Power to the people

I’m sure that many members will agree with me that it is often very difficult to succinctly describe what the party stands for in terms that they understand. Some will choose to quote the preamble of the constitution, that we wish people to be free from “poverty, ignorance and conformity” yet this is difficult to expand into a set of principles that apply to every different area of thought and policy. Others would choose to talk about liberty, running into the difficulty of having to carefully define what liberty means. I would suggest that we return to the roots of community politics, towards bringing power to the people in all spheres of society.

Community politics, for those not acquainted with it, focuses on bringing decisions down to the lowest possible level to be made as close to the relevant communities as possible. The use and belief in community politics brought the party back from the brink half a century ago and I believe it can do so again now, though updated for the very quickly changing world. Community politics is, at its heart, the support for the destruction of concentrated economic and social power and its distribution to everyone. This includes fighting inequalities between, for example, genders, as explained in Jo Swinson’s new book Equal Power, and a range of other groups that are routinely discriminated against. It also includes reducing inequalities in income and wealth as without such action, political power tends to collect and solidify within the hands of the most wealthy as they can often buy the most influence within government. Many of the ideas that grow from community politics have already been expressed by liberals for centuries, such as the push to create the welfare state, which was originally imagined to be universal, as well as the expansion of employee ownership as eloquently argued for by Jo Grimond who based his ideas on a philosophy very similar to that of community politics. The new community politics must ensure that the number of good choices are maximised, for example moving to a system of choosing between various jobs rather than choosing between going cold or hungry and the first available job, no matter its quality.

As a party, we need to base our ideas on one coherent philosophy, which I believe should be that of a new community politics. As liberals, we believe in the individual and the innumerable number of communities that they form and we should therefore trust these groups and the individuals themselves to make their own choices to improve their own lives and the lives of those around them as well as ensure that future members of those communities are not harmed. We should question each policy that is debated at conference so that we can determine its effect on the distribution of social and economic power within this country and reject those that will cause an ever more powerful elite. Only then can we sell a coherent vision to the voters and start to rebound strongly as we have before.

* Oliver Craven is a party member in Lincoln, Sleaford and North Hykeham Liberal Democrats.

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34 Comments

  • Tristan Ward 27th Mar '18 - 8:37am

    To promote Liberty, Equality and community and ensure no one is enslaved by poverty ignorance or conformity sound pretty good to me and pretty clear too.

  • Nonconformistradical 27th Mar '18 - 8:53am

    @Tristan Ward
    Not sure that gets across well to the common man.

    Perhaps specific examples of how and to what extent a local community could run itself might help? e.g. on planning issues concerning one property or a small development.

  • John Marriott 27th Mar '18 - 9:14am

    Interesting that Oliver Craven is a member of the very same local party of which, in its various forms, I was a member for nearly 40 years. If it’s a case of practising what you preach he needs to work on his fellow members to convince them that just appearing on the ballot paper at election time in the immortal words of John Major “won’t butter many parsnips.

    The only parts of the constituency that used to return councillors regularly at all three levels were in Sleaford and North Hykeham but certainly not Lincoln. Why? Because members in these towns, and particularly the latter, used to send out regular FOCUS leaflets and espouse local causes, with very little reference to Party HQ. And now? Thanks to old age and colleagues sadly departing, that effort appears to have disappeared. There really is no substitute around here for the hard persistent slog, even in this instant digital age, getting your face and your letters in the local paper and generally blowing your own trumpet. As we used to say; “You don’t just hear from us at election time”. A “new community politics”? Oliver, you are trying to reinvent the wheel, but is anyone around here, let alone further afield, listening?

  • Steven Whaley 27th Mar '18 - 9:52am

    As a relatively new but active member of Lincoln, Sleaford & North Hykeham branch I obviously can’t comment on the last 40 years in reference to John Marriott’s comments – but I can certainly offer up my honest impressions of the state of play at present. It’s a vibrant and active branch containing very impressively dedicated and enthusiastic people who are getting out into the community, making themselves known and making a difference. Oliver is certainly one of those, and is therefore practicing what he preaches, and he’s far from being alone in his determination to make a difference here. John, please believe me when I say that it’s a branch that is currently in very capable hands.

  • John Marriott 27th Mar '18 - 10:48am

    @Steven Whaley
    As they say “The proof of the pudding”. It’s a shame that all those ‘new and active’ (and not so new) members haven’t seen fit to seek the advice from those of us who have done it before and got the T shirt! The evidence of recent election results locally would indicate that something just isn’t working.

  • Normally it would seem discourteous to mention the age of the writer but I think us burnt out Lib Dem oldies should be grateful for a reminder about community politics from a new generation. Thank you Oliver.

  • Stephen Hesketh 27th Mar '18 - 11:56am

    I am with Tristan Ward on this. My personal one-liner would be “Seeking to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality, community and sustainability.”

    To me this collection of words encompasses where a 21st century Liberal party should be and that, by implication, it includes the right of individuals and communities not to be ‘enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity’.

  • Neil Sandison 27th Mar '18 - 12:05pm

    Tend to agree with Tristan liberalism was founded upon fighting injustice and oppression and inequality wherever it occurred in the world .We try and practice this in our local communities through community politics .There is no divide between being a internationalist an environmentalist and a good community campaigner .

  • Indeed John, it always was that for every North Hykeham there was a Lincoln; just as for every David Pehaligon or Patsy Carlton who is sorely missed and fondly remembered, there is a Peter Perfect or Patricia Personality who were rapidly despaired of and ultimately forgotten. In particular, I agree with your implication that the new generation of Lib Dems, (especially in areas where we have never been consistently strong) quite often seem to be in exactly the same position as we were 40 years ago, largely operating on their own initiative with little to guide them other than their enthusiasm and raw ability.

    The one advantage they have that we didn’t is that in almost every constituency there are people who have done it, won it, retained it, and can wear the T shirt with pride. In our day, in lots of the country there hadn’t been a Lib Dem elected in over 20 years and those successful people were quite simply not around.

    However, the one area where we are failing as a party is that the New generation are not being encouraged to go out and listen to and learn from the older generation and so are having to learn from their own mistakes (which is very tough and can be dispiriting) rather than from other’s mistakes (which is easy, educational and what a real learning organisation does).

    Perhaps LDV should really go out to encourage the older generation to submit articles on real hands on politics rather than what to older hands seems to be a never ending stream of flag waving high hopes, unanswerable questions and particular hobby horses. Community politics, liberty and the preamble to the constitution are all parts of what being a Lib Dem means, but to me the key word is balance.

  • [Part 2] Successful Lib Dems are never just 100% community politicians, they do care about liberty but not above all else, and opposing the evils of poverty, conformity and ignorance are vital but not enough. Modern technology is great but is not an answer to everything – Connect, EARS and before them Polly were great helps in organising elections, but knocking on doors and talking to people remain fundamental. How else would you get hundreds of thousands of people to demonstrate in Washington for tougher gun laws? Well actually they did pretty well in the 1971 anti Vietnam War demonstrations. Not quite as big but 200,000 was very impressive in days without messaging apps, Facebook and mobiles, but instead relied on land-line phones, radio and personal contact.

    Every new generation has to learn, and every older generation has to learn how to teach. The alternative is simply to ignore each other and forget.

    My original post had to be cut in two as it was apparently too long. Maybe it should have been an article!

  • Stephen Hesketh 27th Mar '18 - 12:16pm

    As a further observation we desperately need our approach to community politics to be rooted in a radical Liberal philosophy (Preamble/one-liner). Too much of what passes as a community approach amounts to little more than (small l) liberal Localism.

  • Oliver, you propose that “we return to the roots of community politics, towards bringing power to the people in all spheres of society.
    And that
    “As liberals, we believe in the individual and the innumerable number of communities that they form and we should, therefore, trust these groups and the individuals themselves to make their own choices to improve their own lives …”
    Does that mean that you accept the result of the EU referendum, specifically in your constituency areas where 60% voted to leave?

  • Oliver Craven 27th Mar '18 - 12:38pm

    @Mike Jay

    I support a referendum on the deal, once the details of the deal and it’s impacts are known.

  • Graham Evans 27th Mar '18 - 12:44pm

    In practice community politics was as much to do with pioneering campaign techniques as political philosophy. However these techniques have now been copied and developed by our political opponents so have much less electoral impact than was once the case. Moreover, community politics doesn’t address the issue of conflict resolution when the interests of one group are in conflict with the interests of another. Devolving power may even at times exacerbate the problem because even in the smallest community the legitimate interests of a minorities can be sacrificed to the will of the majority. Identifying the appropriate level of devolution theoretically might address this problem, but it is at that stage that the arguments begin.

  • James Bliss 27th Mar '18 - 1:10pm

    On the point of “to improve their own lives and the lives of those around them as well as ensure that future members of those communities are not harmed.”

    I think the point about “future members” is really important and something that from my experience, and the experience of people I talk to, is a serious failing of many if not most local parties and “community politics”.

    There is very often a very problematic NIMBY, almost protectionist, tone/strand amongst a very large number of local councillors and just local members. There are a ridiculous number of cases every year of local parties opposing any sort of housing development because of absurd NIMBY reasons, like “protecting the character of the town” or manufactured reasons such as lack of infrastructure (which can’t reasonably be fixed until the new houses exist).

    It all ultimately comes down to looking at “localism” and “community politics” in a way that is exclusionary of young people and poorer people who don’t yet live/own homes in an area. In many areas, it comes down to only caring about the nice old slightly reactionary middle class people who already live in an area, rather than those people who should have the opportunity to move to an area.

    As a party we need to change the culture in our local parties, and ensure that we look at these issues with an eye to those people who should be moving into our areas, our community politics cannot just be caring about those voters who currently live in communities. It is close minded, protectionist and goes against the fundamental values of liberalism and the party. We need to abandon the fetishisation of the greenbelt, and build more damn homes.

  • Mick Taylor 27th Mar '18 - 1:59pm

    Oliver: There are many of us, as yet under 70, who not only have the T shirt, but the commemorative mug, the medal and the shield. (A few have peerages or other state awards too) What we have in common is up to 50 years experience of what works and the party has no method of using that expertise. Some of us are still working hard for the party, but I am certain that most of us would be only too happy to give advice if asked.

    James Bliss: There is, as yet, not need to destroy the green belt. There are still many ‘brownfield’ sites that are not being built on, mainly because builders prefer virgin sites.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 27th Mar '18 - 2:25pm

    Oliver regularly talks sense, as does Ruth, apart from describing herself and those of that age as oldies, she and I are the same age , ie very young !!!

    A very good and engaging piece. Great to see those younger than young people like me , so keen on Grimond. I was born as he was leaving the leadership, Oliver was probably born as Ashdown was, that says a lot, we are able to understand each other, all the more for this sort of article.

  • Oliver Craven 27th Mar '18 - 2:31pm

    @Mick

    I’m always open to hearing people’s thoughts on what we could be doing that was previously effective, though perhaps don’t be disappointed if we decide to amend the idea if we think it could fit better in a modern world!

    I’m fairly easy to find on Facebook (profile picture with Ed Davey) and on twitter (@craven_oliver)

    Same for @David Evans and @John Marriott

  • The problem is that ‘community politics’ is just as open to interpretation as anything else that’s been floated. Its a tactic, not a philosophy – and is also not without its flaws.

  • James Bliss 27th Mar '18 - 3:08pm

    @Mick Taylor There is absolutely need to abolish greenbelt designation. There aren’t enough appropriate brownfield sites in the places we need them, and the existence of some brownfield sites isn’t a reason to keep greenbelt. There are not anywhere near enough brownfield sites to build the houses we need anyway.

    But the point about the greenbelt is just a symbolic issue that has come to represent everything that is wrong with the localism of many libdems, it is a closed minded localism that only cares about local people, rather than ensuring that our local communties benefit even those who are not yet part of them.

    It reminds me of the tubbs and edward sketch from League of Gentlemen. Local houses for local people! There’s nothing for you young/poor people here!

  • Mick Taylor 27th Mar '18 - 3:27pm

    @James Bliss. Sorry but I disagree. With the exodus of many European workers because of Brexit, the need for housebuilding needs to be re-examined. As to your point about brownfield sites, there’s a goodly number round where I live and they are not being built on, because builders don’t want the expense that using former industrial and commercial sites will incur.
    Land is still being hoarded rather than built on. (Lib Dem policy of site value reading would soon stop that) Now I can foresee a need in a few selected places to allow a modicum of encroachment into the green belt, but not in general. One of the good legacies my parent’s and grandparent’s generation left us is a green and pleasant land. This is no time to wreck their legacy, whilst other alternatives exist.

  • Mick Taylor 27th Mar '18 - 3:29pm

    Oops Rating not reading. Damn spell checkers and predictive text.

  • John Marriott 27th Mar '18 - 3:31pm

    @Oliver Craven
    Sorry, I don’t ‘do’ either Facebook or Twitter, although I’m still pretty well known around the Lincoln area, through my regular contributions in the printed and digital press, even though, for various reasons, I’m no longer involved in the local party. But I guess people like me are yesterday’s news for those young enthusiasts, who think they are the first people ever to have an idea. It could just be that the ‘old world’ might be able to offer the ‘modern world’ a few tips on how to succeed. Certainly, judging by the lack of electoral success for the Lib Dems around the Lincoln area in recent years, the methods we employed in North Hykeham in particular between 1987 and 2013, which saw Lib Dem candidates regularly topping the polls in County and District Council Elections, might just be worth considering. Clearly, whatever Oliver and his friends are currently doing isn’t working.

  • Ruth Bright 27th Mar '18 - 3:53pm

    Sorry Lorenzo. I am sure you are a credit to our age group!

    James Bliss has a point about the obsession with geographical communities. I remember a right royal battle with elements of my local party when some of us wanted to lead FOCUS with the fight to save a regional Birth Centre. Some activists thought the issue was not relevant because the centre wasn’t in their ward. Since 82% of women give birth at some point in their lives it was very obvious that that the issue would be of interest to many.

  • Oliver Craven 27th Mar '18 - 5:11pm

    @John Marriot

    I’d be happy to meet up with you to discuss what we can do better!

  • David Evans 27th Mar '18 - 7:17pm

    @Oliver Craven – Thank you for your invite. I am not an expert on your area other than a recent involvement in helping at the Sleaford and North Hykenham by election, mainly delivering, but I know it is very tough for you out there. But the very first question has to be What is your agreed plan for recovery?

    This could be at local party, constituency, or branch level. Does it set out objectives and targets – internal (membership growth, organisation development and coherence) and external (elections, campaigns, local strengths). Most importantly, does it set out steps to follow and dates to achieve them by and most importantly who is going to do it?

    Have you got a district seat to target this year? I think only Lincoln has elections each year. Have you got a full slate of candidates there and a target? It seems you need between 700 and 1,100 votes to win a ward, which is tough when your best result in 2017 was just over 200 so getting to 400 and a second place would be a good start.

    Equally, perhaps a focus on by-elections and parishes needs consideration in North Kesteven, but it seems opportunities have been missed there with only one out of four by-elections having a Lib Dem candidate.

    There are lots of things to think about and even more things to do. Have you consulted with people with experience of success so you can hit the ground running? Otherwise you are starting from scratch.

  • Richard Church 27th Mar '18 - 7:33pm

    ‘Power to the People’ is a great Liberal slogan, used I think by Jeremy Thorpe in 1974 long before Woolfie made it famous.

    I would add to it ‘knowledge is power’. Ignorant people make bad decisions, well informed people make better ones. So much of what has happened recently is due to poorly informed people subject to fake news and the triumph of emotion over rational thinking.

    Education, Education, Education.

  • John Marriott 27th Mar '18 - 8:31pm

    @Oliver Craven
    I see that David Evans has already passed on a few tips. Mine are less cerebral and more basic. First of all the Lib Dems hold no seats on the Lincoln City Council, which has for many years changed hands between Tory and Labour, with a brief incursion from UKIP, which will probably now disappear as it did on the County Council last year.

    From my local experience, which goes back well over 30 years, the local party needs to target a ward, find a LOCAL candidate, who is prepared to stick at it over several elections, which come more regularly as Lincoln still elects by thirds. The problem with the local party has for many years been an inability to ‘work’ a ward so that a candidate can bed themselves in and, by highlighting local issues, become the ‘go to’ person in times of need. When it comes to campaigning, too often, the emphasis has been on national issues, which, while not unimportant, are best given second place to local issues. Again, if you just parachute a different candidate into a ward every April/May and one who doesn’t know what the local issues are, the chances are that they will get a derisory vote. It’s fine for Tories and Labour to do this as they have a far greater national and historical profile.

    Too often a paper candidate has been found on the Basis of giving the voter the opportunity to vote Lib Dem, who often has precious little idea of what the role of a councillor actually requires and would probably not know what to do with themselves if they actually won.

  • Oliver Craven 27th Mar '18 - 8:49pm

    @John Marriott

    I think you’d like our candidate James in one of our target wards (Carholme). He’s been getting stuck in and is on his second election in Carholme since he joined almost a year ago. Already forced the city council’s hand on parking and is quickly getting a reputation as a hands on community person

  • @Oliver and friends -your Region employs a full time Training Officer who will, at your request, come along and provide bespoke training on absolutely any aspect of campaigning that you specify. As a former Cllr and (elected) Deputy Mayor he has real life rather than theoretical experience but anything he can’t train you on personally he will find people who can do it instead.

    There are I’m afraid no easy answers and no overnight solutions. Community politics, as the name suggest, does involve long haul involvement in communities. Running a street stall on Brexit or putting things on Facebook will not win you local elections in the absence of serious underlying community campaigns. Certainly I have run more than a few Council by elections over the years where we have ‘bounced’ a win in a previously ‘derelict’ Ward which Lab or Cons have taken for granted for too long. But those wins did require very intense and professional by election campaigns. In ‘normal’ May elections you cannot as ‘easily’ concentrate the help, including from outside areas in the same way.There you need a good targeting strategy and a cumulative community campaigning effort over a period of years. With elections by thirds you do have the opportunity of building profile in just 2 or 3 years rather than over intervals of 4 – 8 – 12 years but please do take advantage of those ‘oldies’ who have previously learned how to win elections through long experience. No point reinventing the wheel the hard way.

  • Katharine Pindar 27th Mar '18 - 10:33pm

    ‘Empower the people’ is a great slogan, and I wrote about doing that much as Oliver has done here in a piece published here last July, entitled ‘Open a golden gate to grow power’. Abbreviated quote: ‘Only the Liberal Democrats care about individual power. We believe in the right of everyone to be treated with respect, to have freedom to make their own decisions about their lives, and we want to disperse power as far as possible. Through our community work we try to help individuals … what are the Liberal Democrats for? We are for EMPOWERING INDIVIDUAL PEOPLE.’ (Those last three words were actually in italic not caps.)

    So of course I welcome Oliver’s endorsement of ‘Power to the people’ and community politics, and it’s good to see old hands giving advice here on the basis of experience. But I’m not so sure about Oliver’s “We should therefore trust these groups and the individuals themselves to improve their lives and the lives of those around them.’ There are groups and groups, and some of them are illiberal, and as Graham Evans points out, community politics doesn’t deal with conflict resolution when the interests of one group are in conflict with the interests of another. So I guess we can’t actually leave it to local groups to fulfil our Liberal ideals.

    There’s a more fundamental difficulty, here, too. Oliver wants our party’s ‘one coherent philosophy’ to be that of ‘a new community politics’. I’m not sure that logically you can define a politics as a philosophy, but leaving that aside the idea seems to be that the party should devote itself to localism in future, to serving local communities. I couldn’t personally ever agree to that. My party, which I’ve been a member of all my adult life, is to me a national party and must seek power again in national and international politics.

  • Oliver Craven 28th Mar '18 - 10:50am

    @Paul Holmes

    Phil came the other week though I sadly had to miss his session and is also coming next month sometime to do some more training!

    @Katharine Pindar

    A) conflict resolution is something I need to look at, but I’m sure a system could be designed to satisfy as many people as possible.

    B) as an idea, community politics doesn’t just mean localism. It also means using national policies and national power to empower communities.

  • Peter Hirst 28th Mar '18 - 5:01pm

    It looks like I’ve just been beaten to it. Empowerment is key and is how we differ from the other Parties. Get power to give it away. or teach a man or woman to fish. This is why education is so key. It is empowerment. It also allows us to attack both Parties as they centralise, concentrate and hang onto power.

  • Simon Banks 13th May '18 - 8:06pm

    Yes, John Marriot, judging by the number of responses, lots of people are listening and Oliver is of course trying to find a message that resonates with lots more. Personally, I think “liberty, equality, community” is a pretty good short summary of what we stand for and I’m not bothered that each of these terms is disputable and requires definition. However, Oliver is absolutely right that the roots of community politics are in seeking to empower individuals and communities. I find this quite widely understood among new and old activists and many of us understand the message was lost in short-term electioneering. The best vote achieved in modern times by a liberal party in the UK was by the Liberals in February 1974 with the slogan “Take Power, Vote Liberal”. This message allows us to link local campaigning with national themes.

    As for paper candidates, is John against giving people the chance to vote for us, or is he making the fairly uncontroversial point that we should be trying to open up new target wards?

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