Opinion: In London, community politics must be less about geography and more about life choices

bicycle route signOn September 22, my friend and London Region Lib Dem colleague Anthony Fairclough wrote in excellent fashion on these pages regarding the particular challenges, and hurdles, that are dampening the party’s prospects in many parts of London.

Anthony made many well informed and cogent points, but the one I wish to pay particular heed to is his reference to our party in the past assuming that we would win votes because we are the party of local campaigners, the party which gets casework done.

While the UK is replete with Lib Dems who do the casework, fix the potholes, get the trees pared back, and win elections, in inner London there are many who achieve all of the above, except the getting elected part.

This is not a reflection on the many candidates, and former councillors who were not elected in May, rather it is a reflection of the fact that our party needs a new approach to inner London.

Anthony sought submissions for ‘simple, liberal ideas’, and I hope his inbox is full, for so many of our London members have the knowledge and nous to create a Liberal manifesto for London that knocks our rivals offerings into a cocked hat.

But the first sliver of the London solution must be about how we communicate those ideas. In the rural and suburban heartlands from where our party draws its strength, we can unite the voters behind us by dividing them into collections of wards, polling districts, streets, and deliver a personalised political service our rivals cannot match.

But, as Anthony alludes to, this approach is not working in London. And perhaps that is because we, as a party of rural hinterlands and suburban heartlands, have neglected to realise that inner London cannot be categorised in the same way.

It is an inner city of younger people, many not native to London, who are transient in their social habits, and often, at a time of rising rents,  in the areas in which they live, moving to be nearer work, friends or education Their compass is not the geographical community in which they live, but the transport options they can access to be part of the non-geographical communities of which they wish to be part.

A cyclist in east London has far more in common with a cyclist in west London than they do with a neighbour whom they may never have met, and concerns about potholes are unlikely to bridge that gap.

A London parent, has more in common, in a political context, with other London parents, than with a childless neighbour.

In his piece, Anthony laid down a challenge to London Liberal Democrats to make a new offer to London voters in time for 2016. The first step must be to recognise that, in London, the community politics which is our national trademark, must be less about geography, and more about life choices if we are to make London a Liberal Democrat, and not just a liberal city.

* David Thorpe was the Liberal Democrat Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for East Ham in the 2015 General Election

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32 Comments

  • A very true and interesting post. The political implications for Lib Dems though will be profound as the – identify a local issue, campaign on it and win your seat on the local council, – will be much more difficult. This is of course exacerbated by the fact that in many areas post 2014 there are no Lib Dems at all to gain the advantage of a campaign run elsewhere in the capital.

  • Bill le Breton 29th Sep '14 - 1:55pm

    I am a bit confused, David. Community Politics has never been about purely geographical communities – it has always been about seeing people as being memres of exactly the differing and over lapping types of community you refer to. Have you ever read the literature or talked to one of our top community politicians like Tope or Williams or Tilley or Hitchens?

    Nor is community politics about ‘doing case work’. The special relationship is created by helping people in their communities take and use power. Doing casework to win elections is creating dependency. It is the reverse of Liberalism.

    In fact if you imagine the hypothetically most effective Liberal campaigners they wouldn’t be doing any casework at all. For two reasons. The idea of community politics is to help people take and use power. So, at the ultimate, everone in the community would know how to get things done for themselves and their neighbours or fellow community members. And secondly because Liberal Demopcrat councillors will created a local authority that responds to the needs and wishes of the communities which they serve it will always be communicating with its CITIZENS to see what needs to be done.

    The difficulty that London campaigners have is also shared by those seeking election in wards made up of large and diverse populations and communities. Well, Liverpool, Sheffield and Newcastle Lib Dems have done this across entire cities . They didn’t gain majorities by only representing certain types of geographical communities in certain types of wards. And at the micro level, Lib Dems in other great cities and urban areas have managaed to win wards of similarly large and diverse communities.

    London is no exception. We once controlled Tower Hamlets and revolutionised the delivery of services based on Neighbourhoods in an incredibly imaginative and popular way. Ditto Islington. And really Kingston, Richmond and Sutton won because of their long standing commitment to and skilful practice of Community Politics, not becuase the population thought it ‘hip’ to vote Lib Dem.

    Perhaps as a early step you could invite some experieced community politicians from those councils to come and talk to you about BOTH the theory and practice of community politics.

  • It has to be said that in most areas of inner London, the threat is most obviously from Labour and also the Greens to some extent. On a very low turnout, the impact of national issues at a local level was what swung it most. People voted on these (“I don’t like the Coalition,” “You let us down on tuition fees”, “You’re privatising the NHS”. etc etc.), rather than on the local matters at stake in the election. And at a national level, there is very little support for the party indeed. Nick Clegg’s parlous performance in the European debates and subsequent press drubbing also did us no favours on the doorstep.

    What is more, traditional forms of campaigning like leaflets and door knocking have limited reach in areas where people are either out or away 90% of the time, don’t come to the door and put leaflets straight in their recycling. I certainly agree that traditional community politics as practised by the Lib Dems is broken in large parts of London – certainly in my part. But whether it will be possible to replace it with something that allows us to target and win wards in an effective manner in future is another matter.

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Sep '14 - 2:53pm

    David Thorpe

    While the UK is replete with Lib Dems who do the casework, fix the potholes, get the trees pared back, and win elections, in inner London there are many who achieve all of the above, except the getting elected part.

    That’s an indication of how the initial radical ideas of community politics got distorted until it became almost the opposite of what it was meant to be. It was not meant to be about Liberals coming in as political fixers and solving all your local problems. It was meant to be about people “taking power for themselves”. The idea of the activity in potholes etc was just as a way of getting people to think, and to break away from conventional approaches to politics, and to show that things don’t have to be as they are assumed to be. That original radical idea is needed now even more than it was then, because it was all about tackling the detachment which many feel from conventional politics, which was a big problem even in the 1970s, but is so much more a problem now.

    The potholes etc thing was a way to get people to read political leaflets when if they came across as “political leaflets” they’d be thrown in the bin without a further glance. So in the early days of Focus we were urged NOT to make it an obvious “Liberal leaflet”, instead it should come across as some sort of local initiative by local people. Which, since it was local Liberal Party members, is just what it was. However, Focus was not supposed to be covered in party political logos, or be full of party political language, or have pictures of national party leaders on it. It was, in fact, supposed to have a rather amateurish look, most definitely not to look like something put together by ad-men and marketing professionals. Local government issues worked to get people to look at it, people liked to read about what was going in around them. But it had to be made genuine interesting reading, not a party political sale pitch.

    The idea was that this would be used to introduce more general political discussion, but not in a way that came across as “conventional politics”. Potholes and trees being pared back could be used to move on to more general discussion on environmental and budgetary issues. All this would also help get across the message that the people producing Focus were not strange alien “politicians”, working as the fab club of some national leader who directed them in everything they did. No, the people producing Focus were shown by what was in it as being local people who had decide to come together to get things done about their neighbourhood. Which is what a local branch of a political party IS, or at least should be.The message was that you didn’t have to be anyone special to do this, any group of people could get together and do the same. It was all about breaking the barriers that stop people from getting involved in politics, all the misconceptions about it, the idea that “it’s not for the likes of us”, the idea that being a member of a political party means giving up one’s own personality and ideas and becoming a brainwashed salesperson for the national party etc.

    The idea of the local election victory that this led to was a continuation of this. By this time, people were aware that Focus was being produced by a local branch of the Liberal Party, but putting it across as “Liberal Focus Team” helped keep up the idea that it was this group of locals who had got together to do all this. That it resulted in Liberal councillors being elected was meant to work as a shock. Remember, this was in time when the Liberal Party was considered a sort of historical relic, and Liberal councillors were few and far between. So the fact that one got elected was seen as amazing. Especially when it happened in a wards where “Labour always win round here” or “The Conservatives always win round here”. The idea was to demonstrate that actually things CAN be changed by the ballot box, that politics is not just a waste of time, that you don’t have to vote the same way all your life because “that’s how I always vote”, that a political campaign that can win election doesn’t have to look like a standard top-down party politics campaign.

    What happened with this, however, was that it was TOO successful.It worked so well to get local councillors elected that it became forgotten that this was just meant to be a demonstration. The election of local councillors became the end point. Also it was forgotten that a big part of what it was about was to demonstrate that local people could get together and get things done. So it became about Liberal Democrat activists doing the getting things done and boasting about how wonderful they were for it, rather than saying “Hey, look, anyone can do this, but we’ve got this network that will help you with it” (which is what a national political party SHOULD be). It became about being a sales pitch for the national party, rather than about breaking the barriers that stop people getting involved.

    Another thing that pushed it this way was that community politics got going in the Liberal Party just as the SDP got formed.The SDP was all about politics as being about the national leaders, with a fancy top-down marketing approach produced by professionals. They poured scorn on the supposedly amateurish Liberals, told then they were “sleepy” and that they would show them how to win votes. In reply to this, Liberal activists tended to take the approach “We’ll show you”, and pushed harder and harder the methodology to prove it worked. Which it did – the national media was full of reporting of the SDP-Liberal Alliance (as they called it) being all about the SDP with the Liberals as just a fringe aspect, while in reality it was mostly Liberals doing the local work and winning the votes, and the council seats. However, I think this “we’ll show you” attitude was damaging in the end. It took over, and meant the original endpoint and radical ideas behind the methodology was lost. Winning local elections became the be-all and end-all. In fact this was quite a good example of how competition so often drives down quality. The focus becomes winning the points in the competition but missing the real quality the points are meant to measure.

    Mostly the people who joined the SDP at local level were good people, but it took time to persuade them that this strange alternative approach to politics worked. The sort of person who joined the SDP was often the sort of person who would have joined the Liberals had they been living in a place where the Liberal Party had got going and was running an active local campaign. There was no big ideological differences between the two parties, which is why the merger at the end went very smoothly. The big differences and antagonisms were at the top, with the leadership of the SDP and the right-wing of the Liberal party together wanting a more top-down marketing-men approach, and this was what won out in the merger, the patter of political party they wanted triumphed, and community politics was reduce to a marketing trick.

    However I think now, over 25 years since the merger, we can see that the problem of detachment from party politics that community politics was about resolving has become much worse. The top-down marketing-men approach, which we were urged then was the way to win votes, has failed. So, I think we need to go back and look at the original radical ideas that were behind community politics, not the methodology they turned into. They are badly needed now. There may be some new way they can be applied, something which takes them further.

    So, maybe David I am agreeing with you here. I am not sure, however, of the extent to which you are aware of the history behind it, and I would urge you not just to dismiss community politics as being about super-heroes solving pothole problems.

  • david thorpe 29th Sep '14 - 3:05pm

    You don;t ever see that many lib dem leaflets go out that don’t have a candidate emoting over a pothole-thats a geographical concern and categorisation….as are the references common to mostr LD leaflets-to someone who is active in thewir local community-we also refer to people as ‘local campiagners’ all geographical concerns and refernecs-of course community politics can be more than that-but we dont often practoice it in that way….being local ficxesers ‘working all year round’ is what we sell ourselves as…and im afraid it will limit us until the day arrives when candidtaes in cities arnt photo’d emoting like half wits over potholes…

  • David Thorpe
    Bill le Breton has already said much of what needs to be said.
    You seem to be criticising a misconception of community politics, or maybe someody’s corruption of the approach.
    People who think it is all about winning council elections in defined geographical units are not even half right. That may explain their lack of success.
    The ‘dual approach’ of community politics is about working with people to take and use power both inside and outside established institutions such as local councils.
    To take your example — “…A cyclist in east London has far more in common with a cyclist in west London than they do with a neighbour whom they may never have met, and concerns about potholes are unlikely to bridge that gap…”
    You may be aware of a particularly successful cycling campaign which has been going on in London in which a leading figure is one Donnachadh McCarthy. Sadly no longer a member of our party Donnachadh is a community politician by instinct and by personal example. If you kow nothing about this cross London cycling campaign check out Donnachadh on Facebook. You can also subscribe to his new book about poitical corruption — The Prostitute State — which I think is being launched tomorrow. Or you can read about his multitude of community campaigns that are outwith electoral politics.

    It could be argued that since ceasing to be a Liberal Democrat councillor in Southwark Donnachadh has been more of a politician without seeking elecion but achieving success in a number of different non-geographic communities.

    This is not to say that winning council elections is unimportant. In the same way as winning elections within a trade union is unimportant if you are member of a union, but it I not the only form of trade union activity, nor is it the only form of workplace community. The public can soon see through the cynical practice of building a vote gathering machine to elect people who pretend that they are community politicians.

    If you have a corrupted vision of community politics and believe it is all about populism and casework and fooling people into thinking Mr Fixit is the person to vote for because he will do everything you will fail. Even temporary success will resut in burnout because in reality nobody can be an omnipotent Mr Fixit.

    RC also makes the perfectly valid points aout this year’s London election which Liberal Democrats need to take on board and take steps to change.

    If your campaign locally is completely overshadowed by and thereby undermined by a national campaign which concentrates on Nick Clegg it is very diificult for your local candidates to win however well entrenched they are in their local communities The man who has removed all trust in Liberal Democrats at all levels was the problem in London in May, not community politics. Clegg is the most unpopular and useless leader the party has ever had. He has been busily reducing us to 6% in the opinion polls in the run up to May’s General Election having demolished our party in the European Parliament and year after year in council elections across the country, not just London. Rather than reject community politics you should be getting rid of Clegg.

  • Simon McGrath 29th Sep '14 - 6:12pm

    Some excellent points which reflect the reality of parts of London where people have no strong affiliation to the areas they happen to live in and where people move frequently – very different from the outer London suburbs like Sutton.

    Bill le Breton and Matthew Huntbach are continuing the old myth that there was a golden age in the Party in which we practiced ‘real’ community politics. I don’t doubt that was the intention of its founders but in practice for at least the last 30 years it has meant a focus on low level, populist parochial activity which in reality any party could have done. This can of course still be very effective in winning elections – see Guildford and Epping last week for example.

  • David tHORPE 29th Sep '14 - 6:13pm

    John,

    John your repsonse is typcial of thue mindset that causes the lib dems to fail, rather than deal with the structural problmes our party have, of shiufting demographics and camopigan methods whicht he other parties have caught up with us on, the howling mob just say blame the leader and when he goes we start agin and all is well, well it wont be, it will be better with a more popular and less silyl leader, but it wont be anything like where a party with some of the supremely talented people we have could be, if we started asking ourselves the tough questions we need to, and also pondering the tough questions the electorate give, us, rather than thinking short-term and lying to electroate, whcih is what we do now….some polciies that arent mornioic beyond belief would also be nice, but you know, one step at a time…

  • To get your copy of Donnachadh McCarthy’s latest book go to —-

    http://www.theprostitutestate.co.uk/buy.html

  • “That’s an indication of how the initial radical ideas of community politics got distorted until it became almost the opposite of what it was meant to be.”

    If you want to see “community politics” in action come to a UKIP meeting.

    That is where grassroots politic action is taking place in this country now (since the indyref finished)), you speak for no-one. You LibLabCon guys with your scripted PR conferences and media strategies speak for the elite not the people.

    More, you know this to be true and hate the fact.

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Sep '14 - 11:05pm

    Simon McGrath

    Bill le Breton and Matthew Huntbach are continuing the old myth that there was a golden age in the Party in which we practiced ‘real’ community politics. I don’t doubt that was the intention of its founders but in practice for at least the last 30 years it has meant a focus on low level, populist parochial activity which in reality any party could have done.

    Well, I think that is what I was saying: that there were some radical ideas at the start, but it quickly became more of an election fighting technique with the sole aim of winning local elections. However, I think that on the whole the underlying liberalism of those involved meant it avoided the worst of pure populism. I think this is shown by the way that when others tried it they never quite managed to get it right. I think it did lead to some genuine innovations, and to some very valuable electoral competition which broke the complacency of those places where politics had been dominated by just one party.

    The saddest aspect of the collapse of the Liberal Democrats under Clegg’s leadership is the return to one-party domination of places where we had once broken it. The London Borough of Lewisham where I had once led a sizeable opposition now returned to an almost complete one-party state. The various local authorities in my home county of Sussex where once we challenged the Tories closely now “true blue” again.

    UKIP are trying to fill the gap in these places, and I think they show up all the Liberal Democrats avoided. I see UKIP as far more cynical populists, far more than “community politics” even at its degenerate worst, about whipping up and exploiting people’s fears, telling them what they want to hear, while having an underlying agenda which they hide from the plebs and which is very different.

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Sep '14 - 11:09pm

    Simon

    You LibLabCon guys with your scripted PR conferences and media strategies speak for the elite not the people.

    And you, with your right-wing Thatcherite MPs joining you, your policies of big tax cuts for the rich, claiming to be on the side of the people against the elite? I’ll most certainly NOT be lectured at by the tools of the global super-rich masquerading as being on the side of the people which is what YOU are, simon if you really are in UKIP.

  • Matthew :
    “…telling them what they want to hear, while having an underlying agenda which they hide from the plebs……”
    I’ve noticed that you are fond of the word *plebs*, which pepper-pots many of your comments. I don’t think you will garner many votes by suggesting that folks that don’t have your world view are lower functioning fools who have a lack of refinement.? Might be best to let someone else draft the campaign leaflets?
    “….your [Ukip], policies of big tax cuts for the rich…..,
    You mean like the Ukip policy to raise the tax threshold to £13,500, to end the absurdity of taxing minimum wage workers?

  • “Bill le Breton and Matthew Huntbach are continuing the old myth that there was a golden age in the Party in which we practiced ‘real’ community politics. I don’t doubt that was the intention of its founders but in practice for at least the last 30 years it has meant a focus on low level, populist parochial activity which in reality any party could have done.”

    I’m afraid Simon McGrath is largely right about that.

    Matthew comes up with an ingenious argument that it was all the fault of the SDP, who caused the Liberals to wreck the purity of their own creation and turn it into a cynical vote-gathering exercise – Just so that the Liberals could show off to the SDP how much better they were at campaigning! Well, if you believe that, you must believe that the 1980s Liberals were a mean bunch, people who were motivated mainly by the wish to score points off their supposed allies. I don’t believe the 1980s Liberals (most of them, anyway) were as bad as that!

    The truth is simpler. “Real” community politics is a chimera, a unicorn, a fanciful creature which has no real existence.

    Bill le Breton enthuses about “helping people in their communities take and use power” and creating “a local authority that responds to the needs and wishes of the communities which they serve”. The second of these phrases certainly does, in principle, describe something which a political party could realistically aim to do. But do we actually have local authorities like that these days? Council tax capping, cuts, and managerial control by dominant Officers dancing to the tune of control by central government have sucked the life out of our local authorities. Bill le Breton enthuses about the good things which community politicians could do in the past. Precious few of them can be done now.

    John Tilley argues that community politics is alive and living in non-party and cross-party campaigns such as the cycling campaign. But if that’s what it is, then it isn’t party politics, so it isn’t relevant to the Liberal Democrats as a political party. It may be a very valuable form of community activism, but the word “politics”, in that context, is quite out of place.

    David Thorpe suggests that community politics is peculiarly unsuited to London, and calls for it to be “less about geography, and more about life choices”. I think there is something in that, though the ideas need to be developed. I don’t think it is just London, however.

    Out here in rural Notts, I used to be a Focus organiser, and for a time, it worked. We Lib Dems got things done and consequently got votes. Then a new breed of active local parish councillors came along, people who also wanted to get things done locally, and who didn’t belong to a political party. They didn’t understand the Lib Dems at all. The Parish guys took the attitude that, if Lymeswold Village needs new allotments, then the whole community should get involved. The idea that one political party might commandeer such a project for itself, and use it as a vote-gathering exercise, was anathema. So when the (lazy) local Tories said that Focus was a disreputable rag, the independent Parish guys were inclined to agree with them. Their view – which I now share – was that if it’s a real community interest, then it is NOT politics!

  • I’m not a UKIP voter and definitely pro- EU but Simon is absolutely spot on when he says:

    “You LibLabCon guys with your scripted PR conferences and media strategies speak for the elite not the people”.

    If you look at the people who attended the UKIP conference they looked like a mixture of every day normal people – lots of different nationalities and ladies – and all seemed full of enthusiasm for their party. Farage is the only leader offering something different and for the many who have been hurt or left behind by recent governments they don’t think they have much to lose by voting UKIP. I certainly think UKIP will have a far bigger share of the GE vote that the LibDems.

  • Bill le Breton 30th Sep '14 - 8:00am

    I am not sure it matters whether I was peddling a ‘myth’ or not. It matters whether Community Politics practiced as intended by its developers and practioners has the potential to add to the liberty of people in the communities to which they belong and thus also to appreciate the importance of those liberties to people in other communities to which they do not belong; increases life chances and opportunities; divests power from those exploiting their privilege, their inside information and their monopoly access; increases plurality, and helps people realise more of their potential.

    Clearly that is not a widely held position. We are the poorer for that.

  • David Allen
    what youhave written here is not —if you re-read it— what my comment said.
    “……John Tilley argues that community politics is alive and living in non-party and cross-party campaigns such as the cycling campaign. ”
    I used the example of someone who sadly has left the party but is a shining example of a community politician. If the party could attract such people back, people on the centre-left who are motivated by the public good, the Liberal Democrats may have a chance to climb out of the grave that Clegg, Marshall and co have dug for us.
    I could have chosen a number of people who are still in the and are still councillors, in a few cases running their local council but I was responding to a particular point in David Thorpe’s original piece about cyclists in London.

    You go on to say —“. It may be a very valuable form of community activism, but the word “politics”, in that context, is quite out of place.”. I think you are fundamentally wrong. Was the feminist upsurge in the 1970s nothing to do with politics because there was not a Feminist Party to vote for?

    There is a distinction between “community activist’ and ‘community politician’.

    A community activist may be a Nimby active in a campaign to stop a planning application that the vast majority of local people want and would benefit from. That is not working with people to take and use power.

    A raving UKIP populist who rages against the use metric weights and measures as a cheap stunt is not a ‘community politician’ but a charlatan.

  • David Thorpe
    Thank you for your response —

    David tHORPE 29th Sep ’14 – 6:13pm
    “..,.,John your repsonse is typcial of thue mindset that causes the lib dems to fail, ..”

    I thought my mindset was one of Liberal Democrat success. The evidence perhaps backs that up. amass associated with repeated Liberal Democrat success in a number of London Borough elections. When I stepped down as majority leader of the council here in Kingston we had a majority on three local London boroughs and we had just elected 5 Liberal Democrat MPs.

    You seem to be confusing Liberal Democrat party election techniques with community politics. Rennardism (for want of any other description) which often achieved considerable success for the party at all sorts of elections, was not and is not community politics. I am not knocking the skills of Chris Rennard, far from it. I am simply saying that the approach to winning elections that grew out of 1970s Liverpool was not community politics.

    Certainly success in elections was much more common for Liberal Democrats when we had thousands of people up and down the country who were inspired by the ideas of community politics. As Matthew Huntbach points out we unlocked some of those one-party bastions and fiefdoms and worked with local people who wanted to improve their lives and neighbourhoods rather than play Westminster Bubble games. It may be forgotten that when Clegg stole the leadership of the party we had over 4,000 local councillors.

    I agree with those who comment that there was no “golden age” of community politics. There were always charlatans and shysters who CLAIMED to be practicising community politics. Temporary success in some cities and some London Boroughs was in a few cases based on a series of lies — in many cases the lie was that some party hack who had been shipped in from elsewhere shortly before an election was some sort of local hero with “a record of action and a promise of more”. The truth was thrown out of the window by unscrupulous people who thought that getting into power was all that mattered and you could say anything in an election whilst intending to do the opposite once elected. I think of this as the Nick Clegg Tuition Fees school of politics.

  • Matthew Huntbach 30th Sep '14 - 1:13pm

    John Dunn

    I’ve noticed that you are fond of the word *plebs*, which pepper-pots many of your comments. I don’t think you will garner many votes by suggesting that folks that don’t have your world view are lower functioning fools who have a lack of refinement.? Might be best to let someone else draft the campaign leaflets?

    What campaign leaflets? I’m not standing for election and I’m not planning to stand for election in the near future. I’m not an official spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, and I’m so at odds with those who are and the leadership of the Liberal Democrats that it’s been several years now since I last delivered a Liberal Democrat leaflet or knocked on a door as an official Liberal Democrat representative.

    So what I write here comes from the heart, and just maybe the brain plays a little bit as well, though I would be shorter and more careful in what I wrote if I had more time. The thing I hated more than anything else about being a LibDem councillor when I was one was the way one had to constantly engage in self-censorship for fear of whatever one said being taken, twisted out of of context, and assumed because of what I was that it must be official Liberal Democrat policy. I am glad to be relieved of that, and so able more to say what I really feel.

    And I have said what I really feel about UKIP. It is a piece of conmanship, a way of tricking people who have been damaged by the way politics has been pushed to the right since 1979 of voting for something which underneath is even more to the right, which stands for an even more extreme form of what they think they are voting as a protest about.

    I think it is obvious that I use the word “plebs” sarcastically, it means I think the UKIP leaders treat those who vote for them in the way you indicate.

  • Matthew Huntbach 30th Sep '14 - 1:26pm

    John Dunn

    “….your [Ukip], policies of big tax cuts for the rich…..,
    You mean like the Ukip policy to raise the tax threshold to £13,500, to end the absurdity of taxing minimum wage workers?

    Raising the tax threshold benefits only those who already earn enough to hit the tax threshold where it stands now, so it does not benefit poorer people, but it does benefit EVERYONE who earns more than that, so, no it is not a redistributive measure. UKIP also wants to abolish inheritance tax, although inheritance is the BIGGEST cause of inequality in this country. Plus it also proposed cuts in higher rate income tax.

    So, the tax cuts proposed by UKIP just go further and deeper along the way the Conservative Party has pushing things – they benefit richer people in this country much more than poorer people. A lot of people are saying they are voting UKIP as some sort of protest about politics being dominated by people “who only care for the rich”. A lot of people feel very hard done by through all the cuts in government services they have experienced, and things like tuition fees and the “bedroom” tax that have been pushed through in order to balance the books without making those who can most afford it pay more taxes, and they seem to think that voting UKIP is somehow a way of showing how hard done by they feel – but UKIP stands for just the sort of things that have caused them to feel hard done by, and stands for pushing them to an even more extreme length than the Conservatives do.

    This conning people into voting for the very thing they think they are voting against is a disgrace. It makes UKIP the most shameful and dishonest of all the national political parties. The more you and other UKIP supporters adopt a superior tone and lecture me as if you are on the side of the people and I am not, when the reality is the opposite, the more I will despise you as the most disgusting hypocrites going.

  • Matthew Huntbach 30th Sep '14 - 2:09pm

    David Allen

    Matthew comes up with an ingenious argument that it was all the fault of the SDP, who caused the Liberals to wreck the purity of their own creation and turn it into a cynical vote-gathering exercise – Just so that the Liberals could show off to the SDP how much better they were at campaigning! Well, if you believe that, you must believe that the 1980s Liberals were a mean bunch, people who were motivated mainly by the wish to score points off their supposed allies.

    I’m trying to give an honest account of what happened from my own memories of the time. This is necessary because it is fast becoming history, and yet the way it is being written up in the history books does not put it at all as I remember it. So much has all this been forgotten that now we very often come across people who write up the differences between Liberals and SDP members at the time under the supposition that the Liberals were all “Orange Bookers” fighting for right-wing economic policies against a left-wing economic SDP.

    I don’t think people who joined the SDP set out consciously to destroy community politics. However, there is some evidence that Roy Jenkins was encouraged to form the SDP rather than join the Liberals because right-wingers at the top of the Liberal Party saw this as a strategic move to bolster their position against left-wingers who wished to push the Liberal Party further in an “alternative left” direction. Community politics, and in particular the more idealistic interpretations of it were very much associated with the left of the party (I mean the Liberal Party) back then.

    Back in those days, while I was always to the left in the Liberal Party, there were plenty who were further left than I was, I always felt myself to be sensible centre-left in party terms, and there were many who I didn’t like much because I felt they were trying to push things in a way that was just too extreme and lacking in common sense. There’s no-one like that now in the Liberal Democrats, that sort of person now tends to be found in the Green Party, and is the reason why I don’t think I could ever join the Green Party. But now, my politics not having changed too much since those days, if anything shifted a bit to the right, I find myself uncomfortably on the left-wing fringe of the Liberal Democrats. I very much doubt if I were the 18 year old me now that I would even consider joining the Liberal Democrats as they are now. It’s the history and the small number of people who do think like me (who almost all seem to date back to those days) and who are still in the party who keep me going in it.

    I am writing as someone who was attracted to join the Liberal Party primarily through community politics. I thought it was a wonderful idea. I thought it had huge potential. I thought it could really bring people into active involvement in politics, and so challenge the dominance and power of the wealthy, and so build a better and more fair society. I still think that. And I don’t see anyone else doing anything like that now, and I think I have indicated how I feel about any sort of claim that UKIP makes to be doing it.

    Note that I write about “potential”. I agree there was not a “Golden Age” when a more idealistic form of community politics was widespread across the whole of the Liberal Party. It was something people talked about, and some of us used it, and sometimes in a more experimental way than what it is taken to mean now. However, sorry, but I do date the foundation of the SDP as the point where that potential was halted. I don’t think the Liberals doing community politics then were better people than those who joined the SDP. I think the problem was more mutual frustration on both sides that the other side just didn’t seem to get what we or they were doing. When you say the lapse of many of the community politics oriented Liberals into a sort of Stakhanovite “we’ll show them attitude” was not a good thing, I agree. I remember very much, because I was part of it, the urge to push harder and harder the use of community politics to actually win local elections out of sheer frustration because it seemed to be the way to get across the message that actually the way we were doing politics did actually work.

    By the time of the merger I think the message had got across, which is why the merger went smoothly and it was not long before the old SDP-Liberal divisions were so forgotten that people now suppose them to have been something completely different. As you yourself have said, the divisions in the party at that time came from small but influential groups at the the top who had a very different agenda from either most Liberal or most SDP members and wanted to push that from the top down.

  • David Allen 30th Sep '14 - 4:36pm

    Bill, John, Matthew,

    I take no pleasure in arguing that community politics is largely a busted flush. I wish it were not so. However, I fear that it is. I also think that we won’t change things for the better unless we think carefully and honestly about why this is and what can be done about it, as David Thorpe has usefully begun to do in his article.

  • David Allen 30th Sep '14 - 5:16pm

    John Tilley said:

    “There is a distinction between “community activist’ and ‘community politician’.

    A community activist may be a Nimby active in a campaign to stop a planning application that the vast majority of local people want and would benefit from. That is not working with people to take and use power.

    A raving UKIP populist who rages against the use metric weights and measures as a cheap stunt is not a ‘community politician’ but a charlatan.”

    Hmm. Well I see what you’re saying, but, are you not at risk of making your own value judgment as to which “people” you wish to work with and empower, and which you don’t?

    If a UKIP activist runs a community campaign against metric weights, or against leaving potholes unrepaired, or against immigration, or to demand local spending to rectify shortages in health and education services arising from high local immigrant inflows – Who are we to pontificate, from on high, as to whether they are community politicians or charlatans? Don’t we have to accept that there is no such thing as a united “community” with only one opinion, and that in reality, we must live with and resolve conflicts between different interests, even within one locality?

    As to “a planning application that the vast majority of local people want” – Frankly, I think it is illiberal to use pejorative words like “Nimbies” in order to justify a one-sided approach to an issue. Most planning issues involve genuine conflict. If we are to say that we support the rights of the poor and needy who lack decent housing, rather than the preservation of the natural environment, then we are making a choice, one for which we must argue, and we may lose. To claim that one party automatically represents “the community” in its entirety is – well, just bogus, sorry!

  • David Allen wrote:

    “I take no pleasure in arguing that community politics is largely a busted flush.”

    If community politics really is a busted flush, then how do you explain the fact that in Lord Ashcroft’s polls Stephen Lloyd and Paul Burstow are streets ahead of colleagues who have taken government jobs and have otherwise let things slide in their constituencies?

    I have been hearing claims that community politics is largely a busted flush periodically since the 1970s. Do you recall the tabloid in 1978 (I can’t remember which tabloid) saying: “Liverpool was the birthplace of community politics. Tomorrow will be its graveyard.” ? Or Frank Hatton MP at the 1973 Manchester Exchange byelection count declaring: “This is the end of community gutter politics.” ? Then, in 1983 or thereabouts, we had Peter Jenkins, writing in the “Grauniad” that community politics was a total failure. Or Sue Slipman, in 1988, declaring it to be anarcho-syndicalism. I could go on, and on, and on. Stick to the Rennard template and we win. That still holds true today.

    In 1994, I and two colleagues won a ward for the first time exclusively on the basis of local campaigning. Last May, Liberal Democrats held all three seats in that ward, while colleagues for miles around fell like flies. I conclude that community politics still wins elections. Without it, we stand to lose pretty well everything next May.

  • David Allen
    You ask this question —” …..are you not at risk of making your own value judgment as to which “people” you wish to work with and empower, and which you don’t?”

    Absolutely yes. Making value judgements is surely what genuine politics is all about. In my own ward some years ago a planning application to convert a redundant British Legion Club into a Mosque brought out all the expected opposition from racists and Conservatives, whipping up any local people foolish enough to be conned. My fellow ward councillor and then ppc Roger Hayes was at the centre of the fight back collecting a petition to the counci and campaigning in favour of the establishment of the Mosque. We very definitely made a value judgement about which people we were supporting based on the fact that we are Liberals not populists.
    Some years later we went through a similar process in the very next street in support of the conversion of some council flats into supported accommodation for a particular group of people who received help from social services. The terms of abuse and ignorance thrown about by some of the less than Liberal people in the street was appalling. The ludicrous argument that if this proposal went ahead property prices would plummet was a classic Conservative observation. I am proud to say that we fought the ignorance and prejudice head on. We won because we were right and because a lot of people are fair-minded and if you give them the facts and argue the case you can overcome the populists are mangers.

    I could go on listing forty years of making value judgements as to which people are right. Surely Liberal Democrats do this all the time? I cannot believe that they have all become mere opportunists whose only ambition is elected office achieved through cynical deception. That may be true of Clegg and his clique. Commmunity politicians work with people with respect which means you do not patronise those people by pretemding to agree with them when you know they are wrong.

    How else will people trust you ??

  • David Allen 1st Oct '14 - 1:04am

    John Tilley,

    You describe two admirable examples of local political action. However, if we are to talk about “community politics”, we should have some sort of clear idea about what it means. Instead, we have some very different concepts:

    John Tilley: “making value judgements as to which people are right”

    Bill le Breton: “The idea of community politics is to help people take and use power. So, at the ultimate, everyone in the community would know how to get things done for themselves and their neighbours or fellow community members.” Note the word “everyone”. The implication is that in community politics, everyone is right, and the whole community pulls together in harmony. Indeed, “everyone” must, inevitably, include the UKIP-supporting crowd.

    Rennardism: A “commercialised” or bastardised version of what Bill le Breton was describing, in which the Lib Dem party politician picks out a unifying issue like potholes and uses that to win votes. The good Rennardist keeps well clear of contentious subjects like planning applications for mosques, on which saying anything just alienates some of your voters. So, the best Rennardist electoral tactic may well be simply to slag off your political opponents, and otherwise keeep schtum.

    Then there is McCarthyism (Donnachadh, that is), which would seem to mean social activism outside political parties, and what I’ll call Gladstonism (after our local Parish Council chairman), which means being a very able local community organiser while hating party politics with an undisguised hatred! There are lots of Gladstonites, speaking loosely, in our rural communities these days.

    Do you see, now, why I don’t like this silly term “community politics”? What you’re doing is valuable. Unlike most of the other -isms I describe, it is grounded in strong albeit contentious principles and values. You just ought to call it something different from “community politics”!

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Oct '14 - 11:58am

    David Allen

    I take no pleasure in arguing that community politics is largely a busted flush. I wish it were not so.

    Community politics in the narrow way it ended up, maybe, though I wouldn’t say it is without value. I do agree that local government is now a mug’s game, and I wouldn’t make winning local elections much of a priority now, it just means volunteering to decide where the cuts will fall and being the fall guy who takes the blame for them.

    However, the more general message is that doing politics in a way that seems unconventional may work. Politics doesn’t HAVE to be about a smart image concocted by spads and ad-men in Westminster, and passed down as if it were a consumer product. One thing in particular where the original community politics people got it right was that they recognised the necessity of the “dual approach”, that pressure-group campaigning had to go alongside fighting elections. Pressure group campaigning on its own is just begging and pleading as if the politicians are aristocrats who cannot be changed, and everyone else is just peasants who can do noting but tug on their heartstrings. It is not at all “radical”.

  • Bill le Breton 1st Oct '14 - 12:21pm

    David A – it’s a bit of jump to infer that I am saying everyone is right. In fact I think people who are better connected within their communities are much more aware of not abusing their liberty when it harms others. I’d say they were more willing to talk to one another to judge the impact of various options on others as a community. Community Politics is a big information machine on the one hand. It strengthens bonds, considerations, obligations as well as rights betwen people and importantly between other communities. Perhaps they are more willing to accept or admit error. Respect and tolerance increases.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Oct '14 - 1:41pm

    JohnTilley

    I cannot believe that they have all become mere opportunists whose only ambition is elected office achieved through cynical deception.

    Looking at the time I was a councillor in Downham ward, LB Lewisham, perhaps the thing I am most proud of is the way we managed the transition of that ward from a notorious “all white” council estate to a place which is much more multi-racial, saw off the BNP in a ward which at one point was a key London target of theirs, and never did anything that could be considered as “pandering to racism”. That did mean taking seriously the concerns of white working class people that they had been neglected and speaking up for the case of more resources being directed their way. It meant getting the balance right when constituents made racist remarks, and looked to you for approval, and you had to see the frustration that led to them saying those things, express that for them in a better way, but not give the impression you were agreeing with their surface remarks.

    Having seen Liberal Democrat and Liberal groups before that engaged in local campaigning, I think our liberalism mostly did stop us going off the rails as could easily happen. The common claim from others was that we said different things in different places, but I campaigned with party activists on wealth suburban and rural parts, and in deprived inner city areas, and I never found the people I was working with were very much different from me wherever I was.

    I have to say that Tories could mostly take their licks, but Labour never could. That is why when you defeated the Tories they tended to accept it, but when you defeated Labour, they tended to respond with accusations that you are opportunists, and tried to find ways of making out you used “dirty tactics” to win. You’ve mentioned Tower Hamlets, John, where Labour’s tactics after the Liberals won control was to try and find a way in which anything they did could be twisted and made out to be “racist”. They did this continuously for eight years, and sadly too many people believed them.

  • David Allen 1st Oct '14 - 1:51pm

    Thanks for the responses. Let me row back slightly, I don’t want to give the impression that I think everything is a huge intellectual muddle or that nothing “community politicians” do is of value. That would be a gross overstatement. All the same, there are various awkward issues to resolve, and it’s good to debate them.

    Matthew raises one of the key issues in his criticism of “pressure group campaigning on its own”. It is all too easy to declaim that more money and attention ought to be devoted to meet a particular need, whether that be mending pavements, or provisions for cyclists, or dyslexia, or the environment, or whatever. It’s a lot harder to be a governing politician, faced with all the conflicting demands, plus a declining budget, plus a clamour to keep taxes down, and make the hard choices. So, shunning political involvement is a cop-out. But by the same token, accepting political involvement means making the hard choices. That, in turn, moves well away from the sugar-coated Rennardist type of assumption, that all we need to do is “work”, that everybody in the community will happily agree what needs doing, and that all will be delighted to vote for the LDs who do the “work”.

    I think it then helps to think in terms of two types of issue: (1) sugar-coated non-contentious local good works, and (2) contentious political choices.

    (1) is best done, in my neck of the woods at any rate, by independent Parish Councillors and the like. If it’s for the good of all, like new play equipment or lobbying for a better bus service, then it should be done by people who are working for all. It should preferably not be used by UKIP, or Labour, or the Lib Dems, as a tactical manoevre for gaining votes. Rennardists will disagree, and will point to gains they have achieved with these tactics. Well, there are many worse sins that politicians can commit than Rennardism. But I don’t think Rennardism is anything to be all that proud about.

    (2) is what John Tilley eloquently describes as community politics, something which requires taking up the cudgels in support of a contentious cause. Totally different from Rennardism. This chimes in well with David Thorpe’s argument that it’s about life choices, rather than geography. Sadly, it’s what we need – but it won’t win us elections. And there is the paradox we face.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Oct '14 - 9:17pm

    David Allen

    But by the same token, accepting political involvement means making the hard choices. That, in turn, moves well away from the sugar-coated Rennardist type of assumption, that all we need to do is “work”, that everybody in the community will happily agree what needs doing, and that all will be delighted to vote for the LDs who do the “work”.

    That’s not an assumption I’ve ever made, and when I write “community politics” I don’t mean anything like this.To me, “community politics” means primarily informing people and getting them to think and make decisions for themselves, and most certainly not people with big “Liberal Democrat” badges coming across as supermen and winning the votes of a grateful peasantry who look up to them.

    I am reminded of the Archbishop Hélder Câmara quote “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” You are, in effect, suggesting that community politics is just giving food to the poor. I am suggesting it’s even more than asking why they are poor, it’s getting them to think through why they are poor and what they can do about it. Conventional politics works on the line “Our party has all the answers, vote for us and we’ll solve your problems”. I don’t agree with that sort of approach whether it’s done with an emphasis on local issues or national issues.

    Rather I think the first and most important aspect of community politics is to demonstrate that we who are actively involved in electoral politics at local level are NOT supermen, we don’t have all the answers, but we are ordinary people who have got up and got involved and we want to show it’s not that hard, it’s something plenty of people can do, and the more people get up and do it, the more we can get things changed. A good way to get people to think is to relate political issues to what they see around them. A key part of this is to point out that the services they want cost money, that has to be raised through taxes, and now they can see that, are they willing to agree to tax rises that perhaps they are first resisted? If they see decent local people who they feel aren’t aliens trying to sell a product to them saying these things, they are more likely to accept it, and so reject the message pushed out by the fat-cat funded political right that taxes are bad things, politicians are bad people for raising them, and so when some right-wing Westminster Bubble politician says “look, I’ve reduced the taxes you pay, aren’t I wonderful, vote for me” maybe there’s another side to it and maybe he isn’t so wonderful and maybe you shouldn’t vote for him if actually you do want decent local services.

  • Simon Banks 4th Oct '14 - 8:07pm

    Having been a community politics councillor in a part of London that while not strictly “inner”, was far from a leafy suburb and certainly not rural, I find this idea a bit strange. People voted for us precisely because we fixed local things, were seen around a lot, listened and empowered local residents – for example, helping set up a tenants’ association on a housing estate with a lot of problems and supporting it in taking up issues.

    Since then we’ve taken a big hit in London, particularly in the less prosperous areas, though the same has happened in Liverpool, Manchester and Bristol. I think this has more to do with working-class people losing trust in us because of the coalition and because of the image we project nationally, which seems to be distant from them, than with inadequacies of community politics. However, there are two shortcomings of current community politics that have contributed. One is the debasement of the concept from radical empowering to propaganda about how many problems our Focus team members fix (this was always an element, but now it often seems to be the only element). The other is exhaustion. Our style of local campaigning is extremely hard work and the decline in membership meant fewer potential activists.

    Where someone lives is still very important to many Londoners and this is as true in Hackney or Southwark as in Bromley or Harrow. Local issues still matter a lot. Where David has a point, I think, is in stressing that people who don’t expect to stay in a locality for long (and these are often young) will be less interested in the politics of place; and that the internet opens up huge possibilities for pursuing issues in different ways and across geographical boundaries. As an Avaaz regular, I can well see that.

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