Opinion: A Local Philosophy for the Lib Dems

The message from Paul Holmes MP at Regional Conference was clear. If, perchance, some of us felt that the national Lib Dems were not presenting a very strong narrative these days, then it would be up to us locals to make up for them. We needed to demonstrate a distinctive appeal at local level.

Well, in the course of gaining a 19% swing* from the Tories at a Rushcliffe by-election last month, I think we did just that.

We had all piled in to a small rural ward and put out five leaflets. So we did expect to make progress. However, if our Focuses had simply reported local news, I suspect it wouldn’t have been a 19% swing. Our crucial extra, I believe, was to explain a clear local philosophy and put it into practice. This helped people understand what we are about and why it was worth voting for us.

First, let me say what we didn’t do. We didn’t argue that devolving every decision down to parish level was the answer to life, the universe and everything. We didn’t go in for overblown sixties rhetoric about community politics and how “Focus” was more revolutionary than the Kalashnikov. But equally, we didn’t just limit our vision to street-level drudgery and getting pavements fixed. We found a middle ground between the extremes. In local politics, we do have strong philosophical principles, and even an “ideology”, but one which is very practical and down-to-earth.

Here is my ten-point “philosophical manifesto”.

1. Conservatives and Labour are the parties which support big powerful vested interests – big business, big unions, big government. Lib Dems are quite different. We support individuals, families and communities.

2. In local politics, the vested interests we stand up to include commercial developers, landowners, and Councils themselves.

3. We believe local politics should be far less party-political. That doesn’t mean we want councils run by loose, unstable groups of independents. It means we oppose heavy political partisanship, block voting, and suppression of individual councillors’ views by party bosses.

4. We object to the three-line-whip on development issues. Inevitably, these are Council decisions which can make particular local individuals seriously rich. Those individuals will often have lobbied leading councilllors, pressurised the council, or used financial muscle to advance their case. It is therefore quite wrong for a Leader and/or one-party Cabinet to decide such issues, which should be determined by the whole Council after open debate.

5. We recognise that “Yes Minister” is alive and living in local government. Council officers and our local (Tory) Council ruling group all too readily enter a conspiracy of mutual support and cooperation to conceal each other’s mistakes. We promise to act differently. By making that promise explicit, we also make it more credible that when we gain power, we really will act differently.

6. Councils often ask Councillors to be their uncritical cheerleaders. Other parties often agree. We do not. We are there to serve the electors, monitor what the Council does, and criticise and get things done better when necessary.

7. Other parties use words like strategy and leadership. That basically means imposing an agenda on the public. We do the opposite. We go out and talk to people, we listen, and we try to give people what they actually want.

8. We prefer to do useful things rather than argumentative things.

9. We talk to people as fellow residents, as equals, as friends. We talk about things that matter in their lives – not just things like committee meetings that matter in our lives.

10. We get work done!

We actually wrote about many of these “philosophical” points in our Focuses, and we also showed what they mean in practice. Thus, we ran a local opinion survey, and reported it with a Focus on the local issues people had raised. When the bus company issued an incomprehensible timetable, we devoted an entire Focus to an easy-to-follow version. This gained us a lot of gratitude, and put “Focus” on display in many homes!

People often say things like “I’m basically a Tory nationally, but I might vote for you locally.” With a clear local philosophy, we can turn that around. Let’s persuade those people to think “I’m basically a Lib Dem in local politics, even though I might vote Tory in a national election”!

* Sadly, a 20% swing would have won it. We’ll be back!

David Allen is a member of the Rushcliffe Local Party executive and has been a Lib Dem party member for 28 years. He contested the Rushcliffe Nevile Ward by-election, described above, on 22nd October, losing by just 13 votes.

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  • I quite agree with the necessity of introducing our ideology into our campaigning: pictures of candidates pointing at potholes aren’t really a substitute for telling people why we are different from Labour and Conservative. I do think that your list is written from an oppositional point of view though. Sure, when you take control of Rushcliffe you need to carry on doing the things you outline, but you also need clear political leadership which is not necessarily compatible with listening to the electors and giving them what they want. And when you are in a position to achieve improvements in your council, tell the electors and keep telling them. We controlled my local council for years, and I only found out (as a non councillor) some of the innovative things the group had been implementing when I heard the group leader speak at a regional conference. We lost control shortly after.

  • David Allen 5th Dec '09 - 11:08pm

    Fair comment Tony. The philosophy of an opposition group is bound to differ from that of a controlling group. Sometimes an oppositional attitude can be irresponsible and opportunist: sometimes it can be perfectly fair. No doubt some of the things I have said won’t be relevant to everybody, and should be adapted to different local circumstances.

    In my defence, I did say “try to” give people what they want. Sometimes that is impossible or unreasonable. I do think that as a matter of principle, we should always try.

    For example, concreting over beautiful countryside because you understand there is a vital housing need is one thing. Concreting over the countryside because you want to curry favour with Whitehall, or because the developers are waving money around,is quite another!

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