After community politics
Passports to Liberty 4, Liberator Publications, 2000
The days of mass party membership are long gone. Can you imagine how a political party might be organised to win genuine mass appeal?
Given the level of cynicism about politics among the public and the press, and those studiously cynical faces on the BBC Westminster programmes, this is a question we need to be asking ourselves - and haven't really yet done so.
The problem is that politics can be an occasionally exhilarating, occasionally depressing business, as we all know. And if there was only one accusation that could be levelled at people involved in it - and there certainly isn't - it's that we tend to learn more from the former experiences than from the latter. I certainly do.
But despite this shared tendency, I've had two mildly depressing experiences in the last few weeks that have made me think more deeply about the whole thing. The first was canvassing a small housing estate - rather a well-designed one - where everybody was in but where, without exception, everybody told me they would not be voting. "On principle," they said smugly, which seemed to me to make it even worse.
The second was a stand up row I had in a pub with a Green Party researcher from the Greater London Authority, who told me pompously that Liberal Democrats 'always' vote against environmental measures when it comes down to it. I've been trying since the days of Green Voice in the late 1980s to build more effective co-operation between Liberal Democrats and Greens, so this was depressing enough.
But I think what really irritated me was that, in his steadfast belief in his own party's propaganda - and his inability to see the difference between spin and reality - he rather reminded me of some Liberal Democrats I know. That was the worst of it: he reminded me of us.
I mention this because, while I believe our own party is facing rosier electoral prospects, our ability to win and then to achieve things in office is being compromised by the central issue of them all: people's catastrophic loss of belief in politics.
The causes are all around us. There's globalisation: if anyone is taking effective decisions in the world these days, it certainly isn't politicians. It's the shadowy corporate types in distant boardrooms who still believe that business and ethics have no relation to each other, and that their only responsibility is maximising share price.
There's centralisation too. A combination of bureaucracy and vacuous summitry - the last G8 in Okinawa cost £500 million but achieved almost nothing - has undermined everyone's belief in the possibility of change. Change, and whether we can do it - personally and politically - is the key underlying issue of our times.
But behind all that, all of us who spend time doing politics should probably take some responsibility for this state of affairs. It isn't so much the reputation of politicians - which has always been rock bottom - but the loss of belief in the possible that we have to take some of the blame for. We have to recognise that before we can do anything about it. And when only 16 per cent of British voters describe themselves as 'aligned' with any party - let alone the plummeting memberships - that is going to be the toughest belief to turn round.
Our failure to bring meaningful change is as much to do with the complexity of the modern world as anything else, but there are still things we must own up to. The first is the perceived contempt by British politicians of ordinary people.
Politicians are widely regarded as duplicitous - which may be a problem that goes with the territory - but they are also regarded as ignorant, and that doesn't. This is partly because they are often legislating on issues they know little about - a problem of centralisation - but also because of career politicians who have little experience of life before shuffling off to Parliament. William Hague's only previous experience had been in the management consultants McKinsey's, which probably has even less relation to the real world than the House of Commons.
Something about the cosy Commons world means that elected politicians tend to be slow to pick up changes in the world outside. The business world - so often regarded with contempt by the political world - is now considerably further ahead in its ability to grasp innovation and see the world differently. Liberal Democrats are further ahead than other parties, but we haven't been innovative in policy terms for some decades.
Sir Keith Joseph famously described his impatience to get his fingers on 'the levers of power' when he took office in the early 1960s, only to discover "they weren't connected to anything". If that was true 40 years ago, it is much more so today. National parliaments have so much less they can achieve directly 40 years on compared to international bodies and local authorities. Yet the more powerless they become, the more jealously they guard their privileges, the more pompous the debates on issues they cannot possibly do anything about.
Sadly this is so much more obvious to the public than it is to elected members, who seem unable to grasp that their power - if it lies anywhere - lies through co-ordination, leadership and influence. But then that's what leadership is all about. "There go my people," said Gandhi, "and I must hurry to catch up with them, for I am their leader."
The second major failure we political activists must own up to is our failure to come up with a reasonable and compelling language in which to talk about it.
Tony Blair began to weave something new in his compelling conference speeches after being elected leader, but the serious lack of verbs proved a bit of a giveaway - it was all motivation and no action. Charles Kennedy's great contribution to politics so far has been to begin this process - by being genuinely himself on TV and radio, by talking a relaxed, modest language that people immediately respond to. It sounds simple and obvious, but most politicians fail at the first hurdle: they sound too angry, too sneering, too vitriolic. They make politics sound like an unpleasant, inhuman place. Just listen to Conservative spokesman Nigel Evans on the radio sometime and you'll see what I mean.
Liberal Democrats have been innovators in political language. The 'if we win, you win' rhetoric of early community politics was genuinely fresh. It isn't any more. Neither is the repackaged language of the 1940s - 'education for all', 'fairness for all' which has been sucked dry of any meaning and now just sounds patronising. The public watch anything up to 10,000 TV advertisements a year, created by the best marketing imaginations in the world: they are extremely adept at seeing through a sales pitch.
But it's worse than that. I keep promising myself that, if I get another Focus leaflet through my door with the headline 'LABOUR LIES!', I'm tempted to react as I would if this had come from my local church or playgroup - and hand it over to the police. It isn't convincing. In fact, in the real world it's really rather unpleasant.
The acid test is the advertising one. If this kind of aggressive language was effective, we would see major companies using it. We would see the TV ads and the posters full of it. We don't and it isn't.
Finally there's the central failure of recent politics: our failure to bring about real change. Poverty is still with us, public services still struggle, cars still pump pollution into the atmosphere. After all the rhetoric and all the money, it's a major disappointment.
Let's face it, this isn't just because of the incompetence of the previous administration. Any Liberal Democrat in local government will be able to vouch for the sheer intractability of making things happen. Nor is it just because Westminster has lost its power, agonising about 'national sovereignty' but forgetting that globalisation has long since removed it. Nor is it just the sheer complexity of modern government, with the power to undermine it, but without the power to make it succeed. Running Nether Wallop from Whitehall isn't just wrong, it's wildly inefficient.
No, it goes beyond that. Few of us in politics really accept the paradoxical nature of real change. William Morris, socialist and wallpaper designer, summed it up like this in A Dream of John Ball: "Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”
A quick look back over the past half century shows how true this is - the great reforms with unexpected consequences, the miserable reality of so many ideals, from high rise flats to the CSA, the sheer poverty of simple one-dimensional solutions. If that was so in the 1890s when Morris was writing, it is even more so today. Yet we still act, in this complex political world, as if it was all a matter of winning and pushing through legislation - when it must be clear to anybody with a passing aquaintanceship with public affairs that it is much more complicated than that. This is the big issue that separates the politicians from the statesmen: can they see beyond the simplicity of winning and losing. Precious few can.
That's depressing, but it's also hopeful. Because once we accept that politics is more than just winning and losing, maybe we can begin to see a way to work with the paradox, rather than always falling victim to it.
Those three failures - to connect with real life, to use a language that inspires and involves, and to bring about real change - hangs heavily on everyone involved in politics. We can see their consequences all around us: the excruciating dullness of most political meetings, the party conferences that have remained much the same shape since 1918, the difficulty finding candidates.
But it also raises an important question: is it possible to re-invent a political party so that it could attract mass support and make real change happen? Because if it is possible, and one party takes the leap of faith to do it, they will give themselves an enormous lead. I don't know the answer to this, but I'd like to add to an almost non-existent debate on the subject by putting forward my own ten-step plan for change. It is based on the following ideas:
- We have to put into effect what we say we believe in, whether we're elected or not.
- We can and must make a difference to ordinary people by training them in political and personal skills.
- That training should become the central activity of the party.
The 'plan' comes in two halves: politics from the centre and at local level. Both envisage a political party that is genuinely organised to support people and communities to exercise power themselves. Taken together they are intended as a very draft blueprint for a Liberal Democrat party organisation for the 21st century.
For all their occasional enthusiasm for privatisation, many politicians regard the business world with contempt. That blindness is one of the reasons Liberal democrats have failed to recognise some corners of business struggling towards new ways of empowering their workforce, flattening their hierarchies and decentralising their power - they could have learned from us, and we could have learned from them.
But it is time we learned from them, about how it might be possible - where New Labour has failed - to build a political 'brand'. That might mean the following:
1. Be honest about what politics can and can't change
This sounds a little like a 12-step programme from Alcoholics Anonymous, but there is a sense that this is directly relevant. Elected politicians are addicted to the idea that they have the power to change the world, and clinging to this makes them more powerless than they need be.
In reality, of course, politicians have a great deal of power - to set frameworks, to inspire and to bring people together. They don't have the power to legislate in quite the same way, and most of modern politics is dominated by the 'blame game' when they try and fail.
The first thing we have to do is be honest about this, to realise that the levers of power are now firmly at local level - probably neighbourhood level - and at international level. The role of Westminster or regional politicians is vital, but different. And it requires some kind of shared vision.
Liberal Democrats have recognised this shift more than other parties, but we are still held prisoner by the old thinking. Too often, we still imagine that some kind of central control, some kind of Treasury cheque will transform the situation. The money might help - we can't revitalise health or education without it - but the key issues of modern politics aren't about money, they are about making complex systems work.
We have to take our own ideals seriously. We believe in local power, and we are no longer kicking against the forces of history when we say so. It is in fact the only way forward.
2. Adopt a new kind of language
Political rhetoric is dead as a doornail. The majority puts people off. Some of it, especially in local political leaflets, is downright offensive. Take off your political hat for a second, and consider whether you would want the sheer bile in your average Conservative leaflet in your home. The hard fact is that occasionally, Liberal Democrat leaflets are almost as bad.
Our problem is that, deep down, we want to be taken seriously as politicians, so we try to sound like them. Unfortunately, we do so when politicians have never been held in such low regard.
The key is to be trusted, and if the way we express our ideas gets in the way of that, we are failing. We have to construct a language that is completely shorn of rhetoric - people are immune to it these days - and which is devastatingly honest. We have to be extremely careful when we attack other parties.
This isn't just idealism. The public is now extremely sophisticated decoding sales messages after 40 years of television advertising, and the political language we use was old-fashioned when ITV first hit the screens. Only honesty, openness and personality will do any more. Anything else undermines us.
3. Learn from the brand-building techniques of multinationals
This kind of idea has had a bad press because of the failure of New Labour to see beyond the latest focus group, but don't let's give up because of that. Businesses realise their brand has a kind of personality. They realise this personality has to be enhanced by every contact with the party - on TV or on the doorstep. They realise the crucial and complex importance of brand or party reputation, that it is the sum total of all the stories anybody tells about us.
That means not only that we have to embody the changes we want in society - but that we can't wait until being elected before doing so. That was the central idea of community politics a generation ago, and it's just as true today.
If we believe in empowering people to take power, we can't make that conditional on being elected - change doesn't work if we wait until then. We have to set about it now. There are a number of ways we could start doing it, but to me the most potent is the idea of extending our now extensive training programme for candidates and councillors to the public (see number 6 below).
4. Establish direct communication with everyone that's interested
That means learning from the big brands again and setting up a call centre that can manage the party's relationship with anyone who wants to contact it centrally. Liberal Democrats have dabbled with call centres so far - making the serious mistake of bringing our call centre in-house when every other organisation in the country was out-sourcing. We have to go much further.
We need to apply our political principles to our own organisation - making sure control of the party remains with its members, that responsibility remains with local parties, but that actual functions are carried out at a level where they can best be delivered. The delivery of membership services is best done locally, but every organisation which wants to relate to people needs to have a responsive central number that can track its relationship, individual by individual. That means investing in software that can be accessed by all levels of the party - so that central services won't necessarily mean centralisation.
We need to use Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software that 'remembers' all previous contacts with anyone who calls. We need a Voiceover IP system that means we can guide people to policies over the internet and talk to them at the same time down the phoneline. We need to be able to guide them to local training or to local Liberal Democrats if need be, and build a relationship with them every time they call.
If the big brands can do it, it is only a matter of time before other political parties do it too. If it's based on the old patronising model of politics, shared by Labour and Tory, then this kind of stuff smacks of Big Brother. If it's based on the new model, genuinely intervening to provide political and life training to people, then it will build our reputation effectively.
Otherwise, call centres become no more than an irritating request for donations. Political parties have got to be two-way businesses, or they won't survive.
5. Back the people against the professionals
In recent years, Liberal Democrats have developed an unhelpful professional bias. It derives from an absolutely laudable backing for teachers at local government level, and a sense that the tremendous tradition of public service in the UK was being undermined by budget cuts and Thatcherite disrespect for anything but money. All that is absolutely right, but it has metamorphosed into what is sometimes a patronising sense that doctors, teachers and social workers must be right.
When pressed this far, the ethic of public service gets in the way of people first. It backs the bureaucrats against ordinary people. It assumes that people are unable, unaided, to bring up families, to handle their lives, to decide what's best for themselves. All too often doctors have been wrong about alternative therapies, planners have been wrong about redesigned communities, teachers have been wrong about centralised curriculums.
At the same tine, the ability of professionals to use their judgement has been undermined by 20 years of target-setting, league tables, indicators, testing and measurement - even encouragement for doctors to diagnose using computer programmes. This deadly combination of trends has left the people who use their services increasingly dependent on professionals with no room for manoeuvre, circumscribed by targets and best practice.
So often the main block standing in the way of people and communities taking control of their own lives is professionals and intermediaries who see people in terms of what they can't do - not in terms of what they can. If Liberal Democrats mean what they say about empowering people, we have to tackle this problem. We have to find new ways of measuring, recognising and involving people as equal partners in the business of regeneration - recognising that without their active involvement, doctors can't make people well, police can't solve crime, urban regeneration can't improve local life, and any amount of New Deal intervention is just a waste of money.
The miserable record of participation in the UK since the war - a symptom of a flawed and centralised political system - has undermined our faith in shared government. Only Liberal Democrats can take constitutional reform to this new more daring level. Yet without doing so, our professionals will fail, and so will our politicians.
One of the most effective and exciting new forms of local participation is probably the American time banks idea, that measure and reward people for the effort their put in locally (see number 10 below).
Put aside for a moment the white lies we tell ourselves as political activists and try to imagine the kind of organisation a political party would have to be to genuinely win loyal, enduring and enthusiastic support. If we really think it's because of what we say, we are deluding ourselves even more than the current Conservative Party is. The great contribution of community politics was to make activists understand that it comes from what we 'do'.
But even that isn't enough any more. 'If we win, you win' just doesn't sound convincing these days. Nor does 'working all the year round' when, actually people are extremely dubious about any politician's 'work'. I remember an enraged scrawled reply to a Focus questionnaire in Cambridge, asking for opinions about a traffic calming measure, which said: "YOU TELL US, CHUM. YOU PROBABLY GO TO POSH DRINKS PARTIES AND DO'S".
No, we have to be providing a service, and although Liberal Democrats have done their best to brand a heavy case work caseload as their own - with some success in a handful of places - that is very hard to sustain unless it is based on something else. What's more, it has to be a service that genuinely builds a Liberal Democrat world, genuinely giving people power to tackle the forces ranged against them, be they professional, bureaucratic or economic. I would like to suggest that we turn our conception of a political party on its head, and make our central concern - along with fighting and winning elections - the task of training people of all parties and of none to take power.
So this is what a 21st century political party might look like at local level:
6. Spread self-help skills
If training became a central political concern, it would mean taking the rapidly growing and highly-successful Liberal Democrat training network - already providing skills to potential MPs, councillors and agents - and offering it more widely. We already train for something as apparently unpolitical as 'inter-personal skills': this would mean developing a simple hands-on course - a kind of cross between training for trainers and the Alpha Course - that could train people to:
- Take on the town hall and win.
- Fight off unwelcome planning developments - or attract welcome ones.
- Make things happen - either in planning or local economic development.
- Set up time banks and other systems for local change.
- Run for elected office.
- Change your job and re-imagine your working life.
It is important that the course is offered to everyone, regardless of political affiliation. It is generosity that builds brands, not petty-fogging political rivalries that the rest of the world won't fully understand. It is also important that it works as a cascade, that people are encouraged to use what they have learned to work with the party to make things happen locally, and to set up more courses themselves.
Of course it won't always work. Sometimes it will fall into the hands of the wrong people, or be used for illiberal purposes. But if it is generous, inspiring and empowering, it will build a new edge to the party - demonstrating that we are actually setting out to build the kind of empowered local world we believe in.
Training has grown in importance quickly in the Liberal Democrats, and it will grow even more. This proposal sets it at the very centre of what we do. And with a dwindling number of people prepared to come forward for elected office, the sooner we reach out with our training the better.
7. Take participation further
Community politics grew out of the enthusiasm for community participation in the late 1960s. It was born in the era of growing revolt against slum clearance, used for the destruction of thriving poorer communities and their decampment into poorly maintained high rise flats. It was also the era of the radical Skeffington Report that sketched out a future for participation at the very heart of government - still never fully implemented.
The sad fact is that, generally speaking, participation has never lived up to its ideal. All too often it now means ambiguous questionnaires sent out by central government, or draughty church halls with nervous planning officers, or futile exhibitions about local development plans that everyone knows will go ahead anyway - whatever local people think. I even know a Liberal Democrat council currently justifying a completely indefensible and unsustainable development on parkland on the grounds that the bare minimum 'consultation' was carried out - even though, what consultation there was gave an unambiguous thumbs down.
We simply have to recapture participation as our own. We have to take the risk of making it meaningful. We have made advances: Richmond's experiment with setting the local council tax with an opinion poll, South Somerset's, Kingston's and Tower Hamlets' experiments with radical decentralisation. We have also missed out on some of the most ambitious experiments of the past two decades. Although Liberal Democrat administrations in Eastleigh, Rochdale and Liverpool have gingerly put their toes into some of these, the party as a whole have been racing to catch up with phenomena like community architecture, community banking and community planning.
Yet we are also the only party that can push this forward. The others are too constrained still by smugness (Labour), arrogance (Conservatives) or ideology (Greens). We have to walk the talk, as they say. We have to champion the best and latest kind of community involvement, even when its results might be inconvenient.
8. Pioneer new kinds of democracy
We have to recognise the failures of the current system. Often as political activists we are, paradoxically, the only people who don't see it. To build the brand, we have to be in the forefront of new kinds of democratic decision-making. That means taking the risk of handing complicated local decisions over to what the New Economics Foundation cals 'democs' - experimental new kinds of local democracy.
Many of these new ways of encouraging people to participate in public life, or of reaching consensus on local issues, are emerging in the USA, but probably the best-known is the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission – and there are already 110 UK local authorities using ‘citizen’s juries’. We need to be able to learn from the experience of major projects like Imagine Chicago, and other democratic visioning schemes using local cable TV pioneered in places like Seattle, Chattanooga and Houston. In particular, Liberal Democrats need to be in the forefront of issues like:
- How to find ways that local agencies – from health centres to local authorities – can involve ‘clients’ as co-partners in regeneration.
- How to rescue ‘consultation’ from its current patronising and meaningless reputation.
- Finding ways that local input can make genuinely better-informed decisions – rather than current stand-offs, for example at its most knotty, over where former paedophiles should live.
- How to put energy into regeneration programmes.
- How we can build on Local Agenda 21, the US citizen consensus councils and ‘issue forums’ (they hold around 3,200 a year) and deliberative polls.
It’s no good any more listening to Conservatives who say this kind of thing isn’t part of the British tradition. We badly need to renew the way democracy works and we have to lead.
9. Get to grips with local economics
For all the ingenuity and passion Liberal Democrats lavish on giving communities power over their own destinies, the global economy seems increasingly to call the shots. The kind of local culture and tradition which underpins people’s lives are increasingly being replaced by identikit places. Local jobs are decided more often in corporate boardrooms than by what local people need. Local economic life is increasingly perceived as simple juggling of powerlessness and insecurity. The party urgently needs a policy on local economics: the current policy panel on the subject is long overdue.
It isn’t that the party has no policy on the subject, but because what it does have is piecemeal and scattered through a range of other policy documents from welfare to urban affairs. The result of this is that the policy is not perceived as a whole.
The trouble for Liberal Democrats now is that – although local life and the decentralisation of power runs like a thread through so much of what the party does locally, nationally and internationally – we have no coherent set of policies to cover the economic aspects of this decentralisation. We have plans to devolve political power to local level, power over health and education and many of the aspects of life that people feel are most important to self-determination. But until now we have made not attempt at a coherent policy to devolve economic power too.
This has been a serious omission. Because without some measure of influence over our local economic lives, we are at the mercy of global forces in all the other areas – health, education and political self-determination as well. Without a local economic policy, we are increasingly powerless in the face of expenditure cuts, recession and the decisions of distant multinational executives, so that local life has to cut itself to fit economic forces that are increasingly outside the power of national governments as well.
In generations gone by, it was assumed that these forces were entirely outside political control. A century ago, the so-called Newcastle Liberals set out the first political programmes to tackle issues like poverty and poor housing, but as the economic levers have slipped from the hands of national governments, other parties have assumed that they must slip out of the hands of local people too. But new thinking on these issues around the world, and good practice by Liberal Democrat councils around the country, are laying down a new agenda – not perhaps for local economic control, but at least for some measure of influence over the economic forces that shape our lives.
The include community banks, community currencies and other policies that help keep local earnings circulating around the local economy, rather than seeping out to outside multinationals or utilities. This kind of economic thinking can provide the economic edge to everything else we say about decentralisation.
10. Build the infrastructure that creates social capital
One of the unfortunate by-products of winning 46 seats at the 1997 election is that the party is that much more focussed on Westminster as the source of all solutions. We have put aside – temporarily, I hope – our scepticism about whether Westminster is the appropriate place to tackle some of the key issues. I’m also inclined to agree with the garden city pioneer Ebenezer Howard who warned that, if we wait for Westminster to act, we we’ll be “as old as Methuselah”.
We have a powerful infrastructure in place already, at all levels of government. If something needs doing, and it certainly does, we will be that much more powerful if we get on and do it ourselves. And one of the key tasks that needs doing is to build the infrastructure that makes community self-help possible.
One of the most powerful ideas currently on offer is an unusual amalgam of barter systems, loyalty points and volunteering. They’re called time banks, and they are one of the few systems around that encourage old-fashioned mutual volunteering – rather than the even more old-fashioned Victorian version of middle class volunteering currently favoured by the government. People earn time ‘credits’ for helping out in the community – often people who have never been asked to do anything before, because of the assumption by professionals or bureaucrats that they are the ‘problem’. They can spend these on services for themselves, or on recycled computers, furniture or other surplus stock.
The idea, according to one proponent, is to rebuild neighbourhoods ‘relationship by relationship’ and the 14 time banks in the UK – one of them in a health centre in Lewisham – have already had a dramatic effect. Research in the USA and Japan, where there are now getting on for 700, shows that they attract people who never normally volunteer, they increase local trust and they even keep people healthier. But most important, they keep community activity going after the initial burst of enthusiasm.
When British politics is dominated by Tony Blair’s Third Way – which lacks any method of rebuilding social capital apart from curfews and social control – time banks are a way of doing this reciprocally.
It is important that they’re not run by the government – which would then undermine the voluntary and informal nature of the system – and they certainly couldn’t be run by a political party. But somebody needs to take the lead setting time banks up in neighbourhood centres, health centres or schools. Somebody needs to generate the interest, bring together people who can arrange it, and use their political clout to raise the money necessary to launch them. This seems to me to be a critical job for a modern political party – and would have considerably more long-term impact than a council by-election victory, important as those are.
Time banks are the most powerful system available to do the job, but even if we don’t adopt the idea as our own – the principle is the same. We will only win elections if we work between elections, and campaigning work counts for little these days – when people are cynical and exhausted by campaigning – unless it is accompanied by real genuine achievements.
Don’t let’s assume we have to be in office to change the way the country is run, nationally or locally. If we do so, we will be as old as Methuselah before we make a difference. Yet taking action anyway for the good of our communities may also provide the basic support we need to take not just to take office, but to make things happen when we do.
Community politics was a revolutionary doctrine that challenged us to stop thinking so narrowly about politics, and to realise that we could make a difference even without being elected and that – if we did – we would also find it far easier to get elected. We have sucked community politics dry, and are left with a narrowest possible view of what political campaigning can be. It’s time we rediscovered that ambition.
We have the organisation to do it. We have high-placed people elected at every level of government and we have highly talented people on the ground. But we have to re-imagine what a political party can be, apply that with generosity to the community as a whole and don’t wait around for the voters to see it our way.
Because we can be absolutely sure of one thing. Whichever political party has the nerve to re-invent itself along these lines will steal an immense advantage over its rivals – and we may never catch them up. It has to be us.