Community politics revisited: Greens and Liberal Democrat tactics

The results of the Green Party’s leadership election are due to be announced tomorrow.  In anticipation, the Independent has today run a piece which suggests that Greens should follow the Liberal Democrats’ tactics for capturing local election seats, leading to Parliamentary gains.  It argues that disillusioned Liberal Democrats are likely to turn to the Green Party in greater numbers than Labour voters.

It’s a plausible and attractive argument.  Its proponents could point to the fact that the Green Party’s biggest successes have been in Brighton, which returns the party’s sole MP and has a minority Green administration.  In many ways, Brighton looks like a Liberal Democrat town; affluent, educated, with its two universities, its temper of diversity and its modern economy – the sort of place where Liberal Democrats tend to do well, and where it is mainly the fissiparous nature of the local Lib Dems and their tendency to fight each other into oblivion at the merest sniff of electoral success that has prevented them from making electoral advance.  It’s a narrative that Brighton and Hove Labour iteslf often uses, claiming that the Greens have mainly prospered in middle-class wards (a narrative that conveniently ignores big Green gains in traditional Labour wards in last year’s local elections).

It’s also a reminder that for many years the Liberal Democrats – and most notably the Liberal Party before that – were proponents of community politics, which brought together vigorous local campaigning with a set of beliefs about community and political representation which, in theory at least, went far beyond simple electoralism.  The essential text of this movement was a pamphlet by Gordon Lishman and Bernard Greaves, The Theory and Practice of Community Politics, published by the then Association of Liberal Councillors in 1980, which brought together ideas that Liberal campaigners had developed over the preceding decade.

As the Green Party thinks about strategy, and in the context of a call to use Liberal Democrat tactics, it’s a fascinating and important read.  There is much in it that goes to the heart of Green beliefs – about empowering individuals in communities, about democratic accountability, and about participation.  And there are ominous omissions and issues – revisiting the pamphlet thirty years after first reading it, its hostility to Government and advocacy of voluntarism sits surprisingly comfortably with the Con Dems’ Big Society agenda.  It is powerfully hostile to Trade Unions. Above all, like so much pre-Orange Book Liberal and Liberal Democrat thinking, it has almost nothing to say about economics – a crucial weakness in a text that claims to offer a systematic ideology.

The authors write emphatically that community politics was not a strategy for winning elections, but something far wider than that.  But this is what was lost, and this is what allowed the Liberal Democrats to be captured for neoliberalism.  It seems to me to be precisely the lack  of any theory, combined with the way in which Orange Bookers could appeal to the radical individualism of Greaves and Lishman and turn it into a consumerist economic narrative – that allowed the neoliberals in the door.  And it was the use of the term “community politics” to justify unthinking electoral opportunism that inhibited the development of a coherent and confident body of theory that would have given the old Liberal Democrat left a hope of resisting the neoliberal Orange Book tide.  It also of course compounded the problem that Liberal Democrats were often (with good reason) regarded as cynical opportunists for whom the end justified the often very dodgy electoral means.

All this is powerfully instructive for a contemporary Green Party that is facing many of the issues confronting Liberals at the time that Greaves and Lishman published their pamphlet.  In some respects the stakes are far higher than they were for Liberals in 1980; not just the urgency of climate change but, in the UK context, a Westminster political system dominated by three national parties (plus the SNP) who fundamentally believe in variations on the same ideology which is wreaking havoc on our society.

But it is instructive at a time when Greens in Brighton are facing their first taste of minority office. It’s a daunting prospect being Green trailblazers; a minority administration of the only national party opposed to cuts and austerity, trying to deliver progress against a background of savage cuts in local government funding.  Despite the cuts, despite the minority status, there are real gains being made: particularly in transport and public realm issues, in preserving subsidised bus routes and in attracting funding for innovative traffic schemes aimed at making the city more liveable.  In fact in Brighton it’s Labour that is following traditional Liberal Democrat oppositionist tactics; backing Tory budget cuts and supporting Eric Pickles’ council tax freeze con, opposing for the sake of opposition to the point where they casually ignore the legal and financial constraints under which the council operates to score easy points.  If you ever wanted a demonstration of electoral opportunism devoid of integrity, responsibility or intellectual engagement, you need only look as far as Brighton and Hove Labour.  As a Green, I’m fairly sure that the party that I want to be part of looks nothing remotely like that.

For me, the key task for Greens is not to chase the Liberal Democrat lost votes, but to understand why political participation has fallen, and in particular why Labour lost five million votes between 1997 and 2010.  I think the answer is fairly  straightforward – that Labour has embraced neoliberalism, remains a pro-cuts and pro-austerity party, and those – often the poorest and most vulnerable in society, who look to a strong state for support and empowerment – for whom this agenda offers nothing have walked away from Labour, and from electoral politics generally. These are the people whose daily life experiences are wholly outside the mainstream of political debate in the UK.  And as I wrote in an earlier blog post on the Green Party leadership election, these are the people to whom Greens, as the only significant party with an alternative to neoliberalism, must look; it is their voice that we must become.  It’s why in the leadership election that has just finished (and whose result at the time of writing I do not know) I voted for Peter Cranie as the candidate best able to break out of our middle-class comfort zone and reach out to those who have been left behind by the British political system.

So grass-roots activism is essential.  I think there is an argument for something that matches the finer aspirations of Greaves and Lishman, although I think we need to recognise that the spirit of community politics is something that died out long ago in the Liberal Democrats.  But I think we need to be more ambitious than reaching out to ex-Liberal Democrats.  Greens should aspire to be the voice of all of those who have been disenfranchised by the neoliberal consensus

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One thought on “Community politics revisited: Greens and Liberal Democrat tactics

  1. Pingback: Nothing strange about the death of English liberalism « Notes from a Broken Society

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