy to slip into the ‘I don’t like X, so government must regulate or spend’ mindset, or indeed the ‘I don’t like big government, so you mustn’t do anything about X’ mindset.

Yet there is a whole world of progress available beyond regulation and public spending. The RSPCA’s Freedom Food Mark, the WWF-inspired Forest Stewardship Council certificate, and Fairtrade Coffee are all examples of schemes that have both had a significant impact in improving the world while not relying on government action, even though they cover areas that could be regulated by government.

This chapter started with the question of whether a large state (and other organisations) was beneficial or not. The argument here is that, aside from the direct issue over size, there is an important discussion to be had over how to enable people to make the best use of the state and other bodies regardless of their size. The big-versus-small, interfering-versus-regulating argument can often be sidestepped by helping people organise and lobby effectively, genuinely taking and exercising power, especially when done through voluntary organisations.

People can use their own voice, the state and other bodies to bring about change in a way that moves beyond simply always asking for more rules or more money – for you can influence and change the world without having to rely on the false choice of regulating or hoping for an invisible market hand.

You can buy Reinventing the State, edited by Duncan Brack, Richard Grayson and David Howarth from Amazon here.

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