Nov 012012

If localism, as defined by this Coalition government, will end up being little more than a sop to Big Society obsessives – people who have the inclination and wherewithal to use their leisure time for local works which aim to exclude the weary strivers in society from their rightful role in participatory democracy – I do wonder if, knowing this government as we do, whether the plan isn’t to do it on the awful cheap.

And ever was it so, from the very beginning.

I’ve even begun to wonder if we couldn’t usefully redefine the concept of nationalism as localism with a budget.  Nationalism as a properly funded tool to keep transnational business forces at bay.

But that, perhaps, needs to be an idea we expand on in some other future post.

Today, however, I’d like to discuss whether the more recent behaviours at local level of the Lib Dems – or, as members of my political party often like to call them, the “Fib Dems” – have been a logical reaction to, consequence of and creation resulting from a very particular set of very real political needs.

Rodney over at his Team UK blog has just put up a new conceptualisation of what the United Kingdom now needs.  A couple of quotes below.  First, the problem as described thus:

  • Present party politics is letting us down
  • Parties are either very tribal or single issue
  • Tribal parties carry too much baggage to be reformed
  • Single issue parties are too centred on that issue
  • All this has created voter apathy, a state of vacuum
  • Something new is needed to fill the vacuum

A potential solution being:

To create a liberal-minded group sitting in the middle of the political spectrum . . .

If you talk to any group of politicians, you will find a wide range of support or opposition to certain proposals which cut right across party lines. If we assume that these people really do have the good of the country at heart, it seems to follow that they usually ignore the good of the UK for the good of their parties. If we cannot assume they have the good of the UK at heart – they shouldn’t be politicians.

This seems to echo Rob Marchant at The Centre Left (also published at Labour Uncut) (a position – by the way – which Paul has rejected quite forcefully over at Though Cowards Flinch).

What’s absolutely true is there is a massive contradiction at the very heart of national and international politics which, I would be inclined to argue, the “Fib Dems” – for quite some time and generally unthinkingly – were able to address.

Let’s take figures like our own David Cameron and, across the Atlantic, that equally curious politician Mitt Romney.  Both appear to support the narrative of small public governance, even as they describe the value of large private governance.  Our lives are being consistently ruled by such concentrations of private power – and it seems to matter little to most people that the latter vote themselves into such positions of power.  Perhaps this is because the more overtly political and allegedly democratic process involving the former doesn’t seem to have led to greater representation for voters and their families either.

Whatever the reason, the contradiction I allude to above runs as follows: across the globe, in democracies of all shapes and sizes, powerful top-down and virtually autocratic leaders tell us that – for our own benefit – government must get smaller.  Yes!  They claim to want to reduce themselves out of business, to do themselves out of a job.  And I would be fairly happy to bet that never in the entire history of humankind has a political leader ever made him- or herself irrelevant.

Yet the process continues.  Powerful and even aggressive leaders claim that what we need is more declamatory and humongous leaders to achieve a kinder and more human-sized politics.  But how on earth can that follow?  If we want a kinder and more human-sized politics, surely we need kinder and more human-sized participants in political process.  Not the Romneys nor the Camerons of this world; not the boasters nor the gloaters who proclaim their virtue and righteousness through the millions of marketing pounds and dollars which their sponsors care to raise.

A different sort of politics where, as Rodney goes on to argue, policies should:

  • be ‘doable’
  • be backed up by the best available expertise
  • be affordable
  • be enforceable (where appropriate)

Now I know for any Labour readers of this post that what I’m going to say next might stick in your craw.  But, at the risk of hurting your sensibilities at exactly the wrong moment in our political trajectory, I do wonder if English politics needed – and perhaps now needs – what the so-called “Fib Dems”, prior to the 2010 Coalition agreement, used to practise.

I do wonder if their ability to chop and change according to local proclivities and preferences is exactly what a future politics of collaboration would require us all to do.

Labour has demonised such Lib Dem practices to such an extent that it does seem the local collaboration I mention is rapidly becoming impossible.  (As a by-the-by, it’s funny that whilst this has happened, and for a number of years before, the word “collaboration” in a political and business context has lost its wartime connotations of betrayal and has reverted to what was perhaps its original meaning of “cooperation”.  There’s a lesson in that for all of us, I think.)  Such an impossibility of working with other political strands of thought does of course benefit the declamatory and humongous – but few of us appear to be thinking at all clearly enough to realise this for the moment.

My conclusion?  The “Fib Dems” came about because at local level we do need to compromise; we do need to live peaceably with our neighbours; we do need to perceive people as people rather than badges of honour fiercely worn; and we do need to understand different points of view as points of view and not tribal attachments.  That they weren’t liked by many of my party doesn’t mean they weren’t a logical development or response to very real requirements.

And it might even be my contention that we don’t just need such behaviours at local political levels; in truth, we need that redefinition of nationalism I proposed at the beginning: a localism in which “Fib Dems” clearly flourished, before their foolish and hubris-laden leap into the abyss of Tory-led power-broking; a localism with budgets, funding, community participation and – why not? – a sense of identity as well.


One final thought: the Lib Dems as “Fib Dems” had a purpose, place and Unique Selling Point in English politics.  Now that they have lost that purpose, place and USP, the field is wide open for something along the lines of Rodney’s “liberal-minded group sitting in the middle of the political spectrum”.

But I’d prefer, I think, before leaving it at that, to rephrase the idea just a little – a gentle and well-meant tweaking of concepts, if you like.

How about this?  A “liberal-minded group collaborating in the honestly-funded ‘nationalisms’ of local communities”.

And then out of such an accumulation of “honestly-funded ‘nationalisms'”, we could create a web of protective measures to preserve the integrity of our localities and regions.

That, I think (am beginning to feel more and more), would be a far more productive way of defending our communities from the most powerfully encroaching forces out there: from not only the most dictatorial and self-serving international politicians but also the most transnational and community-ignoring businesspeople.

No.  You’re right.  It wouldn’t be cheap.  But then was freedom ever so?