Community Politics Today: be wolves not bees!

Another article from the archives. This one was written in Summer 2006 for Community Politics Today, a collection of essays revisiting community politics. Again, I would encourage you to buy the full book and read all the other contributions.

The original Theory and Practice of Community Politics by Bernard Greaves and Gordon Lishman is available on Colin Rosenstiel’s website.

The party has failed to heed the principles underpinning community politics, both in the way it campaigns and the way it treats its own community. If we are to be more than “just another party” we will need to become the change we want to see.

Greaves and Lishman are quite explicit about what they think community politics is not: “Community Politics is not a technique for the winning of local government elections. It… is not a technique … not local … not government … not about elections.” It is clear that they were quite preoccupied with the sense that as Community Politics was being more widely adopted within the party, many of its proponents wildly misunderstood the principles that underpinned it.

Almost a quarter of a century on, it does seem as if this battle has been largely lost. While I have had the pleasure to get to know and work with dozens of gut community politicians over the past decade, the status of Community Politics as anything other than a means to winning elected office has diminished before my eyes. Focus leaflets have become ever more ubiquitous – but as marketing tools, not as community newsletters. Surveys are used not to learn about public opinion, but to harvest data that can be used for targeting and to come up with scare-statistics to suit the party’s agenda.

One politician I worked with once rebuked me for putting a helpline in a leaflet on the basis that “the public should come to me.” So much for helping people to take power for themselves. It is now standard practice in by-elections to send people out with disposable cameras to find “grotspots” in order to portray a totally distorted view of how run down the local area is. In the recent Bromley by-election, the candidate was prominently shown cleaning up graffiti on election material – only for it to be discovered that that graffiti was still in place on polling day. At its extreme, this ambulance chasing is just plain weird: one Lib Dem campaigner recently gleefully published page upon page of photos of rubbish on his website – it would have taken him just as much effort to pick the stuff up himself.

All of this is designed to portray the party as strong campaigners who take local issues seriously, but treats the public as passive consumers – choosing political parties as they might washing powder – not as active citizens. It is extremely effective marketing – particularly in target seats and by-elections when we have sufficient resources to overwhelm the public with our messages. But it is hard to see what it does to challenge power, which is at the heart of Community Politics.

However, what is Community Politics’ loss seems to have been the Liberal Democrats’ gain. What Greaves and Lishman disparage as the “ALC Method” has been refined and reproduced across the country and has gone on to inform Campaigns Department best practice that has seen us increase our number of Parliamentary seats by such a large degree over the past decade. It is a legitimate question, worthy of investigation, to ask whether Community Politics was all that important anyway?

We should ask ourselves two things however. Firstly, by abandoning Community Politics in this way, how do we respond to the charge that we are just another opportunist party concerned with gaining power at all cost?

This is not what many of us signed up for. We are expected to content ourselves with the notion that the more politicians we help get elected, the more we can get the body politic to work on our terms, but how much are we changing the body politic, and how much is the body politic changing us?

Secondly, is this actually getting us tangible power, or is it leading us into a cul-de-sac? Since 1992 we have gained 42 Parliamentary seats – roughly 14 per session. At that rate, we will gain a majority after 18 General Elections – roll on 2090. What is even more likely however – and I would suggest we started to see evidence of this in 2005 – is that we will start to spread ourselves too thinly and encounter diminishing returns or even go in reverse. Let us be clear: while this strategy may ensure we have significant representation in the Commons for years to come is not going to win us a general election.

If we are content with the prospect of being the junior partner in a coalition, that may be fine. Historically however, the party has not done well in a balance-of-power situation. There is also a democratic problem with us relying on horse-trading to push our agenda forward rather than public support, not to mention the fact that we would be expected to prop up a minority government on a whole range of issues that go against our principles.

With this in mind, I find it quite incredible at how the rhetoric within the party – even in confidential meetings at a senior level – remains along the lines of “one last heave.” We are wedded to the idea is that if only the party was more “professional” / had slightly more money / more active members / better market research then we would reach a critical mass and charge home. Yet this invariably leads to concentrating our resources even more on target seats and coming up with a basket of policy-bites that are designed to appeal to swing voters. The result is our public support is extraordinarily shallow with a large proportion of our vote backing us for tactical reasons or because of one or two policy commitments.

Greaves and Lishman’s vision was far wider. Inspired by Jo Grimond’s call for the establishment of “a coalition of different groups putting different emphases on different parts of the same basic idea,” they call on the party to dedicate itself to building a political movement, rather than solely concentrating on winning elections. For them, the goal of Community Politics was to create this movement by “stimulating action by communities to take and use power.”

We should not blind ourselves to the fact that this is exactly what New Labour achieved in the mid-nineties. Tony Blair and his allies recognised that the Labour Party itself couldn’t both win power and beat its opponents into submission long enough to implement a programme of action. They were extremely effective at getting a wide range of groups and communities to buy into their vision for change. The key difference between Tony Blair’s approach and the one spelled out by Greaves and Lishman is that for him building such a movement was first and foremost about getting him into Number 10 Downing Street; for Greaves and Lishman the creation of such a movement is an end in itself.

People are unlikely to be fooled twice however; if the Liberal Democrats were to go into the movement building business they would have to be able to demonstrate what Blair now demonstrably lacks: integrity. We would have to walk the talk. That would mean a major culture shift within the party. We would have to step back from focusing on becoming an election-winning machine and instead truly internalise the values of Community Politics.

How could we go about doing this? To start with, I believe we need to improve how the party itself functions as a community. Are we wolves or bees? Do we run together in packs as equals, or do we organise in hives – a strictly hierarchical structure with workers diligently serving the Queen? Many will look at our constitution and our famous rows on the conference floor and assume we must be wolves (or for that matter, cats, as in “herding…”).

But look deeper. Democratic constitutions are not the same thing as democratic cultures – ask anyone who has lived in a communist state. For all the rows we have at conference, the central party invariably manages to get its policy papers passed. The Conference Committee frequently complains that so few local parties actually submit conference motions. Meanwhile, the non-policy business of our conferences is rubber stamped by almost empty debating halls to the complete indifference of most conference representatives.

At a local level, the level of participation in the party is even lower. We do very little to help themselves in this respect. The New Politics Network surveyed the local parties of the three main parties this summer (now available as part of the Unlock Democracy publication Party Funding – Supporting the Grassroots). It found that the Lib Dem local parties held a fraction of the number of social and fundraising events that Conservative Associations did and significantly fewer policy discussion meetings than either the Conservatives or Labour. In short, our members have more rights than the members of our rival parties, yet aside from campaigning we have much lower levels of participation. Ours’ not to reason why, ours’ but to do and die.

The party needs to stop flattering itself that because we have a vibrant activist hierarchy, we are democratic. We should be worried about the stark distinction between activist and “armchair member” and set ourselves the task of doing something about it. For me, that means more informal meetings, from policy discussion (“pizza and politics”) through to simply inviting people to the pub. It was a desire to encourage such meetings that has driven Martin Tod and myself to develop the website Flock Together (http://www.flocktogether.org.uk) and its offshoot Liberal Drinks (http://theliberati.net/drink).

To maximise levels of participation however, we need to look to skilling our membership. Again, activists are already well served in this respect, with ever increasing numbers of training events taking place at conferences. This programme needs to be taken to a lower level however. Local and regional parties should start holding “welcome days” for new members designed to feed them with ideas about what sort of things they might want to do in the party, from coming to help in a by-election through to joining the Green Liberal Democrats. On and off, LDYS has for many years run similar events (including its residential “Activate!” weekends) and they have supplied us with a stream of involved and informed members (including at least one MP).

In his essay After Community Politics (Passports to Liberty IV, Liberator Publications, 2000), David Boyle takes this one step further and proposes local parties running self-help workshops on a wide range of areas from local campaigning through to changing your work-life balance. I strongly endorse this proposal and would love to see more experimentation in this area.

Indeed, everything we do should be concerned with providing people with a toolkit to challenge power themselves. Our national campaigns should be about more than “us too!” petitions – they should be concerned with reaching out to people who are directly affected and advising them on what to do themselves.

To take two recent examples, if we run a campaign on saving school bus services anyone interested could be able to download a campaign pack informing local people about what they can do about the issue. If we run a campaign against homophobic bullying, we should provide both information about the issue, but also meaningful advice for both parents and children about what to do about it. The party is getting very good at producing campaign packs for local parties; it should be equally concerned at providing detailed information for the target audience.

There are electoral gains to be made from such an approach. While it would be less effective than our target seat strategy in terms of maximising votes in the places where they can do the most good, this approach would win us more activists and the sort of goodwill that any party serious about government needs. But if we make New Labour’s mistake of simply co-opting such support for our own ends, then as has been their experience, it is likely to come back and bite us in the arse. The true value is not in simple electoral gain, but in improving the national polity as a whole.

Unless we become the change we want to see, we can’t hope to build the wider movement that we will need in order to truly challenge power, at all levels. If we fail to do this, our only course of action will be to ape our opponents, which will prove ultimately self-defeating.

3 thoughts on “Community Politics Today: be wolves not bees!

  1. The original idea of Community Politics was that we would demonstrate that politics matters, by linking it up to tangible things immediately surrounding people rather than to remote Westminster-centred issues. We would then demonstrate that it IS possible to change things by political means by showing that “Labour/Conservative always win here” doesn’t apply – instead if enough people get together, this strange thing, a LIBERAL councillor could get elected”. This was much more impressive when there were few Liberal councillors around.

    The problem was that the election-fighting mechanisms it introduced were TOO successful, and the result was that winning local elections became an end in itself rather than just a demonstration. Plus, as the idea was getting going, the SDP got formed, and most Liberals who were active in the community politics movement found their time swamped by having to explain carefully to naive SDP newbies just what they were doing, why it worked, and why it actually was going to pay off better than “We’ve got a shiny leader in Westminster saying inspirational things, so vote for us”. As a result we stopped thinking about what we were doing, and just git on with the mechanics.

    It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if in the current leadership campaign we had a leadership candidate who was actually picking up on this and initiating a discussion on it, how we could more effectively apply the lessons we’ve learnt through community politics and its methodology and link them to the party’s national image.

  2. I thibnk you’re right, James. Well said.

    The analysis is good as well as some of the ideas you propsoe. But I think you could have gone further. Rather missing from your suggestions is the role of the parliamentarians as well. Don’t they have a part to play in this as well? If so, where?

    The impression of the party is that there are two at work: the activists and the elected representatives. There is a disconnect between the two, especially at Westminster if you take policy-making for example. Yes, conference decides policies, but there is still considerable latitute for spokespeople to tailor and adjust policy – which is necessary given the changing policy environment from day to day.

    How would you ensure that the two sides of the party are working together more closely? That surely needs to be addressed (and while I’ve been using the Westminster example, it can equally work for other elected Lib Dems, in the devolved assemblies or councils as well).

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