I wrote this last year for a proposed publication that didn’t make it to print. As it’s still very relevant I thought it worth sharing now.
What was Community Politics?
Since the 2010 general election, and in particular since the May 2011 election results, it has almost become a cliché in many parts of the party to call for a rediscovery of Community Politics.
The idea that Community Politics is both relevant and the correct course of action has the occasional critic, but as the muted debate and overwhelming vote in favour of a Community Politics motion at the party’s autumn 2011 conference show, the general feeling is one of “oh of course Community Politics is a good thing”. Yet there has been no discernable change in how the party goes about its work since that motion, neatly illustrating how often that “oh of course” is treated simply as lip service to a tradition, the words repeated without any meaning or spur to action being taken from them.
However, the impetus behind the original creation of Community Politics is still highly relevant and was the reason for me to co-author Campaigning in your Community. As the Dictionary of Liberal Thought puts it:
Community politics rejected the out-and-out individualism of the libertarian right, which had not been short of champions in the post-war Liberal Party, but was also a deliberate challenge to socialism and the bureaucratic centralisation which had come to characterise the welfare state. Community politics was intended to ‘reverse the trends towards centralisation and uniformity and to encourage decentralisation and variety’.
That need is as great now as it was then, even though the nature of society and communities has changed somewhat in the interim.
In large parts of the country it used to be the case that people lived in the same home for many years, went to the same place of work as many others in their street and prayed in the same building once a week alongside many neighbours. All three of those sources of community have declined greatly. Moreover, with a falling birth rate that other frequent route to getting to know neighbours – parenthood – is also wearing much thinner than it was.
Economic change has also worn communities thin, with the local services where long-serving staff serve regular customers increasingly rare. Rather than familiar, welcoming faces coming into regular contact we have the transient and the strange – not to mention of course technology often dehumanise the process completely.
Some parts of the story are more complicated, as with the rise of non-Christian religious communities and Black African Christian communities, which have reinvigorated the religious component of neighbourhoods in some areas. Moreover, long term trends in housing point possibly towards a restoration in part of extended households, as families stay together in the same house for longer.
But the overall picture is one where people are often worried community does not exist. What has also changed since the late 1960s is at least a nominal opening up of public sector decision making and supposedly democratic bodies to the public.
This is seen most clearly in local council chambers: no longer can the press be banned from all meetings, the public can now present petitions and ask questions and the discussions are often broadcast on the internet for all to see.
Yet for all these nominal changes, real power is often kept closely hoarded and people driven to cynical apathy by voluminous superficial consultations that are not meaningful, public involvement that does not alter decisions and meetings which do not serve to shape decisions.
The original Community Politics remedy was an emphasis on how to improve the political process, producing new power structures based on communities in which individuals fully participated, alongside a more traditional approach to winning elections (the so-called ‘dual approach’). It was never meant to be just about elections, because for liberals healthy communities bring many benefits:
Cohesive communities [are] not just a stand-alone outline of policy in a narrow area, but a central idea in Liberal thinking in health, crime, social policy, family policy and a range of other areas. [David Boyle & Jonathan Calder, Cohesive Communities, 2004]
Creating and strengthening communities
That makes Community Politics still highly relevant today, even if it often has to start first with helping to create communities. Though technology has helped offer up new ways of forming communities, often with less geographical constraints than before (though it is notable how many online communities have a geographic concentration about them), creating more social capital in areas now often needs to be the first step in a way that was not relevant in 1970.
In recent years in particular a whole range of activities and ways of thinking around creating and strengthening communities has sprung up – particular following the concept of ‘social capital’ and the seminal work by Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone.
For local campaigners, it can most easily start with identifying areas that have no residents’ association or Neighbourhood Watch and setting out to help create them. Very often there are people willing to help run such a body, just no-one with the spark, energy and time to be the catalyst that creates it. By providing that, a local campaigner can help unlock that otherwise wasted community potential.
Groups can of course take many other forms, and depending on local circumstances it may be that a local bus campaigning group or book swap service is what suits – as Liberal Democrat campaigners in, respectively, Haringey and Putney have found.
Aside from creating new groups, helping existing ones is another fruitful route, albeit one that needs some care. In reality, quite a few local groups are very poor at advertising their existence and involving people beyond their existing membership as it is so easy to slip into the comfort zone of the same familiar faces talking to each other and working together. Blundering in from the outside to tell people how cosy and cliquey they are is not a recipe for success, but political campaigners frequently have knowledge and skills of getting people informed and involved which such local groups can benefit from, whether it is starting to have well artworked newsletters or making good use of email communications.
A third strand is networking: not simply creating groups and nourishing them, but also helping people make connections that bind local society together better and help people find the skills, resources and information which they need. Very few local bodies do much to help such networking beyond rather minimal lists of local organisations and contact details.
Changing power structures
Alongside that, the need to help redistribute power and alter power structures has become greater because as the party has started winning more elections, the risk of simply sitting comfortably in existing power structures, leaving them untouched, has risen. Simply being a diligent user of existing power structures is what civil servants and local government officers can do; changing them is what liberal politicians should be about. Moreover, as Lord Acton said in what Paddy Ashdown has described as one of his favourite quotes:
It is easier to find people fit to govern themselves than it is to find people fit to govern.
In part that happens because as the party has got more people elected to public office – thousands more compared to the late 1960s and early 1970s, not to mention ministers and the Deputy Prime Minister – simply being in office and doing the tasks that requires takes up huge amounts of time.
As a result there is the archetypal – and all too common – image of a local Liberal Democrat office: pile of residents surveys buried somewhere in the corner of a constituency office, with someone promising to go through and enter the canvass data into the computer sometime soon and the casework never looked at.
This problem goes with Oscar Wilde’s quip about socialism, which could just as well be applied to community politics: “the trouble with socialism is that it takes too many evenings”.
The answer is that, alongside a new emphasis on building local communities by creating social capital, there needs to be a new emphasis on building the local political and campaign teams. The two types of teams are not quite synonymous because some campaigns on some issues will attract support – and so potential help – from people who either at the moment or permanently are most certainly not interested in helping a particular political party.
It sounds obvious that building a team should be part of politics, yet consider how frequently local campaigners say “we must get a Focus leaflet out next month” and how rarely “we must recruit three more helpers next month”. There is often an instinct that people can do it all themselves and, even if not, recruiting helpers can wait until next weekend, with that next weekend never quite arriving.
Building teams and getting more people involved is particularly important given the risk of community activism being dominated by a small number of vocal people. Some people’s reaction to that is to be scared away and fear that if only some will have their say best to let none have their say. That is the wrong reaction; the right one is to get stuck in and make sure lots of people get involved.
There is an old Liberal Party saying that elections are but the punctuation marks in Community Politics. In other words elections are important, they influence the flow of events, but they are not the be all and end all of Community Politics. That was right then and is right now.
Enhancing social capital, changing local power structures and building teams all helps deliver Liberal Democracy in between elections – and, by the by, helps Liberal Democrats win elections when they do come round.