By Cllr Maggie Lishman MBA
I have held my seat on Burnley Council for the Briercliffe Ward for over thirty consecutive years. It’s been interesting to reflect on how that has been achieved. It’s a nineteenth-century mill village of terraced houses, now with new estates and a rural hinterland.
Liberal Democrat campaigners are good at winning seats, but sometimes less good at holding them for the long term. In a recent Citizens’ Britain Zoom conversation, one councillor said they had won a new seat with an active issue-based campaign when a sitting councillor with no issues had lost. So – how do you keep your seat and make a difference to the communities where you live?
My experience is that there are two elements:
1. Becoming the “go to” person and part of the “go to” team
2. Facilitating, supporting and encouraging residents to help themselves and their communities.
Emphatically, it is not just being around at election times and finding things to campaign about. It’s being there throughout the year. Today, it’s about using social media to pick up on the myriad of things that concern people, then offering advice - sometimes delivering answers. It’s about going to see for yourself, involving people in working out and delivering solutions, and knowing where to go and who to persuade when there is a problem. I am not confined by the functions of a District Council. Indeed, police, schools, health services and the County Council are part of representing people. We have developed working relationships with all of them – they all know that we will nag and campaign with local residents until we get things done.
FOCUS leaflets are our backstop, supported by local deliverers who are also extra eyes and ears around the community. Everyday links in our communities engage with local social media, and we ensure that issues are picked up and then reported back in real time.
Here’s an example, possibly controversial. We recently had a campaign about a planning application for a large housing development on a steep hill, over a soak-away area for rainfall, with no community provision, congested vehicle access, no investment in school or health facilities, little access to public transport and no recognition of the impacts of climate change. Residents were firmly against it, and after a public meeting, set up by us to question the planners, they organised a group that included but wasn’t led by LibDem councillors. We gave them access to advice and the Local Plan, and found them an independent traffic expert, for whom they raised the funds. It was their campaign with us helping - a good example of citizens organising in Citizens’ Britain. Very unusually, they won their case in the Council’s Planning Committee, after a powerful contribution by a local resident, but lost when the developer appealed. They achieved significant changes in the proposal, and they are now ensuring that the restrictions on site development are fully adhered to. The people who organised and fronted the campaign regularly “like” our reports on other issues.
It’s been similar in relation to youth nuisance, fly-tipping, access to good GP services and speeding traffic. Yes, we fight their corner, but residents play a full part. We have hammered home that they must report traffic problems and youth nuisance to the police, and fly-tipping to the Council so that all cases are logged and moved up the priority list for response. It also means councillors can keep up the pressure – not just on our Council, but also on the County Council, the police, the Health Centre and the other bodies. It’s pointless and very short-term just to whinge on social media or in the pub, or to put out leaflets that campaign against everything. That just fuels the sense of powerlessness and alienation from the Council and all politics.
This is about building a collective responsibility in our community among local people for shaping the services and responses we get. The councillor’s job is to represent and empower our communities – helping them get the changes they want and need. We listen, we advise, we act as a mouthpiece for active citizens. We do not set ourselves up as local heroes who can achieve everything. We tell the truth about what’s possible, what’s difficult, what’s impossible – and when we disagree with them, we say so. That dialogue with local people includes respecting and being respected by the people we are talking with – although there are occasional exceptions!
We never suggest we support a cause which is against our principles, but neither do we say that people shouldn’t fight for their views even when we disagree. We are liberals; that means when we disagree, we’ll say so, and when nothing can be achieved, we say that too. I’ve lost count of the number of times when residents have said “I don’t agree with you about x, but I respect you for telling the truth and standing up for what you believe in”. We did get re-elected all the way through the coalition and all the way through Brexit (with a 66% pro-Brexit vote here!) and local people had no doubt about our views on those issues.
That record is important when it comes to running the Council, and you have to be for things, not just against them. My fellow councillor and I wrote and promoted Burnley’s COVID Recovery Plan for economic development and community recovery. A LibDem/Conservative/Independent coalition adopted it, supported by the Greens and the Brexit Party, and a Labour-led coalition is now implementing the Recovery Plans. That is due to the respect of other councillors and Council officers, as well as taking them on when necessary and always standing up for a distinctively Liberal philosophy. Another example from years ago was when I persuaded our traditional, large-majority Labour-run Council to allow members of the public to give notice and speak at Council and Committee meetings, an innovation taken for granted ever since.
For me, serving my communities – the ward and the town – isn’t a means to anything else. It's an end in itself, a purpose to be proud about. It seems that too many Liberal Democrats nowadays see local government as a stepping stone for other elections – like trying to build a house without a proper foundation. Good LibDem councillors and good LibDem Councils can achieve much more for real people, here and now - certainly more than most Parliamentarians most of the time. Of course, we want national success – and indeed international influence – but if those roles achieve anything, they must be built on the same relationship of trust, which is the foundation of our politics. There are plenty of good examples in the UK, but if you want to see an outstanding example, look at Bart Somers, longstanding Liberal Mayor of Mechelen in Belgium, who was recently voted “The World’s Best Mayor”. Bart spoke at a LibDem Conference a few years ago, including about his success in listening to, engaging with and empowering ethnic minority populations in his city. As I saw in other European countries, national success is built on firm foundations in communities. It’s a crucial part of the reason why Liberal Prime Ministers in other EU countries have been underpinned by the strength of local leaders who represent and are a trusted, leading part of their communities. It’s also the basis for Citizens’ Britain, founded in bottom-up, not top-down politics.
If I had just one message to give to Party colleagues, it would be this: being a Liberal Democrat councillor means being an integral part of the community – the person who does the politics, just like the butcher sells meat, the teacher teaches, the PCSO upholds the law, and the publican provides a centre for the community. That’s not the same as aggressive campaigns against this and that, building on national leaflet templates. It means having our own, recognisable local voices in our leaflets and conversations; being our own people, not just party representatives. That’s the true Liberal approach, in the tradition of J S Mill.
The recent death of Tony Greaves has reminded me – and many others – of the ideas which brought me into Liberal politics nearly a half-century ago. Tony believed that the three core elements of the community politics strategy combined in an integrated approach to the transformation of politics, government and society. Those three elements are helping to solve people’s grievances; helping people in communities take and use power; and representing people at all levels of the political structure. It’s not just about adding techniques for consultation and involvement; it is crucially about a new politics that involves and engages citizens in sharing power and the responsibility that goes with power – one of Paddy’s themes in his book that shares its title with this publication. It therefore involves elected politicians, political and government institutions in fundamental rethinking how they work – and then operating in very different ways from traditional roles.
Tony once described the purpose of good representative democracy as creating a market-place, where ideas, policies, difficult choices and competing priorities come together in conflict, challenge, choices, and compromises. My job as a councillor is to make that market-place work effectively, standing up for my ideas and principles, working with others in politics and administrations, and, above all, with its foundation in the understanding, knowledge and participation of powerful, engaged citizens. It’s a big project, and there’s a long way to go. One of the first steps is to recognise and begin to create the new politics. That calls for new forms of political leadership – and that’s the challenge for today’s Liberal Democrats.