Modernising community politics: creating communities

At the recent Social Liberal Forum conference, I took part in the panel on the Big Society and community politics. Regular readers won’t be surprised about the views I expressed on either of them (see for example here and here), but one point that I’ve not talked about for a while came out in discussion following a very pertinent question from Hackney’s Mark Smulian.

Mark rightly pointed out that the concept of community in the area where he lives, with a large transient population, was very different from what worked when community politics was first being created. Mark if anything under-sold his point. Not only are populations more changing now, but also it’s increasingly rare for more people from more than one household on a street to work in the same place. Add to that the decline in religious worship and those old foundations for communities – long-standing neighbours, common places of work and common places of worship – are now much weaker than they used to be.

What that means for community politicians in this century is that helping to foster a sense of community often needs to be a far bigger part of the community politics task than it was in the middle of the last century. The jargon of moment, following Robert Putnam’s seminal work, is “social capital” with the idea that you can take positive, practical steps to build social capital which then brings long-term benefits.

It is possible to deliberately set out to foster stronger communities in this way, as I wrote about for the Local Government Information Unit at the start of the year. It’s possible for local councils, for example, to deliberate set about their work in ways that encourages the creation of local social capital, such as by requiring developers to put effort into kick-starting residents’ associations on new estates or running their planning process in a way that makes it easy for those who oppose or support a planning application to contact each other to campaign.

How political activists run election campaigns – whether they are inclusive team builders or not – even can play a part. One of the best things I’ve seen on a campaign trail is the way that the regular and sociable clerical work sessions in Harrogate in the run-up to 1997 not only helped lay the foundations for Phil Willis’s great victory over Norman Lamont but also fostered new networks of friendship amongst the older helpers who dominated the daytime sessions.

Iain Roberts rightly laid down a challenge to believers in community politics to be aware of its weaknesses. An understanding of how the levers of power can be used to build stronger local communities that then in turn can push those levers for themselves needs to be at the centre of such awareness.

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6 Comments

  • Mark Smulian 24th Jun '11 - 10:39am

    I should perhaps describe the context of the area which I used as an example for the question to Mark Pack’s panel. Brownswood ward contains a large social housing estate, a few small ones and a small part of a large one. In those, the traditional Focus about council housing and council services was fine.
    Given the usual inner London jumble of poverty alongside wealth, the question arose of what to put out in the rest of the ward.
    This consists largely of young to middle-aged owner occupiers or private tenants, many of whom are passing through for a few years. The only council services they habitually use are refuse collection and street lighting, and they take little interest in the borough. The ward’s peripheral location in Hackney reinforces this.
    Although I was not centrally involved in the campaign literature, a process of trial and error found it was best to concentrate on national politics in a separate Focus produced for the ‘streets’, while the traditional one went out on the estates.
    This being in 2008-10 we made particular use of Vince Cable. We could engage with people through national issues but not local ones – the reverse of the situation one would perhaps expect. We didn’t win but it was a decent result given the simultaneous local and general elections.

  • Chris Nicholson 25th Jun '11 - 11:23am

    The article and comments seem to assume that communities are geographical and some of those commenting quickly move on to talk about election campaigning.
    But the point made very strongly in “The theory and practice of community politics” was that communities are not just geographical and that community politics is not just about elections. I am a member of various “communities”, my work, my church, my geographical community.
    To take community politics seriously as I know Mark x2 want to do, we need to think aout how we engage in these other communities. With respect to the work community Liberal Democrats talk a lot about industrial democracy but other than the moves on the Post Office where are we seeing the Government pushing this more widely?
    In inner city London, and I suspect most cities, many people, identify more with their faith group than with their local area. As Mark S says they often move around but their church/mosque/temple/synagogue is their mainstay. And it is not true that in such areas religious worship is in decline. Attendance at churches in inner Londinn is growing, consisting almost entirely of the African and African Caribbean communities. In my experience Liberal Democrats are particularly bad at engaging with these groups. But is is possible to campaign successfully with them as London Citizens have shown.
    And since the theory and practice of community politics was written there has been the development of online communities.
    If we want to see a revitalization of community politics we need to think about how we can engage in these communities not just with geographical communities.

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