30 November 2011 1 Comment
Most politicians as themselves ‘why should someone vote for me?’ They keep their ears to the ground so they know the local issues and then campaign on them hoping people will reward them with their vote. This creates a responsive democratic system. Except that is doesn’t.
Take where I live for example, one of the most deprived areas in the country, run by Labour since 1974 when the borough was formed (with the exception of 1 year) and yet people still vote for Labour. What makes a good politician i.e. one that gets voted in, does not necessarily mean it will be good for the area. This is one of the reasons we as Lib Dems have been so fixated on the system of politics we use, in a hope that it will improve the country. I believe we need a new system, but I also believe we need to do politics differently as they way we do it now is the wrong way round.
At the moment it is almost like politicians look for reasons to be voted into power. On a local level they will fix the pothole, the broken lights, the street signs, they may oppose the council’s plans because it is politically expedient to do so (and sometimes then have to implement the plan when in power anyway). All of which is done by looking for issues that people will vote for and then doing it. On a national level, Cameron made promises on the NHS and the economy and the Lib Dems made promises on tuition fees. All were politically expedient because they had asked enough people to know they would get votes by campaigning on these issues – not necessarily because they believed in them. Such a system creates politicians who go for the same issues, using the same language and doing things in the same way. As Sandwell shows, this may get you elected and you may remain elected for a long time but it doesn’t mean things will be improved and people are turned off by this.
If we look at a more successful way doing politics from the point of view that the area was actually improved we could learn something about doing politics differently, and Birmingham offers us a good example for successes and failures. Back in the 1800’s Birmingham was a terrible place to live being a place of great poverty, raw sewage for water, and high death rates. Joseph Chamberlain then became mayor in 1873 and promoted many civic improvements, leaving the town (in words to Collings) ‘parked, paved, assized, marketed, gas & watered and improved’. He improved the cultural aspects in the city and constructed libraries, municipal swimming pools and schools. The Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery was enlarged and a number of new parks were opened. In his time in office he completed ambitious plans for public services and town improvement schemes which totally transformed the nature of Birmingham. By the 1890s Birmingham had become known as ‘the best governed City in the World.’
Chamberlain left a legacy of a city with more parks than any other European city, more trees than Paris, and more miles of canal than Venice but WWII did long lasting damage made worse by extremely poor town planning. It went from being one of the most liveable cities in the world to one of the least. Yet no matter how much people voted for the local politicians, the city just got worse and worse being described as a Godless, concrete urban hell. That was until the local politicians finally woke up to their legacy of neglect and poor governance and implemented a plan to improve it. These improvements were finally noticed by the country with the opening of the Selfridges building but the improvements go much wider than that. The plan can be seen here and includes fundamental changes to the city layout – undoing much of the very poor planning conduced after the war and subsequently.
Finally people feel that they can be proud of Birmingham again, despite the national jokes (we seem to have an uncanny knack of keeping people), and the improvements should be praised. But the message here is that it was not politics as usual, in the sense that they went out and looked at what the voters wanted, which resulted in an improved city. It was politicians having a vision before they went to the electorate. Chamberlain did not come up with his ideas before he got elected. The Birmingham regeneration plan took years of neglect and ridicule before people thought they needed a vision for the city. Having a vision then provides you with concrete plans of what to do and this is what answers the question ‘why should someone vote for me?’
For all the rhetoric of New Labour, what exactly was their vision when they came to power? What was Cameron’s and the Tories? They didn’t have one which is why Cameron can’t explain his Big Society and certainly can’t implement it. It was why New Labour did virtually nothing for the first few years of office and then started to do things which in the end ruined the country. The reason this happened was because they ‘listened’ to the people and then campaigned on those issues but because they didn’t have a vision they ended up doing what the civil servants thought was best. This was the reason why we ended up spending billions of pounds on IT systems that were never going to work and people knew they weren’t going to work but they had nothing else. Doing politics this way results in unintentional incompetence. They may implement some programs well, run the government ok for a while, and even improve the things people wanted improving, but in the end without a vision to guide their decisions they made very bad ones.
So what is your vision for your local area? Some places have one such as this one for Durham and if there is one, does this fit with Lib Dem values? If not what would be your local party vision? If you created a Lib Dem vision for your area how would this change what you campaigned on?
We should start with a vision for our local area. My area has been neglected and deprived by local politicians for years; it is next to Birmingham but never had a Chamberlain to improve it and it is not being improved now. My local party have been talking about a vision for Sandwell. Promoting this vision will show people we are different, it will show people we are serious but most importantly it will show people that things can be different if only they vote differently. We will always use the tried and tested methods of getting our candidates elected (we have just been to ALDC Kickstart) but we shouldn’t stop there.
And neither should the national party. This is something that has been talked about for a while, that the Lib Dems don’t offer a vision for the country. We have a sound set of values, and some very competent people. We spend too much time bogged down in political business e.g. meetings and keeping our structures running. Over at Google they have a 20% policy where every employer has 20% of their time to spend doing whatever they like. 75% of google’s products come from this 20% time. Imagine what we could produce if we spent 20% of meetings creating a vision for our communities. Perhaps we would benefit from some visioning time? Successful politicians, and by this I mean those who are considered to have improved the area after they have left, have had a vision for the area and this is something we could all learn from.