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Community politics

Community Politics describes a particular style of locally organised campaigning on specifically local issues pioneered by the Liberal Party in the 1950s and 1960s and now practised by Liberal Democrat activists throughout the UK.

Community Politics involves all-year round campaigning through canvassing, street surveys, advice surgeries and, most notably, publication and door-to-door delivery of Focus newsletters. Community Politics aimed to replace the remote politicians who only contacted their constituents to ask for their votes at election times with a much more engaged and responsive style of representation that connected with the day-to-day concerns of the person in the street.

Community Politics was officially adopted as a political strategy of the Liberal Party in 1970 when the party’s annual assembly at Eastbourne passed a Young Liberal amendment to the agreed party strategy and tactics that committed the party to a primary strategic emphasis on Community Politics. The amendment defined the new strategy as: ‘a dual approach to politics, acting both inside and outside the institutions of the political establishment to help organise people in their communities to take and use power to build a Liberal power-base in the major cities of this country to identify with the under-privileged in this country and the world to capture people’s imagination as a credible political movement, with local roots and local successes’. At various times since 1970, Liberal, and later Liberal Democrat, conferences have reaffirmed their commitment to Community Politics.

While the radical Young Liberal activists responsible for the Eastbourne amendment believed Community Politics could be a means of transforming politics to create something akin to a participatory democracy, the origins of the strategy were more prosaic. The Liberal Party had originally employed locally organised campaigning on specifically local issues during the 1950s and 1960s out of electoral necessity. What was sometimes derided as ‘pavement politics’ was utilised as an effective means for a third party to mobilise support and win local elections. As Jo Grimond once declared: ‘every time a local Liberal councillor gets a bus stop moved to a better place he strikes a blow for the Liberal Party’. A small number of individuals, notably Wallace Lawler in Birmingham, Trevor Jones (Jones the Vote) in Liverpool and Michael Meadowcroft in Leeds, were instrumental in developing the campaigning techniques later used by Liberals throughout the country to achieve electoral success. It was this example of the impact that Community Politics-style campaigning could have on areas previously indifferent to political activity that attracted a relatively large number of young activists to the Liberal Party and fostered a belief in the emancipating potential of the strategy.

The philosophical belief in active citizenship and popular participation in the political process that underpins Community Politics at its best may also be linked to the fundamental tenets of liberal philosophy, such as John Stuart Mill’s civic liberalism and, in particular, the Social Liberalism of Thomas Hill Green. Indeed, Mill and Green were both active participants in public life; Mill as a Liberal MP and author, Green as an Oxford town councillor and leading figure in the national temperance movement.

It is probably fair to say, however, that there has always been a tension between those activists who have seen Community Politics as nothing more than a very effective means of winning elections and those who believed that the strategy was an end in itself and an expression of a deeper philosophical commitment. Indeed, many of the original advocates and practitioners of Community Politics have complained that the philosophical belief in popular empowerment through wider participation that underpinned their original vision was never widely appreciated within the Liberal Party or, more recently, the Liberal Democrats.

Without doubt, Community Politics was a key factor in the survival of the Liberal Party and in the more recent electoral success of the Liberal Democrats. Psephological studies of the Liberal Democrat vote have shown the importance of campaigning factors above all others in explaining Liberal Democrat success; many of the Parliamentary seats gained in 1997 and 2001 followed from local electoral success built upon Community Politics-style campaigning. Community Politics has also had a dramatic impact on political culture and political campaigning in the UK. The emphasis on the issues most immediate to the electorate and the use of simple, straightforward campaign literature has now become so commonplace – and has been copied by both the Labour and Conservative parties – that it is hard today to remember or imagine what a revelation the new style was when it first replaced the traditional glossy election leaflet featuring the candidates personal election address and ubiquitous family photograph.

Nevertheless, the practice of Community Politics has not been without controversy. Political opponents have levelled accusations of popularism and of lowering the tone of political debate at those who have used the strategy. It has been argued that the responsiveness to local concerns inherent to Community Politics can lead activists to pander to the views of constituents, even when those views are essentially illiberal or simply represent the opinion of a vocal minority. Certainly, the reality of this potential pathology of the strategy was exposed when the national party found that the local party in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets had pandered to racism in its election literature during the early-1990s. It seems clear that Community Politics must be combined with a clear commitment to Liberal Democrat policies and principles if such unhappy and damaging events are to be avoided.

Community Politics is central to the twentieth century history of the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats. It inspired a new generation of young activists when the Liberal Party was in danger of becoming a relic of a bygone age and ultimately lead to the slow electoral revival that culminated in the Liberal Democrats returning 52 Members of Parliament in 2001. Ironically, the success of Community Politics-style campaigning in returning the Liberal Democrats to the national political stage may now mean that the strategy will be increasingly superseded by more nationally orientated campaigning techniques.

 

John Meadowcroft is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. His PhD was an empirical study of the Liberal Democrats in local government – focusing on their local political strategy of Community Politics – and he has published articles in a number of learned journals. He has lectured in politics at Queen Mary, University of London and New York University in London. This article was written in October 2003.