Opinion: So what is this Community Politics all about then?

Party President, Tim Farron recently published on this site a very well received piece reminding us that we have, close to hand, the greatest opportunity in the history of our party.

He also observed that, “our biggest collective failure recently – from the grassroots to the cabinet – has been 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”.

Community politics is a much misunderstood concept practiced by many as an electoral technique and belittled by others as ‘pavement politics’.

I hope the President is using the term in yet another, deeper and truly transforming sense. If he is and if he can help us organize a movement around community politics it will indeed be the greatest opportunity in the history of our party.

Like all the best opportunities, Coalition starts as a threat.  As with Pilgrim, our Celestial City lies beyond the Valley of the Shadow and across the River of Death.

Our Hopeful, our guide on this journey, should be a slim pamphlet from 1980, The Theory and Practice of Community Politics written by Bernard Greaves and Gordon Lishman.

Few practitioners have read it, fewer still (including me) have fully understood it and I dare to suggest that many of the great and the good who contributed to the infamous Orange Book had never heard of it? Yet it exerted enormous influence on the revival of the Liberal Party and the advances of the Liberal Democrats over the last forty years.  There is no substitute for reading its dozen pages, but Mark Pack has produced a short reader.

So, what’s it all about?

Greaves and Lishman write that “the key to releasing the potential of each person as a unique individual lies in bringing together all individuals in voluntary, mutual and co-operative enterprise within relevant communities”. However, this is not communitarianism.  “Communities are not in themselves an end. The end is the quality of the experience of each individual within them”.

The community politician is, “concerned with the distribution and control of power within communities and with the manner in which decisions, attitudes and priorities emerge from the full range of smaller communities to govern larger and larger communities”.

So this is as much an approach for Ministers and Parliamentarians as it is for Parish Councillors and campaigners of all kinds.

Advocates of community politics campaign to create “a political system which is based on the interaction of communities in which groups have the power, the will, the knowledge, the technology to influence and affect the making of decisions in which they have an interest”.

A basic purpose of the approach is, “to create and to re-create communities, providing a range of mutual support for their members, opportunities to develop and establish a personal role and purpose in life and in co-operation and conflict with each other, to provide the diversity and pluralism which is the basis of mature, participatory democracy”.

Those with a keen sense of irony will also see that the approach results precisely in the type of relationships and participation desired by those advocating ‘The Big Society’ whilst being the antithesis of the approach adopted by those ‘Big Societists’, who seek to direct people to mutualism and to favour localism when it complies with the centre.

The aim of the community politician is, “to create a habit of participation, binding a community together in a constant relationship with power and decision-making”.

We want those communities “to initiate the debate, to formulate their own demands and priorities and to participate fully in agreeing the rules by which their relationships are regulated”.

This is all very different from the traditional view of the politician especially as engrained by the Whitehall or Town Hall process where decisions are taken and handed down by an elite while the MP and councillor acts as the patronising intermediary.

In contrast, the zeal of the community politician stimulates action by communities “to take and use power”. This is anathema to bureaucrats at the centre of the decision taking web and repellent to the politicians who gain support on the back of dependence and the distribution of favours.

The community politics approach is fundamentally different to that so far adopted by the Coalition which has repeatedly got things wrong when a small team has taken a decision and demanded unquestioning support from those not party to that decision.

How, then, can the community politics approach reform the Coalition and in so doing turn the greatest threat into that greatest opportunity?

For Bill le Berton’s answer to that question, see his follow-up piece appearing tomorrow.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Mark Inskip 1st Jun '11 - 9:14pm

    Great to read an article reminding us of our roots in community politics and of the true meaning of the term.

    P.S. I not only read the 1980 pamphlet (whatever happened to political pamphlets?), I also still have an original copy!

  • Bill le Breton 2nd Jun '11 - 6:32am

    Mark, thanks for your reaction. Let’s just hope that we are not the only two left in the world interested in this topic.
    Second part goes up today. Shall respond to anything further here and on Part II this time tomorrow.

  • We need to update our position on community politics to avoid it being seen as the same as the Big Society. I don’t think that anyone is very clear on what the Big Society is.

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