More on localism

Interesting post on localism by Peter at the Apollo Project.

One thing that’s often overlooked is that many counties (especially the historical ones) are at least as big as various US states, German Länder or even member states of the EU. Also that most countries do not have the homogenous bureaucratically tidy regional structure that Labour and the civil service were trying to inflict on us. (Now the plug for my website). You can play with all the various combinations at Construct-a-region. Interestingly the most popular ‘regions’ constructed so far are London (big) and Cornwall (small). Interestingly also, there is an extraordinarily low level of interest in reconstructing the regions that Whitehall has currently inflicted on us.

Technology and the leadership election

The evidence from other countries, especially the US, is that a successful Lib Dem leadership candidate will use the internet to build up a community of supporters backing their candidacy.
Howard Dean (or, more accurately, Joe Trippi) led the way on this via the use of meetup.com to encourage Dean supporters to meet and work together, the Blog for America which provided a platform for online discussion and an email list to get campaign messages out to his supporters and consult them on their views.
To help this process along, I’ve modified Flock Together to enable leadership contenders and their supporters to organise easily and make it easy for members to get news about nearby hustings and the leadership campaign.

So, what would I expect from any contender for the party leadership – at least technologically?

The evidence from other countries, especially the US, is that a successful candidate will use the internet to build up a community of supporters backing their candidacy.

Howard Dean (or, more accurately, Joe Trippi) led the way on this via:

  • Use of meetup.com to encourage Dean supporters to meet and work together. To this end, I’ve modified Flock Together to enable leadership contenders and their supporters to do likewise and also make it easy for members to get news about nearby hustings and the leadership campaign.
  • The Blog for America which provided a platform for online discussion (subject to some moderation) and captured the thoughts of Dean’s team as the campaign progressed. There’s a useful list of tips on best practice preserved on the Howard Dean site. With sites like Liberal Review and Lib Dem Blogs gaining ever more readership within the party, blogs are likely to be more important during this campaign than ever before.
  • An email list to get campaign messages and ideas out to his supporters and consult them on their views. And if US experience isn’t persuasive, David Cameron also had daily messages going out via email.
  • A website pulling all the above together, providing useful information on the candidate’s activities, views and beliefs and offering lots of ways to donate or get involved

Of course, the experience of the Howard Dean campaign also makes it clear that none of this is a substitute for a strong policy platform, effective media management and the ability to communicate effectively with the public and the party.

However, given the way that the recent problems in the party have been exacerbated by lack of adequate communication with the membership, borrowing some of these practices would be a helpful step forward and a good basis for improving how the party operates ongoing.

Reasons to be resurgent – part one

Stephen Tall’s posting about his boredom with the left/right debate in the Lib Dems prompted me to finish off this posting which had been sitting in my drafts tray for a couple of months.

Stephen Tall’s posting about his boredom with the left/right debate in the Lib Dems prompted me to finish off this posting which had been sitting in my drafts tray for a few months:

I don’t normally expect to find books on liberalism in a hotel library, particularly not one in Thailand.

We had ended up staying there by chance. After heavy rains, our original hotel in the centre of Chiang Mai had been flooded out and we were transferred to the Four Seasons Resort. And there, on another rainy day, I found Robert Reich’s book, ‘The Resurgent Liberal: And Other Unfashionable Prophecies’, left behind by another guest some time after its original publication date in February 1991.

I found it at a good time, since I was in need of some resurgence.

Truth be told, much of it wasn’t very helpful. Most of the book consisted of articles praising to the German and Japanese economic systems in comparison with the U.S. system. There is more of an argument to be had on that topic than a superficial reading of growth and unemployment statistics might suggest, but, perhaps understandably, these weren’t the articles that grabbed my attention.

After 29 articles of economic analysis, I got to Chapter 30, with the title of ‘Competence or Ideology?’.

This proved particularly stimulating on various levels.

Firstly by putting forward the thesis that it is the job of politicians, not only to understand and reflect the wishes of society, but to take a lead in “civic discovery” – “engaging the public in rethinking how certain problems are defined, alternative solutions envisioned, and responsibilities for action allocated”. This fits with a personal preference for providing voters with a wider set of political information than straight assertion of “this is what we think and why the other people are bad”. It’s not enough to run focus groups: politicians need to lead. But they need to lead in a way that respects the intelligence of the electorate and that genuinely gives them the space and information they need to shape their views on political issues in an informed way.

But, more critically, it proved stimulating because the later part of the article provided a framework for escaping from the entirely tedious Manichean view of the choices facing liberalism (or politics in general) as ‘state vs market’.

In essence, he summarised three philosophical approaches to the operation of public life – bureaucratic absolutism, democratic deliberation and utilitarianism – and took the view that democratic deliberation has recently been subordinated to the other two approaches.

I found this incredibly helpful.

‘State bureaucracy vs privatisation’ is not the only choice we face. Philosophically, reinvigorating localism and local democratic decision-making – fighting the centalised bureaucracy with its flood of ministerial regulations and army of unaccountable Whitehall-controlled quangos – is a valid and important third approach that can be taken to the problems of improving public provision and making it more responsive to people’s needs. The democratic state is not the same as the bureaucratic state.

Privatisation is not automatically the answer, indeed it can actually be a tool of state bureacracy and have little to do with improving choice or responsiveness. Subcontracting a public service to a private company may be a useful way for government to get round the rigidity of public sector employment conditions, but has little to do with using market mechanisms to give the citizen more choice or improve public service responsiveness. I’ve spent long enough in my life working for big companies to know that it is primarily competition, not the mere fact of being the private sector, that keeps organisations responsive.

Elections or direct democracy on the other hand are currently undervalued as a way of increasing responsiveness. I’m a strong believer in the power of contestability in holding public or private services accountable. Where I have a choice of providers, I can focus an organisation’s mind on my needs by threatening to take my business elsewhere. Where there is no choice of providers, I’d quite like to have the power to sack the person in charge via the ballot box. In London, mayoral elections have done considerably more to improve public transport than Gordon Brown’s privatisation of the tube. There are huge opportunities to improve public provision by making unelected roles electable, and by modernising our electoral system to make those roles that are elected harder to hang on to without genuine popular support.

In short, “economic liberalism” and “social liberalism” are not the only games in town. We need to throw a few more adjectives into the mix. In setting the direction for the party, we also need to consider other options, such as environmental liberalism, localist liberalism and deliberative liberalism. The simplistic “public vs private” debate might have been interesting about fifteen years ago, but to find the way forward, we’re going to have to try a bit harder than that.

A former Liberal Home Secretary writes…

Winston Churchill writing to Labour Home Secretary Herbert Morrison on November 21, 1943:

“The power of the executive to cast a man in prison without formulating any charge known to the law and particularly to deny him the judgment of his peers is in the highest degree odious and is the foundation of all totalitarian government, whether Nazi or Communist.”

Birds of a feather…

Testing of the new ‘Flock Together’ website continues apace.

Testing of the new ‘Flock Together’ website continues apace.

It now handles meetings, by-elections, socials, you name it. The intention is to make it much simpler for people to get involved with Liberal Democrat activities. Ideally it will enable ‘peer to peer’ involvement without people needing to get caught up in the complexity of how a political party is structured.

Encouragingly Google Maps appears to no longer crash the site when you look at it with IE (touch wood – and entirely thanks to a very useful article on the topic on the Bite my bytes weblog for which many thanks).

Comments, thoughts and suggestions most welcome.