Why are Local Parties Important?
Constitutionally, the local party is a key organisation in the Liberal Democrats. It is the principal route by which ordinary members can influence party policy, receive training, and meet other members. The principal route by which groups of Liberal Democrats can fundraise, campaign, select candidates, and fight and win elections.
I’ve not had much experience of effective local parties. I believe them to be a minority, and not a large minority, of all the Lib Dem parties. Most local parties don’t have enough engaged members to form an executive which engages its members, leading to a clear downward spiral. Some local parties are fiefdoms, with the same people gripping onto power year after year, ineffectually lording it over an ever-declining membership and actively keeping volunteers away in case they do something productive.
In practice, party members don’t need local parties as much as we used to. Many (most?) of us are on the Internet, and we can hang out with other party members online. Groups of conference reps can sponsor policy motions directly. So why bother with local parties at all?
I believe that the Lib Dems is and must remain a grassroots organisation. We need to be rooted in local communities. The federal structure exists to allow the grassroots to exert power upwards as well as allowing the Federal Executive to distribute organisation downwards. I also believe that as Liberal Democrats it is healthy for us to mix with other party members with whom we might not agree on every policy issue, and to work alongside them. The problem with online membership engagement is that it’s very easy to form inward-looking cliques.
If we can’t hone our skills at persuading others where possible, or agreeing to disagree on some issues but collaborate on others, within the party then what chance do we have of working with potential supporters and voters outside? Meeting local people face to face remains the best way to bring more people into the Liberal Democrat family, introducing them to our beliefs, philosophies and policies.
The difference between being a member in a strong local party and a weak one is one of energy and vitality. A local party with good leadership and engagement makes its members want to get out and do stuff. It gives them a reason to be a Liberal Democrat and stay a Liberal Democrat. It gives them a voice at the highest levels of the party. Some people find reasons outside their weak local party to stay involved, but that’s a minority. People who get enthused and join a weak local party will fade away when their membership first lapses, lost to us. Strong local parties are vital to the future success of the party and of liberalism.