Now is the time for Community Politics to shine

I was reminded recently of the Liberal ideal from the 70’s and 80’s of Community Politics and how it is part and parcel of our Liberal Democrat genetic makeup to want to disseminate/distribute power. I valued this principle before Covid-19 became all consuming, but during this lockdown I am drawn back towards the concepts and ideology of community politics, specifically as set out by Greaves and Lishman in the ALC booklet in 1980, and a growing realisation now is the time to really take these ideas to the next stage.

Firstly, a couple of lines about what Community Politics is and isn’t.

Community Politics is always about people. It is about their control of the exercise of power – it is about the distribution of power, the use of power and the dissemination of power. It is an all embracing approach to the way in which multiple decisions are made. It is not limited to the making of ‘political’ decisions within the structures of ‘government’. Nor is it just about winning local government elections.

Community Politics starts with the belief that each individual can be enabled to fulfil their potential, not reduced to the status of ‘being led’ or ‘directed’. Individuals make up a community – it may be geographical, mutual interest, religion or many other factors – and we all belong to many different communities. It is interesting that in our massively centralized society, too often these communities are only recognised when they become useful or necessary.

This leads me onto why now is the time for Community Politics to shine. Covid-19, a modern day tragedy for so many of us, has also brought with it some amazing positive stories. Many new communities have formed through a commitment to neighbourhoods and a call to action. People who did not realise their individual and collective potential, have found like-minded others and are showing leadership in utilising power for good. Social media is aiding this in a way Liberals of the 70’s and 80s could not have imagined.

So what do we do when Covid-19 is finally beaten? We could return to a ‘business as usual’ approach, back into siloed individuals being led and directed by government at all levels, or we could embrace a new world, really sharing power. We could worry less about winning seats and more about how we can help our communities to work for the greater good. Although I have always believed supporting communities with the power to help themselves is actually good for winning elections as well!

No one, certainly not me, has all the answers to how we ensure that genuine change happens, but I know this, as Liberal Democrats, we need to be leading the debate. Not only as an abstract but also in clear actions that are delivering for communities, traditional or modern, at national, regional and local government levels.

To achieve this we have to start now, if we can find a way to celebrate the vital contribution of communities being formed during this crisis, and give them the power to continue and achieve even more in the post Covid-19 world, then we will be finally moving towards the great liberal and democrat society the pioneers of Community Politics would be proud of.




* Liz Green has been a Councillor in Kingston for 18 years and helps facilitate the LGA Leadership Academy, as well as being an accredited peer with the LGA.

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  • David Warren 19th Apr '20 - 3:18pm

    Couldn’t agree more Liz.

    Community activism has really taken off in the midst of the current crisis. A reminder of why we as Liberals need to be in there amongst the people.

    I hope the people who made such terrible errors in the recent General Election read your article and take note.

  • Beyond community politics, Ed Davey’s call for Front-line NHS staff to be given an extra £29-a-day reward for service during the pandemic is welcome. I’m surprised no mention on LDV – though the BBC picked it up.

    But……., over 900,000 people work in frontline care in the UK as a main job. It’s
    predominantly female (83 per cent) and disproportionately BAME. Many have their own caring responsibilities, and a third are parents, one-in-seven single parents).

    90% work in the private sector, but very much deliver a public service. Top down budget pressure on local government by the Coalition forced care contracts down in the private sector (market economics !). Half are now paid less than the real living wage (£9.30 or £10.75 in London). Raising the minimum wage helped, but thousands missed out even on this legal entitlement because they are four times more likely to be on a zero-hours contract than the rest of society.

    The Scottish government raised care workers pay this week. The rest of the UK should follow. When/if the virus passes there must be pressure to publish the long promised Social Care Green Paper – and most important, to pay Care Workers properly. It takes much more than community politics.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 19th Apr '20 - 4:12pm

    Avery sensible article.

    Where community is nothing but word and description, not reality and action, is too often it depends on the most active in person. Online communities make for greater contributions appreciated.

    we need to see individuals have also to make contributions, whether always, ongoing, or sometimes, and, so doing, we engage more with more people.

    I think few really listen or look out for each other, unless showy or known about in an obvious way.

    i favour us being more aware and less sure, on the detail of much in our discourse. We can see how experts, as well as amateurs, fail, as well as succeed.

  • Thanks, Joe. It was something I had to battle with when I was a Convenor of Social care, though to be fair, in my experience , I saw more commitment to the elderly in Scotland than I did in England.

    My other concern was the financial stability of some of the private residential care home companies. In 2011 Southern Cross, the care home chain which housed and looked after 31,000 residents went bust. … It was a highly leveraged company which collapsed due to income from the local authorities being insufficient to meet the costs of servicing its high levels of debt while providing care. Later, the Independent reported that a total of 72 residential care operation business became insolvent in 2015, the fifth consecutive year of increased corporate insolvencies in the care home sector, as years of austerity take its toll.

    Would we allow hospitals to be run for profit by flaky private companies in this way ? Yet care homes are an integral part of health and social care. Time for some rigorous thinking by all political parties. Market forces don’t work in this sector, although I guess some on here will try to tell me they do.

  • Nigel Jones 19th Apr '20 - 5:57pm

    @Lorenzo: “word and description, not reality and action”.
    Very true. A couple of weeks ago my wife initiated a neighbourly help group, but in the process of setting it up we discovered bureaucracy again. A couple of third sector organisations with paid employees linked closely to the local authorities regarded their role as supporting other voluntary groups, but not doing anything themselves directly to help people. Their role was a little help but in some ways unhelpful and their own publicity did not tackle the real need at all.
    This reminds me of something I discovered when becoming a councillor in 2002. Too many layers of organisation in the effort to bring about community work and too many people paid to write paper strategies. Community work requires coordination, but it is still not being done efficiently or effectively. I suggest it is time for Local Authorities to employ individuals to work directly with community volunteers, charities etc. cutting out the middle people and having more funds to direct to the people and places of need quickly and flexibly. We could even try to repeat a few past experiments where LAs handed money to groups like residents associations to provide for their people.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 19th Apr '20 - 11:17pm

    Nigel Jones , very much agree, have seen the extremes of talk, not action, or too much action, much pointless.

    I advocate for the middle way, but experience too often indifference and meddling, either, or both, little real interest or engagement.

  • Stephen Scott 20th Apr '20 - 10:23am

    Thank you Liz – very timely and thought-provoking. There’s a close connection here with this take on the Greaves and Lishman pamphlet: from Lib Dem Voice in February.

    Lib Dem activists do a lot of good things to address issues for their local residents, whether or not they have been elected. But (as a sweeping generalisation) it seems that they do this for people rather than enabling them to do it for themselves. The dominant aim is still to help build a Liberal society by achieving power. Even when out of power, Lib Dem activists help to address issues by inserting themselves as intermediaries into the existing power structures. And activists from other parties often do much the same. And very often, whatever else it is, this activity is also clearly a component of the Pick A Ward And Win It toolkit. All of that is in strong contrast to the kind of Community Politics which Liz is talking about.

    However, the culture, normal activities and infrastructure of the Lib Dems is very focussed on achieving power through the ballot box. Is it in fact possible to mount a big push to promote “true” community politics within the party as it stands?

  • Peter Hirst 20th Apr '20 - 2:01pm

    Most non geographical communities exist to serve their members. We should distinguish geographical communities from these. Much more needs to be done to encourage these starting from the local primary to estates and individual roads. These are a national resource that has been largely neglected. We need more street parties, estate based campaigns and forums for these to interact.

  • Sue Sutherland 20th Apr '20 - 3:01pm

    I think community politics was very popular with the electorate and was a main reason for the party having so many MPs that we were able to take part in Coalition. Unfortunately, we never translated localised community politics into national politics and policies and this became very clear during those painful years. However, in our hearts we do still see our nation as a community, with our desired political method of working as being enabling rather than authoritarian.
    People are beginning to value a local community response to this current crisis, not just in terms of support but also in the provision of that elusive PPE. In Hull a local manufacturer of high class tailoring is working with the local hospital to provide PPE but this only happened because they went to see their local MP when the government ignored their offer of help. I think the government has just been looking for large suppliers of the national requirement rather than thinking organically, although I’ve no idea why they haven’t asked Bangladesh to switch to making PPE now the demand for clothing is drying up leaving that country impoverished .
    So when we emerge from this pandemic the public may well be much more receptive to the idea of community action than it has been for a while and to the concept of the ‘greater good’, or the overall idea of achieving what is best for the national community. We must be ready for that.

  • Wonderful stuff Liz. You put it so well when you say that community politics is not about people ” being reduced to the status of “being led” or “directed””. As you say, it is about the transfer of power to ordinary people in their communities. Regrettably, when Liberal Democrats are elected to local council we simply aim to do things for people. We can mend your pot holes, we can get your rubbish collected more effectively, but where is the radical shift in power ?
    To be frank, and without wanting to give any offence, some of the comments above suggest that the party is still tied to the paradigm of a state that does things for people, rather than a state that releases the genius of the public.
    Where I live the unitary council rules over 140,000 souls. Most of the councilors also sit on parish or town councils and the parish councilors are the same people who are trustees in local charities and sit on the boards of other non elected organisations. I have calculated that only about 250 people, in multiple roles, have any power or influence. That’s less 0.2% of the public. I fear that many of my fellow liberal democrats aspire to little more than joining the oligarchy.
    Finally, a question for political obsessives (which is probably most of us”). Which contemporary politician once said, “We have to create a thousand little city states and give power right down to all the bright energetic people everywhere who just feel superfluous ” ?

  • This article also reminded me of that thought-provoking February article by Nick Barlow that Stephen Scott links to above. It’s well worth reading in full but a key point he makes is that ‘community politics’ has mostly turned into ‘customer service politics’ where councillors get someone else (usually the council) to do something – fix potholes, street lights or whatever.

    As he says, that is not really community politics and isn’t inherently liberal. Hence it can be – and has been – copied by other parties.

    My sense is that to work well community politics requires a pre-existing community that is an existing or potential polity. That could be a village (particularly a remote one) but is unlike to be a commuter village or suburb. It could equally well be the staff and parents of a school or employees of a company as they have a strong and legitimate interest in the way their organisations are run.

    This thought joins community politics to another traditional Liberal theme, namely industrial democracy which I haven’t heard much about recently.

    Think, for example, how much hurt would have been saved in one briefly notorious case from 2017 if the institutional framework had been such that the new head of a primary school worked within an institutional framework that gave staff and parents appropriate democratic control so the head was first among equals putting a premium on the ability to consult, to listen and the other talents that make a good manager. And then multiply that by the thousands of other cases that never make the press. There is a lot of low-hanging fruit here – perhaps someone can message Lib Dem Towers.

  • Richard Underhill 20th Apr '20 - 6:44pm

    David Raw 19th Apr ’20 – 3:44pm
    “Ed Davey’s call for Front-line NHS staff to be given an extra £29-a-day reward for service during the pandemic is welcome.”
    Now mentioned on Liberal Democrat Voice.
    I have suggested a bonus or a pay rise at least twice. I intend to vote for Ed Davey for leader. Making it affordable is crucial.

  • Richard Underhill 20th Apr '20 - 6:58pm

    Gordon 20th Apr ’20 – 6:15pm
    Communities are being created now, non-politically.
    Neighbours who have existing relationships with supermarket delivery firms are offering to add something to their orders for us. They then drive round and leave shopping bags on our doorsteps.
    Our sister -in-law in Seattle is not so lucky. She voted for Trump. Many people told her that was a mistake, but one vote in a US State under First Past The Post is not very powerful.

  • People have always come together in response to a crisis, be it flooding or coronavirus, in ad hoc ways that are flexible and responsive. That’s not ‘political’ as such although it can be made so to a point.

    But there are limitations. One is Robert Michels’ ‘Iron Law of Oligarchy’ which is really just a consequence of human nature since we are an intensely hierarchical species. Briefly, it holds that in even the most democratic organisation a small group (who become ‘insiders’) will take control because they have the time, the passion, the expertise or whatever.

    So, the difficulty is that, if the community response to a challenge such as hard times (or simply excess potholes!) are to endure beyond the particular issue that created them, they must necessarily become institutionalised and hence lose any original organic and community dimension. It also means they typically don’t scale well to manage larger and more complex challenges.

    And that is a problem for the Lib Dems. It’s why, with no coherent thinking about governance that goes beyond community politics, they’ve never been serious contenders on the national stage. It’s also why, the party has no ideas or methods to circumvent the bad outcomes the Iron law of Oligarchy leads to when an oligarchic leadership loses the plot as became clear (most obviously but not uniquely) in the Coalition.

  • Fortunately, there is a way round the Iron Law of Oligarchy, namely representative democracy. This accepts that insider groups will form but keeps them ‘honest’ and working in service of the greater good via institutions that enable rival groups (most obviously other political parties but importantly also rival factions within parties) to depose them when confidence is lost.

    Different parties (and different factions within parties) mean that the system as a whole (and the parties within it) can evolve as rival parties/factions develop better narratives and policies that support them and hence outcompete the competition.

    The Conservatives work like that and it’s the real secret of their electoral success. Hence, Thatcher and her allies deposed the ‘One Nation’ Tories who supported the post-War consensus then were themselves deposed by the Brexiteers as the consequences of neoliberalism became intolerable to many.

    In contrast the Lib Dems don’t work this way. Because (IMO) of the trauma of the SDP-Liberal alliance, they go out of their way to sweep factional differences under the carpet even when they obviously exist. That means there is no real consensus and no way of controlling the leadership (see Clegg). It also means the party can’t really evolve to suit a changing world but has to rely on its foot soldiers and rather dated tactics.

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