Building Critical Masses

August 29, 2014 1 comment

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceTeamwork by  Yoel Ben-AvrahamI’ve had some interesting conversations recently with fellow Lib Dem activists around the country. Some of them are excited and happy about their activism, some are feeling isolated and miserable. Is this to do with their opinions on a particular policy which is being promoted or ignored by the party? No, it’s down to being part of a critical mass.

Everybody’s engagement is limited by three factors. Firstly, space: the Liberal Democrats are a highly federal party, organised mostly along geographical lines, and mostly run by volunteers. As with all such organisations, from campaign groups to the WI to trades unions, this leads to massive variations in members’ experience, based on the time, energy, skills and motivation of the volunteers “in charge”. As a new member, I never found out what was happening in a local party with a sitting Lib Dem MP because those in charge were poor communicators. A keen party member might never find out about activities and campaigns half a mile down the road because they happen to be across a constituency boundary.

The second factor is time. Activism expands to fill slightly more than the time you have available, if you let it, and people get tired or burned out and move on to different things. This is particularly a problem with Liberal Youth branches which are based around Universities, where most people are only there for 3 years. The other thing that happens over time, and as things change, is that people either forget information or it becomes outdated. The “institutional memory” of a small organisation, other than that required by law such as accounts, can be incredibly poor leading to future activists reinventing the wheels of the past.

The third factor, and the most critical, is motivation. When you feel like a lone voice in the wilderness, or the only one actually getting things done, or like your efforts are being countered by others’ resistance to change, it makes it incredibly hard to feel bothered to do anything. It’s easy to lose heart and give up.

The examples I’ve given are all negative, but there’s an upside – it only takes a small number of Lib Dems, in the same place at the same time, to create a critical mass. I find there’s nothing that motivates me more than knowing that other people are working with me to further the liberal movement. I’m going to say that you need three to really get stuff done. Sometimes you can  use the formal structures of the party to build critical mass, say by forming an executive with particular powers. Sometimes you don’t need to. Sometimes you need to actively work around them, particularly if somebody is being obstructive.

The Internet is great for keeping members in contact and for spreading knowledge and good practice. This is what allowed me to talk to activists from around the country in my first paragraph. It can solve the problem of space obviously, but also time; I’m in touch with former chairs of party bodies I’m involved with and can ask their advise and pick their brains for good practice from before I ever joined. Some of it will be out of date, of course, but it’s mostly very valuable. And it can solve the problem of motivation; by posting about my Lib Dem success stories on social media, I inspire others. I get people asking me for details of things I’ve achieved, who then improve it themselves and share back. I email the local party secretaries around me to make sure we’re all on the same page; I don’t know whether they pass information on to their members but at least I’m doing my bit.

Real life contact is important too. I’m a big fan of Liberal Drinks and other simple socials, just as a way of getting liberals together and talking about whatever they like and seeing what comes out of it. I’m having lunch with two of my fellow local party officers later to catch up, and later I’ll have a cup of tea in another city with an Internet friend and Lib Dem fundraiser par excellence who needs a bit of cheering up. As an extreme example, I’m actively trying to poach good activists from around the country and convince them to move near me. Of course this is in their best interests, but I can’t deny that the thought of the effect on local campaigning has occurred to me.

Conferences, both federal and regional, can be fantastic energy-builders; it’s a great opportunity to meet people, chat with them, discuss subjects you’re interested in, and learn new skills and ways of thinking. Passing policy is important, but it’s far from the only reason to go. You can, with a bit of luck, come away feeling energised and motivated, and then share that around your local party.If we’re going to grow the party and have a stronger liberal movement, then it’s important that we not only stay motivated ourselves, but we create an environment that inspires others to join and get involved, that we build and maintain critical masses. That can involve putting nearby activists in touch so they can compare notes, or cheering up somebody who’s toiling away on their own far away, or writing stuff down for the next Executive to look at, or making a nice cup of tea for your busy girlfriend, or a million other things. Go and put a smile on somebody’s face, and you’ll put a smile on yours too!

Combining Targeting with Growth

August 3, 2014 4 comments

Howard Dean, chair of the DNC, at Lib Dem Conference 2009

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceIt seems obvious in Lib Dem circles that in the run-up to the next General Election we’re going to have to significantly concentrate our strength in our held seats, and the small smattering of (mostly Tory) constituencies where it looks like we can take them from our opponents. This is the subject of a recent op-ed by Stephen Tall on Lib Dem Voice, referencing a Guardian article.

It’s also a continuation of what’s been referred to as the “Rennard Doctrine”, a strategy which emphasises concentrating resources on where we can win adopted by Chris Rennard as Chief Executive, which saw the Lib Dems’ share of the seats won in General Elections more closely matching our share of the popular vote. A 20% discrepancy came down to around 10% – still a long way short thanks to the vagaries of “First Past The Post” plurality voting, but enough to make the party a more effective Parliamentary force.

The problem, as discussed in Stephen’s article, is that by concentrating resources on the places we can win, the places we can’t win get weaker and weaker. This was the story of Cleggmania in 2010; the biggest rise in membership in 20 years, most of whom joined in places where there was no Lib Dem presence, and hence nothing to engage or retain them. Yes, the fall in 2011 was even bigger than the Cleggmania rise, but the disheartening feeling of joining and getting nothing out of the party can’t have helped. (You can see more on Lib Dem membership figures over here.)

The alternative to purely concentrating our strength where we think we can win, is what’s termed in the US as a 50 State Strategy. It was popularised by Howard Dean as chair of the DNC (and indeed he came to Liberal Democrat conference in 2009 to tell us about it). This attempts to mobilise Democrat supporters wherever they are in the country, even deep in Republican territory – introducing them to each other, encouraging street-scale campaigning, standing for election… generally low-level grassroots activity which can build up over time. This doesn’t make much short-term sense; even the vote for President isn’t a direct popular vote, but filtered through the electoral college which is pluralistic in almost every state. However, in the longer term it can pay dividends; starting to flex campaigning muscles in Republican turf in 2005 may well have led to Obama winning Virginia, Indiana and North Carolina in 2008, since the party was more able to capitalise on Obama’s national media profile. The comparison to Cleggmania should be obvious.

Lib Dem vote and seat share at General Elections.

Lib Dem vote and seat share at General Elections.

We fought this year’s Euro elections on the idea that our areas of strength would give us enough votes to win seats in a PR system. Generally, our vote held up in those places thanks to our campaigning, but our vote elsewhere collapsed horribly, and we lost almost all our MEPs. We will need to build our strength nationwide before the Police and Crime Commissioner elections in 2016, and the European Parliament elections in 2019. But what of the General Election in 2015?

To borrow a phrase from bi activism, we can embrace the power of “and”. While it’s clear that the majority of our resources must be dedicated to campaigning until polling day, I think there’s room to look to expand, using the General Election as a driver. While we can’t run a full 650 Constituency Strategy, we can look a little wider than the boundaries of our target constituencies. Most of our held seats are non-adjacent, so we should be reaching out to bring members, supporters and activists into the campaigns.

As a Lib Dem in a constituency adjacent to one of our held seats, this is what I’ve been doing. I do a lot of work on member engagement and retention, trying to make sure my members are supporting campaigning and fundraising events in our held seat. I’ve organised simple social events to draw in people from across the area and get people talking and enthused, and their reach is spreading to other nearby “black holes”. Through all this the drive is to get people worked up, more keen to play a part in their local area, but mostly to come and help in our targets.

In the longer term, we have two options – keep rolling out from the centres of strength, which is a slow-but-steady grassroots approach, or try to identify potential hotspots where we might be able to start up activity more or less from scratch. I think that regional parties have a strong part to play in the latter. (One thing I like about CiviCRM as a membership management tool is that it allows you to map members, supporters and activists by postcode, giving you a good “feel” for where you might have a nexus of support.) But this will require strong regional parties who are committed to rebuilding in black holes, and I’m not sure how many of those the party has.

Making Lib Dem Voice More Useful

August 1, 2014 5 comments

ldv-sanitiser-screenshotLiberal Democrat Voice is an independent website run by volunteers which accepts article contributions and allows discussion on a wide variety of Lib Dem-related topics. I don’t read every article there in depth, but it’s basically essential reading for Lib Dems, even if you just skim the headlines to get a sense of what’s new.

Unfortunately like most news websites these days, the comment section has become a regular shouting match for derailment and disruption rather than discussion on the topics at hand. There are two particular categories that irk me; one is Mens’ Rights Activists who try to derail any post on equalities with their “but what about the white cis straight mens!” nonsense. The other is the anti-Clegg faction who will spam every post on the site with calls for Nick to resign. In my opinion these people are getting in the way of debate, not contributing to it.

greasemonkeyI have finally got sufficiently fed up with this to do something about it, and written something which will filter out particular users’ comments from LDV posts. This should make LDV more useful and less rage-inducing. By filtering out the predictable comments from the predictable people, I should be able to get more out of the LDV comment section. It’ll reduce my temptation to feed the trolls and post things that make me look bad, like the comment in the screenshot. If others use it, it’ll hopefully increase the signal:noise ratio further.

There’s a plugin for Firefox and Iceweasel called Greasemonkey which allows the user to install small programs to edit webpages after they’ve loaded. There are equivalents for Chrome, IE, Safari and other browsers as per the Wikipedia link provided. I have started work on a simple killfile for some of the LDV commenters I find particularly disruptive, which you can download here. Once you’ve got Greasemonkey installed, that link should load my script and start running it on Lib Dem Voice pages. It’s only a first draft at the moment, and I expect future improvements if I can be bothered, but your Greasemonkey should pick them up when I do.

And to make the obvious liberal point: Freedom of speech does not equate to freedom to be heard. These posters are not violating LDV’s comment policy, but I do not want to, and do not have to, read what they have to say.

Update on #IPv6 Motion

July 30, 2014 1 comment

World IPv6 Launch LogoI am not surprised to learn from FCC that my policy motion on IPv6 has not been accepted for debate at Conference in Glasgow this autumn. The polite rejection reads:

I am writing to let you know that the conference committee decided not to select your motion Connecting More Devices to the Internet for debate at the Glasgow conference. The subject matter is very technical and, although the drafting does a fair job of trying to make the issues as clear as possible to a non-specialist audience, we nevertheless felt that it would be of limited interest to most conference representatives and was unlikely to lead to a good political debate.

I am sorry to have to disappoint you on this occasion.

So yeah, mildly disappointed, but not surprised. I have asked what further recourse I might have, including lobbying a policy working group or just smiling sweetly at J-Hup.

Categories: Conference, Policy Tags: ,

Policy Motion Draft: Next-Generation Internet

June 19, 2014 1 comment

When I’m not doing politics, I work in IT as a systems and network administrator. This involves dealing with the Internet Protocol (IP) a lot. This is basically the thing that makes the Internet (and hence the Web, which is a subset of the Internet) work. Trouble is, it’s based on an assumption that everything directly connected to the Internet (like your BT HomeHub, Virgin box or whatever) can have a unique identifier called an IP address. But there’s so much stuff connected to the Internet these days from smartphones to lamp-posts that we’re running out of unique identifiers allowed by the current version of the Internet Protocol.

Networking geeks basically solved this problem over 15 years ago in 1998 with a new version of the Internet Protocol, but we’re still using the old one because there’s no real incentive for anybody to switch before anybody else does. It’s a classic tragedy of the commons, so wearing my political hat I think there’s a case for the Government to lean on the industries.

I’ve drafted a policy motion on mandating rollout of IPv6 to end users for Lib Dem Conference in Glasgow. It’s aimed at a non-technical audience, so I’ve elided or hinted at some of the problems of address space exhaustion such as route fragmentation. I’ve had a couple of non-technical people read it, and they can grasp the gist: “There is a problem. There is a solution, but nobody’s doing anything about it. The Government should make them.” Note that I’m only addressing the ISP side; hosting and content providers are largely based outside the UK, particularly cloud-based ones, and it’s a business with tight profit margins; I think that if everybody has the ability to reach you on IPv6, then increasing IPv4 prices (and policies of IPv4 allocators such as RIPE) will encourage those providers to implement IPv6 of their own accord.

I’ll be encouraging my local party to support it, but the more LPs we get behind it (and individual conference reps) the better. Let me know if you have any suggested alterations to the text, or whether you or your local party would like to support the motion.

Maybe in 10 years I’ll be proposing a motion to deprecate IPv4…

Read more…

Categories: Conference Tags: , ,

Dealing with Sexual Harrassment at the Grassroots

February 9, 2014 2 comments

As you no doubt will have noticed if you’ve looked at a newspaper in the last few months, the Lib Dems are currently being ravaged by scandals concerning sexual harrassment, largely revolving around Lord Chris Rennard and Mike Hancock MP. I’m not going to comment on those particular allegations – I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t been said before. All I will say is that it’s a shame that some in the media and at the grassroots of other parties are trying to frame this as a Lib Dem specific problem. A culture of sexism and abuse of power exists across all major parties, and what I’ve heard about other parties in private is far worse than anything that’s now public about the Lib Dems. The other party leaders aren’t seeking to make political capital out of the allegations because they know they could rapidly find themselves hoisted on the petard of any criticism they make.

LDHQ is making changes – bringing policies and procedures up to date (which doesn’t affect any of the cases in progress as they can’t be applied retroactively), and appointing a pastoral care officer who can be a point of contact for all party members and staff. That appointment was one of the recommendations of the Morrissey Report commissioned by the party. The Report seems to have filtered into party culture – most people I talk to are aware of its existence, broadly aware of its content, and actively mention it in conversations.

Rock The Boat is putting pressure on the leadership from the grassroots, to make sure that the overarching problem isn’t ignored. However, as a party we’re naturally resistant to top-down edicts from the Leader or President about how we should behave, and that’s a good thing. For everybody complaining that Nick as leader doesn’t have the ability to impose his will on the membership on this issue, imagine how it would be if he had the ability to do so on other issues! Some people may be resistant to change because they themselves have skeletons in their closet – many of our members have been around for decades, since a time when it was more culturally acceptable (though obviously not morally OK) to behave in certain ways towards subordinates, women etc. and are concerned that their past behaviour will be judged by modern standards. Still, we should look at ways we can improve awareness from the grassroots of the party and reduce the risk of harrassment within our ranks.

One thing that’s clear is that the cases currently in the public eye have one thing in common – that complaints were made early on, but either ignored or not handled correctly. As a local party officer, I’ve not had training in how to recognise problems or handle complaints, and I believe this is common for volunteers across parties. I’m hoping that up-to-date training will become available post-Morrissey Report, but if it’s run only as a voluntary effort at Federal Conference, then only the people with the time and money to attend Conference, and the will to attend the training. The latter part is crucial – the kind of person who would voluntarily attend such training is probably the kind of person who doesn’t need to. Unfortunately, the Federal Party has no ability to mandate officers to attend training.

At the North West Lib Dems executive yesterday, I made a proposal which was accepted by the rest of the Executive. I think it combines the best of carrot and stick – making training on harrassment part of a wider package to increase its overall value, and providing an incentive to attend / disincentive not to. I also think that regional parties are close enough to local parties for this to work without seeming like a diktat from on high. In outline, we agreed that the region should:

  1. Create a package of training for local party officers focussed on:
    1. Dealing with complaints and recognising harrassment
    2. Valuing and improving diversity
    3. Local party officer roles and responsibilities
  2. Work with party trainers throughout the region to make it available as locally as possible
  3. Advertise the package to local party execs and invite them to attend it (not until after the Euros this year; in Jan/Feb in future years)
  4. Consider the local party’s attendance on the training when it comes to allocating support and resources from the Regional Party to local parties
  5. Work with the party’s national Pastoral Care Officer and Training Officer on the above

I’m not sure how this’ll work in other regions – I get the impression that the NW regional party is particularly effective compared to others. But it’d be good to see other regions be proactive on this as well, and by working with LDHQ we can include whatever they’re doing in our work. I have offered to lead on this for the regional party and will make sure I monitor progress, and I hope we can begin to offer the training after the European elections and as ongoing work in future years. Everybody has a responsibility to challenge the harm done to our fellow party members by abuse of power – whether it’s the particular power afforded by elected office or employment, or the general power imbalance of the patriarchy. We must make sure that all party members, particularly those in positions of responsibility, have the tools they need to meet that responsibility.

Improving Diversity at the Grassroots

December 30, 2013 4 comments

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceThe Liberal Democrats have a very visible problem with diversity. If you look at our MPs, they don’t reflect the population of this country – particularly when it comes to ethnicity. None of our major political parties do, but the Lib Dems don’t have any BME faces on the front benches, and are noticeably under-represented on gender balance too.

I’m going to suggest some things that grassroots members can do to improve diversity in the party so feel free to skip to the end, but first a quick overview and some background:

Overview

Does the lack of visible diversity mean that the Lib Dems are “worse” on diversity than other parties? Not necessarily – other parties have chosen to tackle the symptom of visible diversity. However, it doesn’t seem like they’re particularly egalitarian as a result; there seems to be a lot of rancour and unhappiness in their grassroots at measures like all-women shortlists, and some of the stories I’ve heard of common, unchallenged discrimination have startled me.

There is an argument that it’s a matter of demographics – that we selected women and BME candidates in 2010 who weren’t elected as we lost seats rather than gained. I’ve heard tell that there’s a smooth diversity gradient from party members to approved candidates to selected candidates to elected MPs. But the statistics are not forthcoming.

The Lib Dems have repeatedly decided at our conference that the techniques used by other parties are illiberal and don’t address the root problems. Some argue that making our party more visibly diverse would make us more attractive to a more diverse potential membership. However, I’m going to look at what the party is and could do to improve diversity in keeping with Conference’s opposition to measures such as enforced shortlists.

Some people will ask why this is a problem and why it’s something we should put effort into; it’s not like we forbid anybody from joining the party or getting approved as a candidate, after all. However, if we believe as liberals that everybody has the same potential regardless of background, and that there should be no barriers to achieving that background, then measurable achievement in the party (membership, approved candidates, councillors, elected MPs) should end up pretty much resembling the general population. Of course as the pools of people get smaller the statistics get woolier, but it’s still clear that we’re a way off.

So either we’re wrong in our assumption about people’s potential, in which case we should pack up and forget about this liberalism lark, or there are some barriers to diversity within the party. I’ll assume in good faith that those barriers are not deliberate or conscious, but they are present. They are also problematic, because they mean that there are liberal people from a wide range of backgrounds whose potential we’re not making use of as a party, and that means we’re all losing out.

Actions

If we’re going to grow a more diverse party from the grassroots, we need to take action. We’ve decided on what action we don’t want to take as a party, but we need a better idea of what we do.

The party’s main project to improve diversity is the Leadership Programme – targetted training and support for people seeking candidate approval from under-represented demographics. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but it’s poorly advertised, heavily centralised and relatively small scale.

Here are things that you, as an ordinary party member, can do to play your part. It’ll take actual effort, but a more diverse party is a stronger party, a bigger party, a more active party and a more successful party – and most of them aren’t hard. Importantly, none of them are things you wouldn’t do anyway; this is about focus, not special treatment. I don’t do brilliantly at all the things I’m going to talk about here, but I try to do some of them, and that’s a good starting point…

Learn About Diversity

As somebody who’s been on the exec of a national diversity SAO since 2007, I didn’t think that there was much I could learn about diversity. The party’s training proved me wrong. The paragraphs above about how visible diversity should be used as evidence of structural barriers rather than as a target to hit, and why a lack of diversity is a problem for all of us, are what I took away from Issan Ghazni’s diversity training at party conference. There’s a general acceptance in the party that we are liberals and don’t discriminate, and that diversity is good, but relatively little understanding of why it’s good and how to encourage it.

Local party officers (particularly Chair and Membership Development) should be encouraged to go through the party’s diversity training, by LDHQ and regional parties. As a local party member, ask your MDO about making the training available to the local party exec, possibly at a regional conference which can be easier to attend than Federal.

Reach Out to Diversity

Our party’s membership is increasing, and we all need to do our part to encourage that. We should all be canvassing support and trying to recruit supporters as members – we can’t rely on people joining the party without talking to us any more. This is an ideal opportunity for us to improve our diversity. Make sure you’re putting effort into recruiting people who will improve diversity in your local party. As an ordinary member, make sure this is on your membership development officer’s radar.

Lib Dems do community politics, which often involves working with existing community groups such as business associations, faith organisations et al. Make sure that your campaigners are engaging with diverse organisations rather than just the ones that are perhaps easier for less diverse campaigners to reach.

Welcome Diversity in your Membership

There’s a natural tendency for people to associate with people like ourselves. This makes improving diversity harder. We need to make a conscious effort to overcome this subconscious bias.

Think about your local party’s activities – are they biased towards a particular demographic? A lot of Lib Dem local parties meet in pubs; they’re convenient community facilities, but can put off some women and certain faiths including Islam. Is there somewhere more neutral you could meet? This can be hard, particularly on a budget if you have to pay for use of a village / church hall, but consider the occasions (such as General Meetings and policy debates) where it’ll have most effect. Perhaps you could occasionally go for a coffee after a canvas session rather than a pint. As an ordinary member, make sure your local party secretary or events person is thinking about this.

Not every event needs to be appealing to every member, but there does need to be something for everyone – if a member doesn’t feel welcome at any events, why stay engaged with the local party?

Empower a Diverse Executive

Having a diverse membership who feel welcome in your local party is a fantastic step, and if your local party can achieve this then you should be proud. However, we need to make sure that their voices are being heard – a diverse membership will provide different perspectives and ideas which will benefit your local party as a whole. There are many ways to achieve this but one is through making sure your local party exec is diverse – far too many in my experience consist almost exclusively of old white men.

This post is a couple of months too late for AGM season and elections, but your new exec should have some spaces available for co-option. Identify members who can bring wider perspective to your campaigning, and encourage them to be co-opted onto the executive.

Engage with Diversity Groups

The party has groups dedicated to most diversity strands under the umbrella of the Diversity Engagement Group (DEG). From LGBT+ Lib Dems to Lib Dem Women to EMLD, BUILD and Chinese Liberal Democrats to LDDA and others, there are expert groups out there who can provide advice and assistance to help you improve diversity. One of my 2014 goals for LGBT+ Lib Dems is to finish our Local Government Guide and create a training module on engaging with LGBT+ communities.

Each regional party should have an identified diversity officer – make sure your local party exec knows who this is and ask what they’re doing to help local parties promote diversity.

Talk and Think about Diversity!

This is something we can all do easily – make sure that the conversation about diversity is not lost. In everything you do as a Lib Dem, think about diversity and how you can improve it. Challenge yourself and others in your blog posts, on Twitter, in local party meetings.

And remember that diversity is probably more complicated than you think it is; a cisgendered man, gay or otherwise, may not have a great grasp of the full spectrum of LGBT+ diversity. Individuals can be diverse in multiple ways – BME women have a different life experience to white women, or disabled LGBT+ people compared to able-bodied.

Further Reading

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,244 other followers