A challenge to Community Politics

Community Politics is an ideology beloved of many Liberal Democrats, even if not all are quite sure what it is. As Mark Pack points out, “Community Politics” is distinctively Lib Dem, and Mark contrasts it to Labour “localism” and the Conservative “Big Society”.

But is it right?

No ideology is completely correct – all have faults where they fail to capture certain facets and nuances of our complex human behaviour. Few are complete nonsense either – most ideologies have elements that capture something important, and it’s a foolish person indeed who dismisses any ideology completely.

Some are better than others, though.

Community Politics seeks to find the form of political organisation that best releases the unique potential of each individual, and in its original formulation comes up with the solution of neighbourhood governance.

As Greaves and Lishman made clear back in 1980, central to Community Politics is direct, small scale decision making taken not by elected representatives, but by every individual community member.

Community politics is quite incompatible with the centralisation of power at the level of the nation-state. Indeed, it is incompatible with the concentration of power at any level.

The most conspicuous and serious absence in Britain is of any structure of neighbourhood government. This is the level that most directly affects the everyday lives of every-one and it is the level of government in which everyone can take part directly. It is only in small, geographically coherent neighbourhoods that everyone can take a direct part in the making of decisions and the exercise of power. At any level above this, some form of indirect democracy involving representative government is needed.

Exercising of power at this level, they argue, must be backed by strong human rights to avoid a tyranny of the majority or simple human rights abuses, and should be outward looking and internationalist.

There’s no suggestion that higher levels of government should cease to exist. Not only local and national but also regional, continental and world governments are advocated. But they would be subservient to the thousands of neighbourhoods, run directly by the members of the community.

There are some important liberal ideas in this early version of Community Politics, but there are problems too.

Should we all be political?
It seems to me to espouse a politics-centric view of life: that we should all be active in politics if we’re to achieve our potential as human beings. But why should that be the case? Can’t someone achieve their full potential with only a passing interest in politics – if that?

What of the dedicated musician, novelist, painter or, for that matter, accountant, builder or stay-at-home mother? Under a representative political system, all those people need only cast their vote once in a while to have their views represented, if that’s the level of involvement they prefer to have. In a Community Politics nirvana, their choice is tougher. Must they sit through interminable community meetings in which they have little interest in order to have any voice at all? As everyone who spends time knocking on doorsteps knows all too well, there is a large proportion of the public who much prefer to have others do the politics.

Who shout’s the loudest?
There’s a conundrum in genuinely empowering us all, whether or not we’ve been elected. It can be a wonderfully effective way to revitalise communities and enhance people’s lives, but the other side of the coin is the way it risks giving the most power to the people with the time, ability and desire to take it (yes, democratic politics does this too, but at least the ballot box acts as a check). That can be good in some ways, but it can result in a situation where others have significantly less power than in a representative democracy.

Human Rights laws might stop neighbourhoods from victimising blacks, gays or women but it can’t prevent those self-appointed people who shout the loudest from wielding the most power.

As before, there is a balance to be struck and I’m not convinced the 1980 incarnation of Community Politics finds it.

Benefits of centralisation
There is a constant – and healthy – tension in government between the benefits of centralisation and those of decentralisation. Each has benefits, and any ideology which paints one as all bad and the other all good must be suspect. The challenge is to get the balance roughly correct.

Centralisation allows for greater uniformity. That has disadvantages, to be sure, but there’s no getting away from the fact that a lot of people – probably a majority – rather like it. McDonalds built a global business empire on it and governments that stray too far from it and allow too many “postcode lotteries” to creep in don’t generally win the undying love of the voting public. Claiming that a reasonable level of uniformity is always a bad thing simply won’t wash.

Centralisation also allows for more coherent planning. Would Transport for London be as effective if it was “Transport for SW19 4JP” which offered a different service to “Transport for SW19 4JG”? Certainly smaller units can choose to work together to pool resources, but the more units you have, the greater the likelihood of that breaking down.

More centralised government can also deliver economies of scale, through everything from avoiding duplication of bureaucracies to increased buying power. Again, it’s possible for decentralised units to work together to achieve similar results, but the more units there are, the tougher it is and the greater the overheads.

Neighbourhood-based welfare?
The Community Politics approach to social care and welfare is particularly interesting, with the views of Greaves and Lishman bearing more than a passing resemblance to Cameron’s big society.

We believe that it is possible to base a strategy for social welfare on the community politics approach. The emphasis will be on self-help and mutual aid, on the sharing of skills and knowledge amongst those who provide care in the community. The role of professionals will be much more in the prevention of problems, in support for carers in the family and the community, and in the stimulation of community responsibility and care…

Trying to imagine a UK converted to this form of Community Politics, I can see many advantages over our traditional ways of doing politics, but no shortage of downsides too.

More recent pieces including Community Politics in the 21st Century – published just last year – seem to tacitly acknowledge many of these limitations and detail something significantly different, but that’s an article for another day.

As the Liberal Democrats move forwards as a party of Government we are building on the positives of Community Politics, but we ignore the problems at our peril.

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4 Comments

  • At the first EARS training session I went to about 10 years ago the trainer commented – to general sniggering – that Labour’s equivalent software was centralised. I remember thinking ‘yeah, and I bet it works a lot better!’. There have only ever been three policy areas on which I’ve felt completely at odds with Lib Dem philosophy: nuclear power, tuition fees and localism, so I’m thrilled to read an article on LDV discussing some of the disadvantages of ‘community politics’.

    I do recognise the advantages – getting people more involved in local decisions probably makes them feel more connected to their community. But I feel the downsides outweigh the upsides. The practical downsides such as economies of scale and reinventing the wheel have been dealt with in the main article, but one that I think Iain hasn’t put enough emphasis on is the value of expertise.

    The problem isn’t simply that most people don’t want to be involved in local politics. True, most people would prefer to spend their free time with their friends and family, or travelling, or skydiving, or a multitude of other activities more appealing than poring over the designs for the new local swimming pool. So, as Iain points out, you’re left with decisions being made by those rare people who enjoy point-by-point discussions of planning applications.

    But even if you could convince lots of people to take more of an interest, they would still lack the necessary knowledge to make successful decisions. Most civil servants and politicians spend their day-to-day working lives developing the skills to (mostly) avoid screwing up. How will people with their own – usually full-time – jobs find the time to absorb the necessary knowledge? In every other profession the value of training is recognised – imagine how the idea of ‘community doctoring’ or ‘community plumbing’ would be greeted. Yet politics is seen as something that an amateur can do just as effectively. I don’t buy it.

    Decisions about the best system of healthcare or education are just as complex as decisions about which treatment to administer to a cancer patient, or which engineering method to administer to a broken drainage system. I wouldn’t have a clue in any of these cases, and I’d rather all these decisions are made by people who know what they’re talking about.

    The other problem of course is accountability – if an unelected person makes a decisions that goes belly-up, how are they held to account? The advantage of career politicians is that they usually want to protect their careers, so will tend to spend more time thinking through a risky decision that could jeopardise their career.

  • Bill le Breton 14th Jun '11 - 9:44am

    Should we all be political? Yes. If we aren’t then we subsist as subjects, our power usurped by others. When we consciously allow others to use our power, provided we do this consciously and provided we had the capacity in the first place, we are exercising our power in that choice ie acting politically. The key is, did we have the power in the first place?
    Is it right to allow those who shout loudest to have it all their way? No. Community Politics rests on the Dual Approach. Task One is to help people in their communities to take and use power. Task Two is to campaign for that power to be exercised in a Liberal way, that is in a way that does not harm or reduce the liberty of others or take power from them.
    The downsides that you mention occur when we have failed to convince people to exercise their power in a Liberal Way – Task Two.
    But saying that people should not be allowed the chance to take and use power in their communities because they may do so in an illiberal way is itself illiberal and a neglect of Task One.

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