Liberal Democrat Newswire #10 is out: a community politics special

Liberal Democrat Newswire #10 is out, a special about community politics. You can now read it in full below.

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Mark Pack

Newsletter 10: Community politics special

Thursday 4 August 2011

Dear Friend

It’s been a light blogging month for me, what with getting up close with polar bears and getting stuck into co-writing a book on political campaigning with Maxfield. So I have taken the opportunity to go for something slightly different with newsletter number 10 – a special all about community politics.

As ever, if you like what you read please do share it with others, either by forwarding it on or by sharing it via social networks.

Thanks for reading,


Community politics: coming back into fashion

Back in February I put a hunch to the test will a little research: was I right in thinking that senior Liberal Democrats had pretty much given up using the phrase “community politics”, even though I often heard them say “Big Society” or “localism”?

What I found was that 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 was 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 text of speeches given by Liberal Democrats.

I blogged the details of the evidence but the overall picture was straight forward: it had pretty nearly completely dropped out of usage at senior levels in the party – and looking at other content, such as what grassroots activists write on blogs, the picture was not that much different elsewhere in the party either.
As I wrote at the time:

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.

Since then – or more accurately since the May election results which took the party back to 1993 – it has become rather a phrase to use again, at least in sentences such as “we really must rediscover community politics”. Credit in particular is due to Party President Tim Farron for often pushing this line, including a motion he has submitted to the party’s autumn conference (Word file).

Three steps that are needed

The risk, however, is that simply saying “community politics” becomes seen as some sort of magic cure all and route to political heaven.

Doing search and replace on future draft speeches to change “Big Society” or “localism” to “community politics” might provide a superficial appearance of progress, but it will not really amount to much.

What is really needed are three steps:

  • A wider understanding in the party of what community politics is
  • A modernising of community politics to meet current social and political structures
  • An implementation of community politics in practical, day to day action

The question of understanding highlights how little discussion and dissemination of the party’s underlying ideology takes place internally. If you are one of the many members who has joined the party in the last 18 months, for example, it is quite possible to have neither heard nor seen the phrase “community politics” in any party publication or speech – unless of course you are an avid reader of my blog! (Or, in fairness, a handful of other sources – but all unofficial.)

There are, however, two simple introductions to community politics, readily available online and for free.

First, the section on community politics from the Dictionary of Liberal Thought. You can buy the book here but this section is online for free.

Second, the key publication from 1980, The Theory and Practice of Community Politics, is also available online for free. A link to it and other similar resources is in this collection of resources. Its seminal introduction says:

Community Politics is not a technique for the winning of local government elections.

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.

Community Politics is not local. It is universal. It is an approach to the collective making of decisions and the co-operative regulation of society that is relevant in any social group, from the family to the world.

Community Politics is not government. It 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. It is an approach to the way in which decisions are made. It is not limited to the making of ‘political’ decisions within the structures of ‘government’.

Community Politics is not about elections. Elections are an essential ingredient in the process of community politics, a necessary and vital element in the conduct or social affairs. If elections and the holding of elected office become the sole or even the major part of our politics we will have become corrupted by the very system of government and administration that community politics sets out to challenge. The process will have displaced the motivating ideas. We will have lost our reason for fighting elections at all.

The question of modernising comes from society being very different from when community politics was first crystallised, now over forty years ago. In particular, our sense of community has altered. Not only has technology created many non-geographic communities, but also changes in working patterns means it is now very unusual for more than one person on a street to have the same place of work. Streets and villages no longer work and pray together in the way they used to.

That means adjusting to new forms of community and also often having to put more working into creating communities. Nearly all of the intellectual work on how to create and strengthen community and neighbourhood bonds has taken place outside of the Liberal Democrats, frequently around the concept of ‘social capital’ since the path-breaking work of Robert Putnam looking at first the US and then Italy.

Both Iain Roberts and Ed Maxfield have asked some very pertinent questions about the applicability of community politics now, with Ed having a lovely turn of phrase:

Questioning the relevance of community politics in a Lib Dem forum feels a bit like trying to sell Richard Dawkins in a seminary but there are a number of reasons to ask whether community politics has had its day …

Perhaps it is time for the party to look for new ideas. Ideas that respond more to the diverse networks that exist between people. To how we interact with each other to create a more liberal society, rather than to an ‘Our Friends in the North’ version of reality that went out along with bad hair cuts and big ties.

Many fans of community politics (including myself) actually agree with Ed’s point – but believe that community politics can and must adapt to answer those challenges, rather than be junked. The way in which windmills have been restored in recent years across England provides a good example of how members of the public taking power over local issues can work very well, and far better than the alternatives of leaving too much to the market or ordering too much via centralised public sector control.

And thirdly there is that issue of implementation – not just talking about community politics, but doing it. As I wrote in Reinventing the State:

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 … Therefore, the test for a campaigner is to ask, ‘How many local groups have I helped create or expand in the last year?’

Practical action

My own small contribution to this large challenge is co-authoring (with Shaun Roberts) the forthcoming ALDC publication “Campaigning in your ward” which will give practical advice on how to find issues, build teams, secure improvements and strengthen social bonds in the process.

Within the party too there is the question of whether locally, regionally and nationally we treat members and supporters as passive spectators or active participants.

On that note, I will end with a practical suggestion: I hope this special edition of my monthly newsletter gives you food for thought and interesting links to follow up on the issues. If it does, please do also share it with other Liberal Democrats so the knowledge, thinking and generation of solutions can be shared more widely. And if you have any good ideas, why not contribute a guest post to Liberal Democrat Voice?

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