Tag Archives: community-politics

Sorry Tim, but community politics is NOT about winning elections

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.

Speech: Where we are and how we got here

Note: I got into a bit of a state preparing for my speech at the Social Liberal Forum Conference on Saturday, staying up the previous night writing and angsting about it: for some reason I found the prospect of sharing a platform with Neal Lawson, Will Hutton and Simon Hughes (who ended up replaced by Evan Harris at the last minute) quite intimidating. In the end, I would have been better off just writing half a dozen notes, having a good night’s sleep and winging it. I never got round to doing the final section because I went massively over time.

I’m not really happy with it – in particular I really need to spell out better what I’m trying to say about corporate culture and how the banking crisis is connected to IP wars and body image – but for what it’s worth here it is. In the event, a lot of what I didn’t get a chance to say was touched on during the day in any case, which was pleasing.

We established the Social Liberal Forum in early 2009, but its conception arose out of the Lib Dem 2008 Autumn Conference. Many will have forgotten, but that conference was dominated by the publication of the so-called “vision and values” paper Make It Happen.

The party leadership’s line to the press in the run up to that conference was that this paper signified a shift in policy, and specifically a move towards the party promising overall tax cuts at the following general election. This caused a predictable outrage and equally predictable froth about Clegg having a “Clause 4 moment”. In fact, the policy motion going to conference said nothing specific about tax cuts but was sufficiently vaguely worded that it was open to interpretation. The result was an absolute mess, with people hopelessly confused over what the debate was even about and the official line changing on an almost hourly basis. It was possibly the lowest point in the party’s proud history of deciding policy in a transparent and democratic manner.

In the end, the motion was passed, but it was a hollow victory. While we spent our time debating the prospect of tax cuts in Bournemouth, in New York Lehman Brothers was falling apart. By the end of the conference, it was already clear that we were going to have to tear up our economic policy and start all over again.

It is important to recall that incident because we need to be clear about where the SLF was coming from. We didn’t set up SLF to be some kind of Tribunite vanguard of a fringe liberal left. Our concern was that the mainstream voice of the party was being sidestepped and bypassed. The social liberal majority within the party had grown complacent about its predominant position, assuming that the party’s internal democracy would prevent the party from going in a direction it wasn’t willing to take. The 2008 conference made it clear to a number of us that it was important we got organised. As it happens, with the formation of the coalition, the need for that organisation is now more apparent than ever.

Was SLF established as a ‘response’ to the Orange Book? Well, it is true that several of its founding members were involved in the publication of Reinventing the State, which certainly was a response to the Orange Book. But I don’t think that portraying tensions between “social” and “economic” liberals within the party is some kind of ideological schism is helpful or especially meaningful. Within the Lib Dems, the debate over how public services are delivered ought to be entirely pragmatic and evidence-based. That isn’t to say there aren’t disagreements, merely that such an internal debate ought to be something that can only be constructive – as long as that debate is conducted fairly and democratically. It is the dogmatic approach of Andrew Lansley’s health reforms that, above all, should cause us concern, not the prospect of reforming the NHS at all.

The real ideological struggle we face is not over how we should deliver public services but over the size and the role of the state. This is clearly a dividing line between the Lib Dems and Conservatives. Is it a dividing line within the party itself?

There is certainly a libertarian fringe, but it isn’t a grouping that any senior party figure has ever chosen to associate themselves with. And despite the fact that senior figures within the party have occasionally appeared to flirt with libertarianism, I have never got the impression that this is part of a thought through position. Indeed, in some ways, it would be less problematic if it was. Rather, this flirtation appears to have more to do with an anti-intellectual tendency to confuse policy making with posturing.

This anti-intellectualism is not limited to the top of the party; indeed I would argue that it is one of the biggest challenges we face as a party. For my job at Unlock Democracy a few years ago, I conducted a survey of Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem local parties. I was shocked when the figures came back to show quite how little policy discussion actually went on in the Lib Dems, even in comparison with our rivals.

For too many within the Lib Dems, party involvement begins and ends with winning elections. For them, policy is only a means to an end. All too often that leads us down the road of populism and all too often populist policy proves to not be terribly practical when it comes to implementation. We have a tendency to focus too much on what makes a good slogan.

There’s a very specific reason why, for me at least, we decided to call ourselves a Forum, and that’s because we wanted to foment debate within the party at all levels.

But what direction should future party policy take? Spearheaded by Tim Farron, and no doubt in response to the Big Society, there has recently been a flurry of excitement about the idea of reviving community politics as the party’s core strategy. I welcome this, but feel it will only be a worthwhile exercise if we can work how to prevent the hollowed out form of community politics, which exists as little more than a technique for winning elections, from predominating. Despite many of its adherents’ best efforts, community politics has been indirectly responsible for helping to form the very intellectual vacuum that we are now so concerned about. Somehow, the reinvigorated communicty politics of 2011 needs to avoid this.

What other policy challenges are there? In my view, we need to urgently come to some kind of understanding about what we mean by inequality, and thus fairness, as a party. We have to come up with a more compelling answer than “social mobility.” It isn’t that social mobility is a bad thing to aspire to, merely that it is hard to see how you can truly tackle it without taking on entrenched privilege, or recognising that it is harder for people to rise from the bottom to the top is the gulf between them is so high. I fear that there is a lot of talk about how to loosen up society at the bottom but very little focus at the other end of the spectrum. To me, you can’t seriously discuss inequality or social mobility without talking about wealth – and specifically land value – taxation, yet we continually shy away from it.

Closely linked to both the idea of community politics and the need for a more fair society is, in my view, the need for us to create a more dynamic, people-centred economy. It frightens me how the very financial corporations and institutions which took us to the brink less than three years ago have already reasserted themselves, and in such a way that appears to have achieved little other than the seizing up of the global economy. But it is about more than just banking; corporate culture has commodified everything. The mass expansion of intellectual property legislation has meant that our culture has been quietly privatised. Information technology has made our purchasing habits and even the friends we choose on social networks a commodity to be bought and sold.

I’m no Ned Ludd and this isn’t a plea to go back to a simpler age; I’m a great lover of technology and am deeply immersed in it in every aspect of my life. It’s capacity to liberate and empower people is something that inspires me every day. Nor is it anti-capitalist; in fact I’d go so far as to say that in wanting to challenge entrenched oligarchies and monopolies, this is very much a free trade argument.

Fundamentally however, I don’t think our politics has yet woken up to the implications of how the combination of information technology and trans-national corporations is changing society and making the very possibility of a fairer and more just society increasingly difficult. It links the drugs we take with the books we read and even questions about body image and low self-esteem which Jo Swinson and Lynne Featherstone have been doing so much work on recently.

How should we tackle this? It’s a good question and not one I have a comprehensive answer to. We need much stricter banking legislation of course and a vital aspect of it is to scale back our ever burgeoning intellectual property legislation. We also need to rediscover industrial democracy: a concept which the liberal party embraced and championed throughout the 20th century yet have forgotten in recent years.

But if we’re going to achieve anything over the next few years, we need to do more to build alliances, both inside Westminster and beyond. By holding the balance of power in both Houses of Parliament, we are in a real position of strength. We undermine that when we go out of our way to disparage and alienate the Labour Party. What’s worse, for many of the people who voted for us in 2010, it confirms all their worst fears. For a party which has always objected to a culture of two-party politics, we have done a remarkable job of reinventing it.

On a great many issues Nick Clegg is in a position to negotiate with David Cameron on behalf of the majority of parliament rather than on behalf of a minority third party. This doesn’t mean being uncritical of Labour by any means, but it does mean choosing fights with more care and positively encouraging Labour when does the right thing.

Taking risks is about more than stunts

I get the impression that Guy Aitchison is getting frustrated with me. While conceding that the Lib Dems need to take more risks, I keep dismissing suggestions that we should do things like David Marquand’s idea about self-organising elections to the Lords (my response here) and Mark Littlewood’s idea about fielding a candidate in Buckingham (my response here). I’m really not trying to be difficult, so I will try to lay out what sort of “risky strategy” we should be taking.

I DON’T think it should involve electoral stunts like these. The problem is that people are bored of electoral, parliamentary politics which focuses on procedures and systems – what’s so radical about giving them more of the same? These are high cost, low gain proposals.

I sketched out the direction I’d like the party to take at the Campaigning After Rennard fringe on Saturday. I also wrote a discursive piece along similar lines for the Community Politics Today pamphlet published by ALDC a couple of years ago. I see the party having a key role to play in mobilising people to campaign for things such making the case for carbon reductions, campaigning for civil liberties and fighting against public services cuts, in areas where they are completely moribund as well as in their target seats. Fundamentally, it should follow the energy and enable campaigning rather than co-ordinating things from the centre. We’re talking about a MoveOn, MyBO, 38degrees type model here, but ideally one in which the leader played a central role – not in the sense of bossing people about and insisting that it’s his/her way or the high way – but in the sense of mucking in, encouraging and listening.

I was pleased to hear Steve Webb make some remarkably similar points at the Social Liberal Forum/Compass fringe meeting last night. Clegg should have gone to climate camp. He should have placed a central role when #welovethenhs flared up.

Fundamentally, he should have followed the advice of that notorious political chancer Mohatma Gandhi “There goes my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” Gandhi is making an astute anti-intuitive point here. If you want to build a movement, which Gandhi most certainly did, and not merely be the big fish in a goldfish bowl, you have to meet them in the middle.

This is, it has to be said, a somewhat different tack to that adopted by Clegg this week. He’s spent a whole week trying to convince the world what a tough leader he is and how good he is at bringing unruly childlike activists into line. Leaving aside the question of whether this is really the best way to motivate your activist base, he’s ended up looking shallow and weak. Despite the press team’s best attempts to spin the Fresh Start debate as a collossal victory for Clegg (this is what we call being straight with people apparently), he has ended up looking foolish.

Either way, it is about a lot more than little clever-clever tactical maneauvres. We’ve been doing them for decades now and they only get us so far.

Why didn’t Clegg visit H&H?

Please disregard the football-related metaphor in the heading (not my choice of words), but here is my CiF piece on the Haltemprice and Howden by-election.

It would appear that my analysis is pretty much the same as Stephen Tall’s – i.e. Clegg was right to back Davis but failed to press his advantage home:

However unjustified, the sad fact of the matter is that by not ensuring a platform alongside Davis’s other supporters, including Tony Benn and Bob Marshall-Andrews, Clegg has left the party vulnerable to this line of attack. He put principle before party, but we should be mindful of the fact that giving the Conservatives an open goal to reposition themselves as the party of civil liberties will ultimately be wholly counter-productive.

This isn’t the first time I’ve come across this self-destructive impulse within the Lib Dems to be leery of sharing a platform on the basis that it might dillute our (non-existent) brand as the One True Voice on a given issue. It goes back to the very heart of “community politics“, i.e. we need to be building a movement rather than concentrating on the party. Clegg needs to do what his predeccessors have consistently failed to do and get into the movement business. And fast.

nonEXCLUSIVE: Chris Huhne talks to Quaequam Blog! (part 1)

The Millennium Elephant has been trying to organise a bloggers’ hustings for the leadership candidates and he kindly invited his two Daddies (Richard and Alex), Mary Reid, Paul Walter, Jonny Wright, Jonathan Calder, Stephen Tall and myself to take part (the link is that all of us were either shortlisted for the Lib Dem Blog of the Year 2007 awards, won one of the subcategories or won the big prize in 2006).

Anyway, today we interviewed Chris Huhne (sadly Jonathan and Stephen couldn’t make it, but hopefully next time) and I think the general view was that a worthwhile time was had by all. Without further ado I will report what was asked, how Chris answered, and my own view on his response.

Party Organisation
Daddy Richard kicked off by asking Chris what he would be doing to get the party back in the 20s in the opinion polls.

Apart from a quick joke about the two candidates having a jobshare on the basis that our polls have actually gone up during the interregnum period, Chris very quickly declared a specific target, that of us beating our high watermark in the 1983 general election – 23 per cent – and indeed to aim for a vote in excess of 25 per cent.

The way he proposed doing this was as follows: the win the air war and being “sharp elbowed” in terms of getting the liberal view heard. He paid tribute to both David Laws today and more generally the “phenomenal” Norman Baker in terms of being able to set the media agenda by finding specific stories which resonate more widely.

But more fundamentally, he also outlined an approach that would have the party organising with a view to, over the course of two Parliaments, building up enough support and seats in the Commons so that it will be “impossible to form a government without the Lib Dems being part of that government”. He was vague on exactly how many seats we would need for such a situation to arise – he mentioned 150 but only in passing as it was a figure that he said that Nick Clegg has cited. His idea is to set that target and then develop, in effect, a business plan, establishing what those target seats should be, what they would need, and focusing the party on delivering that.

He also said that in his view the party’s “air war” needed to be much more professional about defining our key messages and being strict about repeating them again and again. Those messages would have to be rigourously market researched.

On money, and specifically how to pay for all this, he was somewhat vague beyond saying that he was confident we could raise it.

He contrasted his approach with the existing “incrementalist” approach by the party which is opportunistic, focused on byelections and target seats but ultimately is based on “hoping for the best”.

Throughout the answer to this question, Chris drew on his experience as a journalist. His final point was to emphasise the importance of imagery; “a picture is worth a thousand words”. He related his experience in 2005 of proposing to the Parliamentary Party that as an act of solidarity to Maya Evans, they should repeat he “crime” and read out the names of the UK soldiers who had been killed in Iraq. “Wiser heads” he said prevailed, but he argued that such actions would symbolise our opposition to specific illiberal pieces of legislation.

My view: I was very impressed with his answer here, which was specific and motivating as an activist. He did a very good job at selling to us his experience as a journalist and what that would bring to his role as leader.

I’m a little concerned about the party getting too specific in terms of numbers of target seats. We certainly can’t win them all and there is a danger in being too transparent. But his strategy does have the clear advantage of giving the targeting strategy a direction of travel and answers my previous complaint that we seem to be set on a goal of forming a government which will take us the best part of a century to reach on current performance. The aim to specifically go out to create a balanced Parliament is a compelling one, but it is one that would suggest mainly focusing on Labour-held seats.

Core message

Following on from Chris’s exhortation that we distill our campaigning down to a core message, Jonny Wright then asked Chris to complete the following sentence: “I should vote Liberal Democrat because…”

Chris’s answer was that the party stood for “a fairer society and a greener society where power is handed back to the communities around Britain.”

In terms of fairness, he defined that as “not being just about equality of opportunity,” suggesting that childhood poverty needed to be a priority.

On “green” he said he was proud of getting the party to sign up to the policy of a zero carbon Britain. He was keen to point out that according to Ipsos-MORI, the party has increased its lead over the other parties on this issue by 6 percentage points under his tenure as environment spokesperson. He said that he believed that “at some point” “the scales are going to fall from the public’s eyes on this issue” and it will leap up the political agenda (“like the Iraq moment”). Having a leader who is fully committed to this agenda would therefore be an advantage. In making this case he cited the examples of Australia and Canada where a bad drought and a mild winter have had a major effect on voting patterns and that PM John Howard – who opposed Kyoto – is now set to make Australia the first country in the world to ban the incandescent lightbulb.

My view: That’s certainly a list of priorities, but I’m not convinced that it is quite a core message for us on its own. His argument about there being a moment when the public will suddenly wake up to the importance of climate change as an issue may well be true, but it is a risk; it wasn’t clear what he was suggesting we should do in the meantime to ensure that this doesn’t become a damaging issue for us. Fundamentally, I don’t think he has satisfactorily answered Nick Clegg’s concerns which I believe are valid.

In terms of the polling evidence he cites, it is of course true. Up to a point. The flaw is that the 2006 data is from 31 August – 6 September while the 2007 data is from 20-26 September. The latter was immediately after the Lib Dem conference in which the environment was made a central issue. Nonetheless, it does undermine the Nicholas Blincoe argument that David Cameron is popularly regarded as the UK’s greenest politician and that this reflects badly on Huhne (incidently, I couldn’t resist looking at the equivalent law and order polling figures. According to these, the party has slipped 3 points under Clegg which when you consider this was also based on polling figures at the end of our party conference is not exactly stunning. Well, you started it Nick).

On equality, people will be unsurprised to learn that I approve of his position, but I have another article to write on that subject so I won’t go into it here. The localism agenda I also agree with.

It does leave one wondering where the freedom agenda lies however. If this is to be left off from our list of core priorities, and that we are to focus far more on our core priorities at the expense of other issues (including internationalism, Chris made explicit), where is the opening to do our tearing up of ID cards and protests about the DNA database? In retrospect this is a topic we should have probed him further on.

Communication Skills

Paul Walter pressed Chris on his reputation as being the less punchy of the two candidates and of, to use his memorable phrase “more sotto voce and approving of phrases like sotto voce“. As Paul pointed out, Chris’ first question when arriving and seeing Millennium Elephant was to ask where is emmanuensis was, a word so obscure that it defeats all the dictionaries I have to hand (including a two volume Oxford shorter) and even Google struggles to find more than two dozen references. The top result, it has to be pointed out, are the minutes of the Pembroke College Winnie the Pooh society (actually, it could be that the correct spelling is immanuensis, but that only gets four results – still at least they are about gods and not Pooh).

Chris’ answer was simply to “look at the Ipsos-MORI polling data”. He further pointed out that not only has David Cameron been concentrating on the environment as an issue but David Milliband, widely regarded as one of Labour’s greatest communicators, was also Environment Secretary until relatively recently and yet Huhne has managed to hold his own against both of them.

My view: I find Chris’ cerebral approach quite refreshing, and I also recall the Newsnight / Frank Luntz programme in the run up to the 2005 General Election which showed that Vince Cable polled incredibly well for the similar reason that he comes across as a big brain who knows what he’s talking about. The immanuensis/emmanuensis thing is a bit of a red herring as he didn’t even raise it in the interview itself.

With all that said, I still worry that he isn’t empathic enough. It still want to hear more from him about individuals daily lives. As leader he will need to reach that one step further and that means being both a big brain and someone with the common touch.

Local Government

Mary Reid asked what should Liberal Democrat-run councils do that is distinctively Liberal Democrat.

Chris started by contrasting the Lib Dem approach to localism and Labour’s: the Lib Dems were interested in devolving control while Labour are only interested in devolving management responsibilities. He emphasised that the alienation people feel about politics at the moment is not just about the quality of public services but because people need someone they know, from their locality who is their way into the political process and who is in a position to make a difference.

He also critiqued the way the party has forgotten the real philosophy behind community politics; that it has become an election campaign tool rather than a way of empowering people from the bottom up. He called on the party to go back to the ideas of people such as Bernard Greaves and others in the 70s and start empowering people once again.

From this he developed his arguments on public service provision, arguing for an emphasis on localism. His argument against market based solutions seemed to be not so much an objection to such solutions per se, but the idea that such policies should be wheeled out at a national level. Rather than risking what he calls a “nationwide balls up” he is calling for a system that allows for local experimentation.

My view: The way Chris expressed his position on public service reform here was better than the rather dogmatic way his manifesto came across. Of course, not having a single nationwide system in place will restrict the ability to deliver certain policies (I certainly think that health insurance proposals fall foul of this), but at least he is taking less of a “public-control good, market-based bad” approach.

On the other points I can merely agree. I am encouraged by his critique of the way the party has forgotten the meaning of community politics.

I’m not convinced he actually answered the question though.

The Monarchy Question

Alex Wilcock asked, in essence, that given that Chris is in favour of so much democratisation, what is his position on abolishing the monarchy.

Chris’ answer was that he doesn’t believe in “fighting battles that aren’t really going to change things.” He argued that as radicals we should choose our fights carefully and that getting dragged into the monarchy debate would confuse the issue. To round things off, he said that he thought that the institution of a constitutional monarch has many advantages. In short, he’s against it.

My view: I’m an apathetic republican. I’m opposed a monarch in principle, but I can think of so many other issues I’d rather concentrate on before considering the issue to be even a low priority.

What’s the point of leadership?

Alex also asked Chris to outline what he believed the purpose of a leader to be.

Chris began by emphasising his experience in managing a team both as a journalist and in working in the city (apparently economists are easier to manage than journalists). He said that in his experience a leader must have an honest assessment of his/her strengths and weaknesses and to build an appropriate team around them.

Fundamentally however, a leader must be able to represent the party well and convey the idea that they are someone that the public is likely to be comfortable with having to lead the country. Naming no names, he suggested that some of the party’s previous leaders, while likeable, did not convey that image.

Finally, he emphasised that the leader should be able to convey the idea that she/he would be a good pair of hands to entrust the economy with, quoting Bill Clinton.

My view: a difficult question to answer, but I think he did quite well. Good on emphasising experience and his other selling points, which is fair enough.

…at this point I’m going to take a short break, ‘cos summarising all this stuff is doing my head in. My question is yet to come, as are everyone else’s second bite of the cherry and last but not least my final conclusion. More on this tomorrow!

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.

Lies, damned lies, and election results

Iain Dale points me to two differing accounts of the local election results, one by Sean Fear and the other by Mark Pack. Dale hails the former and dismisses the latter as “desperate post election spin” but I know who I’d rather have on my psephological team.

Sean peddles the increasingly desperate-sounding myth that these results show that the Tories are back in business in the North, but his own statistics give lie to the real situation:

The Conservatives gained more than 110 seats across Yorkshire, the North West and the North East.

That would sound quite good, were it not for the fact that total Tory gains were just south of 900. Those regions represent just over a third of the population of England, yet only an eighth of Tory gains were in them. Meanwhile, Tory gains stacked up in areas where they already hold seats. In the most densely populated part of Yorkshire, the West, Sean admits that they actually went backwards. They couldn’t go backwards in many other parts of the North, because they have already been wiped out.

True, they have made a small step forward, and no doubt the Tories will be pinning their hopes on a handful of Northern seats in the next General Election. But a handful does not suggest a comeback.

Meanwhile, Mark points out that, essentially, that where the Lib Dems did badly we did very badly, but elsewhere we held our own. Iain might want to dismiss this as spin, but it is actually a very important point for a party serious about what the implications of last Thursday actually are. As has already been pointed out, the Lib Dems did well in held or target parliamentary seats – overall, they suggest that we are likely to move forward in the next General Election. Meanwhile, I haven’t done the analysis, but I suspect you will find that the Tory gains are concentrated in relatively few areas, suggesting that while they too should move forward in the next General Election, it will not be by as much as they seem to currently think they will.

A caveat to all this, before I get too carried away. I’ve been looking at these results through a Parliamentary prism. From a local government point of view, they are undeniably bad. From a longer term perspective, they are similarly bad news as they suggest a decline in a whole slew of areas that we will struggle to recover from. Jonathan Calder’s suggestion that we perhaps ought to be wanting rather more than just yet another small step forwards next time round also should be considered.

Tristan Mills makes the following point in a comment to one of my posts:

I also think that we need to look at our local politics – reasses whether we are actually practicing community politics or populist pavement politics and also use the Focuses to promote liberalism by framing the debate in liberal terms not populist terms.

I think that is very pertinent. I suspect the genuine community politicians managed to hold out against the Tory horde better than the pavement politicians. The ones who had made great gains in the past due to tactical populism will have struggled as soon as the shoe was on the other foot.

Ed Davey promised a big campaign to promote Community Politics within the party last autumn, but thus far we have seen very little sign of it. Hopefully this set of results will encourage the party to get moving on this.

One thing I do agree with Sean Fear on is the importance of local councillors to keep parties going in areas where there is no immediate prospect of parliamentary representation. The problem we have as a party is that we are terribly good at the tactical business of winning elections but not terribly good at the strategic business of developing a local party over the longer term. There are places where we are better at this than others, but how do we spread best practice, and how do we ensure there we dedicate resources to training and development without harming our target seat operation? These are questions that need to be tackled.

Credible Politicians

I was on Five Live’s Julian Worricker programme briefly on Sunday, making my nomination for most credible politician as part of their Political Awards (the piece was on at around 12pm, so about 2 hours in if you want a listen).

My nomination was for David Howarth. I have to admit, I struggled with this category (cynicism can be quite disabling at times), but I nominated David because of his work in exposing the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. Specifically, I interpreted ‘credible’ to mean a good Parliamentarian.

It was a shame therefore that much of the discussion on the programme was concerned with linking ‘credibility’ with the idea of being a good constituency MP, i.e. doing casework, listening and representing constituent’s concerns. The rise of the community-focussed MP has gone hand in hand with the diminution of local politics. As local government has been centralised and sidelined, so MPs have adopted the role of super-caseworker at the expense, it seems to me, of actively taking an interest in the work of Parliament itself. This has been helped by the anti-politics prejudices of the media, which has a confused notion of wanting to see MPs being both the proxies of the communities they represent while at the same time berating them for being mindless automatons.

The problem is, no individual can ever represent the diverse range of views to be found in even the smallest of rural constituency. Yes, I doubt that even the Western Isles has a Fascist Hive Mind – and the fact that it’s a hotly contested two-way marginal would tend to support that view. So, representing the community’s view is simply an impossibility. What we have instead is, at best, an MP that works to represent the views of a vocal minority.

And yes, I do accept that the Lib Dems share a large amount of responsibility for this sort of corruption of parliamentary politics. I don’t blame ‘community politics’ a concept which, at least in the Greaves and Lishman sense, I strongly support. I do however blame the way this idea has become the abiding strategy of the party and has influenced a new generation of politicians, particularly people like Grant Shapps. The key problem is, what is a perfectly laudable aim of involving people more in decisions that affect them has, via our political system, become a zero-sum race to the lowest common denominator.

There are two policy outcomes we ought to consider about this. The first is, but of course!, proportional representation (specifically STV in multi-member constituencies). No-one would advocate creating a system which abolished constituencies altogether. Indeed, my own preference would be for just 2 or 3 member constituencies in the Commons. Even just having 2 member constituencies would have a massive impact in terms of bringing an interest in political principle back into the Commons.

The second, more controversially, would be a massive curtailment of how much MP’s can spend on carrying out their constituency work. This has grown massively in recent years, yet all it does is replicate (undermine even) local government and the customer relations side of public services. Worst, it has created incumbency protection into our system, giving MPs a platform which they can use to help their re-election campaigns.

I’m a supporter of state funding of political parties (or at least incentive based mechanisms such as matched funding), and I’ve noticed that many of the critics of such proposals are in fact broadly supportive of existing funding mechanisms; nopublicfunding describes the existing financial relationship as “sensible and necessary“. The more I’ve debated with such people, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that the status quo does indeed need rethinking. Apart from anything else, it would stop the hypocrisy of politicians setting up Chinese walls between their constituency and partisan work.