Opinion: An open letter to Ryan Coetzee, Nick Clegg’s new head of strategy

Dear Ryan,

Congratulations on your new job. Welcome to the ‘family’ of UK Liberal Democrat activists and campaigners. You arrive at a critical moment.

But the Liberal Party and its successors have been here before. In the General Election of 1951 we fielded just 100 candidates and only 6 of these were elected.  In the Euro elections of 1989, the Liberal Democrats polled just 6.2%.

Our revivals in each case – in the Seventies and the Nineties – were built on an emerging development of Liberalism and its expression in a style of campaigning that sought to help people take and use power in their communities.

The legacy of those revivals is still available today, but largely under utilized with more attention and resources being directed to air wars and centralised campaigning.

There are around 4,000 local campaigners, with solid reputations for working alongside their neighbours and getting things done. Most have experience not only of representing their communities in local government but also, because of the nature of three party politics, in running administrations in politically balanced authorities where no single party has a majority.

These activists know the value of discipline and they have never flinched from making the right decisions no matter how tough.

A quick history: during the 1960s The National League of Young Liberals shook-up a weak and pallid Liberal Party. Their goal was to build a movement around an updating of Mill and Green for our times.  By 1970 their approach – termed Community Politics – became official party strategy when they passed an integrated campaigning strategy at the annual Assembly : “A dual approach to politics, acting both inside and outside the institutions of the political establishment to help organise people in their communities to take and use power to build a Liberal power-base in the major cities of this country to identify with the under-privileged in this country and the world to capture people’s imagination as a credible political movement, with local roots and local successes.”

The most influential text was The Theory and Practice of Community Politics.  Putting this approach into practice, the Party’s representation in local government grew from around 750 in 1977 to a high point of 5,000.

In the early days these councillors were often alone on their Authorities.  But, as the size of their groups grew, many found themselves on councils in which no party had a majority. Through their organisation, the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors and Campaigners, experience of ‘Life in the Balance’ grew and was shared in workshops and publications.

So, not only are there 4,000 activists waiting in the slips to be re-engaged in integrated Party campaigning, perhaps half of these have direct experience of the particular demands of negotiating with other parties to form minority administrations and coalitions of all descriptions.

They are skilled at communicating with their electorates those policies which are down to them and their influence and to use the failure to gain policies to encourage further support.

The Autumn Statement will be given in December.  Negotiations between us and the Conservatives are no doubt already in progress.  But no one in the Party knows what our Statement would be if we were a majority Government. No one is involved in communicating our opening position or in building support for that position on the ground.

Our activists know the game – the dual approach of the Assembly motion. Consult with the public and the local party through the activists. Set out the ideal. Negotiate with the coalition partner. Report back – fresh air is power. Petition for support. Use that support to make gains or stress red lines in the negotiations.  Keep reporting progress. That way people know who owns what in the final outcome. And they know that the more support they give us the more we can achieve next time.

No other party has this resource of disciplined, knowledgeable, liberally motivated activists. Their skills, their reputations, their channels to the public are available to you through integrated campaigning – in the streets, in the Town Halls, in the other Parliaments and in Westminster.

This is how the Party campaigned and expanded in the past: when they and the leadership worked together.  Just ask Paddy Ashdown. They are the experts in revival, renewal and resurgence.

Good luck with the new job. A lot is at stake.

Best wishes

 

Bill

* Bill le Breton is a former Chair and President of ALDC and a member of the 1997 and 2001 General Election teams

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38 Comments

  • Nicely put Bill. I would add one point. “Use their experience and set up a ‘Dark side’ team made up of members of the awkward squad to test your negotiating strategy for weaknesses. If you can get it past them, David, George, Eric et al will be a doddle”.

  • Simon Titley 30th Sep '12 - 12:11pm

    Well said, Bill. I would add that there is another lesson that can be learned from our experienced local campaigners. The party should never forget that, whenever it wins elected office, its job is to represent the people to the governing body and not the other way round. When Liberal Democrat local administrations fail, a major factor is usually that our councillors forget this and see their job as representing the council to the people.

    The Liberal Democrats are faced with a difficult job of rebuilding trust. An important way of doing this is to be representatives and not act like colonial governors, village squires or patronising schoolmasters (however well-meaning).

  • While I would agree mainly with what you say about the history, Bill, I think it should be centrally recognised that the “weak, pallid Liberal Party” of the late 50s was being galvanised by the rhetoric of Jo Grimond. Where there were pockets of Liberals left to be galvanised, they were,as in the Tiverton, and Torrington, and finally and famously, Orpington in 1962. These were the true beginnings of the “Liberal Revival”. Jo’s rhetoric was about national and international themes, and it was these that then fired Young Liberals and eventually led to developments like the Radical Action Movement (extra parliamentary direct, people focused action), heavy involvement in the Anti Apartheid Movement – digging up cricket grounds with Peter Hain!! – and pavement / community politics. One motivation early in the community politics of that time, was to ensure we could get people elected at some level, first past the post being easier to deal with at a smaller local level. Theory had it that these elected local politicians and their support base would ultimately lead to an unstoppable tide to parliamentary success. Practice, in 1997, at least partially proved this correct.

    It is at least arguable that the long term commitment to local community politics weakened our powerful broader values, by bringing in many people who did not share these views, and allowing such later things as Orange Bookery, which would have found it difficult to flourish in the Liberal Party of the 60s, 70s or 80s. It would be more than shameful, if, having climbed the ladder to No 96 on the games board, we were to slip down the snake again. Back to Square One.

  • Alex Sabine 30th Sep '12 - 1:21pm

    Something I am happy to agree with Simon on. What was the old Bertolt Brecht line?

    “The people have lost the confidence of the government. Would it not be easier in that case for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?”

  • Simon Titley 30th Sep '12 - 1:36pm

    @Alex Sabine – Yes, Bertolt Brecht wrote this satire following the uprising in East Germany in 1953:

    After the uprising of the 17th June
    The Secretary of the Writers Union
    Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
    Stating that the people
    Had forfeited the confidence of the government
    And could win it back only
    By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
    In that case for the government
    To dissolve the people
    And elect another?

  • Richard Dean 30th Sep '12 - 1:45pm

    An elected representative is elected to represent all of that representative’s electorate, not just the people who helped in or before the campaign, by giving voluntarily of their time and/or money and/or other support.

    It sometimes happens then that the representative disappoints the helpers, for instance by supporting polices that the helpers don’t like. Recent examples inlcude tuition fees and the NHS.

    So how should we prepare for 2015? Are there any principles which can guide our behaviours and feelings and expectations as regards this type of circumstance?

  • Well written and pertinet advice for us all, Bill.

    Simon’s comment is worth reiterating as often as possible “The party should never forget that, whenever it wins elected office, its job is to represent the people to the governing body and not the other way round.”

  • Richard Dean 30th Sep '12 - 3:06pm

    Simon’s comment about representing seems misleading to me. Part of a representative’s job is surely to at least explain to people what the governing body is doing, and to explain the representative’s own role and decisions and votes and the reasons for them. Without this the electorate is left with only an ignorant and often biased press as a guide to what is going on and who to support and who and when to complain.

    This part of the job is sadly lacking in some of our representatives. It should translate into regular newspaper articles by the representative, regular appearances on TV and radio, and into the representative getting at least to grips with emerging local issues and emergencies. This also informs the representative and can lead to the shared development of a vision for the future of a community that can then be published and act as a basis for the next election campaign.

  • Tony Dawson 30th Sep '12 - 3:29pm

    @Simon Titley:
    “Would it not be easier
    In that case for the government
    To dissolve the people….”

    The Bashar Hafez al-Assad line 🙁

    Perhaps he should have stayed in the NHS? Then this creed could have been modified to:

    “”Would it not be easier
    …..for the government
    To dissolve the patients….” ? 🙁

  • Matthew Huntbach 30th Sep '12 - 7:58pm

    Simon Titley’s remark is apposite. I became involved with the Liberal Party in the 1970s because I saw its then developing idea of “community politics” as a way of getting people to be actively involved in politics, and therefore giving true participative democracy. At that time, though political party membership was much higher, and the original idea of the Labour Party as a way in which ordinary people could and together and get some of the number into Parliament had not entirely disappeared, I was already concerned at the way that politics seemed to be moving towards a passive choice between glossy images made far away from the lives of people like me and my family.

    This actually was the big thing that Liberals and SDP members were fighting about during the time of the Alliance. The SDP seemed very much a leader-oriented party, very much about constructing a glossy image far away, and then selling it to the people like a consumer product. It is because I see this as underlying the distinction between “liberalism”, at least in the radical form I associated with the Liberal Party, and “social democracy” as typified by the SDP, that I see the recent New Statesman article by Richard Reeves, in which he lays bare the strategy our party’s leaders have been working to, as a triumph of social democracy against liberalism, rather than the other way round as he puts it.

  • Bill le Breton 30th Sep '12 - 9:07pm

    Thanks everyone for reading this and to those of you who have posted comments. They all make useful post scripts for Mr. Cortzee.

  • Matthew Huntbach 30th Sep '12 - 9:59pm

    To develop this theme further, I see “social democracy” as what happens to a socialist political party as its original ideas atrophy in the face of having achieved political office in a democratic system. The focus moves from representing the people upwards towards pushing the view of the government downwards. The socialist ideals become simply an attachment to government itself. The leaders of the party see themselves in some sort of super-humans, and come to resent democratic interference. Therefore, they seek to override it, rejecting in dismissive terms “activists” and hoping to appeal over their heads to the general populace – who can more easily be manipulated by glossy propaganda. Of course, they still hold firm to the general idea of democracy as holding regular elections, but these elections should be about passive choice of leaders as some sort of consumer process rather than more active involvement. So it is better than the atrophying of socialism when it achieves political office through revolution – as typified by the USSR and Chinese Communist parties, and similar almost anywhere a “socialist” revolution occurred.

    Funnily enough, the one aspect of socialism which social democrats seem keen on keeping is the idea of the strong centralised political party, as most clearly developed by Lenin. The party becomes the focus of policy making, with the democratic chamber reduced to a decorative level – as we see in Labour-run councils just as much as Communist-style governments, This suits social democrats too, as it works well with the idea of the super-human leaders passing their ideals downwards to the people, the party itself becoming a marketing workforce with only its executive layer involved in policy making. The consumer model of politics as being about passive choice does not fit in well with the true representative model of policy development being a matter of debate and negotiation between representatives of all opinions and groups.

    This model of politics is very much what Richard Reeves, Nick Clegg’s outgoing Director of Strategy proposes for the Liberal Democrats. It is described as “liberalisation” in much the same way as dictatorship in Communist countries got described as “People’s democracy”, it’s a rather roundabout route. Reeves advocates open primaries for selection of candidates, like directly elected mayors a classic pseudo-democratic elite strategy. It claims to be more “democratic” by appealing over the heads of these nasty “activists” towards the people as a whole, but in reality is aimed at the idea that the people as a whole are more easily manipulated by glossy propaganda coming from the top.

    Liberalism too can atrophy in a similar way, although it does not become quite so toxic thanks to the absence of any sort of ideology of party and the absence of the authoritarianism that comes from the discipline required to succeed in a revolution. As with socialism becoming social democracy, the atrophy comes about from liberal leaders having political power and wishing to concentrate it on themselves. The result is that it becomes increasingly elitist, concentrating on those aspects of freedom which suit the wealthy, pushing back those which don’t. So we see it move to “economic liberalism”, where “liberalism” is seen purely in terms of cash markets, the freedom of the businessman to use his wealth to maintain his power being considered to override any concept of freedom from being enslaved by poverty or freedom from being forced to conform to a world where thought and fashion is dominated by powerful providers of entertainment and information. So the Liberal Party becomes just a network of business leaders. The old liberal ideals are maintained in an atrophied form. There is usually a commitment to civil liberties and social freedoms so long as these don’t conflict with the power of the businessman. The old liberal rallying cry may be employed if the business oligarchy find some old social obligations it wished to dispose of, or to rally against any remaining democratic power as some sort of “establishment” it still needs to fight.

    We can see this sort of atrophy in most of the western European Liberal Parties, also for example in the Liberal Party in Australia and such places where it became the main right-wing party due to the absence of a viable Conservative Party. The Liberal Party in the UK atrophied less in this way, firstly because the Conservative Party, originally the party of the landed aristocracy and established church did not go away, and secondly because it dropped out of power. The UK Liberal Party maintained a more radical left form of liberalism precisely because it had lost any sort of government power. Its traditional strength in the periphery (“Celtic fringe” etc) meant it kept more to the ideal of representation of the people upwards. It was kept in existence elsewhere by a curious sort of person – someone so attached to the ideal of democracy that they enjoyed keeping going a sot of model of a democratic party, with all its democratic trappings and so on, even if that model was just a model that did not actually win many elections. I think this sort of person who enjoys democracy more than power to be an excellent sort of person, even if the Richard Reeves of this world, who are the opposite, despise them.

    The funny thing is that these models could be cranked up and turned serious again when needed – this is just what was seen in the Liberal revival that started in the 1960s and continued in the 1970s. Radical liberals saw this older model as an effective challenge to the atrophy of social democracy. The point was to revive democracy from the bottom upwards by presenting political issues in a localised form, rather than as centrally derived political slogans; to push elections as about the choice of local representatives who could be seen clearly to be representative in terms of life background to the people they were representing, rather than about a choice between competing glossy images manufactured by centralised professional image makers.

    As I said, this was what the conflicts between Liberals and the SDP were all about in the 1980s. The foundation of the SDP cut short the Liberal revival, forcing it into a more social democrat model of politics.

    The situation which the radical Liberals were trying to correct back then has become a whole lot worse since. The disaffection and disengagement with democratic politics has grown hugely. For all its faults, the SDP was based on the idea that a new but fairly conventional political party could be the way to transform the country to something better. I don’t think that would work now – the whole idea of joining a political party and change through politics is now just so alien to most people. Yet nothing has replaced it – that is the worrying thing. People are sullen and resentful and depressed, the depression coming from seeing no way at all to change things. So at this point, if we are to change that, we need to do something quite radical, quite different from conventional politics to reawaken the idea that things don’t have to be as they are, that they can be changed through active involvement. Painting ourselves as the “Third party of government” as Clegg says is our way forward won’t do that.

  • Paul Holmes 1st Oct '12 - 12:37am

    Matthew – I see the SDP experience very differently to you, but then I would as someone who had barely ever come across the Liberals and joined the SDP in 1983, having never previously been in any Party.
    1. For me a great selling point of the SDP was not one or the other ‘shiny’ Leader but one member one vote which contrasted enormously with Labour’s block votes, electoral colleges and smoke filled rooms. I believe that the Liberal Party then did not use one member one vote at all levels of Party elections. The Tories had never had any such pretension at any level. Of course David Owen, having preached the virtues of one member one vote later took his ball home when we didn’t vote ‘the correct way’ over merger but Leaders often do believe they know better than all those tiresome members.
    2. I recognise little in your description of Social Democracy and I see little difference in practice between Social Democracy and Social Liberalism. As a History and Politics student and later Teacher I had always been drawn, from the early 1970’s onwards, to the Liberalism of Lloyd George. Keynes and Beveridge and alienated by the classic Gladstonian Liberalism which is today being resurrected in our Party as Economic Liberalism.

  • David Allen 1st Oct '12 - 1:01am

    Bill,

    Can local activism and community politics single-handedly sort out the economy, deal with climate change, or tackle banking and global finance? If not, will people be convinced that a purely localist party is a credible party of government?

  • Bill le Breton 1st Oct '12 - 7:57am

    Paul, I am still away from home struggling to type in on my so-called smart phone. There is a wonderful book written in the ’70s by someone I think called Clark called Liberals and Social Democrats which records the life and work of those like Hobhouse, Walls, Hammond and Hobson recording the original of the new approaches to how liberty can be enhanced … through when all is said and done through the better creation of those opportunities called by economists ‘public goods’.

    Th e important point is that these explorations began at the end of the C20TH century and produced a set of tops and approaches that social democrats and liberals could use to promote more and more life chances for those who close

  • Bill le Breton 1st Oct '12 - 8:07am

    Sorry … more and more life chances and opportunities for more and more citizens. The two strings of this ‘how’s parted in the 20s and 30s but through circumstances came together again in the 80s and to me have produced the best policy and practical choices over the last 30 years. It allowed like minded people to work together in wards and constituencies, councils and parliaments. That is being threatened now by those who are trying to put labels on us. break us apart inorder to justify policies that diminish the values.and actions that have created opportunities for the many and which even in coalition with the Tories cd produce so many more.

    Which brings me to David …..

  • Bill le Breton 1st Oct '12 - 8:25am

    David, Tip O’Neil was right, all politics is local. We require support and participation to achieve those desirable on you list. They require social movement. This is never achieved by central dictat.

    This requires integrated campaigning inside and outside institutions, and between local regional national.and international institutions. This is the very definition of liberal democracy, a philosophy more often claimed that truly served.

    My simple.answer is ‘yes we can’.

    And while we are at it yes we can rebuild economic activity this way and not through the controls and loss of liberties that are produced to pursue.austerity.

    Yes we can start, as Simon urges, sending th signals from.active citizens to theor government rather than being involved but implicated in government commands.

    The approach of our four boys at the.top is the opposite of what they are saying. It is centralized, controlling and top down. It is man management not freedom.

    It is deciding for people and not with people. It is taking power from people and not helping people take and use their power.

    It is not the liberalism of Hammond or Hobhouse, nor of Williams or Ashdown. Nor of Maclennan or Greaves.

  • Even though Ashdown seems to be adding powerful support to it at present.

  • all elected representatives need to remember (and be reminded regularly) that they are one of the people that they represent. Election does not elevate them above the masses, it is only in conjunction with other elected reps that they have any powers to determine things, and that power should always be excercised to the good of those who elected them, not some other interest or paymaster.

  • Well said, Bill.

    “Tip O’Neil was right, all politics is local. We require support and participation to achieve those desirable on you list. They require social movement. This is never achieved by central dictat.

    This requires integrated campaigning inside and outside institutions, and between local regional national.and international institutions. This is the very definition of liberal democracy, a philosophy more often claimed that truly served.”

    David Allen asks “Can local activism and community politics single-handedly sort out the economy, deal with climate change, or tackle banking and global finance? The answer is no, not single-handely, but then neither can national governments acting in isolation. Just as local communities ultimately furnish the parliamentary representatives for national government, so too do both local communuities and nation states furnish the representatives to trans-national bodies such as the European Union. It is perhaps the difficultly of maintaining that essential link within larger dispersed Euro regions that lies at the heart of the alienation and distance many people feel with respect to European Union affairs.

  • Richard Dean 1st Oct '12 - 2:57pm

    I wonder if it’s really true that “all politics is local”? What does this really mean anyway? My impression is that people are swayed as much by what they see on TV, and increasingly on the internet, as by what they experience locally.

    Much of this information is national, and in a general election people are prone to be voting as much for who they want to see playing the politics games on TV as who they they think is an effective representative in parliament – something that is very hard to get any information on by which to judge.

    Focussing entirely on local issues in a national election is possibly just as much a recipe for losing as is focusing entirely on national issues. Perhaps the winning approach is to focus on linking the two.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Oct '12 - 5:06pm

    Paul Holmes

    For me a great selling point of the SDP was not one or the other ‘shiny’ Leader but one member one vote which contrasted enormously with Labour’s block votes, electoral colleges and smoke filled rooms. I believe that the Liberal Party then did not use one member one vote at all levels of Party elections.

    I am as opposed to block vote systems as you are. The Liberal Party never employed such a system.

    In what I wrote myself I agreed there was an attraction in the SDP when it was formed. However, the reality is that it was set up in a very centralised way so that in practice it was very much controllable from the top. It did attract many people who were keen but a bit naive, so perhaps too willing to see it as they wanted to see it.

    As a History and Politics student and later Teacher I had always been drawn, from the early 1970′s onwards, to the Liberalism of Lloyd George. Keynes and Beveridge and alienated by the classic Gladstonian Liberalism which is today being resurrected in our Party as Economic Liberalism.

    I suggest you actually go and read about what Gladstone and other 19th century liberals were doing, or read some of their own words, rather than just trust on how they are described by 21st century people who have a political agenda of their own. In fact 19th century Liberals were on the whole very keen on the public provision of services. The idea that they endorsed the sort of extreme free market policy which is now trying to steal the word “liberalism” to describe itself is false.

  • Bill le Breton 1st Oct '12 - 5:25pm

    Richard, I am not suggesting that we focus entirely on local issues and that is not what Tip O’Neil meant by his assertion that all politics is local.

    Even the TV programme is spoken about at the ‘waterr cooler’, village pump, check out till, pub and club.

    Everything impacts the local situation and is best understood through that impact.

    The politican who understands that, thought O’Neil, is best equipped to campaign alongsidse people to make change happen.

  • Bill le Breton 1st Oct '12 - 5:31pm

    Hobhouse wrote (I think in 1893 in The Labour MOvement), “if therefore, a good right to any form of property or freedom no longer serves a good social purpose, it must go.”

    New Liberalism was born out of efforts to solve what was then called ‘ the social problem’.

    Are we not impoverished by another’s poverty, enslaved by their slavery, correlled by their conformity, diminished by their diminution?

  • Paul Holmes 1st Oct '12 - 11:16pm

    Matthew, I have spent the last 40 years reading history. The mid (19th Radicals who helped form the new Liberal Party wanted public services and intervention on behalf of the poor. Gladstone opposed such ‘interference in individual freedom and choices’. Remember that Gladstone was a Conservative MP who only left the party when the Peelites split away over Free Trade. Hobhouse et al later refreshed the internal party debate around the turn of the century and ‘New Liberalism’ won out over Gladstonian Liberalism -but no longer if the likes of Richard Reeves and Paul Marshall have their way.

    No the Liberals never had block votes but neither in 1983 did they have one member one vote at every level.

    How exactly was the SDP subject to central control when one member one vote rejected David Owen’s wishes? Of course they did introduce a central membership system which the Liberal Democrats adopted at merger, but as that system meant that members had to still be alive and still paying an individual membership sub every year that could be seen as an advantage over some previous systems!

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Oct '12 - 11:22pm

    Richard Dean

    I wonder if it’s really true that “all politics is local”? What does this really mean anyway? My impression is that people are swayed as much by what they see on TV, and increasingly on the internet, as by what they experience locally

    Yes, but one of the discoveries of the Liberal movement as it pushed what it called “community politics” is just how potent an appeal to local issues can be. If anything, the success of this approach was its undoing, because it worked so well as an election-winning tool, the deeper ideological reasons that were meant to motivate it got forgotten.
    Back when I was first involved in the Liberal Party, local elections had very much become just opinion polls on the national political parties. In recent years, and I think the community politics tactic has much to do with this, there has been quite a revival of local elections fought mostly on local issues. Recent sets of local elections have shown less of uniform party swing across the country than used to be seen.

    The power of the tiny number of people who control the national media is frightening. If most people get their politics that way, it’s a great worry. I’ve written elsewhere of my concerns about how people view various political figures being very much in terms of artificial images created by the media. I’ve always been of the opinion that local campaigning counters this. It needn’t be in the rather tired old pattern that has now become established as “how Liberal Democrats win local elections”. I fully agree there are problems with this, it’s a great shame we have not had more experimentation with different ways of doing it, and that when we do it now it looks much more like standard party political propaganda than old-style “Focuses”.

    As for the internet, the biggest surprise to me is how ineffective it has been in challenging established political power.

  • David Allen 2nd Oct '12 - 12:32am

    We should get away from both the extremes – the dictatorial idea that all good comes from top-down (e.g. socialist or communist) central planning on the one hand, and the idealistic idea on the other hand that everything can be done from the bottom-up under community politics.

    Yes, community discussion, debate, influence, and the power of individuals are all beneficial things. Yet, at the end of the day, there must be a PM and a Cabinet, and they should have a coherent vision of where they intend to take the country. If we downplay their importance too much, if we deny that our government should have a centre, then we risk being identified by the public as political dreamers who can’t be trusted with real government.

  • Paul Holmes – a couple of comments.
    “Gladstone – the great hope of the stern unbending Tories” is the quote (you may know the source) I always remember relating to your point.
    Membership – I well remember being told by a husband of a regular member “I have NEVER, EVER, been a Liberal – I have always voted Conservative” – when I went round to renew his membership! (We often signed both husband and wife up as members in Liberal days when in reality the political commitment was only held by one).

    The other great gift brought by the SDP was so-called deliberative policy making. This had the effect of gradually building on existing policy and renewing out of date policy. It worked well for, I would say the first 10 years. So I don’t entirely agree with Liberal Eye – a narrative could, and sometimes was, constructed from the coherent policy base we had. Unfortunately all of that has been out the window in the last few years. There is now virtually no coherence, and even the PR led approach is mainly poor PR (“alarm clock Britain” etc).

  • “That said, community politics has its limits as David Allen points out. In national polls it has plateaued somewhere in the low 20 percent”

    How can something which is not an election or vote winning technique have a plateau of electoral support?

  • David Allen 2nd Oct '12 - 5:23pm

    I’d have to agree with you there Hywel. I do think community politics has limits – though it also has a place – and I don’t think it is an entity that has ever, on its own, stood in the polls and scored a result!

  • Liberal Eye
    Irrespective of whether it is “the best”, and I am sure better could be designed, my point is that it has “gone out the window” now – to all intents and purposes. Officially it may still exist, but we seem to have moved to a more chaotic system, where we have gone to a PR led system generating those Conference motions wanted (generally) by our leadership, rather than policy which is needed in a holistic way to complete, or fill in a pattern of policies which will fit together.

    The point you make about the EU is sound regarding the campaigning outcome, ie in Euro elections “Don’t mention Europe”. My understanding of early Lib Dem policy was NOT that it was all about devolution at all, but “making decisions at the most appropriate level”. I am not aware of a paper which tried to construct an algorithm or similar to look at where policy might best be made on a selection of topics, perhaps we should all drag through our collections of early Lib Dem policy papers!! (then, perhaps not) However, we certainly more than scratched the surface of this, and I think credit where it was due.

    Regarding campaigning in Euro elections over the years, it has been absolutely dire. Since we had List PR it has been even worse. For a party with our values, we are a) terrible at PR campaigning – I don’t know why we bother with pushing for it, we would be even more slaughtered under it than currently, and b) We fail every time when we are asked to campaign for issues that the Tory tabloids (the “British people”) don’t like, ie our approach on the EU, immigration, crime etc Take Nick Clegg and the second and third TV debates in 2010. He is, according to certain voices on here, one of our most effective communicators. Yet he was crushed on these issues. We will only win those arguments if we take the tabloids head on, and have the courage of our convictions. I saw little effort in that direction 15 years ago (under the old regime). I see even less now. We seem to be heading back to the “weak, pallid Liberal Party” identified by Bill Le Breton the other day in the mid 1950s. And we all know what that means.

  • Matthew Huntbach 2nd Oct '12 - 11:20pm

    Paul Holmes

    How exactly was the SDP subject to central control when one member one vote rejected David Owen’s wishes? Of course they did introduce a central membership system which the Liberal Democrats adopted at merger, but as that system meant that members had to still be alive and still paying an individual membership sub every year that could be seen as an advantage over some previous systems!

    I seem to recall that whatever one member one vote might have said, the situation was still reported as if David Owen’s new party was the SDP, and those who joined the Social and Liberal Democrats (as it then was) were some sort of rebel faction. I recall the first conference of Owen’s new party being described by the BBC – which is supposed to be politically neutral – as the “8th conference of the SDP”.

    I don’t have any particular problem with the idea of a centrally organised membership list. My main issue is whether the party should be seen as a co-operative network of people with an active involvement in democratic politics, or as a sales force for its leadership. I prefer the former, but this is a model of political party which hardly anyone is even aware of now. Perhaps there is more of a memory of it amongst older people, but I think if you asked anyone under my age (I am now over 50) what a political party was, their reply would be very much along the sales force line, my experience in fact is that people younger than me find the idea of a political party as being a way ordinary people can get together and challenge establishment power as extraordinary, so alien to their suppositions that if you try to explain to them that historically that’s what the political parties were, particularly Labour, but to a lesser extent the Liberal Party, they are astonished.

    Sorry, but I feel the way the SDP was organised, and its influence on the Liberal Democrats was part of this development. The idea of a political party being principally about determining a complete national policy line and gaining power to enforce that line, however much we now think that’s what political parties are for, originated in Leninism. As we saw with Leninism, the theory that the political party is all democratic and ultimately based on one member one vote may exist alongside the reality that the centralised mechanisms in the party in reality place most of the control in the hands of its leaders.

    The consequence of this model becoming the perceived norm, and the model of political parties as enabling mechanisms for their members being forgotten, has, in my view, greatly damaged democracy in this country. Since it’s an unattractive model – who really would volunteer to become an unpaid member of a sales force? – it has contributed to the huge decline in political party membership. This leads to out-of-touch politicians and this makes a vicious circle as it persuades people not to become involved in politics, seeing an image which does not relate to their lives. This has led to the drift of politics to the right in this country, as the balance where the political left have the power of more active members while the political right has the power of wealth and influence has been broken.

    I fear that democracy itself is now broken in this country – few people appreciate it, or see its potential power. As a consequence, the undemocratic right, those who want to minimise democratic power and replace it with market power, are pushing their way ahead. I fear that if it were made possible to sell your voting rights, many people would do so. It would be on a much bigger scale how the mutual institutions we used to have, the Building Societies, were lost.

  • Richard Dean 3rd Oct '12 - 12:36am

    Freedom and democracy will never die. Every new baby is free, and most will fight every restriction. Every cared-for child recognizes the mutual value of others’ opinions and well-being. As adults we may get fooled and even become fools, but nature beats us and re-creates freedom and demcracy whenever the cycle starts again

  • Bill le Breton 3rd Oct '12 - 10:57am

    Thank you all for keeping this thread bubbling along. Is community politics only for decisions taken locally? That seems to be one of the questions being teased out here.

    I would ask you to read once again the text of the strategy motion at the Eastbourne Assembly in 1970, copied from above, ‘“A dual approach to politics, acting both inside and outside the institutions of the political establishment to help organise people in their communities to take and use power to build a Liberal power-base in the major cities of this country to identify with the under-privileged in this country and the world to capture people’s imagination as a credible political movement, with local roots and local successes.”

    The approach would work for any ‘institution of the political establishment’ including central government, because it’s aim is to help people take and use power. Eg over Health decisions … Over Education … Over the provision of energy.

    It requires trust in the people (to borrow from the GOM) and trust in ourselves to be able to convince the people.

    Perhaps I am wrong, but I see in the way our element of the Government operates a lack of trust in the public to choose Liberal solutions when they are explained by members of their communities and when they are involved in the development of those solutions. And a lack therefore of confidence in both the people to contribute wisely and a lack of confidence in our ability to persuade them.

    ‘All politics is local’ means that each of us experiences life as members of communities and we struggle within those communities to exercise our innate power to choose – as Simon would say, our agency – because of power-grabbers both human and institutional.

    I just wish that our Ministers involved our activists and used them to work in their communities BEFORE White papers are produced, Statements made and positions adopted. Only that way are we helping people to take and use power. Only that way do we take the next step in building a sustainable Liberal Democrat power base.

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