Opinion: Have we forgotten the basics of community politics?

Do we still do community politics? “Of course we do,” all Lib Dems will say, particularly after press comments on Lorely Burt’s “dog poo” speech at a conference fringe meeting. But I’m not so sure.

A while back when I advised residents to use the local Text the Council number to report flytipping etc, my colleague, a hard working ex-councillor was horrified. ‘Don’t do that,” he told me, “get them to text you so that we get the credit for reporting it.”

And of course we do that all the time and it earns us votes.

But wasn’t part of the point of community politics, as set out in the 1970s by the ALC and the Young Liberals, to create an empowered citizenry, to help residents to take responsibility for their neighbourhoods and hopefully absorb Liberal values in doing so?

Did the fact that it also brought electoral success lead to a dilution of the original ideal – are we instead contributing to disengagement from politics, setting ourselves up as Mr Fixits and encouraging the attitude that “they” should do something about it?

I’m sure Lorely Burt’s speech was more nuanced than it’s been reported, but the “dog poo” headlines show that Mr Fixit is how we’re perceived – and imitated.

The active UKIP councillor who’s taken my seat epitomises the debasement of community politics this can lead to.

To every misinformed grumble, every half-baked notion, his reply is invariably ‘Yes, I’ll get that done for you.” And if it proves costly, the council must simply demand more money from Whitehall to pay for it. Or he’ll have himself photographed pruning an overgrown bush – ignoring the fact that our grounds staff have a schedule for that sort of work that takes account of growing and nesting seasons.

I believe I worked as hard as my successor, contacted every household many times, took up myriad problems.

But I always took the approach: “Is what you want a good thing? Can it be done? Is it affordable – and if it’s not, is there something else that would help?”

And as far as possible I tried to engage residents in campaigning for achievable solutions, and keep them engaged thereafter. Many of our local helpers and members have come to us  in that way.

I think most Lib Dems do likewise. But let’s be honest – we’ve won more than a few elections with the Mr Fixit approach, giving the illusion of community politics rather than the real deal.

Now, in the short term at any rate, the illusion is working for the bad guys.

If we’re serious about devolving power across the country, let’s not lose sight of the original ideal.

Let’s make sure we’re encouraging our residents to exercise power with responsibility. The more they do so, the less likely they are to fall for the snake-oil salesmen of UKIP.

* Jim Forrest is the chair of Fareham Liberal Democrats

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14 Comments

  • matt (Bristol) 13th Nov '14 - 3:07pm

    Bang. This article nails bang-on an issue that bugs many people who work in local government about how councillors and politcians of all parties can be tempted to operate…

  • Martin Land 13th Nov '14 - 5:39pm

    Speaking as a 1970s Young Liberal, I can assure you that it was ever thus. The leadership only ever saw it as a device to help gain power and not an end in itself.

    The central platform was to empower communities and to enable them to make judgements for themselves.

    Wait till after the election and an MP will come forward trumpeting Community Politics as the way forward for the party when what he will actually mean is a way forward for him and his Westminster-centric aim of gaining seats and power. I could even predict which MP….

  • Steve Comer 13th Nov '14 - 5:41pm

    Jim’s post reminds me of the story of an Independent Councillor who kept getting re-elected against the trend in a town in Wales 20-30 years ago. Every month he would visit the Public Works Dept and find out what work they were doing in his ward over the next few weeks. Armed with that information he’d knock on a few doors in those area and when people complained about the roads, pavement, state of the play area etc. he’d say “I’ll get the Council to fix it in the next 2-3 weeks.” He’d then call on them again after the work had been completed! Cynical? Of course, it didn’t help his residents one bit, but he served years on the Council, and he was in politics to be something not to do something.

    The point is imitation of Community Politics is the sincerest form of flattery, but while other parties can mimic some of the methods and techniques, its pretty skin deep because they don’t share the theory and philosophy of Community Politics which is unique to Liberals do.

    Our approach should always be to engage residents, and campaign with them, and hope they recognize who is doing the hard work on their behalf and who is just interested in being re-elected. The trouble for many people like Jim and I in recent years is that however much you do that, you may only be engaging those who care as much as you do about the area they live in. If other voter’s prime aim in an election is to cast a protest against the National Government, we can get swept away in the tide. It took decades s to build up our strength in urban England, yet Clegg and the Orange Bookers have managed to destroy that base for us in a few short years.

    I really hoped that after yet another cull of hard working Liberal Democrat Councillors and MEPs in May 2014 the national party would have some understanding about whet they’ve lost and what we need to do to rebuild.
    Unfortunately it seems not. We’re getting a “more of the same” message form the political leadership of the party in Westminster. And the message from the campaign wing based in “Paddy’s wheelhouse” is to keep haranguing already stretched activists to do more door knocking, more telephoning , deliver more leaflets, more more more of everything. We’ve even aped the terminology of Blairites with ‘Key Performance Indicators’ and the like! Just as we got rid of this crap from Local Government we’ve brought it back to measure our own value. Manic mindless activism seems to have become and end in itself rather than a means to an end.

    Is it any wonder why so many hard working former LIberal Democrat Councillors are reluctant to keep banging their heads against a brick wall? The party seems determined to work people until they burn out, then hope they can recruit another generation to do the same. Trouble is the next generation are not attracted to join the third largest establishment unionist party, and I regret that is how we are now seen by many who would at one time have been our supporters.

  • Bill le Breton 13th Nov '14 - 7:39pm

    What a first rate piece. ” … the point of community politics, as set out in the 1970s by the ALC and the Young Liberals, to create an empowered citizenry, to help residents to take responsibility for their neighbourhoods and hopefully absorb Liberal values in doing so”

    The kinds of deception you criticize are indeed the antithesis of liberalism. It is about creating dependency. Sad to see it as the centre piece of the Party’s campaigning.

  • Thanks to Jim Forrest for a very good article.
    To underline Jim’s conclusion the following might interest readers. It is from an interview with Graham Tope who was elected as MP for Sutton and Cheam in the early 1970s.
    In 2014, when our party seems incapable of even saving a deposit in a parliamentary by-election it seems highly relevant.

    So how did you win the Sutton and Cheam byelection?

    Graham Tope:– Yes, how did a 29 year-old Young Liberal, who was openly pro-Europe, pro-comprehensive education and with very liberal views on immigration, win a suburban constituency, where those were certainly not the prevailing views? Moreover, how was it achieved with a record swing of 33% for a party on 8% in the opinion polls, on a day when that party was losing its deposit in another byelection in another London suburb only ten miles away?

    In part, of course, it was anti-government. But it had to be more than that. I had succeeded in persuading local people that I was the local ‘action man’ who got things done.I was shaking theTory complacency which had always dominated the area.Those who had always felt unrecognised and ignored believed they had found a champion. Quite simply, I had convinced them that the Liberal campaign slogan ‘Graham Tope is on Your Side’ was actually true!

    None of this really had much to do with community politics.That came after the byelection. I realised we were getting there a few months after the byelection when a couple came to the surgery (another innovation for Sutton!) about a local problem and said:‘we know it’s not your way to solve it for us; we want you to help us solve it for ourselves’. They didn’t know it was called ‘community politics’, but they did know it was about politicians working with people, not just for them.

    Liberal Democrat History Group Newsletter 14: March 1997 

    For the full article –http://www.liberalhistory.org.uk/uploads/14_tankard_the_sutton_and_cheam_byelection.pdf

  • Julian Dean 14th Nov '14 - 8:17am

    How do LA’s such as Brum, Liverpool and Knowsley roll out localism and empower locals when this coalition has slashed their settlements by upto 50%? Surely nothing more than fulfilling statutory duties can be expected.

  • Daniel Henry 14th Nov '14 - 9:17am

    I agree with the post and the comments, but it leads to the question: “what changes do we need to make as a party to actually embody community politics?”

    I guess for starters, how would we change ALDC?

  • Interesting. Empower people to make decisions.

    But what happens if you empower people to make their own decisions… and then you don’t like the decisions they make? What if it turns out that, in fact, they are not liberals and you’ve just empowered a bunch of conservatives?

    Seems you’d have shot yourself in the foot a bit there.

  • Oh Dav, was Animal Farm written in vain? Didn’t the pigs’ despotism result from convincing the other animals they knew best? Democracy often results in bad, illiberal decisions. But the more citizens we engage in it, the more likely they are to look beyond selfish interests.

  • Bill le Breton 14th Nov '14 - 10:46am

    Dav, if you don’t work with people to help them take and use power in their communities you are effectively monopolizing the information you have to exploit people or to make them dependent on your patronage. There is no middle way.

    Yes, they might use their new familiarity with their own power and go and vote for another party, but that party will fairly quickly block their use of that power again. And the process continues. That’s why I am confident that Jim will already be leading that ‘next round of’ insurgency.

    It is also important to use every opportunity to change the structure of bodies such as Councils (and dare I say it central Government) so it becomes harder and harder to reverse matters.

    Liberals and then Liberal Democrats through the Eighties and beyond made huge strides in opening up councils to scrutiny. When I started there was always a part II agenda. For a brief time the staff and managers of local authorities became used to being more open and then more responsive, as well as more accountable.

    Then of course someone who’d never experienced life in such an old fashioned authority dreamt up the idea of cabinets (which became obsessively secret) with ill-funded scrutiny apparatus. And then, not satisfied with that, they became obsessed with the idea of elected Mayors who have carte blanche to be virtually untouchable.

    Daniel is a great asker of really good questions. What do we do? It is very difficult. For instance I have noted how two of the candidates for Party President have made references to ‘caring FOR people’ and other similar examples. So it is really ingrained now.

    I have always disliked the use of ’empowering’ as a concept and have tried to make the point here before. To empower is to suggest that YOU can GIVE people power. That is largesse – it is patronage. I really think that this is mentally a poor habit of thinking that can start the slide. No, Liberals help people take and use their innate power and potential among the people with whom they interact. When someone has designed an institution that stops people using their power we work with those self same people to exercise their own power again within their community.

  • Democracy often results in bad, illiberal decisions

    I was just (still) amused by the idea that Liberal Democrats seem to have that everybody is really a liberal at heart, and if they think they aren’t then they must just not have had things explained to them in a way they can understand.

    (Actually what really amuses me is the way this leads to even greater and greater condescension, followed by the inevitable shock and confusion over why the people they so carefully condescended to aren’t voting for them).

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 14th Nov '14 - 12:10pm

    Seems some people will always confuse ‘for’ and ‘with’ – of course they don’t confuse but are debating. Let’s hope.

  • Well, Dav, only totalitarians believe everybody can be made to think their way.

    Liberals are always aware that hate, greed and stupidity exist. We fight them.

    Back in the early 70s I remember John Pardoe MP being asked about his support for democracy and his opposition to capital punishment, given that polls showed most of his constituents didn’t agree with him. He said, in effect, “They know where I stand on it and if they vote for me, they vote knowing where I stand.”

    We could do with some more of that.

    As for the original post – spot on. It’s very easy to see how the original concept has been devalued, but in the long run it hurts us electorally too. Anyone else with the time and energy can get potholes fixed. Neither Tories nor Labour nor UKIP will work to help set up a campaign or residents’ association to change the local environment and not seek to dominate it. Labour in particular will insist on making it “A Labour campaign”.

    But of course community politics was also supposed to feed through into higher levels of decision-making: if the local community didn’t have the power to fix the problem, fight to get them the power. I don’t see much of that from this government.

  • Tony Dawson 15th Nov '14 - 1:46pm

    The true answer to the headline question is that many of us have NEVER forgotten Community Politics is – but unfortunately too many in the upper echelons of the Party these days have drifted into positions of power on the back of work done over decades by other – without ever having had the slightest inkling of what Community Politics involves.

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