Monday, 6 July 2015

Community Politics in Modern Britain

Over the years, the Liberal Democrats have quite rightly been proud of our record of 'Community Politics'. However, the nature of 'community' has, I believe, changed a great deal, and we need to consider the implications and opportunities of that massive social change.

We all know that there is an army of party activists (elected, unelected, and hopefully at some point to be elected) working really hard all year round in their local areas, helping people with all kinds of problems from personal difficulties with council policies and procedures to the inevitable potholes. They do such valuable work in getting people in their area to understand that 'politicians' and 'political parties' do not have to be 'remote' figures, separated from the 'real world' and their issues, and can actually be hard working people willing and able to help them with problems, and help hold others to account. It's hugely important work, and we shouldn't ever underestimate that.

However, 'community' is not quite as it used to be in the modern world. There was a time when 'community' meant more-or-less your village, or your street, or something similar. People lived together, worked together, played together and socialised together, all the time talking about issues between themselves as a tight-knit local group. That is very often now not the case to anything like the same extent - many people do not really know many of their neighbours, they work separately from them, socialise separately from them, and do not necessarily share very much in common with the people in their immediate locality. Accordingly, that localised word-of-mouth that used to be so common is very often no longer there (although in some cases, especially in rural communities, it can be, of course). As much as some might bemoan such a change, there's no turning back the clock.

So what has happened? Well, quite simply, the modern world and technology has happened. People no longer live within walking distance of work, for example. Likewise they aren't restricted to social activities that are within walking distance of home. The meet and talk with a much greater variety of people through their daily lives as a result, and form many of their friendships based on things other than locality and family ties. That's just one kind of change, just due to improved transport and the way it has effected virtually all of our lives - there are many others.

Another that might not immediately be obvious is just the huge increase in University education - many more people leave their home towns and, as they make friends, also immediately have a network of old friends spread all over the UK. The internet is another huge social change that we cannot underestimate, of course. People now have friendships due to shared interests across the country, and across the world. Where once their interests would be shaped by their local community, now their 'communities' (and most people will be a member of many 'communities') are much more shaped by their interests.

As a result of these changes, where the humble filling of a pothole was once something that word of mouth carried around a local area, with everybody knowing who had helped get it sorted, that is no longer the case. Of course, people can learn of it via leaflets, but they will often (even if they read the leaflet, and we know that many people don't) no longer be discussing the leaflet 'over the garden wall', so to speak. Is this a massive problem that sounds the death knell for the idea of 'community politics'?

I'm going to say that it is more a massive opportunity, but one we have to recognise and take. As much as potholes are a serious nuisance, and as much as getting them fixed is still vital work, in all honesty it's very difficult to define them as being fundamentally 'illiberal' things in themselves! Fixing potholes might attract potential supporters and voters to a certain individual or group who are seen to be working hard within a local area, but it doesn't really do much to attract people to 'Liberalism' itself, or the core ideals of the party. Building up a level of personal support in that way is a very good thing, of course, but it isn't enough to bring people to us on a wider basis - we need to actually 'turn people on' to what it is we Liberals actually stand for. We're not going to get widely elected on a national platform that mostly consists of 'Ban The Pothole'!

Indeed, recent events do, I think, shine a light on the fact that we can't any longer rely on 'working hard all year round' and having candidates who are personally popular for the local work they do. We have to do more to appeal to those people who actually think like we think to ensure that they understand what it is we think (which we know many don't, of course) and support us as a result. In fact, if we can do better in that sense we might find it easier to convert some of those naturally 'Liberal-minded' people into members and volunteers in a way that is harder with someone who may thank us for dealing with their pothole, but doesn't actually agree with us on other things. I suspect there is a whole army of untapped 'human resource' (to lapse into modern business speak for a moment!) who are really 'Liberals', but don't really necessarily that that is the name for the kind of way that they think, and that we are the only UK party who also think that way.

So how do we find these people? Well, the same changes that have allowed them to form 'communities' beyond their own immediate vicinity also provide us the tools to get our messages out to them, specifically in the form of 'Social Media'. Personally, I think that the opportunities of social media have not been exploited to anything like their full potential so far, because we haven't really come to terms with this modern idea of 'community'. We have, of course, spent a great deal of time creating and sharing content around through social media, but there is always a great danger in assuming that anybody outside our existing circle (or 'Lib Dem Community', so to speak) has actually really noticed!

As a self-published author myself, I know that there is a similar issue with promoting self-published books via social media - lots of people spend time re-tweeting and sharing each others posts to send them flying about the internet, but they are really only ever flying between that same closed group of people. People don't sell books that way (and many authors realise this, of course - it's a well-known phenomenon in that particular community!) - they just get nice statistics of hundreds of re-tweets that pretty much nobody's actually read at all!

We have to understand that many of the posts we have been sharing have only been shared to ourselves. Our non-Liberal friends have usually ignored them as 'yet another bit of political stuff from Cen (or whoever)'. Now and again there will be a response to a particular thing, because it speaks to a particular group of friends on a specific issue. For example, if I post something about dogs, as a member of a couple of 'internet communities' relating to dog issues, I know that some people will 'like' and/or 'share' it. I can predict almost exactly who those people will be, too. The same with other groups of my friends, and I know I'm not unique in that - most people have internet groups of friends who might all be 'on their friends list', but are actually separated into groups from this activity and groups from that activity. That's how things work now - people have their interests, and it is their interests that we need to speak to via social media.

So how do we do that? Not by creating content on 'big issues' to share that we think everyone will like and send spinning around social media - that's not going to work, because almost nobody's going to take any notice, and it's not going to get past ourselves. We need to go back to the basics of 'community politics' itself - doing things that are only of interest to a small community so that that community will share it between themselves and think positively of us and what we are saying. Just like the local fixed pothole, we need the word to be spreading just among that relatively small community rather that trying to speak to everyone in the UK at once (including those who have no interest in what we stand for anyway). Of course, that won't win us 'local' votes in a concentrated way, but we have to recognise that this form of 'community politics' is all about attracting the Liberal-minded wherever they may be in the UK. As 'community' has changed (especially, but certainly not exclusively, among the younger population), social media has effectively become 'the new word of mouth'.

What we need to do is identify those communities, or sections of communities, who we think may contain a high percentage of naturally 'Liberal Minded' people, and talk about an issue that will interest them and that is related to our core values of Liberalism. We need to find those issues that 'the public at large' really don't care much about, but that are important to particular groups. then we need to target those groups (through our own people who may be involved with them, and by using well-targeted advertising) to tell them that we are interested in their issue, even if it's not an issue that the press are ever likely to be reporting very much (or in the terms they think they should). We need to spread that specific message to the interested, but when we talk about it (in a web page, or whatever), always tie it back to Liberalism and what we as a party stand for, and give them other related issues to consider - 'we agree with us on that, do you agree with us on this?' kind of thing, knowing that some (the most Liberal among them) probably will. In that way we can draw them into our wider thinking, and hopefully gain their support (and possibly more) when they realise that we think along the same lines they do.

As an example (going back to dogs), we don't often talk about the illiberal and unjust nature of the Dangerous Dogs Act, and the concept of Breed Specific Legislation. Without going into details here, opposing it is an issue that is very easy to tie in to our Liberal values! Most of the population, of course don't agree or don't care. Even most dog owners don't. Any petition on the issue would be likely to be small in terms of raw numbers. There is, however, a group of people, often those interested in dog behaviour and training, dog rescue, and such issues, who care very deeply about it, and they care because they think it is wrong and unjust. They don't necessarily consider the term 'illiberal' in the way that we probably would, but it's very much their thinking - many of those are likely to be naturally 'Liberal', if only they knew it. If we can get 'their message' spinning around that section of their community, we can draw them into understanding why we are likely to agree on it. At the moment, they often don't see the correlation between their opinions on their issue and our general core values and principles. That link is there, though, and we can draw them into that understanding.

Another example could be the issue of 'Alternative Subcultures', and bullying, discrimination and even hate crimes related to people who choose to dress differently and listen to different music. To the vast majority of people in the UK, it's a total non-issue - after all, who cares about 'them wierdos'?! To those who are involved in those various 'communities', though, it's a huge ongoing issue that they care passionately about (and an issue that not many people seem to be very interested in). Many of them are naturally 'liberal-minded', and interested in other Liberal issues of diversity, equality, and so on. Those are just two examples that I happen to know about (because I happen to be involved with communities that are concerned with them) - there are undoubtedly many, many more such issues out there.

Obviously each such issue, and each such community, just like the old form of local 'community politics', is only likely to gain us a handful of genuine, long-term supporters who realise that they believe in what we stand for. It is still what I think we have to do if we are going to move forward as a party - we need to get into communities and show them what we are all about in the way we always have, and we need to do that in a way that emphasises our core ideals and brings the liberal-minded to the only liberal-minded party. In my opinion, although we have done fine community work for many years, we need to get better at identifying and targeting issues that are only of interest to particular communities, and we need to get better at tying everything we do into our core Liberal ideals so that people understand why we are talking about their issue (and therefore why they might agree with us on other issues).

Community has changed. Community politics needs to change. Social Media is the new Word of Mouth, and we need to use that to our advantage so that we can show the Liberal-minded that we are the natural party for them. That doesn't mean abandoning our old ideals of working hard locally, of course, but it does mean that there is another avenue for community politics that I think that we need to be thinking about.

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