A new narrative for community democracy?

Have you noticed the hierarchical language that is often used by public service providers?

Local authorities, and others, are required to ‘engage’ with residents. ‘Citizen empowerment’ is offered as a gift by government.

Even those of us involved in politics fall into the trap and sometimes talk as though it is government that drives society; we talk as though it is government that is the main source of welfare for citizens; and we talk as though it is government that creates successful communities.

We need to turn this on its head. We need to talk instead of government dependent on, and subservient to, the dynamic communities they represent and serve.

As Liberal Democrats we are proud of our practice of community politics. We now need a new narrative of community democracy.

In our personal lives we all know that the things that have the greatest impact on us happen quite independently of local or national government. What matters to us most are our relationships with others, and our interactions with the localities where we live and work.

We must return to a concept of community that has, at its heart, individuals who are free to make and break relationships with each other, individuals who are free to develop roots, as deep or as shallow as they wish, in their local area, and individuals who are free to form local networks based on common interest and common interests. Community democracy grows organically from the natural relationships and networks that already exist in localities.

So what is the role of government in all this?

In a social club, members provide services to each other, and use social sanctions to regulate behaviour. But the self-regulation of a social club cannot be scaled up to work in even the smallest town, and many services are best provided collectively. So some form of representation becomes essential.

The importance of elected representatives in community democracy cannot be overstated. They alone should be accountable to their communities for the regulations and laws introduced. They alone should be accountable for the services provided to their electors by government. Indeed, there is a real danger that, in the absence of strong elected representatives, the loudest voices will simply dominate.

I would suggest that we need to place a new duty on local councillors, to represent those whose voices are silent. We should oblige them to actively seek out the views and needs of all sectors in their communities, so that they do not simply listen to the most persistent and articulate citizens. Councillors, like all elected representatives, should be the servants of their communities, not their rulers.

Let us never forget that the power lies with the people, and it is only lent, conditionally, to those whom they elect. That is true local democracy.

This is a speech that I gave in a debate on Localism at the Autumn Conference in 2010. Have things changed since then?



* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Lorenzo Cherin 7th Oct '21 - 3:31pm

    The mood and tone here are excellent. The content and suggestion likewise.

    I have not found it easy to listen to the complacent attitudes on poor delivery of public services, from politicians of any political colour. It is indeed as Mary says, individuals, within communities that ought to be seen as in need of better, by govt and state.

    My wife, over many years since a car accident, that scarred us both in several ways, left her with permanent issues, let down by public services, mainly in Health.

    It is a shame that we as Liberal Democrats, have to explain these attitudes, that see services as good or bad not as public or private delivery first, to many who lean to the left. And even the concept of basic income is not understood by some, as being more about dignity and less about inequality.

    We are about the desire and practice of being able to fully empower individuals and communities, especially those left out.

    It is absurd that the party of the richest and the ideologically keen on cuts and little feeling for those who are most in need, give the effect of being the mouthpiece for the left out!

  • David Garlick 8th Oct '21 - 11:00am

    Could not disagree with any of this articles ambitions. Not sure how a ‘requirement to represent’ would work or be ensured though. A challenge that should be taken up maybe?

  • David Evans 8th Oct '21 - 11:36am

    I find imposing a duty to represent as a wonderful ideal, but a minefield when it comes to any possibility of enforcement. When I was a councillor, I tried massively to contact all my residents with my biennial A3 Resident’s survey, only giving a copy when I got a contact at the door, revisiting up to four more times at different times, and still I only managed to hand over to about 80% of homes, the remainder getting one in an envelope through the door. Finally each street got a Streetletter setting out what the key results were and what I would try to do.

    Overall I got a response rate of just about 50%, mostly collected but a few freeposted back.

    Even then I know I only spoke to the person who answered, and some houses never answered even though they were clearly in, and a few refused to accept it on the door.

    Also I am rather concerned with the view that “Councillors, like all elected representatives, should be the servants of their communities.” To me a councillor should be much more a representative, but we all know even tightly knit communities do not agree on everything and sometimes want things a councillor, whether Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem, Green or Nat cannot support. In those cases (e.g. on planning issues) I explained to the resident how to present their views. In a few (like those who did not want Kendal to have flood defences) I just had to disagree, but definitely not serve.

  • David Evans 8th Oct '21 - 12:23pm

    P.S. Before anyone gets any undue ideas as to my superpowers, I am talking about a small ward in a rural district with about 1,100 homes.

  • Peter Martin 8th Oct '21 - 7:38pm

    ” (we) sometimes talk as though it is government that drives society; we talk as though it is government that is the main source of welfare for citizens; and we talk as though it is government that creates successful communities.”

    That’s probably because it does.

    We could probably modify the last phrase to read that it is central government which creates the necessary conditions for successful communities but the first two aren’t too far off the mark as they stand.

    Don’t underestimate the power of central government. They are the ones who create the laws and decide what taxes we all have to pay. Central government issues the currency and so the necessary spending on which we all depend. It has been this spending which we’ve all had to rely upon to keep the economy afloat for the last 18 months or so.

    Local governments have been powerless by comparison. Even the Scottish Govt has only been able to function as it has because of the fiscal support it has received from Westminster.

    So don’t make the mistake of confusing how you would like the system to work with the way, for better or worse, it actually does.

  • Peter Hirst 10th Oct '21 - 4:21pm

    Strong communities benefit everyone. They can only be achieved when community is valued and taught in schools. We are going to need strong communities more than even in future decades.

  • David Evans 10th Oct '21 - 4:52pm

    Peter, I’m not at all sure I can agree with you when you say “Strong communities … can only be achieved when community is valued and taught in schools.”

    I can’t remember anyone ever saying that ‘community has been taught in any UK schools,” and certainly not widely. But strong communities have existed across the UK for many. many years, well before education was common for the vast majority of the population. Indeed it was strong communities which often developed schooling.

    I love Lib Dems commitment to education, but the way it ends up being added to almost every Lib Dem position as a sine qua non can rather turn it into a rallying call rather than a thought through proposition.

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