What is the point of winning?

As the local elections come down the track, sooner or later, it is worth rehearsing the philosophy of why Liberal Democrats fight to win. In 1980 Bernard Greaves and Gordon Lishman were insisting in their “Theory and Practice  of Community Politics” that the latter aimed “to secure for individuals within their communities greater control over their living environments and a deeper sense of involvement in decisions affecting their lives.” This was echoed twenty years later by Tony Greaves who spoke of a strategy concerned with asking “what can we actually do to change things in this patch on the ground?”

One of the reasons why, on our Council, Labour and Conservative councillors think we are not proper councillors is our refusal to regard attending meetings of Council and committees as the most important part of our political activity. We do our fair share on committees. We hold surgeries but they are not the pinnacle of engagement with constituents. We are probably more likely to pick up casework from a shout across the street than from people walking through a surgery door.

We do casework, as do other councillors, but I suspect our style can be rather different. Depending on our lifestyles, we can set our own standards for going the extra mile. For my part I tend to be free most of the time to respond to emails immediately, even if it’s just a holding acknowledgement. I am fortunate in representing a very compact ward and live one bus stop away from its boundary, so it is no great hardship to do a prompt site visit before reporting a problem. Checking out a complaint about a street light not working can be a chore at high summer but one of the benefits of winter is being able to inspect much earlier in the evening. Officers respond to reliability and accuracy. But there is much more to it than general competence. It is about pro-active campaigning which helps people to make their place better.

A few years ago one of our members died who rejoiced in the name of Joan Collins. She smoked like a chimney which may have shortened her life slightly, but I would never have challenged the consolation this brought her after she became largely confined to her bungalow. She had some rather more admirable liberal habits in her nonconformity and willingness to ask awkward questions. She had a proud history of offering her house as a committee room on polling days.

About a year before she died she told me, “I’m glad I live in this part of the city.” Having lived for fifteen years across town and then twenty months in temporary accommodation in another part before settling in north-east Bradford, I knew immediately what she was on about. It wasn’t just about the houses and shops and road patterns, which were not that different from their counterparts in other urban villages. It was much more about the feel of the place.

Joan’s ward, which I have represented since 2010, has had Lib Dem Councillors since 1999 and the two neighbouring wards for quite a bit longer. I wouldn’t want to make rash, partisan claims, but it is undeniable that Lib Dem councillors and campaigners have made a serious contribution to the feel of the place, in their efforts to strengthen local communities, in the priorities very publicly expressed, sometimes in the language they have used.

At our best we are agents of change, working to make our neighbourhoods more human and our residents feel happier. And also at our best we have little time for ego-trips. It gives me great pleasure to hear people spontaneously refer not simply to individual councillors but to the Lib Dem Team.

I am aware of great things being done by Lib Dem councils. However, as a third party councillor locally, I am happy to play a part in creating a more liberal north-east Bradford. Joan would never have expressed it in Lishman/Greaves terms but I suspect that in her guts she clearly felt that this was our shared aim.

* Geoff Reid is a Bradford City Councillor and a retired Methodist Minister.

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7 Comments

  • John Marriott 29th Jan '21 - 11:32am

    A CAUTIONARY TALE

    Geoff Reid’s piece very much echoes my experience. We introduced ‘community politics’ into North Hykeham, a small town (pop around 15,000 and growing) on the southwest corner of Lincoln, to which it has belonged on occasions for parliamentary purposes, and currently (but for how much longer) part of North Kesteven DC and the one half of the Sleaford & North Hykeham constituency. Our Lib Dem colleagues in Sleaford started around the same time as we did (around 1983) with regular FOCUS newsletters, residents’ surveys, petitions etc, and, by the end of the century, we had a voting majority on both Town Councils, and, as far as North Hykeham was concerned, all five District Council seats and one of the two County Council seats, even picking up a couple of DC seats in the rural hinterland, especially in and around Sleaford.

    Despite gaining the other NH County Council seat in 2007, things started to go down hill and sadly accelerated after the Lib Dems became coalition partners and had actually had to get their hands dirty. Today we have a couple of Lib Dems, but not announcing the fact, on the North Hykeham Town Council and that’s about it. I retired as a councillor after 30 years in 2017, partly disillusioned with the inability of the local party to put in the hard consistent work necessary to win and retain seats. Just appearing ‘Pack like’ on the ballot paper every four years is just not enough. It might work for Tories in the county and for Labour in Lincoln, but not for us. I say ‘us’ ,because, although no longer a member, I still have a soft stop for the party despite everything.

    Where we went wrong was that, as we kept getting elected, as most of us still had a job to hold down and a family to consider, something had to give and that something was recruitment. I have used this analogy before, so please forgive me; but I often equate campaigning for a third relatively new party a bit like gardening. Everything is fine as long as you can sustain your effort. But relax and those weeds just keep coming back. They say that cream rises to the top. Well, if you’re not careful. so does the scum.

  • Tony Greaves 29th Jan '21 - 4:44pm

    Good piece, Geoff. Apropos of not very much, my grandparents lived in Eccleshill/Undercliffe and my parents grew up there. A great grandparent who was a dreadful Tory was headteacher of Eccleshill School and by family tradition organised the petition to extend the trams to Eccleshill (though when I knew it, they were tracklesses (trolley buses). Anyway when I grew up in Bradford it was called the Town Hall!

  • suzanne fletcher 30th Jan '21 - 9:41am

    An extremely important point, what is the point in winning.
    How many fringe meetings, training sessions and even facebook postings are about this? Not just great achievements when in power, but the thousands of councillors who are not part of running the council.
    What do we actually do when elected that is not different to what someone else who is competent and caring ( and produces regular leaflets) from another party?
    I have had the advantage of retiring, but working with council officers in voluntary work for 9 years, and getting feedback I would never have realised.
    I never had power, but I sure had influence.

  • Lib-Dems believe in localism as well as internationalism. Being local champions is vital to our existence, but unfortunately we have such a centralised national system. For example, we are concerned locally about poor bus services, but the only way this can be improved is when government chooses to give the Local Authority more money. This is now worse than it was in 2010.
    There seems to be a growing view that people should take to organising their own local activities OUTSIDE the established party system; this may not succeed, but it is making it more difficult for us to get support.

  • David Garlick 30th Jan '21 - 12:06pm

    good stuff.

  • I slightly confused, are we proposing setting up the structures that allow people and communities to have control over their own lives (which is how I had always interpreted Greaves and Lishman) or are we talking about a more traditional, passive model where people look to their local councillors to solve their problems for them ?

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