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Dear Ed,

Welcome to the new instalment in my weekly series about Liberal Democrat political philosophy. This week, we'll be looking at community politics. 

I hope you are finding this course interesting and useful - and if you are, please let your friends and colleagues know that they can sign up for the series here

The content draws very heavily on an excellent pamphlet edited by Duncan Brack for the Liberal Democrat History Group and by contributors to the group's (now sadly out of print) Dictionary of Liberal Thought. In particular for this week's email, Robert Ingham.

If you aren't familiar with the group's work, particularly the website and quarterly Journal of Liberal History, I'd highly recommend taking a look.

If you like elements of the emails that follow, most likely Duncan and colleagues deserve the credit. For the bits you don't like, the brickbats should come my way.

Best wishes,

Mark
 

Community politics

Community politics encompasses both a restatement of the intellectual basis for liberalism, based on devolving power to communities, and also a strategy for winning elections, particularly focusing on local government. It emerged as a concept in the late 1960s and was officially adopted by the Liberal Party at its 1970 Assembly.

The theory of community politics emerged from the intellectual ferment of the Young Liberal movement during the late 1960s. Young Liberal leaders drawn to the Liberal Party by Jo Grimond sought to rethink the intellectual case for liberalism, earning the nickname ‘Red Guards’ because their radicalism conflicted with the more staid orthodoxy of the party leadership. After the Red Guards disintegrated following a series of doctrinal disputes, those members who remained with the Liberal Party set out, "a restatement of Liberalism in a new synthesis to meet the changed perspectives of a new generation". Bernard Greaves, Tony (now Lord) Greaves, Gordon Lishman and Michael Meadowcroft were among its main proponents.

The basis of community politics was the traditional liberal concern with the individual, and the importance of enabling each person to fulfil his or her own potential. What distinguished community politics from earlier thinking was the focus on the communities to which individuals belong – in particular, geographic and economic communities – and the importance of individual self-fulfilment occurring in conjunction with, and in support of, the development of vibrant, self-confident communities.

Community politics rejected the out-and-out individualism of the libertarian right, which had not been short of champions in the post-war Liberal Party. But it was also a deliberate challenge to socialism and the bureaucratic centralisation which had come to characterise the welfare state. Community politics was intended to, "reverse the trends towards centralisation and uniformity and to encourage decentralisation and variety".

The job of the community politician was to help foster and maintain a community’s identity and to create a habit of participation so as to ‘bind a community together in a constant relationship with power and decision-making’. The ultimate aim was for new political structures to emerge based on communities in which individuals were fully involved.

John Stuart Mill, T. H. Green and Lord Acton have all been claimed as fathers of community politics. Robert Owen and the Levellers have been cited as early practitioners, and links to libertarian and anarchist thinkers have also been claimed. Closest to the mark was David Thomson’s assessment that, "Britain … lacks a decentralist, communitarian and co-operative tradition" and that inspiration for community politics came principally from the French student riots and US counter-culture of the 1960s.

Community politics was a theory concerned with process – how communities could take power to pursue their own aims – rather than with ends. An obvious danger was that communities would seek empowerment to pursue illiberal objectives. In their influential exposition of the theory of community politics, Lishman and Bernard Greaves suggested that the application of community politics would not degenerate into unrestrained populism because, "with the exercise of power goes an increasing responsibility for its application" and "in a society based on active consent, tyranny is impossible". Nevertheless, advocates of community politics argued that the Liberal Party should take a dual approach to politics – seeking to win elections and, at the same time, organising and assisting communities to exercise power for themselves.

The dual approach to politics was mentioned in the first paragraph of the resolution on community politics passed at the 1970 Assembly, by 348 votes to 236. The resolution stated that the role of Liberal activists was to organise people in communities to take and to use power and to help redress grievances. It also called for Liberals to build power bases in the major cities and to identify with the under-privileged. In hindsight, it was remarkable that the Young Liberals should have been so successful in convincing the Liberal rank and file of the need for such a bold statement of strategic intent, although the appalling result of the 1970 general election no doubt convinced many activists that a new approach was required. Also influential was the Liberal success in the Birmingham Ladywood by-election the previous year, which had been based on community politics techniques.

The aspect of community politics most enthusiastically embraced by the Liberal leadership and the party at large was the identification and redress of local grievances, strongly promoted as a campaigning tactic by the Association of Liberal Councillors. Community politics very quickly became associated with ‘pavement politics’. Focus leaflets were used to highlight local grievances – cracked pavements, faulty street lights, dog dirt and so on – and to ask residents to raise issues of concern. This proved immensely successful in local government elections in some areas, particularly the suburbs, though less so in parliamentary elections.

Despite the techniques of community politics became a defining feature of the Liberal Party it is questionable whether the theory was widely understood or fully implemented where Liberals took power. It was difficult to prevent a genuine philosophy morphing into a technique simply to win local seats and to being caricatured as mindless activism, with the idea of genuine empowerment of the community becoming turned into an electoral tactic of leafleting all year round.

Little attention was paid to empowering members of non-geographic communities, such as workplaces or (of increasing importance as the UK's demography changed) religious or cultural communities, and the Liberal Party’s focus on the least well-off was not always evident.

The theory was vague about how to determine at which level decisions should be taken and there was little to explain how conflicts within and between different communities might be resolved. The assumption that just about everyone would automatically seek to participate in political decision-making if given the chance was untested. Community politics encouraged participation by vociferous individuals, and the more articulate and middle-class elements, without engaging those groups most in need of help.

A telling criticism of community politics techniques was that they tended to encourage people to look to elected politicians to deal with grievances, instead of helping people to help themselves. Also, it could be difficult to establish a national policy on issues such as transport or housing development if Liberals locally took opposing views on particular schemes. Another problem was that the techniques could be, and increasingly were, aped by other parties.

Although the theory of community politics was a new contribution to Liberal thinking, the techniques with which the theory was associated had developed in a number of places in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Roy Douglas has gone as far as describing community politics as, "a restatement in contemporary terms of practices which were applied by Liberals in Birmingham in the 1870s".

The techniques still remain central to the Liberal Democrats’ campaign strategy but their theoretical underpinnings are now infrequently cited and the phrase has often been out of favour with those in power in the party. 

Further reading

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