Opinion: Big Society + political activism = community politics

I’m sure I’m not the only Lib Dem struggling to come to terms with the realisation that there is life after going into coalition with the Conservatives. It may not be eternal life (even five years might be too much to hope for!), and it certainly isn’t paradise (the nation’s economic predicament has more of Armageddon about it than Nirvana) but life it most definitely is.

Despite already being subjected to obsessive scrutiny and outrageous cynicism from a surprisingly hostile media, and regardless of some premature and unhelpful ‘noises off’ from disillusioned tribalists in both parties, there is an undeniable, tangible, and growing sense of optimism, common purpose and determination about this venture.

I hope I haven’t simply been overcome by the heady aroma of power (albeit shared power), but listening to David Cameron outlining the government’s plans on TV this morning I actually found myself believing that he was genuine and sincere about this monumental, but hugely difficult joint venture.

Then, as I listened to the Prime Minister refer to his ‘Big Society’ idea, I expected all my old scepticism to re-emerge. To me a traditional Tory view of the big society would be one where the state attempts to abdicate responsibility for the entire spectrum of social ills by leaving citizens to simply fend for themselves, or seek help from the voluntary sector. It all smacks of a cost-effective and cruel devise to enable government to turn its back on those in need, with all the cheap and nasty simplicity of Thatcher at her worst.

Yet, perhaps through my “Downing Street Rose Garden” tinted glasses, the Big Society just seems like another description of the sort of political activism that sustained the old Liberal Party through it’s darkest days, and paved the way for the decades of progress that has led to where the Liberal Democrats are today – sharing power.

At its core David Cameron’s Big Society is potentially a good and decent idea, but the point is that without some sort of cohesive framework it can never make the quantum leap from idea to action. However, if that framework is provided by political activism, at local level, then at long last political parties will inevitably re-engage with the electorate again. Indeed, it may well be the only means by which politics can return to its natural organic state, rather the abstract, remote, centralised and managerial irrelevance that it has become to most people. The equation is simple ‘Big Society + political activism = community politics’.

I have long been advocating a radical change in the way Lib Dem constituency parties organise and campaign. In essence, advocating that instead of campaigning for power in order to change communities, we should (by direct action) change communities in order to win power. It’s far more satisfying to help clear a beach of rubbish, or refurbish local amenities, than it is to deliver several hundred leaflets saying that the Council ought to be doing something about these things. I know it’s not a new idea, but it is one that has been forgotten of late. It used to be said that ‘all politics is local’, but when a General Election campaign is hijacked by the press and distilled down to three Presidential-style TV debates, one might be forgiven for thinking that in the modern age all politics is national.

Liberal Democrats will survive and prosper if we are able to ask our local communities to judge us not just by what we say we’ll do in power, but by what we do irrespective of whether we have power or not. That’s what being part of the Big Society ought really to be about, and surely we are the party best placed to actively participate in it.

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  • Great contribution.

    Yes we need to raise our sights, think big and long term and not get side tracked by the media, the coalition’s shorty term goals but think of the next big thing.

    That’s why Nick Clegg’s reform package resonates – the press will always go for the detail and miss the concept and the ideas – we have to do what this party’s always done best and think of the next generation and the country’s long term future.

    and you’re right about direct action – local campaigning and taking power. It all speaks to empowerment and enfranchisement rather than nanny state.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st May '10 - 1:02pm

    The problem with David Cameron is that people who have lived sheltered upper class lives like he has, just do not realise how it’s Tory policy which has destroyed so much of the social fabric that would have made the “Big Society” work. Yes, I can see that underneath “Big Society” is some of the thinking that used to be at the more radical end of our “community politics”. But that community spirit and self-help attitude has been DESTROYED in working class communities by the rabid big-business oriented policies of the 1979-1997 Conservative governments and their disdain for local democracy, and then stamped upon by the later Labour governments doing the same, and worse still by the obsessive control freak attitude of those Labour governments.

    So Cameron may mean well, I think he is genuine in some of what he says here, but he HASN’T A CLUE. Neither do most of the other over-grown public schoolboys in his cabinet. They know the theory but they lack the life experience to have a real feel for how the theory would work in practice, and in the case of the Tories, when what needs to be done hits Tory driving force number 1, which is protecting the rich, Tory driving force number 1 ALWAYS wins.

  • James Parkes 21st May '10 - 1:27pm

    What an interesting article. Hello, first time commenting here on LDV.

    I’m a conservative voter from Derbyshire South so thought I should start looking at our new coalition friends and allies and garner opinions and read articles and such.

    It’s occured to me that the “Big Society” idea is very hard to sell on the doorstep and perhaps Mr Fraser has hit the nail on the head on how to bring about a “Big Society” idea by actually doing something. Litter picking, graffiti removal etc and just leave behind a LibDem poster or card left behind. “@Constituency@ Liberal Democrats, helping society with you.”

    I would actually attribute the Conservative Party’s success here thanks to them actually carrying out promises and helping the community in and out of power. My local councillor often sends around a flyer at election time promising a few basic things that’d help improve the area and he’s now carried them out twice. When politicians keep their promises their parties standings tend to rise locally.

    Why not start helping out the community and letting it be known you’re all Lib Dems? Bet you folks’d be signing up members left right and centre then!

    …well, mostly centre, eh?

  • paul barker 21st May '10 - 1:43pm

    It would also be a way to keep local Parties active between elections & help integrate new members. Really good peice.

  • Hello there – perhaps a bit off topic but i dont know where to air my views – might i suggest a way to get the most disaffected members of society into employment and put all drug dealers out of a job. Allow anyone paying income tax on more than say 20hrs work a week access to whatever narcotics they feel they need. If they take so much narcotics they lose their job, then sure enough, they will get another job but will temper their usage so they can keep their job. Doctors and GPs have proven over and over you can hold down a job while taking heroin. Is this not an unbelievably simple solution to a nationwide problem ? As an ex drug taker it seems drug addiction is a ‘growing up’ problem that is exacerbated by being unemployed.

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