Community – a liberal value in a changing world

 

Community is – rightly – considered a fundamental part of our values as liberals. Beyond its inclusion in our basic creeds, however, it is perhaps one of the less discussed and debated parts of Liberal Democrat belief. Whilst much ink is continually spilt over our positions on equality and liberty, what “community” means is perhaps too often taken as a given.

I want to suggest that we need to think about this more, because community has to stand at the core of a liberal society – and not just in the sense of localism that “community” is too often restricted to in discussions I’ve seen. If we are to be a party that seeks to liberate the people of our country, community is a crucial part of that process. The interpersonal links people make are vital on all sorts of levels; for exchanging information, for coming into contact with new people, for mental and physical health. These things form the difference between being able to positively use economic and social freedoms and condemning people to soulless individualism; nobody is liberated by being thrown as an isolated object into a rat race.

Liberalism shorn of the virtues of community is thus not simply less good, it is next to useless. We should think about community as being far more than localism; someone’s community is, in the 21st century, more about their support network, their social links, the way they form their identity and choose how to use their time.  I am – I should hasten to add – not for a moment suggesting that we should be any less committed to localism, but not all communities are localised.

Communities of interest are now an extremely important part of many people’s lives, perhaps more so than ever. Conventions – whether the Bird Fair for natural history enthusiasts, conventions for fans of popular TV shows, or something else entirely, we now form more social connections than ever through these means, and that creates a community. We need to be engaging with these communities as such, treating them as what communities have always been – groups of people with certain shared features of their lives and social links, and thus certain specific political needs that can be addressed to help create supportive, liberating environments.

We also can and should start giving serious thought to the impact of the internet on people’s communities. As someone who has volunteered for over half a decade on a community website helping support people’s hobbies and creative projects, I’ve seen the profound importance of this. For some users, rapid movement and personal isolation can make us a vital source of discussion and contact on things people enjoy.  The internet can’t replace real-world contact – but in contrast to some tabloid demonisations of online communities use of them is in reality at times a response to, but only extremely rarely a cause of, social isolation – and if we engage with this then we can help communities like mine support people and be part of the solution.

So all communities have issues, and not all of them are connected by location. Helping non-localised community groups navigate needlessly complex and slow bureaucracy in banking, thinking about access to funds and guidance on issues like mental health being more available to community leaders, and thinking about how we can help people find communities they find comfortable and accessible – these are all political questions, in addition to a host of others, and not always ones well dealt with by a political system that through necessity uses geographical communities as its base units. We as Lib Dems can and should do more to cut past that and think about how we talk to and engage with the range of 21st century communities that are often the focus of people’s lives. With our core focus on community we are perhaps uniquely placed to face this challenge; and both we and communities across Britain will be better off if we do so.

* James Baillie is a member and activist from Breckland and a former chair of the Lib Dems' Radical Association. He is currently a doctoral student at the University of Vienna, where he works on digital studies of medieval Georgia. He blogs about politics at thoughtsofprogress.wordpress.com.

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6 Comments

  • Community also includes the workplace.

    When I first joined the party (1961), co-ownership, profit sharing and employee shareholding were a distinctive part of Liberal policy. My own M.P., dear old Donald Wade (Deputy Leader of the Party under Jo), continually pressed for this in the Commons.

    I was sad to notice not one Lib Dem MP on the benches when Gareth Thomas the Labour MP for Harrow introduced a 10 minute rule Bill – (Profit-sharing and Company Governance (Employees Participation), Bill – last week.

    I wish a Liberal Democrat was making the following comments. It is a distinctive policy (when we need one) which we are allowing to slip away by default.

    Quote from Mr. Thomas, …… “The bill would help to ensure that the lessons from some of Britain’s most successful businesses were embedded in every company, ensuring profits and power are shared,” said Mr Thomas. “Most people have seen little change in their pay packet over the last decade, whilst income at the very top has soared. Employees at all levels of a business should enjoy fairer rewards from the profits their hard work creates.

    A 2015 report named John Lewis as the country’s largest co-operative. “Giving employees a greater say and ensuring that everyone has an incentive to drive up profits boosts productivity – where Britain lags far behind other G7 countries – by aligning the interests of all employees. There is growing evidence that more democratic companies such as John Lewis, which operate profit-sharing schemes and has employees on the board, often outperform their plc rivals.

    “In short, we need to champion a shared capitalism which promotes long term business growth and profitability, places more value on the work of all staff, and ensures power isn’t just the preserve of the highest paid.”

    Mr Thomas also pointed out that some of the German and French nationalised industries have worker directors – but no on their UK owned privatised utilities.

  • Bill le Breton 1st Feb '16 - 2:31pm

    James have you ever come across The Theory and Practice of Community Politics http://www.crosenstiel.webspace.virginmedia.com/aldc/commpol.htm
    Between 1980 and 2000 it was the most important text for Liberal Democrats

    In 2008 Bernard Greaves also published The Theory and Practice of Community Economics which I think used to be sold by ALDC.

    They may take your ideas even further and in turn, you may take the ideas these works contain further again.

  • James Baillie 1st Feb '16 - 6:39pm

    David: absolutely agreed, and I’ve written about that before on LDV. We’ve occasionally made the right noises on this, even in coalition, but we need to do so much more and make this a cornerstone of our economic policy. I’m hoping that conference will see some movement on that issue.

    Bill: I haven’t seen it before – thankyou muchly for the link 🙂

  • @ Bill and James :

    Actually, Bernard Greaves was at Bournemouth looking very well along with T. Greaves and several other rascally septuagenarians. I wish the modern lot had the same fire in their bellies – although with Tim I still live in hope.

  • Simon Banks 2nd Feb '16 - 4:02pm

    This is excellent, James. Do vote in the “What it means to be a Liberal Democrat” essay competition as whether community is addressed is a question that distinguishes some entries from others. You are also quite right to stress how community can be locality-based or locality-free; and of course, we can belong to several communities at once.

    What is so illiberal about mechanistic “neo-liberal” marketisation is that it seeks to break down community and where individual decisions for individuals alone are clearly impossible, to turn political choice into a calculation of self-interest. We are social animals and reach individual self-realisation with others.

  • Richard Sangster 3rd Feb '16 - 10:08am

    Europe is also a community and it is to be noted that the European Union was formally called the European Economic Community.

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