I interviewed Tim Farron for this month’s Total Politics (full interview to go online shortly).
One thing that really struck me was his dedication to his local constituency. Supposedly, he’s dealt with more than 40,000 pieces of casework since 2005.
Today, Farron used his speech to expand on what he's picked up on locally, through the idea of 'community politics'.
In a well-received speech, he told Lib Dem delegates:
“This conference must mark a renewal of the theory and practice of community politics – and a belligerent determination to make our own luck.
“I don’t underestimate the task ahead, but we have been through far worse and come out smiling on the other side.
“The Thorpe scandal, the merger debacle; you know, if our poll rating is currently 13%, I can tell you that that’s about 14 times better than it was in 1989.
“You know, I reckon if either of the other parties saw their poll ratings dip into single figures, they would implode and cease to be. They couldn’t hack it mentally or emotionally, and the vested interests that they serve would abandon them. Not with us. We’ve got nerves of steel. Survival is what we do.
“A bit like cockroaches after a nuclear war, just a bit less smelly, we are made of sterner stuff.”
When I went to visit Farron, he explained in a little more detail what community politics means and how it will impact on campaigning Lib Dems.
I have published the full, unedited quotes below.
“My big theme for conference is going to be essentially about trying to take the party back both in terms of ideological commitments and practical commitments to community politics. Because, as a party, having held more and more positions of responsibility over the last 20 years and particularly now in government I think we’ve basically backslidden. It’s not just community politics in terms of delivering lots of leaflets it’s a total immersion in your community, being committed to them, being part of them and it being a prism through which you look at absolutely everything. It’s also as an intellectual critique of big society as well.
“It’s also about acknowledging it’s four months since the election. We are at a time of enormous risk as a party. It’s not that we are unused to this. I mean early 1950s we were on 2% and got nearly wiped out, 1970 down to six seats, nearly wiped out, the merger after 1988 we were nearly wiped out. So we shouldn’t be panicking because we are made of stern stuff and we get through these things. But we get through them not by accident; we get through them by having a plan.
“Community politics is not only right ideologically it is also a vehicle for the party to do more than just survive actually. It’s about making our own look and not just accepting that for the next two or three years in local elections we are just going to do badly. Why should that be? Yes, on a national level we have to make a difference and community politics is a national ideology as well. It’s about understanding if you are a minister… it’s about avoiding going native, isn’t it?
“It’s about making sure you are in touch with the people who put you where you are and it’s about discipline – self-discipline – and remembering that you’re civil servants, however lovely they might be, have no interest in getting you re-elected. You have to take complete control of your diary and spend time out and about with people who you will learn to be useful from.
“There’s a sense, in general, that people who have lost their seats have more time, they don’t have to spend time so much time with council officers. They have time to actually engage in the communities in a bigger and more real way. There’s no reason why you have to be an elected official to make this work. This is about the activist base as a whole doing this. The problem is that so many of our activists have become councillors or become a cabinet member on a local authority that you can lose… you can go native a little bit. There’s a perfectly understandable diary issue – you have less time to spend stood on the marketplace or knocking on doors, you’re spending all your time talking to council officers instead. But you’re in charge.
“I won’t say who it was, but a minister said to me not long ago, ‘It took me a few months to realise that I could say no.’ And everybody in power, irrespective of what level it is, needs to know that they can say no, and they should make a practice of it. They are elected to office, the civil servant is not, and if you want to spend Wednesday knocking on doors, you jolly well should.”
Community politics seems to be about making sure that the party's head is not turned by government and reminding people why they voted Lib Dem in the first place.
Something that Farron knows is sorely needed at the moment.