Opinion: How can the community politics approach reform the Coalition?

“All change, all change here!” That was the shout of the bus-conductor as we reached the terminus. If only we had realised what a profound philosopher he was. For he is no more, nor is his role, nor the structure of society he inhabited.

Change and how to cope with it is at the heart of every human decision. The conservative wishes to take a measured step based on hard facts taken from experience. The progressive predicts the shape of the future and confidently proposes a radical leap.

By contrast, the community politician, the ideas behind whose activism we have begun to look at, has a very different approach.

Recognizing that the structure of communities in society is always changing, we appreciate that the political and social structures to which they give rise must also continuingly change.

Our interest is in constantly matching a changed distribution of political power to those changed circumstances throughout the whole of society.

Greaves and Lishman write, “The movement for change must thus possess the characteristics of the society it wishes to create. It must be democratic, participatory, decentralised, community oriented, diverse, creative, dynamic, experimental and tremendous fun. As it grows it will become itself the very society it is campaigning to create”.

Our task is to create new political structures, mobilising people to take control of their own affairs, to take power and to use it.

Although this process is in itself liberal, the goals and style of those communities need not be liberal. We have therefore a second task which is, having stimulated action by communities to take and use power, to campaign for liberal values and practice, so that the power taken is used in liberal ways for liberal causes.

This involves working simultaneously within and outside the established political system, and was termed by the early exponents of community politics The Dual Approach.

Greaves and Lishman explain it thus: “We work through the established political structures not to win and exercise power but to remodel that structure itself; to create a new generation of political institutions corresponding to the reality of the pattern of communities that exist within society; to break down the centralised power structure of our society so that no single person or group possesses disproportionate power and all people and groups share the responsibility for controlling their own affairs”.

By campaigning within communities (outside) we are not just able to win access to and influence over decisions taken by authorities and parliaments (inside), we are creating on the ground (outside) the habits and institutions of community politics.

According to Greaves and Lishman, “The advantages of building up the party to fight elections, win power and exert influence, are that its elected members can respond to the pressures, they can use the resources of the system, they can facilitate, enable, even finance the movement towards community awareness and community control”.

The question is, are we using the influence we have in the Coalition to these ends?

‘Inside’, have we changed the way things are done or have we accepted the prevailing structures of policy decision taking, of White Paper production, of Bill drafting, of the Parliamentary monopoly over debate and amendment?

Are we creatively involving backbenchers and PPC’s who along with their local activists, could mount campaigns ‘outside’ that are ‘democratic, participatory, decentralised, community oriented, diverse, creative, dynamic, experimental and tremendous fun’?

First it requires in our leadership and Ministers knowledge of the Dual Approach and a commitment to it. Then, we need the determination to negotiate a change in the current structure by which decisions are taken so that it is conducive to the Dual Approach. Finally, we need a knowledgeable campaigning arm to help our Ministers involve our grassroots, and to provide the activists with support and collateral to communicate and involve people within relevant communities in a way that encourages them to take and use power – not least, the power to influence decision making that affects them directly. This is not the same as knowing how to fight and win elections, though skills overlap.

We missed the bus on the chance to use this process over the funding of higher education, but the Health and Social Care Bill is parked up, the passengers demanding a new driver and a new route.

A community politics approach would take more time than a ‘pause’, but it would result in better legislation provided all the communities within the overarching health community could be involved.

Rather than being handed down from a Health Secretary, a new bill could be built up from the needs, the experience and the commitment of those communities of patients, relatives, the at-present healthy, the volunteers, the professionals and even the managers.

The Party President chided us that, “too many Lib Dems have drifted from the sort of community politics that we have prided ourselves on in the past, or else been too busy to practice”.  With a new Health Bill conceived in a way that provided campaigning opportunities for all, and not just Liberal Democrats, there would be no hiding place for any of us.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Good article, but I disagree with your charaterisation of Conservatives and Radicals. Conservatives – all too frequently – don’t want change at all, there is often no need to move in a direction at all. It is the Radicals who agitate and cajole the Conservatives into slow progress.

  • Thoughtful article, but much too generous to conservatives, who tend to oppose change largely because the status quo suits them and their families just fine, or because they have a fear of the unknown.

  • Andrew Waller 2nd Jun '11 - 3:54pm

    This once again ignores the engagement with councillors. Many of us achieved far more in implementing campaigns and Lib Dem policies as councillors than as PPCs, I have done both, but I know that once I was not a PPC I ceased to exist, despite for three years being at the helm of an organisation with a £400 million annual budget.

  • I note your disappointment with the response to the first part of your article, Bill. I considered posting something yesterday but found it really hard to untangle the theories of community politics from my experiences in the years when I was trying to facilitate it as a Liberal Party and community activist. Unsurprisingly I take an optimistic view of human and societal progress: our campaigns of the sixties and seventies were influential in creating a society in which there is a more equal balance of power between men and women, tolerance of sexual diversity, reasonably harmonious relations between the many cultural and ethnic groups, greater awareness of our responsibilities towards animals, a general agreement that caring for our environment is important, and so on. I am proud of what I did in those years because I helped move our society by a microscopic degree in those directions. But I was single, and anti-materialist so that I didn’t need to earn much money, allowing a lot of time campaigning. When I found a partner, and had a family, and needed to earn a reasonable living to pay the mortgage the campaigning gradually diminished, and since the recession of the early 90s I have done virtually nothing politically because keeping a business running has been so hard. Activist ‘burn-out’ has always been a problem with our form of community politics, but the time demands on modern parents are also such that I question the continuing viability of the community politics model (and those demands are also the rocks on which the Big Society and free schools are likely to founder).

  • Bill le Breton 2nd Jun '11 - 7:53pm

    Tony, not disappointment, just concern that I’d failed to connect. You should be proud of what you achieved and relaxed that in another part of your life the nature of the commitment had to change. I bet you recruited a few people to the task during that time too. It all has to be cumulative, surely?

    Andrew, councillors are the front line, but the piece seeks to convince the leadership that the way they are making decisions is too remote and distanced from the communities of communities that a community politics approach would seek to involve. The title is How Com Pol could reform the Coalition. I am sure that as a councillor you are practicing it. I am also sure that the leadership thinks it is irrelevant to the ‘grand strategy’ of Central Government.

    Colin thank you for making that point about the small ‘c’ better than I did. I also wonder if classing ourselves as radical is helpful now as it carries so much baggage. Radicalism does involve a leap into the unknown. When a fully informed and fully involved community makes radical change of that nature, I think it has the authority and the legitimacy to ‘give it a try’. But when decision takers from afar and without authentically involving the people who are affected by those decisions, then, although they are being radical surely they are taking power away from those same people.

    Adrian you have put your finger on the real political spectrum that we should use instead of ‘left and right’: “the distinction between those who win power in order to demonstrate they can exercise it better than others, and those who wish to take power to demonstrate they really are different from the others as they give that power back to the people.”

    Henry, John and Simon: the thoughts are all Bernard and Gordon’s – except the one you three raise. Yet it is the one that goes to the heart of the matter – the distinctive Liberal approach as it contrasts with both a conservatism that denies, resists or fears change and a radical/progressive approach that, unless it helps people and communities take and use power themselves, is just an imposition of a decision that may be right but is fundamentally disempowering.

    The Dual Approach is clear: round one, win help people take and use power; round two convince them to use it in a Liberal way.

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