A year ago, the Liberal Democrats reaffirmed their commitment to community politics. This is more than a campaigning methodology; indeed, to quote from the book that started it all (Bernard Greaves and Gordon Lishman’s The Theory and Practice of Community Politics):
“Community politics is not a technique. It is an ideology, a system of ideas for social transformation.”
At our autumn party conference in 2011 I was in a small way responsible for the wording of the community politics motion that confirmed (amongst other commitments) that ‘politicians at all levels of the party should listen and respond to the communities they serve by engaging with community groups and by seeking out those without advocates, and should ensure dialogue and personal contact through ‘pavement politics’ including residents surveys, street surgeries, public meetings and the effective use of social media’.
Liberal Democrats know that communities have lives that are independent of political or governmental structures, and that our role is to support and empower them. It is not enough to set up and control a process of dialogue; politicians should be embedded in their communities, listening to their neighbours, and identifying the voiceless.
The democratic deficit is, and should be, of great concern to everyone who cares about politics. The Fabians’ research on the attitudes on people who did not vote in the last general election is welcome and clearly long overdue.
But it is overstating the case to say that this research shows that “what’s rotten is the culture – the way our parties do politics”, as the analysis in Fabian Review does. That claim is not justified by the evidence provided.
Not surprisingly I was most interested in the question: ‘Which one or two, if any, of the following would make you more likely to vote in the next general election?’
Of the statements offered as responses, the most popular one (25 per cent) was: ‘If people in political parties spent less time trying to win my vote and more time doing good work in my neighbourhood’. On the other hand, the least favoured statement (2 per cent) was: ‘If a party official knocked on my door to discuss political issues, or I received a telephone call or a letter’.
These results were cited by the researchers as evidence that:
“This insight needs to form the core of our new political culture. If the only interaction people have with party members is about their voting intention, it feeds a cynical and transactional view of politics. If political parties were more involved in local issues and doing things that people could see were making a difference, some semblance of faith in the power of politics might be restored. It would show rather than tell voters what a party can do.”
This insight is certainly not new to Liberal Democrats. It is undoubtedly true that electors are not going to be impressed if the only question posed to them by a politician is how they are going to vote. But canvassing in the last weeks of an election campaign is generally not carried out in order to win votes; instead it is a method of checking where the vote lies and how support is moving.
All parties know that the best way to win votes is to do good work in the neighbourhood. Winning votes and doing good work are not mutually exclusive, as the first statement implies.
The phrasing of the least popular statement needs to be challenged as well. Whilst others refer to ‘politicians’ and ‘people in political parties’, this one refers to ‘a party official’. I have never heard that term used within the Liberal Democrats, or indeed any other party. It immediately brings to mind the highly controlled activities of the Communist era, and I would want to run a mile if a ‘party official’ called on me! It is no wonder that few people agreed with it.
From this evidence alone we cannot draw the conclusion that door knocking, telephoning and letter writing are the least effective ways to engage with disaffected voters. Indeed, our experience suggests the opposite.
Consider this: how do candidates or MPs identify the local issues so they can respond to them and ‘do good work in the neighbourhood’? They have to listen to local people. They can do that by attending the places where people gather, and also, significantly, by calling on people and by distributing leaflets and letters that invite feedback.
Then if politicians have successfully campaigned to save a playing field, to oppose an unpopular planning application, to improve parking in a street, or to open a new school, how do they tell people what they have done? Once again, by knocking on doors and delivering leaflets.
There are other communication channels, of course, from local radio and newspapers to social media, but nothing beats getting on the doorstep in person or through a leaflet as these are the only ways of reaching everyone.
If it is indeed true that “there is a danger that politics is becoming detached from people at the very time they need it most” as the Fabian Review suggests, then community politics has to be part of the solution.