Opinion: Only two cheers for community politics

I wasn’t there to hear the Birmingham conference back the community politics motion on Tuesday. I had meant to be but had to go back to London early.

It was one of those pieces of sacred Liberalism that you daren’t speak against, but I would have done. I’m not sorry it was passed but the party must also understand that there is another side to it.

Community politics may be a revolutionary doctrine, but BAD community politics – and we have practised some of that occasionally, let’s face it – damages the party and damages the political process.

I know I’m on sacred ground. Criticising community politics at a Liberal Democrat conference is like criticising the Pope in St Peter’s Square. But there are four very good reasons why we must go into this with our eyes open:

First, because we’ve long since abandoned real community politics in favour of its outward manifestation – a blizzard of leaflets with no obvious ideology. Which have been copied by every political opponent for a generation.

Sometimes there is no ideology beyond the demand to stuff paper. Sometimes even worse, there is a kind of off-putting and desperate campaigning on empty.

Second, because community politics has become muddled with New Labour’s rhetoric about ‘empowerment’.

Empowerment is a nonsense for Liberal Democrats. People already have the power. Even Tony Blair, even Ed Miliband, can’t distribute it. It isn’t theirs to give. The point is to encourage people to use their power, and to teach them how.

The third reason is that the intellectual underpinnings of community politics are now riddled with dry rot and need to be renewed. We know so much more now about what works than we did in 1970. We have concepts like social capital and co-production.

There are radical ideas out there about the power shifts in public services when users work alongside professionals. There are techniques about revitalising local economics. By comparison, community politics is almost as vague as the Big Society, which basically means: ‘wouldn’t it be nice if everyone had lunch together’.

The party could not even bring itself to write a radical new localism policy this year. We ran out of intellectual puff.

The fourth reason may be very naive. But it seems to me that community politics has became infected with the corrosive language of the political classes. Some of our leaflets – like our opponents’ leaflets – are so disconnected from real life, so unpleasant in their accusations as they drop through the letter box, that many people find them repulsive. That is hard but true.

So this is what I believe. When our tone of voice alienates people – not just from one political party but from them all – then we’re not practising community politics.

Unless community politics is capable of rescuing politics itself, unless it is generous enough to embrace everyone in the community, unless it is based firmly on an ideology which includes working in public services, and economic action too – unless it does all that, then it won’t revitalise our party and it won’t work.

There needs to be the same generosity of spirit that was there in the original community politics, so that the prime purpose is to spread power – no matter which political party benefits to start with.

Don’t forget that the political crisis isn’t just ours. The total membership of all political parties is less than the circulation of a small magazine in Smiths. So the new community politics has to be different. It has to be about training everyone in political, economic and social change, locally and face to face.

Did the motion say that? No it didn’t.

David Boyle is a member of the Federal Policy Committee, a fellow of the New Economics Foundation and his new book The Human Element is published next month.

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12 Comments

  • Daniel Henry 27th Sep '11 - 10:28pm

    Good topic.
    Raises a lot of important questions.
    I’m definitely keeping an eye out for what kind of answers will arise.

  • Alex >I believe we must start proposing genuinely empowered community sized municipalities,

    Here in Wales, we scrapped county councils in 1996, and gave their powers to district councils, rebranded as ‘county boroughs’.

    Fast forward to 2011, and the district councils are increasingly looking to work together, to share resources, expertise etc, because it’s more efficient and cheaper than individual councils each doing their own thing.

    1996 – Eight county councils, eight directors of education (for instance). Plus 37 districts
    2011 – 22 unitary authorities, 22 directors of education… (at least it’s not 37).
    Power devolved to more local level doesn’t come cheap.

  • I wasnt at the conference and havent read the motion but I wrote a piece for LDV 12 months ago where I suggested it was time to slay some sacred cows in this particular field.

    The trouble is ‘community’ has become the motherhood and apple pie of the centre ground in British (or at least English) politics much as David suggests.(Though his point about empowerment is semantics – empowerment is as much about exercising power as it is about holding it.) So as a political strategy it has become almost meaningless.

    Lib Dems who want to think serious about this need to challenge themselves to consider three important questions:

    – why is empowerment (almost) always framed in relation to the state? As Gareth says, different individuals hold different amounts of power yet most individuals’ relationship to the state has changed dramatically since the late 1960s and still we only talk about empowerment in terms of having more say over bits of government. Gareth’s aim of creating social capital seems to me to be a lot more complicated than that.

    – are communities actually the right answer? After all, if you have a community you have people who are inside it and people who are outside it. We can all identify the problems that generates, especially when resources are scarce. Would it be more liberal to seek the empowerment of individuals directly?

    – has community politics succeeded or has it failed? You could argue that it has been rendered redundant by its own success – the state is more open and more responsive than it was 40 years ago and people express their contentment through their indifference to it. Or you could argue that after 40 years of trying the people’s failure to rise up in a spontaneous revolution of self empowerment means its time to bin the strategy and start again. Put another way, can empowerment ever be an effective political rallying cry if real voters dont feel the need to be empowered?

    One other question. Far from bemoaning the decline in party membership shouldnt we be celebrating it? Isnt it a sign that class has broken down, voters are more sophisticated and that they no longer see the need for a political party to fight their day to day battles for them? Isnt that precisely what we were aiming for?

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