How a Liberal pamphlet from 1980 led to the collapse of the British political system

Original cover artwork from “The Theory and Practice of Community Politics”

Over on Medium.com, Councillor Nick Barlow has written a remarkably astute retrospective on the 1980 pamphlet “The Theory And Practice of Community Politics” written by Bernard Greaves and Gordon Lishman and published by the Association of Liberal Councillors (now the ALDC).

Nick’s narrative takes us from the ideologically based idea of Community Politics in the 1970s and how it morphed into the quite different concept of Customer Service Politics, which dominates our civic arena today:

There were still activists, but the community newsletters had now generally given up their local branding and become Focus leaflets. More importantly, though, the content of them was now not so much about how the community was going to identify and solve its problems, but how the activists had identified and solved them for them. Well, identified them at least, there’s a reason why “politician points at pothole or other local issue whilst looking glum” has become a cliched photo opportunity, but the cliche signals a bigger truth. Activism was no longer about helping people get the power to solve their own problems, but rather demanding someone at “the council” solve them for them. Rather than “we can help you do things”, the message was now that “something must be done” and “somebody must do something”, but that somebody is almost always somebody else. This was all getting well away from the original idea of community politics, but nobody was complaining too much because it was still successful and was still getting lots of people elected to local government where they could generally do good things.

You can read Nick Barlow’s full article here and the original “Theory and practice of community politics” pamphlet here.

* Web Magpie, collecting shiny things from the internet (and, yes, we know such a characteristic has no ornithological basis). Magpie photograph by Steve Bittinger, Flickr CCL CCL licence

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18 Comments

  • Sadly the people we have working at our party HQ – few of whom have ever put themselves before the electorate in any capacity let alone having ever led a successful campaign – appear to have concluded that it is the mere act of shoving paper through voters’ letterboxes that wins elections – rather than the messaging and content of the leaflets and the track record of our politicians.

  • Paul Holmes 2nd Feb '20 - 3:23pm

    I would love to hear some of the examples of how the originators of Community Politics put this into practice in the 1970’s.

  • Sue Sutherland 2nd Feb '20 - 4:34pm

    In Bath we tried to put this into practice in the 80s by opening the Council to direct input from members of the public who were enabled to present petitions. We were a balanced council at the time and achieved this with Labour support. We also introduced an equalities policy and an access officer to help people with disabilities. When our housing stock was transferred to a Housing Association we involved tenants in its functioning from the start and they were on the board. In my own life I ran a small charity helping people with learning difficulties to live independently. Those members were on the Charity’s board and also participated in staff selection. I also wrote a paper for the local Night Shelter showing how clients could be involved in their decision making process. Sadly this didn’t happen partly because the clients tended to be transient.
    My experience of trying to involve recipients of services in the decision making process led me to think that unless this is put at the centre of the values and purpose of the organisation it’s unlikely to succeed. It is very difficult to do properly, especially if under time constraints, because it’s just so easy to tell people what they want. Typically I found that consultation with the Council only occurred after a proposal had been worked up. This meant that alternatives had been looked at and rejected so when residents raised those alternatives they were told they wouldn’t work. This led to a lot of frustration and loss of faith in the consultation process.

  • Martin Land 2nd Feb '20 - 5:24pm

    I’m afraid to say that more than forty years as an Agent and Organiser have proved to me that Councillors will pay lip service to Community Politics but once elected they pay only limited attention. Once in power, they will pay no attention at all.

  • Where I live we used to have a Village Partnership where the usual suspects met and organised local events and sundry projects. I bullied the local parish council for some time to get them to relaunch the VP and three months ago they relented….and I was asked to take on the role of Chair. We have changed the VP constitution so that everyone who works or lives in the village is automatically a member with full voting powers at meetings. This week I will put 500 letters through doors pleading with people to come to our next meeting and tell us what their priorities are. I’m trying to start an environment sub committee and get young people (and not so young) to drive forward the green agenda locally.
    In two years time I will resign and let others take it forward (where I live there are enough people who just enjoy sitting on multiple boards/committees – no intention of becoming like that myself).
    If I don’t manage to engage the local community I will have failed, so I will have to resign on principle anyway.
    This is my “community politics” project. My interest in gazing into pot holes is zero, though good luck to those out there who have a vocation for such things.

  • John Barrett 2nd Feb '20 - 5:57pm

    I agree with Ian, who said, “Sadly the people we have working at our party HQ – few of whom have ever put themselves before the electorate in any capacity let alone having ever led a successful campaign – appear to have concluded that it is the mere act of shoving paper through voters’ letterboxes that wins elections – rather than the messaging and content of the leaflets and the track record of our politicians.”

    If we win any election after delivering a massive volume of literature, it does not necessarily mean that it was the massive volume of literature that produced the final result. The other issues mentioned by Ian and the past level of activity, the national standing of the party, the message people are receiving by other methods, TV, radio, social media etc. all play a part. What the opposition do and say, what calibre of candidate they select and what resources they put in, might be out of our control, but it can decide, in some cases, whether we win or lose particular seats.

    We need to know exactly what works, what doesn’t and what is counter productive. Hopefully the review into the General Election result will provide some of the answers.

    Until we can let campaigners know how they could best spend or use any extra resources during an election to maximum effect, we are undervaluing them. They do the work, they deserve the right back-up.

  • “appear to have concluded that it is the mere act of shoving paper through voters’ letterboxes that wins elections”

    It is a while back – occasionally things have improved but they do go back – when the Campaigns Dept (as it was then*) – once ran a whole conference worth of training under the strapline ‘More leaflets = more votes’

    Thought this whole thread has quickly moved from Community Politics to winning elections.

    *The Campaigns Dept morphed into something else with another name. That was a subtle change but quite revealing.

  • The first question is this. Do we really believe in involving everyone in decision making? Another way of putting it is this. Are we interested in developing ways in which all can be involved in making decisions.
    We can start the analysis by looking at our own party. What are the methods that we use to involve our members? As an ordinary member I see very little sign that there is any real interest in what I think. The emails I receive from the party are written in the same style as those I receive from charities begging for money, or even from commercial firms.
    The various comments I have seen so often ignore the importance of the volunteers. When they feel that they are being manipulated they have the option of simply stopping.
    To me it is obvious that we have seen this in action.
    With the York conference coming up we will see in action the lack of real interest in really involving members in decision making.

  • referring to Geoffrey Payne’s comment:
    ‘Community politics is about involving people in the decision making so that they too can see the often difficult choices that need to be made and can take ownership of the decisions that are made. It is about building a relationship with voters and winning support through that, rather than relying on a take it or leave it manifesto that few people read anyway’

    So how far the party has drifted from such worthy and practical ideals when it came up with ‘revoke’ rather than a Citizens’ Assembly to legitimise a confirmatory referendum, it’s questions, voting method and prospectus based upon evidence presented equally by politicians and business and community impact statements. Wow! Chalk and cheese! I expect the Lib Dems will continue to drift when it comes to the next Scottish Referendum!

  • Peter Chambers 3rd Feb '20 - 7:50pm

    @Martin Land
    Good point. How many times do we hear about the need for a big push at the next election because “we are only N councillors away from gaining control”. Then if we succeed we find that we burn out another cohort of activists. Winning council seats is tactics. A balanced approach of community politics, winning elections, and support organisation is strategy.
    No, I never saw it hold in election season.

  • @Tom Harney. Absolutely. We are just like the Tories or Labour in that we see power and influence as a zero sum game. If you have it, then I haven’t got it…..and that’s not good. So keep all the jobs for ourselves, keep the party committees hidden out of sight of ordinary members and make sure the same happens when he get any power on a local council.

  • The sad fact is that very few people want to do things for themselves. Most people just want someone else to blame for their perceived problems.

  • Tony Greaves 3rd Feb '20 - 10:44pm

    I have not looked at the Barlow article but the excerpt quoted seems a bit odd.
    The headline to the posting is even odder. And I may be wrong but (without digging out my copies) I don’t think the drawings at the top of this thread come from The Theory and Practice booklet but from an earlier practical guide to campaigning by John Smithson. But the comments about the way the party is run now are all too true, in my view.

  • TCO 3rd Feb ’20 – 10:34pm…………The sad fact is that very few people want to do things for themselves. Most people just want someone else to blame for their perceived problems………………..

    Of course, you are the exception; how very Tory;.

    Such reasoning re-inforces the idea that poverty is the best recruiting sergeant for work amongst the ‘idle masses’.
    In my experience most people want to be in charge of their own destiny; however, circumstances (illness, job loss, etc.) limit their choice.
    I imagine that whilst waiting weeks for ‘Universal Crfedit’ (what a great success that is), or having hospital appointments cancelled, NOT blaming someone(thing) else is the mark of ‘saintliness’…and, apart from Mrs. T., they are missing from all shades of belief.

  • James Fowler 5th Feb '20 - 8:57pm

    Nick’s article was great. Really interesting and credible observations, but it stretched plausibility making the general (MPs as customer agents) a product of the specific (Liberal leaflets). Why not re-frame the success of community politics as it came to be practiced as a symptom not the cause of a wider shift from citizens to consumers.

  • Richard Underhill 6th Feb '20 - 6:03pm

    Layla was on BBC TV Politics Live today, 6/2/2020.
    She explained the debate about the timing of the next leadership election.
    She has not yet decided whether to stand herself.
    I note that Ed is concentrating on the big issues, recently climate change on Newsnight.
    At PMQ Boris has learned to do what Harold MacMillan did, that is to say that the departmental minister is responsible and will meet the questioner.
    There are important issues where the PM’s personal attitude or statements are central, so that our party needs a heavyweight response.

  • Alex Macfie 8th Feb '20 - 8:58am

    Please don’t call him “Boris”. We don’t generally first-name our political opponents. Why should it be different for the present PM? Calling him by his stage name is buying into his “brand”. Don’t do it.

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