How community politics became customer service politics (and then consumed British politics from within)

This is the story of how a Liberal pamphlet from 1980 led to the collapse of the British political system. In this imminently post-Brexit period when everyone has their own pet theory for why British politics is in the state it’s in, this might be one of the most tenuous explanations out there, but I think there’s an interesting story to be told here, so let’s explore.

Original cover artwork for “The Theory and Practice of Community Politics”

The Theory And Practice of Community Politics was first published by the Association of Liberal Councillors (now ALDC) in 1980. The pamphlet was not launching a new idea within liberalism — the Liberal Assembly had passed its first motion supporting the idea of community politics a decade before and since then had “committed itself at decreasing intervals and with increasing majorities to the practice of community politics”. The pamphlet’s authors, Gordon Lishman and Bernard Greaves, wrote it to “summarise what we believe” about community politics and why it was important within liberalism.

And at the time, community politics was an important trend in British liberalism, which had gone through various peaks and troughs over the last ten years but was in a much stronger place than it had been since the war, especially at a local government level where Liberals were now a significant force on many councils, and were even running some. Community politics was seen as one of the key forces that had driven that growth.

What, then, was “community politics”? This is where we reach the crux of the problem both for Lishman and Greaves back then, and for us forty years later. Like so, so many other political ideas the idea of what community politics was and the form it would take in reality would be very different, and it’s in that gap between theory and practice where it became most powerful in undermining the political system.

I’m not going to summarise the whole concept — you can read the original pamphlet for that, which is interesting for political pamphlets in that it’s short, clearly written and relatively easy to understand — but there are two key elements that help to explain it. First, that it’s a distinctly liberal set of ideas based on the idea that power needs to be diffused out and made accountable at a local level, and secondly, as the authors make very clear at the start: “Community Politics is not a technique for the winning of Local government elections”. As they say:

The aim, by promoting joint community action directly in society, is to create the very structures of community organisation which we wish to see emerge as the new political structure. We mobilise people to take control of their own affairs, to take power and to use it.

We work outside the political structure in a way that reinforces what we do within it. The two forms of action are co-ordinated and complementary. Together they have a greater prospect of success than either would have independently.

We are concerned with real power, not just with the trappings of office. In a democracy, power means much the same thing as influence — effective influence is political power and, as we have noted, many people who think they have power, find in the end that it is just influence. Often, indeed, it is a lot less influence than they would wish, but absolute power is undesirable in itself even when it is limited in time or field of operation.

For its proponents, community politics was essentially a liberal form of community organising, that would identify the key issues for communities and then work to develop the systems, organisations and structures to give them the power to deal with those issues themselves. Winning more Liberal representatives was only the means towards achieving these ends, not a goal in and of itself. Community politics was not meant to be paternalistic with elected representatives solving (or attempting to solve) people’s problems for them.

So, we can guess how it all turned out, can’t we? Well, we don’t even have to guess, we can just look and see.

The practice of community politics needs committed activists to deliver it, methods of communication for and within the community and a means to identify both the key issues within a community and the ways needed to solve them. Through regularly published community newsletters, activists could reach out to the wider community and bring people together to solve their own problems. Those solutions could be many and varied, including getting people elected to local government to try and bring about change for their communities, and indeed, it turned out that the Liberal practice of community politics was very successful indeed at getting people elected in this way, and in the days before the internet, when the Liberal Party had a very loose structure it was easy for community politics to be seen as a very good set of tools to use to get elected. Getting people elected to office might not have been the end community politics was about, but it very much was the aim of a political party and the people who’d joined it.

Over the coming years, the creation of the SDP would bring the Liberals back into prominence and eventually turn the two parties into the Liberal Democrats. And while Parliamentary breakthroughs failed to materialise, the party’s base in local government was grown consistently over the years through the application of what people would call community politics, except it had piece-by-piece morphed from that into something different.

There were still activists, but the community newsletters had now generally given up their local branding and become Focus leaflets. More importantly, though, the content of them was now not so much about how the community was going to identify and solve its problems, but how the activists had identified and solved them for them. Well, identified them at least, there’s a reason why “politician points at pothole or other local issue whilst looking glum” has become a cliched photo opportunity, but the cliche signals a bigger truth. Activism was no longer about helping people get the power to solve their own problems, but rather demanding someone at “the council” solve them for them. Rather than “we can help you do things”, the message was now that “something must be done” and “somebody must do something”, but that somebody is almost always somebody else. This was all getting well away from the original idea of community politics, but nobody was complaining too much because it was still successful and was still getting lots of people elected to local government where they could generally do good things.

The problem was that this new model was much more about customer service than it was about community, and while community politics was inherently liberal, customer service politics was not and as such was easy for other parties to copy which they eventually did once they finally realised how the Liberal Democrats were eating their local government base. Activism based around ideology, empowering people and giving them the ability to sort things out is hard, activism based around being the most efficient local busybody and delivering the most leaflets is comparatively easy.

And this is why one of the main differences between local leaflets from political parties is the colour of the ink they use. The content is generally the same: we think this is a problem, we’ve got action on this, we’ve reported this to the council, here’s us looking angry in front of something. Everyone echoing the other and striving to outdo them in both the amount of the local action they can do and the amount of actual politics they can ignore. It’s not even constrained solely to local politics anymore, with more and more of MPs’ time being taken up dealing with casework and local surgeries rather than national politics.

So, community politics became customer service politics and ended up spreading into multiple parties, but how did that end up breaking the British political system?

It’s a long process, but it’s best explained by to some of the coverage from after the 2019 general election, where journalists were descending onto the former “Red Wall” seats to try and explain why areas that had done so badly in the last few years under a Conservative government had now switched from voting Labour to voting Conservative. One common opinion across them was people countering “but the Tories have been in power for a decade” with “well, they’re not in power here”. At first glance that sounds perplexing and just a case for better political education, but think about it in the wider context of the adoption of customer service politics and how people see politicians.

Consider the messaging people see from politicians. It’s not ideological or visionary about what they want to achieve and what they want to do, where they want to lead the people they represent. Instead, it’s functional and prosaic, about how their councillor or MP is the person they can go to and get their problems sorted out, the person you can complain to when things need fixing, the person who’ll get things done for you. There’s a whole tranche of academic research about British politics that focuses on these issues of the politics of competence (“valence politics”) which, in a simplified version, expects a lot of voters to decide their vote based on who’s the most competent to solve problems. There’s a feedback loop between these voter expectations and MPs’ promoting themselves as problem-solvers rather than politicians, no longer arguing for a cause, but merely positioning themselves as the most competent person to do a job that’s become oddly apolitical.

On top of that, we’re in a period when MPs aren’t necessarily seen as key players in making big political decisions. Big decisions are usually presented as being in the gift of the Prime Minister or responsible Secretary of State, while for really big decisions like Brexit, there’s a referendum to make the country’s mind up for it. If someone thinks an MP’s job isn’t to make decisions about the whole of the country, but merely to sort out all the problems in their constituency, it makes a certain kind of sense to see them as responsible for everything that’s wrong where you live. An MP doesn’t usually have that power, but when they’re presenting themselves to the people not as the person representing their beliefs in Westminster, but instead as their local one stop shop for sorting out all problems, can people be blamed for getting the wrong impression?

There is some sense behind all this, however. Britain, especially England, remains an absurdly centralised state where the ability if explicitly local representatives to bring about change is limited at best. All sorts of public services have little to no public accountability, and often the only way to bring about a local change is to have someone able to exert pressure or influence on the heart of the national bureaucracy. In a world of customer service politics, it becomes logical for wannabe MPs to market themselves based not on their ability to change the system, but on their ability to influence and work within it. If you don’t have a conception of an MP’s role that involves them actually running the country and making decisions, then why not choose your representative based on the level of customer service they can provide?

This then leads to where we are today where huge chunks of politics has become depoliticised, because the politicians themselves have given up doing actual politics in favour of stressing their role as customer service operatives, no longer wanting to change the state, but merely to be the most efficient in mediating the individual’s relationship with the state,

The irony in all this is that community politics as originally envisaged, developed and delivered by the Liberals of the 70s was an intensely ideological project. Indeed, we shouldn’t blame those who created it for what it would eventually mutate into because they’ve often been at the forefront of complaining their original ideas have been forgotten about in the rush to use just a small part of them to chase electoral success. Having identified where and how things have gone wrong, the question now is what can we do to repair it? Sadly, I don’t have any easy answers to that right now…

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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