I’ve just come out of the Lib Dem Conference debate on Community Politics. Like most of the speakers, I’m pleased it was debated and support the motion, but am wary of the idea that passing the motion in and of itself has actually achieved anything.
We’ve actually been somewhere similar in the recent past. When Ed Davey became the Chair of the Campaigns and Communications Committee (the committee which oversees the party’s electoral strategy), he made a big thing about the need to rediscover community politics to coincide with the 35th anniversary of the Community Politics strategy motion passed by the then Liberal Assembly and the 25th anniversary of the publication of the Theory and Practice of Community Politics. I was flattered to be asked to write an essay for ALDC’s anniversary “update” of the Theory and Practice, which I went on to republish on this blog. But then nothing happened and the agenda moved on once again.
Why did it all fall apart then? Well, it is possible that the CCC Chair was not the right person to do it, whereas an ambitious and democratically accountable president has both more of an opportunity and more on the line to push the agenda forward, so there is reason to be optimistic.
But I worry that the other reason it tends to fall apart is that there is an inherent contradiction. And that contradiction Tim Farron entirely sidestepped in his speech today.
Gordon Lishman and Bernard Greaves were emphatic: “Community Politics is not a technique for the winning of Loca1 government elections.” This is the first sentence of the first paragraph of the first section of the Theory and Practice. Tim stated that this was the only point on which he demurred from the essay, and yet my reading of it is that is the main point Lishman and Greaves wanted to make. The essay as a whole has the air of exasperation, of two people who had come to realised they had helped create a monster and were desperately – futilely – attempting to put it back in its box.
What was that monster? It was the idea that you could take the ideas behind community politics, distil them, and turn them into a toolkit for winning elections. This warning was roundly ignored because that is precisely what the Lib Dems did. Labour, the Conservatives and even the BNP then copied them, and now we find ourselves in a position where those techniques are delivering ever decreasing returns on investment. Yet, at the same time, without anything else to do, they’ve been duplicated ad nauseum. Even Chris Huhne’s “report back” being handed out at this conference has stuck slavishly to the Focus template (it actually calls itself a Focus), complete with “Working all-year-round for you” and cheesy clipart “what the papers say” style boxes.
What the party does in by-elections has everything to do with this formula and nothing to do with actual community politics, as I outlined in my 2006 essay.
If our response to Tim’s call to arms today is to merely have another round of spreading new best practice on how to produce effective campaign literature, then it will ultimately be futile. We are in an ever-accelerating arms-race and the institutionalised resistance that Labour and the Tories used to have to such techniques when I first got involved in the party no longer applies. Simply stated: anything we come up with that works will be pinched within a matter of months.
What needs to be rethought is how our local, state and federal parties (and yes, as Jonathan Davies pointed out in his speech, Associated Organisations) actually engage with the public. That means, I would suggest, rethinking membership, rethinking candidate selection and rethinking policy development. It means looking at what our local parties can do to skill people. I’m quite serious when I tell people we ought to be taking a page out of the Alpha Course, and developing a ten week training course to teach people the basics of campaigning in their communities. We ought to be looking at what London Citizens have been achieving, and we ought to be going back to the source and looking at the community organiser movement in the States from whence came, among others, one Barack Obama.
In short, there has been about 30 years of development of community politics ideas which the Lib Dems, through our complacency and arrogance, have chosen to ignore because we didn’t invent it and because they weren’t by any stretch of the imagination about winning elections. If we learn those lessons, and its clear that many within Labour – lead by David Miliband – want their party to (although it appears to have come up against a lot of internal resistance), then I think we have a hope for survival. If we merely kid ourselves that it is about little more than using a different colour on our risographs then we might as well call the whole thing off, even if that does help mitigate a total meltdown in the short term.