Community politics: is it set to disappear as a core Lib Dem belief?

One of the reasons – in fact, probably the main reason – why so many Liberal Democrats are relaxed about the Conservative Party leadership’s enthusiasm for the Big Society idea is the overlap between the Big Society and the traditional Liberal Democrat belief in Community Politics. That’s a topic I wrote about at greater length before Christmas, but what has struck me since is how little senior Liberal Democrats talk about Community Politics now.

Despite the frequent media discussion about the Big Society, which provides an opening to talk about the Liberal Democrat alternative/supplement (delete as you wish), Community Politics is almost completely absent. That absence cannot be blamed on the media being only interested in the Big Society, for it extends to words fully under the control of Liberal Democrats, either as a party or as individuals, such as the main party website and the full text of speeches.

And isn’t a time when a rival idea is so prominent and moreover there are Liberal Democrats in government a time to be talking about it far more than ever?

But that is so not the case.

Starting with the most obvious, a search on Nick Clegg’s Deputy Prime Minister website at the time of writing turns up no results for “Community Politics”.

Looking through the speeches from Nick Clegg on the party’s own website, which has the more party-political speeches, there is just the one mention in a Clegg speech I can find – from September 2008. It’s a good speech and is headlined “I want us to reinvent community politics for a new generation” but that sentence in the speech itself is neither preceded nor succeeded by very much about the topic itself. And it’s only the one speech.

Nor is it a matter of other Liberal Democrats busting their oratorical guts to talk about the topic. The Liberal Democrat website has no speeches mentioned Community Politics since the general election and only two which pre-date that (one from Simon Hughes and one from Julia Goldsworthy).

Nor is it a matter of the party’s news releases often referring to what should be one of the key concepts through which the party views policy proposals or political challenges. Full marks to Paul Burstow for being the only Liberal Democrat Parliamentarian I can find to have used the phrase in a news release since the general election (you can find this rarity here), but he’s the only one. Just one mention in all the news releases since the general election.

Nor is it a matter of the issue cropping up time and again, but just not in speeches.

Andrew Stunell and Simon Hughes deserves a mention for their presence in a pamphlet on communithy politics – but again it is only the one and it is in a pamphlet came from the local government sector rather than from ministers or the party centrally. Looking again at the main party website, I have managed to find a pre-general election policy consultation paper that mentions the topic, a section in the post-election strategy consultation paper (which is authored by one of the ‘inventors’ of community politics, Gordon Lishman), a passing mention in the page about local councillors, a trio of mentions in old federal conference documentation and a few mentions in the biographies that Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians have provided about themselves, all of which pre-date the general election. And that’s all.


That’s not good.

It’s as if at the moment when the party has an unparalleled opportunity to foster Community Politics, when it suits many of the demands of the political age and when the concept itself risks being crowded out by the Big Society, key parts of the party are willing to let the concept quietly die in a corner somewhere. I’m sure that is not a deliberate intent, but even an accidental death is one that all of us should work to ensure is avoided.

Note: Having had to deal with various press stories about why Liberal Democrat websites apparently did not mention certain issues during my years working at party HQ, I’m very aware of the risks of over-relying on a quick search and concluding that what the search found tells you what the website contains which in turn tells you what the party has been saying. So I’ve checked the information on which this post is based in various ways and whilst I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few mentions which haven’t been picked up in the web searches I have run, all the evidence I’ve checked shows that they do paint an accurate overall picture. For example, cross-checking site internal search engines with site-specific Google searches gives a consistent picture and I’ve not found the text of any of the major speeches I looked for to be missing from the relevant sites.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • watch this space from the Party’s own FPC.

    Although delayed until the Autumn conference, the LD Localism paper addresses these issues head on. And that, after all, is where Party policy is made, as opposed to coalition policy…

  • Dave Warren 16th Feb '11 - 9:25am

    Community politics is a big issue for me.

    It makes the Lib Dems stand out as the
    party that is working hard in the local area.

    Here in Reading living in a Labour held
    ward i can see the contrast between their
    inactivity and the commitment of the LD
    councillors in other wards.

  • I see no Iceberg 16th Feb '11 - 9:26am

    “why so many Liberal Democrats are relaxed about the Conservative Party leadership’s enthusiasm for the Big Society idea ”

    Clegg doesn’t sound very relaxed, in fact he sounds positively hostile to the whole barmy idea.

    Nick Clegg ‘out to wreck Big Society’ as David Cameron tries to salvage flagship policy

    See ? He still has some good judgement lurking in there.

  • Ian Eiloart 16th Feb '11 - 9:30am

    I’m not sure that it’s the job of “senior politicians” at a national level to worry too much about community politics. That’s the job of your local focus team! The job of the senior politicians is just to get out of the way.

  • Ruth Bright 16th Feb '11 - 9:32am

    LDV is at its best when it is asking questions like this Mark.

    I work with frail older people and I suppose my caricature of the Big Society/Community Politics would be this:

    The Big Society volunteer is a bit of a busybody who makes an elderly person a cup of tea (unasked) and goes away feeling good about themself.

    The Community Politician helps the elderly person weigh up whether she can still make a cuppa for herself, finds
    she can. Enjoys a convivial cup of tea (as made by the fair hand of the elderly person) and a chat and then goes onto the next empowerment project!

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Feb '11 - 10:28am

    Community politics is oriented around the idea of people taking power for themselves through democracy. The key aspect was that ultimately the people have the power through the ballot box and through active membership of decentralised political parties. It was about turning away from the concept that politics was mainly about people at the top of the political parties, and that local members were just salesmen for what those leaders said. It was about election campaigning that was not directed by ad-men and PR-people in Westminster offices, but instead by local members who were ordinary people, no different from the electors and who therefore knew what really works politically because they lived the same lives as everyone else. It was about breaking the idea that electoral politics was a passive choice of brands. It was about breaking the idea that voting was mainly a ritual in which you did what you always did, and showing you could vote differently and that wold have an effect.

    Well, I think we can see why the current leaders of our party don’t like this idea. In fact we have been told by them and their predecessors ever since 1981 that if we are serious about politics we should become much more centralised and leader-oriented and in fact be all about selling the brand our leaders and their ad-men and PR-people have set up.

    I don’t think “Big Society” means much. So far as I can see it’s about the clueless millionaires who run this country scratching their heads and saying “why don’t the oiks get together and do things for themselves in the way people like us do?”. They HAVEN”T A CLUE that the real answer is because THEY have smashed up working class decency and pride and the sort of stable society that used to lead to such co-operative behaviour and turned us into couch potatoes dependent on bug business for everything. It is THEIR dog-eat-dog attitudes passed down below where it becomes just violence and posing and fear that has destroyed the mentality that used to lead to community co-operation. They simply cannot see that if you don’t have the wealth and contacts and lack of the fear that you will lose your job and lose your house unless you work till you drop which enables people like them to do community oriented things.

    The “Big Society” rhetoric tends to be anti-democracy unlike the pro-democracy attitudes of community politics. That is why it doesn’t see community action done by people getting elected to the council and using that forum as part of their idea. That is why, for example, it puts forward this “free school” idea with the main reason they give that what’s wrong with local authority schools is that they are “run by the council”. Who is “the council”? It’s ordinary people, as most ward councillors are. But the big-wigs don’t like the idea of ordinary people running things for themselves. so the big-wigs propose such thing as directly elected mayors to stop all that. Glitzy top-down star-oriented politics, the world as understood by ad-men and PR-people, is what they want. That is why they HATE what we call community politics. If they really meant what they want you to think they mean, they would realise that local authority schools ALREADY are run by the community and by volunteers through their governing bodies.

    I myself would love to be doing lots of community oriented things, but how can I when I am working in an oppressive target-oriented culture where I am afraid – I mean that literally – that I will be thrown out of my job unless I spend every spare moment of my time working at it way beyond the token hours in my contract? I would love to go back to being the community-oriented political activist I was, but that is no longer an option in my paid job, like much else in the public sector we are being squeezed down relentlessly. My friends and relatives tend to be people who work in the public sector and they all say the same – the cuts and targetting culture means they feel they have no choice but to work until they drop and they work in an atmosphere of fear which means everyone works harder but achieves less. Any slacking off to give time to doing “big society” things means they’ll be first on the redundancy list. The fear means you keep you head down and do what you’re told, there’s no room for innovation when all that matters is meeting whatever targets are imposed from above, when if you try something different but it doesn’t quite work, you’re out, and when you’re out there are NO jobs left to go to, you probably are going to be unemployed for the rest of your life if you are around my age. My wife would also love to be doing community oriented things, but having lost her public sector job over two years ago, all her time is spent on making job applications (several days effort into each) in the faint chance that just somewhere some time there might be a position open in her line of work which isn’t filled by redeployment, which isn’t just being advertised as a formality because in reality is it’s “restructuring” to meet the demands of the cuts and no-one who is unemployed will ever get those jobs because the bosses proudly say “we’re making cuts by freezing posts and redeployment to try and avoid redundancies”.

    Sorry, I pour out my frustrations over all this to LibDem Voice, not sure anyone’s listening. Back to the grindstone …

  • Peter Chegwyn 16th Feb '11 - 11:22am

    The difference between Liberal Democrat ‘community politics’ and Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is that Liberal Democrats actually believe in community politics, empowering people and helping local communities to help themselves.

    Cameron’s Conservatives just pay lip service to the idea. They use the term ‘Big Society’ as a convenient soundbite while stuffing local community initiatives and scrapping the funding to voluntary organisations and projects helping the most vulnerable members of our society.

    Clegg doesn’t seem interested in community politics as Adrian Sanders has rightly pointed out on his Facebook wall. But the practice of community politics is central to our beliefs, especially in local government, and when the most vulnerable in our society are under such attack from Conservative-led spending cuts, the need for good, hard-working, effective Liberal Democrat ‘community politics’ councillors and activists is greater than ever… whether Clegg believes it or not.

  • Robert Bleakley 16th Feb '11 - 2:28pm

    As an elected Councillor it was “community politics” that got me and my ward colleagues elected and re-elected. I’ve often wondered why the party hasn’t done very much on community politics not even re-committing to the party to its objectives and principals.

    In 1994 the FPC commissioned a consultation document on the subject and nothing ever happened.

    A number of years ago Ed Davey edited a book on Community Politics and I seem to remember that John Smithson from Kirklees writing an essay asking the party to update the party’s vision of community politics and guess what still nothing has happened.

    The FPC and the wider party has to look at this issue without delay. The party isn’t doing us any favours by embracing “The Big Society” a project that people know very little or don’t understand it because it’s poorly communicated.

    I am disappointed that Nick hasn’t said anything on the subject as we face the toughest test of elections for years. Perhaps if we lose hundreds of council seats the party might think about something about the issue.

    Robert Bleakley

  • @Simon, I know you fall down on the libertarian side of the fence and I less so, but the concerns many have over free-schools from our party [not Labour, where it is about control] are over the absence of democracy from the idea, and the risks to personal liberty that may result. Though on this one you probably have Mill on your side.

  • Simon McGrath 16th Feb '11 - 9:44pm

    I am not a libertarian and yes i can see some concerns about the absence of democracy. There is still funding from central government though so there is democracy at that level. No sure I get your point about a threat to personal liberty.

    Reading one of the seminal Liberal works on Community Politics , The Theory and Practice of Community Politics by Gordon Lishman and Bernard Greaves:
    I came across this:

    “In particular, community politics is applicable to the running of industry and other places of work. It is also applicable to the running of education, the health services and other public services. The establishment of the claims of the communities involved in these fields to run their own affairs is no different in principle from the claims of members of a neighbourhood residential community.”
    Which does seem to offer support fro free schools.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Feb '11 - 10:31pm

    I don’t see anything wrong in theory with “free schools”, but I am puzzled by the practice because, as I have said, it seems to be based on a false notion of how schools work. That is, all the rhetoric in favour of “free schools” suggests the main problem with state schools at present is that they are under rigid council control, which they are not. The rhetoric is all about parents etc being able to run their schools, but those pushing it don’t metnion at all that THAT IS ALREADY HOW THINGS ARE due to schools being run by a governing body of community volunteers.

    So I object to the idea because it poses a problem that isn’t there and then offers as an innovative solution something which is in fact already there. Diagnosing a situation as having a problem it actually doesn’t, and then offering at great expense something it already has is, well. fraudulent, isn’t it?

    I’m all for opening up the nomination process for governing bodies, which I find is often shabby, at least in the boroughs I know. Although there’s a massive problem in that being a governor is hard work and unpaid – I know I could never do it as I wuld want to do it and hold down a full time job. Also, if what’s wrong is the control of the National Curriculum (which is NOT a council thing, and was introduced as the Big Solution to schools by the Tories last time the were in), then isn’t there are rather easy solution to that? Scrap it.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 16th Feb '11 - 10:46pm

    I’m sure this member of the Coalition has lots of ideas about what the Big Society/Community politics actually means in practice

    Perhaps another area where the LibDems will sit by while the Tories increasingly make fools of themselves.

  • @ toryboysnevergrowup
    I have to say that video/clip says it all, and made me spill my coffee…cheers 😉

    I don’t think the conservative Big Society and the Liberal Democrat Community Politics have much in common, you only have to compare articles from each coalition partner to see where differences are, and we know “Big Society” is just a new cover for responsibility and broken Britain, although Mr Cameron used responsibility and broken families in the latest re-launch.

    I get the impression that Big Society is a miss mash of old with hijacked ideas and anything else that might be considered local responsibility, I myself cannot understand it, each time I hear an explanation from government it is different.

  • This debate illustrates (again) why community politics as a concept has lost its way. It was conceived as a means of empowering people to take and use power for themselves. Not as a neat way of winning local elections or even of local councillors working harder than their opponents. And certainly not of activists drinking cups of tea with old folks!

    The issues that drove community politics in the beginning have now been pushed to the margins. By more people being better off in absolute terms (their higher incomes empowering them to make more choices); by more people owning their own homes; by more people being better educated and having transferable work skills which means they are not locked into working in decaying industies.

    At the same time the state has increasingly disengaged from the provision of housing and from employing people in the kinds of nationalised industries that offered little mobility (either in the physical or social sense). AND the state has entered into a bizarre contract with the charity sector which it funds heavily to provide professionalised ‘advocacy’ services on behalf of the under-empowered while at the same time contracting with those charities (sometimes the same ones) to provide an increasing range of services to those people.

    I am not saying poverty, bad housing and social isolation has disappeared. Just that building a political strategy on tackling it will not connect with significant numbers of people.

    The Big Society is like community politics for the middle classes. That seems to me to also be doomed to fail because the middle classes have a whole different set of priorities.

  • I am going to ask if we will see any article or debate on the C4 Lessons in Hate and Violence?

    I have waited to see if anything would appear on LDV about this, as it does have as it does have problems related to Big society/Community politics new thread/artical or here?

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