Opinion: Community politics has had its day – time to move on

Move along please, nothing to see here. Just a body of ideas that died a natural death some time in the 1990s.

I have just read Gordon Lishman’s Federal Executive paper on future party strategy. It is encouragingly clear and geared towards future action and it contains a number of interesting proposals. But is it undermined by its insistence on tying future party strategy to the ideology of community politics?

Questioning the relevance of community politics in a Lib Dem forum feels a bit like trying to sell Richard Dawkins in a seminary but there are a number of reasons to ask whether community politics has had its day.

The first is the changing nature of the state. In the 40 years since the Liberal Party adopted community politics, the state has moved from providing working class jobs in industries that captured whole communities to providing middle class jobs that are pervasive (teachers, administrators, health professionals).

Second, and closely linked to the first, is the changing nature of labour mobility – both in terms of skills and physical location. The expansion of higher education and of property ownership has meant that far fewer people are trapped in closed communities that are dominated by state-run industries. Increasingly the state commissions services that others deliver – power is more diffuse and those who hold it are more sensitive to influence from consumers.

Third is the changing nature of local government. To re-read Peter Hain’s classic text from 1976 is to revisit a lost age of Tammany Hall politics where party bosses allocated contracts to their friends and collaborated with Rackmanite landlords to keep the poor in their place. Local government now is far less sectarian and more transparent and far less likely to be dominated by a single political party (thanks to the success of local Lib Dem campaigners). It is also, bluntly, less relevant to people’s lives thanks to its emasculation by successive governments.

And then there is the changing nature of communications. It’s not just the Web. Kirsty Allsop and A Place in the Sun are symptoms of expanding horizons and rising aspirations that reach all corners of society. People can see – and feel they can reach – a world beyond their back yard.

Increasingly, people feel that their destiny is in their own hands and that politicians are less and less relevant to their lives. That’s not to say that poverty, corruption and ghetto-isation have been eliminated. Clearly, many are excluded from opportunity through no fault of their own. But the ideas behind community politics essentially seek to redefine people’s relationship to a monolithic state which no longer exists.

Perhaps it is time for the party to look for new ideas. Ideas that respond more to the diverse networks that exist between people. To how we interact with each other to create a more liberal society, rather than to an ‘Our Friends in the North’ version of reality that went out along with bad hair cuts and big ties.

The consultation paper “Party strategy and priorities” will be discussed at a Federal Conference on the morning of Sunday 19th September.

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27 Comments

  • This rather reminds me of the defeatist talk we used to hear from certain people (mainly in the SDP but also Liberals) who insisted that community politics didn’t work and that the only way to win power was through David Owen saying the right things on television.

    I recall a middle-ranking SDP luminary telling me that you can’t do community politics in a middle-class area because there are no problems. And another who opined that community politics was a purely oppositional tactic and wouldn’t work once we achieved office. Sue Slipman went even further. She denounced community politics as something ideologically unacceptable to social democrats. She described it as individualism taken to the extreme and called its practitioners anarcho-syndicalists.

    I thought we had disposed of these attitudes long ago, but apparently not.

    If we abandoned FOCUS, and all that goes with it, how many Liberal Democrats would get elected under FPTP?

  • Oh dear, I was going to wait a while before responding to any comments but I have to answer this one.

    I am not suggesting we stop delivering Focus. That is a very effective way of getting local councillors elected. I am talking (as is the FedEx paper) about community politics as an ideology, not as an electoral tactic.

    Of course, one of the problems with community politics is that very confusion – where the basic notion of enabling people to take and use power has been drowned by community-based election campaigning which is a very different thing.

  • gavin grant 19th Aug '10 - 2:09pm

    We are in danger of confusing to issues. Community Politics is a coherent approach that seeks to devolve power to levels where individuals can relate to, and exercise that power to impact positively on their own lives and those people that they know.
    One facet of it has been the tactical way it has been applied in local campaigning in general and the FOCUS newsletter in particular. Most elections take place for local government. That level of government is generally the one “closest” to most people. perhaps as a result the tactic and the philosophy have become “one and the same”. They are not.
    In an increasingly fragmented society and communications world, there is a need to revisit the tactics we use to campaign. However the fundamental community politics philosophy remains hugely relevant indeed ought to underpin the notion of the “Big Society” and the resumption of community, coroporate and individual responsibility. All of these are facets of liberalism along with tolerence, fairness and internationalism.

  • Why is it more relevant than ever, Martin?

    Were the streets of Winchester thronged with people demanding to spend more of their time running their local community?

    All I’m asking is that we let go of the comfort blanket and ask whether community politics really has any relevance in a world where power is so much more diffuse and communities of interest so much looser?

    I am a fan of the Big Society (Gordon Lishman’s paper suggests he is not) but what if no one wants to play? Do we compel people to be more engaged? Do we give local government more power over people’s lives to make it more relevant to them? If we do, then doesnt community politics begin to get tangled up in its own contradictions?

  • I must admit that I have always struggled with ‘balancing the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community’. I personally think it should read ‘liberty, equality and democracy’ as ‘community’ in many forms, be it Labour in its routes or deeply Conservative can end up being illiberal to those within and very unequal to those without. Can we campaign for ‘democracy politics’ instead? (And not the kind those two Tories lobby for, but the kind that comes after Liberty and Equality).

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Aug '10 - 3:49pm

    One of the biggest problems in politics today is that people feel politicians are remote aliens who have no knowledge or interest in them. “Community politics” was developed to challenge this and to reawaken the idea that “yes we can” as ordinary people get involved and change things through politics.

    How absolutely extraordinary it is that now the problem community politics was developed to tackle has become even bigger, there should be people saying it is no longer relevant.

    Sure, part of the problem with “community politics” was that just as it was getting going, along came the SDP who did not understand what we were trying to do with it, and it became stuck in a particular form as Liberals spent all their time fighting their corner against the SDP instead of developing these radical new ideas. However, there is a LOT to learn from it – in particular it worked, while the SDP’s top-down campaigning did not. The SDP only slowly and painfully came to learn this, though it took the Bootle by-election to finally drive the point home. We should be re-awakening the idealism of the pre-merger Liberal Party so cruelly snuffed out by the SDP, instead of telling lies about those times as the right-wing of the Liberal Democrats is so fond of doing.

  • @Matthew: ‘now the problem community politics was developed to tackle has become even bigger’

    Surely the point is because it has failed in its present incarnation as you say. I think a narrow definition is needed in the article; as it stands it is a little bit open ended leading to different interpretations. The community politics being discussed as I saw it is not ‘grass-roots politics’ or local campaigning (or at least I hope that isn’t what was meant!) but rather the communitarian approach which can often end-up being ‘top-down’ and not bottom up.

    ‘Community politics’ as it stands can often leave the individual feeling left out, seeing the process hijacked by an interest group (or yes, political party acting in harmful way) and driven away from politics precisely because of this. ‘Street politics’ as a concept though is not dead, just the specific type being highlighted here.

  • The thing is, ultimately people don’t really care which party is in power as long as their bins are emptied, the streets are cleaned and the schools are open.

    If we, as elected representatives, fail to address the small things which the electorate need, then we’ll be punished for it – and that goes for any party, not just the Lib Dems.

  • “We should be re-awakening the idealism of the pre-merger Liberal Party”.

    I absolutely agree with Matthew Huntbach, but how? What would a Liberal society look like? If we look at where we are now from the perspective of 60s activists we have achieved a vast amount in some areas: gender politics, animal rights, environmental issues, multiculturalism; and very little in others such as social exclusion, housing, and the creation of built environments to which people can relate. Community politics have a part to play in some of these areas, but we have to recognise too that power has shifted away from the nation state since the 60s into the hands of multinational capitalism so that campaigning for corporate responsibility must also be a key part of whatever form of community or other politics we pursue.

  • Fantastic analysis, Tony. Although I think I take a slightly more optimistic view of what has already been achieved.

    But it begs an enormously challenging question for the party about how it makes itself relevant.

    In recent years we have tapped into a new, liberal minded, aspirant and outward looking constituency. I am sure they would be keen to tackle the issues you point to, Tony. But I am also pretty sure they won’t see getting on to the council’s local area committee as being the way to do it.

    I will leave sectarian debates about the influence of the SDP to, well, the sectarians. The party needs to move on to connect with its potential electorate instead of campaigning for a better yesterday.

  • David Allen 19th Aug '10 - 6:53pm

    Philosophically, community politics was devised as a way of helping individuals and communities take back power from the big organisations – whether central government, local government, business, or trade unions – with powerful vested interests. That principle is still valid, but the tactics are not.

    The focus (and the Focus!) has always been on local government, mainly because we were standing in local government elections. Today, local government is (a) relatively powerless, and (b) often determined not to listen to either local politicians or local people. Councillors are treated as window dressing, central government and CPA govern the priorities, and capping has put an end to genuine local choice and real differences between local political parties. The promise in Focus that we’ll put things right at the Council has become, through no fault of our own, largely unsustainable.

    It is not easy to know what to do about this. In defence of the SDP, they were quite right to believe that most elections are won and lost through the big national televised campaigns. In defence of the Liberals, they were quite right to argue that “Focus” gave us an extra weapon which has been largely responsible for turning us from a small minority party into a large minority party – if you count that as success! Well, we still have the weapon, and we should keep on firing it, but we should recognise that its kill rate is declining.

    I think we should go back to the principles I described in my first paragraph, and try to apply them more widely. First, we need to understand more about how power works from a quasi-Marxist and an “ecological” perspective. It is a jungle of countervailing forces. Thatcher brought us freedom from overbearing trade unions, but an unintended consequence was to leave too much untramelled power with private sector big business.

    The State can of course be a tyrant. But it can also be the countervailing force which provides the only defence we have against tyranny by big business, the military, and the new rich oligarchy which has come to power. The Tories will never allow the State to act in such a way. Labour do not believe in a state under democratic control which serves the people rather than dictating to them. That is our distinctive appeal, if we can articulate it. In our alliance with the Tories we have found it easy to denounce the dictatorial Labour State – but at the expense of signing on to the Tory State, which is an enabling vehicle for the accretion of more personal wealth and power by the people and business who already have it!

  • Dane Clouston:

    “The SDP were a disappointment.”

    I disagree. the SDP brought a whole tranche of people into politics who had never previously been involved (the “political virgins”, as the media called them), along with a phalanx of formidable politicians who had actually been in government.

    “Instead of bringing a concern for equality and equality of opportunity”

    But they did. At least until 1986 when Owen started praising Maggie Thatcher, advocating conscription, obsessing about defence, and generally acting like a dictator.

    “the inegalitarian Gladstone Club LIberals”

    That’s putting it mildly. The Gladstone Club was founded by Roger Pincham as a front organisation for the School of Economic Science, a secret religious cult that is socially authoritarian, misogynistic, advocates child-beating and opposes modern medicine. The Liberal Party could have dealt with Pincham and his fellow entryists, but chose not to, because they were seen as a source of manpower and money.

    “they brought an EU fanaticism”

    There was no real difference between the SDP and Liberal Party position on Europe. Post enlargement, further ingtegration is probably off the agenda for the foreseeable future.

    I agree that community politics needs to be reevaluated, given the overall weakening of local government and the gagging of elected councillors on issues such as planning. But it isn’t all a one-way street. Scrutiny is a recent innovation that expands the role of councillors and takes them into areas, such as health, that were previously outside the remit of local government. Then there is the LSP and the various partnership boards. Councillors could try to open up these committees and get the public involved in their work.

    Geoffrey Payne:

    I wouldn’t write off community politics in London. It has been phenomenally successful in some parts of the capital, even in Brent Central where ethnic minorities are the majority. Look how Lynne Featherstone managed to get 70% of the vote in Muswell Hill, the ward with the highest Labour Party membership in London.

  • Much as I agree with the comments of Matthew Huntbach, David Allen and others – I think we should look back and see what people in the YLs in the late 60s and 70s envisaged from Community Politics, AS WELL AS the point about bottom up power, obviously great in principle. I suppose I am still an anarcho-syndicalist at heart still, but I certainly was 40 years ago!

    The electoral objective was always to grow the party from where it was then by the perceived more easy method, of small bite-sized chunks (one target ward at a time), leading gradually to an unstoppable progress to electing an MP, then two, then ten etc. This has been where the main block is now, from a public opinion and an activist opinion standpoint. Every time the public is asked opinion poll questions about strong points of each party, again and again they point to our “representing them at local level”, “people like us” etc. When we move on to being good at policy issues, we immediately descend to single figure approval ratings. Because I come from areas with strong Liberal traditions, where MPs have been elected without this slow careful build-up, I and others there have been a wee bit sceptical about this. The activist issue is that we have created our own blocks within, by seeming often to be prepared to take on council candidates who may be very good, well-known and respected local community players, but are not really Liberals or Lib Dems. This has restricted the ability of national candidates from expressing fully some of the Lib Dem ideas for Government, internationalism etc. These local candidates have been too parochial, and often not genuinely liberal.

    We are now in the very difficult ideological position as a party that we really need to be challenging the post-Thatcher economic consensus and the big battalions of capitalism on behalf of the ordinary people. This is not a local or community politics issue, but it will obstruct any community solution we try to bring in, and many green actions we would want to see. But we are in a national coalition with a party which holds that consensus dear to its heart. I wish I could see how to deal with this conundrum!

  • Alix – you have hit the nail on the head. Most people don’t want to be dragooned into the ‘ Big Society’ but want to quietly do their own thing for their families and their community. When I was a councillor for the high-rise Aylesbury estate in Southwark I was frustrated at the way officialdom and the whole regeneration circus labelled the place as a sort of human wasteland. When you spent time there you discovered a whole network of friendships and support systems people had built for themselves.Outsiders, however, did not value those networks because a. they were often female and built around unsexy things like childcare and b. those networks were fluid and evolved naturally and it was not possible to co-opt them into any kind of council process with measurable outcomes.

    In an extensive survey 81% of people on ‘my’ estate said they received some form of help from a neighbour – like taking a parcel in for them or fetching them a bit of shopping from the market. Middle class regeneration officers from smarter bits of London (many of whom probably never spoke to their own neighbours!) just looked at the place and saw blight.

    PS Ed I am afraid I agree with Martin about Winchester, it’s the sort of place where people band together to crochet their own community centre!

  • Alix, good posts. My take on it is that plenty of people do want to get involved in community politics, but only if that doesn’t mean party politics! Out here in rural middle-class Rushcliffe, the unsung success of recent years has been local parish councils and support groups comprised of determinedly independent independents who want to get on and do things – setting up allotments, geting a village link road built, buying up the old school for a community hall, etc. The suggestion that they might want to do any of those things for the greater glory of a political party is the kiss of death, hence the determined independence.

    The only way for us politicians to cope, in my view, has been to tell these people how important and useful they are, and to point out that you are only there to help. Even that approach falls over when the local Tories (who do nothing useful) successfully put out vitriolic lies the day before polling day, to the effect that the Lib Dems (who do do useful things) are falsely claiming credit for having done anything at all.

  • I’m disappointed that this thread seems to be fizzling out because the discussion seems so crucial for the Party at this time (and it hasn’t been hijacked by Labour trolls). A couple more points, briefly because I don’t suppose anyone is reading them: Tim13 – yes, I remember “We are all anarcho-syndicalists now”; the industrial democracy element of Liberal Party policy seemed to bite the dust at the time of the merger with the SDP, perhaps because of general industrial decline and the way the trades unions had dug their own grave, but workplace democracy should surely still play a central part in the community politics of the future.
    In my days as a serious community politics activist I used to say that it wasn’t the job of politicians to try to make people happy: now I see that pretty much all that a politician should be doing is facilitating an environment where people can be happy which is why I am so critical of the way the built environment has been so neglected. Obviously we need a society where poverty and ignorance are in retreat, but we also need a richer texture to communal life; to allow the networks and support systems Ruth Bright talks about to grow and flourish from the ground up; seedcorn funding for community enterprise; communities able to apply for exemption from planning controls (within reason); and so on. Let a thousand flowers bloom, and a thousand schools of thought contend!

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Aug '10 - 12:03am

    tonyhill

    but we have to recognise too that power has shifted away from the nation state since the 60s into the hands of multinational capitalism

    Yes, which is all the reason more why community politics, as it was originally envisaged, is so vital, or would have been so vital had it been allowed not just to live but to flourish and develop.

    It was a way of getting people to think about politics in a way that wasn’t “politics” as they thought it was i.e. blokes in suits talking down to them. It was a way of showing how the problems they experienced in every day life were due to politics without never getting that far because they’ve slammed the door in your face saying “Bah, politics, not interested in that”.

    The only the way the power of big corporations and the power of wealth is going to be challenged is by people getting together to do it. Getting together and learning how they’ve been diddled by the powers that be – maybe government, maybe the big corporations – and making changes by not accepting what is supposed to be inevitable. Community politics was meant to work in partnership with other sorts of politics, yes, but the aim was to get people involved by starting with small local things and building up.

    A lot of it was quite naive, yes, in particular I think we never properly sorted out the problem that strong communities are also often quite exclusive. In some ways it tried to do what old-style Labour was trying to do through the Trade Unions, but unlike them not based around the workplace. That’s why I, as a working class southerner, was attracted to it, because I could see that Labour’s Trade Union workplace culure didn’t work as well in the south where we didn’t have the big unionised industries which existed then (and don’t now, of course).

  • Vincent Smith 3rd Sep '10 - 8:47pm

    So, “There Is No Such Thing As Community/Communities” and someone else wants Popular Capitalism! I suppose this the kind discussion you would expect to read as the Lib Dems in the Coalition era.

    Please forgive me for my cyncicsm, but this article seems little more than ideological cover for the future local election losses and the inevitable and not long delayed need to get a bit more intellectually comfy with the Conservatives and shed the more “left-wing” and radical elements of the liberal identiy under the guise of modernization and adjusting to social change.

    Strangely, there ‘s weird symmetry with Tories in this rather navel-gazing discussion, as they have (re-)discovered the Big Society just as you coming up with a load of cod sociological arguments about why ‘communities’ don’t exist exist and we are all freewheeling individuals in a post-modern society etc

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