Our lost phrase: community politics

On a hunch, earlier this year I did a little research ahead of writing a blog post: how often is the phrase “community politics” used by the party’s national spokespeople since the May 2010 election?

The answer was far worse than I’d feared. Looking through all of Nick Clegg’s major speeches, all the news release from him and also all those from others issued via the Liberal Democrat press team, I could only find one use of “community politics” – by Paul Burstow. Andrew Stunell deserves an honourable mention for using it in an LGA pamphlet as well, but that was it. No doubt there have been some uses in other places but, particularly bearing in mind that I searched through every national press release, this is a paltry showing.

With other phrases such “Big Society” to use, some may wonder if bemoaning the absence of “community politics” from our political vocabulary is much like bemoaning the absence of penny farthings from our bicycle lanes. Has the world just moved on?

But it does matter – and for three important reasons. It makes for the wrong political symbolism, it is symptomatic of a deeper problem, and those other phrases are not adequate alternatives.

Both “localism” and “Big Society” get plenty of mentions from Liberal Democrats currently, yet one is a New Labour phrase and the other is a Cameron Conservative term. It symbolises a lack of confidence in our own beliefs to meekly adopt the vocabulary of others.

However, it would be wrong to single out those who do not use our own phrase for individual blame. Rather, it reflects a wider party cultural issue. Nick Clegg, for example, is of a post-1970s political generation, and the absence of community politics from his rhetoric reflects how little it was used in the party at the time he was getting attuned to what motivates and persuades in Liberal Democrat circles.

That wider cultural issue matters because “localism” and “Big Society” are not simply synonyms for what “community politics” should mean to Liberal Democrats. Moreover, with the challenges of maintaining our own identity in coalition – not to mention the opportunities it gives to enact our beliefs – now is a spectacularly bad time to act as if they were.

The difference should be one about power. Devolving power within levels of the state should not leave liberals satisfied. Nor should granting greater opportunities to individuals. Community politics takes a third crucial step – that of helping individuals to come together to wield power in their own communities.

Power is about more than who provides a service, which is as far as the Big Society goes. A group of residents collaborating to run a library is one thing, an active residents’ association pushing and prodding different service providers in the interests of the local community is another.

As The Theory & Practice of Community Politics, the seminal 1980 pamphlet from Bernard Greaves and Gordon Lishman puts it, community politics “is about people. It is about their control of the exercise of power. It is about the distribution of power, the use of power, the dissemination of power and the control of power.”

Community politics, for example, should be about making it easier for residents to combine to influence planning applications – not just giving powers to individuals in the process. It should be about planning that does not just design out crime but designs in the ability for communal political action in form of leafleting, stalls and protests.

Giving individuals not only power in their own right but also the confidence, capacity and opportunity to exercise power in cooperation with others leads into all sorts of policy directions that are largely unmentioned. To give one simple example – why should it not be part of the planning requirements for new housing developments that the developer has to kick-start the creation of a residents’ association?

Or as The Theory & Practice of Community Politics puts it, “Our aim is therefore the creation of a political system which is based on the interaction of communities in which groups have the power, the will, the knowledge, the technology to influence and affect the making of decisions in which they have an interest. Even more, we want those communities to initiate the debate, to formulate their own demands and priorities and to participate fully in agreeing the rules by which their relationships are regulated.”

There is, perhaps, a glimmer of light on this issue. Not only did Paul Burstow (now a minster but previously an ALDC staffer) use the phrase “community politics” in his health speech at Sheffield spring conference, he used it twice. Moreover, partly thanks to my earlier Lib Dem Voice blog post, the phrase made it into the foreword by Nick Clegg to a new pamphlet on localism from the LGA:

But on a subject such as community politics above all, we should not just wait for others to take action. Community politics is our phrase and our beliefs. It needs to be adapted to fit the modern sense of community, but it should be as important to us now as it ever was.

A slightly shorter version of this piece appears in the latest edition of Liberator.

UPDATE: As if by magic… this week’s Liberal Democrat News brings an excellent piece from Party President Tim Farron about the importance of community politics, ending: “Lots of us are guilty of having lost our community politics zeal, but this is the time for our liberal soul to be rebooted and fired up once again”.

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