Community Politics Today: The Viv Bingham Lecture 2021
Originally published by North West Liberal Democrats
This year we were delighted to welcome Bernard Greaves, one of the authors of The Theory And Practice of Community Politics.
It is an honour and a great pleasure to deliver the Viv Bingham Memorial Lecture; appropriate too that it is here in Lancaster. I was born and brought up as a Lancashire exile, heir to a long family tradition of radical non-conformist Liberalism. But that pleasure is tinged by sadness - sadness at the passing of Tony Greaves. It is a tragedy that he cannot be with us. Nobody would be more appropriate to lecture us today. And lecture us he would, for that was his style. Tony was one of the outstanding Liberals of his generation, contributing more to the Liberal and Liberal Democrat parties than most of its leaders, and putting my more modest contribution in the shade. I owe him a great debt of gratitude; it was he, after all, who commissioned Gordon Lishman and myself to write "The Theory and Practice of Community Politics"
It is important to be clear what Community Politics is not. It is not a technique for winning local government elections. It is an ideology, a system of ideas for the transformation of society. It needs a strategy of political action for those ideas to become a reality; to be successful that strategy requires effective campaigning techniques. Those techniques are not an end in themselves, but a means to an end.
Community Politics is not local. It is universal, applicable to all communities, whether geographical or of interest, from the family to the world.
Community Politics is not about winning elections. Elections are an essential ingredient in the process of Community Politics, a necessary means of delivering its objectives. If they, and the holding of political office, become ends in themselves we will have been corrupted, as so many have been, by the very system of government and administration that that Community Politics sets out to challenge.
Nor is Community Politics solely about government. It is about people exercising
power over their lives and their environment, about the distribution and dissemination of power throughout society, about its use and control. It is not limited to the making of decisions within the structures of government.
Community Politics involves a dual approach acting within those structures and outside them directly within society to achieve social transformation.
Community Politics is not something other political parties or political philosophies can embrace. They may copy its techniques or its trappings, but Community Politics is essentially Liberal, a system of ideas for the creation of a Liberal society.
A Liberal society is based on Liberal values. They are universal; they are not relative or culturally specific. They are values to be aspired to, strived and campaigned for, and where possible implemented in all societies, countries and communities.
The measure to which a society is Liberal is through the experience of individuals. Collective experience, whether it be loyalty to the nation and nationalism, or the solidarity of the working classes, or any other manifestation of group identity and loyalty exists only so far as it is experienced by the individuals who comprise those groups. Liberalism values each individual equally. It aims to enable and encourage all individuals to fulfill their own potential in the way they choose. People have an immense capacity for self-direction, self-cultivation, self-understanding and creativity. We are all different. We have different loyalties, different ideas of self, different abilities, different
aims and objectives, and make different choices. Liberalism values and promotes
the diversity individual freedom brings to society.
Individuals cannot survive on their own. We are all born into, live and die within groups, many of which are stable enough to be called communities. They are essential for our existence, our survival and our wellbeing.
We all belong to many communities. They vary in nature, size and in their significance to individuals. They include communities of residence, neighborhoods, geographical location, and nationality; of faith religion or lack of it; of culture, language and history; of work, trade or profession; of friendship, recreation, intellectual pursuits, the arts and sport; of exclusion, oppression, discrimination, vulnerability and victimization; and of campaigning, social activism and politics.
The most immediate community is the family, often the most strongly felt, the nature and quality of its structure and relationships profoundly influencing feelings of happiness, security, wellbeing and personal significance.
Some communities are latent, emerging only in the face of threat, some are informal and unstructured, some have loose frameworks, some are highly organised, and some are constituted political authorities with defined powers existing within a legal framework. Increasingly some communities are wholly or in part virtual with an online existence.
Communities bring great benefits to their members, but also risks and dangers. The benefits are not just emotional - a sense of support and communality - but also practical. Functional communities can help their members in ways rarely captured by conventional economics, from shepherding natural resources, to finding employment and providing childcare. But communities can be oppressive and destructive of individuality. Liberals do not see community as an unalloyed good, but seek to maximise their benefits and minimise their harm for individuals by promoting and developing Liberal communities.
Liberal communities require inclusive democratic structures in order to decide what they do. They need to recognise the equal standing of all their members, upholding individual rights, respecting privacy, promoting diversity and safeguarding minorities and individual dissent. Collective decision-making should be based on the sharing of information, and be open and transparent. That requires in larger more complex and more powerful communities formal processes that are accessible, fair and open to challenge. Such democratic structures and processes are more difficult to sustain online and are more open to manipulation and control.
How communities relate to one another is important. Liberals value diversity and self-determination. That involves the basic principle that groups and communities do not encroach upon one another's legitimate spheres of influence and activity. But they can legitimately take an interest across organizational boundaries to uphold fundamental rights. In a formal sense that is federalism, a key Liberal concept perhaps more relevant today that it has ever been. Differences and conflicts should be resolved as far as possible by discussion, debate, negotiation compromise and mediation. Litigation and legal enforcement are a last resort and arbitrary authoritarian imposition never acceptable. Violence and warfare represent failure.
Individuals and communities can thrive and flourish, and indeed survive, only within an environment that is sustainable. All species, including humans, and all natural systems are interdependent, supporting one another in an ecological balance in which diversity promotes survival and uniformity tends towards extinction. The planet is now suffering serious environmental degradation as result of human activity. Unless halted and reversed we face a crisis that in the ultimate could be terminal for the survival of civilisation.
That environmental crisis is being driven be a model of conventional economics that is dangerously faulty. It postulates that social progress is dependent on an annual percentage growth in economic activity, GDP and GWP, Gross World Product. That cannot be sustained. It is exponential growth. A fundamental law of mathematics is that exponential growth always comes to an end. In practice it usually ends catastrophically. Thus 3% over a year becomes more than 50% over 15 years, over 100% over 20 and around 1000% over a century. That model of the economy is, at an accelerating rate, stripping the planet of its natural resources and polluting it with discarded waste. We are already running desperately short of the rare earth minerals needed to support advanced technology; plastics and CO2 are the clearest examples of dangerous pollution of the natural environment but not the only ones.
That model is also creating growing inequalities. Wealth creates wealth; it concentrates wealth. It is creating a small elite of super rich corporations and individuals at the expense of growing levels of poverty, both in Britain and around the world. That pattern needs to be broken. "The Theory and Practice of Community Politics" lacked an economic dimension. We need a new model of economics, a Theory and Practice of Community Economics.
The central precepts of Community Economics are simple:
- The prime role of communities is to determine their political, social, cultural and environmental objectives. Economics is the mechanism for achieving them.
- Liberal communities need inclusive democratic structures to debate and decide their objectives.
- Exponential growth in the consumption of natural resources and the discarding of waste cannot be sustained and must end.
- Incremental growth based on conserving finite natural resources and minimizing and recycling waste is possible and necessary.
- Prosperity and economic development depend upon the creation of wealth.
- The equitable distribution of wealth is as important as its extent.
- Wealth embraces all that communities value and aspire to in creating a civilised and rewarding lifestyle and environment. It consists of more than money, goods and services.
- Wealth is enhanced by trade and exchange.
- Aspiration, ambition and goals are the most powerful motivations for learning and education. Qualifications and training are means to those ends not ends in themselves.
That is the theory. It is applicable and relevant to any kind of community anywhere. There is no rigid blueprint for the practice to be applied inflexibly everywhere. But there are some general approaches that are of particular importance for poor and deprived communities in Britain and around the world. As with Community Politics, the practice of Community Economics is a process of social transformation.
It requires a presumption of democracy in all communities and organisations. Britain is the one of the most centralised states in the democratic world. Its local government structures have atrophied and require reconstruction. It has no structure of neighbourhood democracy; parish councils have limited powers and in most urban areas do not exist at all. The nations of the United Kingdom, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland need as a matter of urgency to progress to complete domestic home rule within a federal constitution, which also creates extensive independent powers to the regions of England. The same applies internationally. All supranational bodies, such as the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, the EU and the Commonwealth need Britain's involvement and a clear commitment to democratic processes.; our exit from the EU was a serious backward step.
But democracy does not stop there. It must, for example, extend into the workplace, into the NHS, over centralised and largely outside democratic control
as it is and into the police and criminal justice system, whose independence and democratic accountability have been so severely undermined. For that presumption of democracy to become a reality, it must be central to education; schools and colleges should be workshops of democracy where its processes are learned and its practices introduced and applied.
The essence of incremental growth is production for long life, preserving what exists and building on it gradually rather than discarding, throwing away and starting again. Redundant materials should be recycled and reused. What goes for materials also applies to energy. Heat should be conserved through high levels of insulation and the use of natural venting for cooling. That applies as much to IT servers and industrial plant as it does to buildings. The use of fossil fuels must end in favour of solar, wind and tidal energy generation. CO2 capture and storage, although it may be necessary, must not be used as an excuse for not doing so.
The equitable distribution of wealth not only requires the regulation and control of large national and international corporations through the prevention and ending of monopolies and through taxation, but equally by investing and strengthening the economies of poor and deprived communities. In Britain the introduction of land value taxation at uniform rates across the country would do more that any other single measure to redress geographical inequalities, but as a local tax at varying rates it would exacerbate them.
Large corporations and public authorities tend to undermine local economies. They centralise production, supply and the provision of services. They displace local employment. They export profits and salary incomes. They put decisions in the hands of outside 'experts' with no understanding of or feeling for local circumstances. They undermine diversity and local choice. Strengthening poor and deprived communities, both in Britain and around the world, stems from local ownership and control, from local inclusive democratic decision-making. It requires investing in local skills; promoting local enterprises, local employment, local production, purchasing and procurement; from encouraging local produce and markets; and from facilitating it with local banking and financial institutions to promote local investment and lending. These measure all keep money circulating within the community and not leaking out. They motivate individuals and communities to develop and release their potential to pursue their aspirations and attain their goals.
Many of the most valuable aspects of communities cannot be easily quantified or given a monetary value. Yet they require belief and motivation to invest in the physical and intellectual resources to produce them. They include:
Knowledge, skills and experience;
Moral values, often but not always incorporated into faith and religious traditions;
Political values such as democracy, free speech, justice and the rule of law;
Culture, the arts, music and creativity;
Networks of common interests and friendship.
Some are more tangible but equally hard to quantify:
The quality on the built environment, of architecture and of villages, towns and cities;
The quality of the natural environment and the welfare of living beings.
These aspects of life, central as they are to civilised living and at the core of human happiness, all contribute to the wealth of a community, of whatever size or nature. They cross boundaries between communities. We tend to think of trade and exchange solely in terms of goods and services. Of greater importance, when communities engage with one another to exchange knowledge, experience, ideas and culture, it generates a rich melting pot of creativity. It opens up opportunities for the fusion and emergence of new ideas. It expands diversity and choice. Communities that self isolate narrow choice. They stultify and cease to flourish. And that is what is happening to Britain today.
Community Economics is a natural extension of Community Politics. It is part of an agenda of political transformation to create a Liberal society. That is a process of continuous change. People in different times and places have different aspirations. Diversity and choice are the hallmarks of a Liberal society.
The realisation of Community Economics requires changes in the international regulation of multinational corporations and world trade to safeguard fair competition. It requires legislation in the UK to prevent national, regional and local monopolies. It requires action by local authorities and statutory agencies to release assets to local ownership and control. All these actions, and more, across a host of different structures of power are needed to release the potential of Community Economics.
But Community Economics does not depend on that. There is a key role for community activists and individuals wherever they are to take action directly within their own communities to release their potential for self-determination by applying in practice its values and processes. Community Economics will become a reality to the extent to which it becomes a broad based movement both within and without the structures of power. It does not stand alone. It is an intrinsic and necessary extension of Community Politics. Let us remember its key message.
People should take and use power for themselves both within and outside the formal structures and processes of government.
The role of us as Liberal Democrats is to promote and encourage that process not to try and do everything ourselves for other people. Our role is to be the vanguard of a movement throughout society to enable people to take control of their own lives and the future of their own communities. That is the essence of Liberalism.