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:
- Create a package of training for local party officers focussed on:
- Dealing with complaints and recognising harrassment
- Valuing and improving diversity
- Local party officer roles and responsibilities
- Work with party trainers throughout the region to make it available as locally as possible
- 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)
- Consider the local party’s attendance on the training when it comes to allocating support and resources from the Regional Party to local parties
- 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.
The 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:
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.
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.
Private Eye has lamely tried to imply that Lib Dem policy supports paedophilia by linking Conference’s decision to refer back motion F17, to the investigation into Sir Cyril Smith. The piece on P5 of Eye 1349 begins:
Last Sunday, as the Lib Dem conference voted against toughening up controls to protect children from online pornography, little thought was given to the party’s own record on protecting childhood innocence
This is pretty sloppy reporting from Private Eye, an organ which generally does a good and diligent job. F17 was not voted down, it was referred back for further discussion. It was referred back because it did little to protect children from online pornography and had some major side-effects and drawbacks. I am writing the following response to the Eye‘s editor:
You recently claimed that the Lib Dem conference had voted against toughening up controls to protect children from online pornography. This is untrue. The policy motion was not voted down; it was referred back for redrafting as it was not fit for purpose. The motion presented to conference introduced the kind of web filtering and snooping the Eye has opposed on many occasions, would do little to protect children, and would deny them access to educational resources.
The Lib Dems who spoke in the debate, including many technology experts and young people, made a clear case for educating children about healthy relationships and good sex education to protect them against the unrealistic expectations set by pornography far better than web censorship can. This became Lib Dem policy in a later conference motion.
Not only was your reporting factually inaccurate, the attempt to conflate this conference debate with paedophilia was cheap and crass. Please return to your usual high standard so I can encourage you to keep up the good work.
As one of the people who campaigned for a reference back on F17, including sacrificing my Friday night to designing flyers for Liberal Youth and LGBT+ Lib Dems to distribute, and organising an all-member mailing for Plus to vote to refer the motion back, I am particularly annoyed by this sloppy reporting and shameful attempt to correlate genuine concern for childrens’ welfare with child abuse. Teaching our children about healthy relationships, rather than pretending we can solve this problem with web filtering, will protect them from abusers.
We do need to continue the #TalkNotTech conversation; it’s something I’ve been thinking about particularly since this F17 debate, and I suspect we may want to pursue a wide-ranging liberal policy on relationships, respect and consent which I’m nominally naming “Destroy the Heteronormative Patriarchy”.
There are many people interested in getting this right, from the anti-F17 agitators James Shaddock and Alisdair Calder McGregor, through excellent speakers including Jezz Palmer and Sophie Bridger, super-blogger Caron Lindsay and many, many others. LGBT+ Lib Dems and Liberal Youth are interested, and I’m hoping this is something Lib Dem Women will want to contribute to as well. Hopefully by Spring Conference 2014 we’ll have a motion we can put to the Conference floor which is truly radical, concentrating on the root causes of sexism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, rape culture etc. without being too unwieldy to ever implement.
In the meantime, get writing to Lord Gnome!
UPDATE: Sadly, the Eye‘s response leaves a lot to be desired:
Thank you for your letter, however we stand by the fact that conference did actually vote against motion F17 (and rightly so). A “reference back” is a rejection of the motion, even if, as mentioned elsewhere in coverage of the vote, it’s a polite lib dem way of doing so. Nick Clegg even acknowledged as much in his joke about the Syria vote.
It’s a shame you choose to nit-pick over conference semantics rather than acknowledging that the party’s handling of the Cyril Smith situation and failure to apologise to his victims.
The Eye‘s assertion ignores party procedure, the terms of the reference back, and the speeches given by members in the debate, which clearly demonstrate that the party is very keen on finding a good way to protect children from any potential harm from exposure to porn – and indeed the fact that the party voted for more comprehensive sex and relationship advice for children later in the very same Conference. The motion as presented did not protect children from harm and may have caused worse harm in other ways.
The Cyril Smith “situation” is indeed very serious and worrying. It deserves better treatment from the Eye than being juxtaposed with tawdry and baseless assertions that the party is opposed to the protection of children. Better education for our children about the risks they face, and healthy and appropriate relationships, will help protect them from abuse from adults, whether or not they’re Liberal MPs.
September 23rd every year is Bisexual Visibility Day. This day attempts to highlight the existence of bi people, what bisexuality is, and raise awareness.
It’s needed because most people assume everybody’s either gay or straight. In the Lib Dems, people tend to assume I’m gay because I’m heavily involved with LGBT+ Lib Dems and most of the men who do that are gay. When I’m out with my female partner, people tend to assume we’re straight because most male-female couples are straight; when I’ve been out with a guy, people have tended to assume we’re both gay.
It’s needed because some people get upset or feel betrayed when their assumption about my sexuality turns out to be wrong, and blame me rather than themselves. It’s needed because some people get uncomfortable around bisexuals, as if we’re some different species it’s hard to relate to, rather than people who generally feel the same about gender as most people do about hair colour – we might have a preference, but it’s not a deciding factor in who we find attractive.
It’s needed because when a celebrity comes out as bi, people assume they’re doing it to be trendy or for attention, whereas they’re celebrated for their bravery when they come out as gay. It’s needed because there are a load of damaging stereotypes about bisexuals being nymphomaniac, untrustworthy, greedy, prone to cheating, or even psychotically violent. Many of these stereotypes even come from the gay and lesbian communities, even though a good number of gay and lesbian people have slept with different-gendered people while still identifying as gay or lesbian – peoples’ sexual identities being a damn sight more complicated than what they’ve been doing with their genitals recently.
It’s needed because even most organisations that refer to themselves as LGB or LGBT tend to concentrate almost exclusively on lesbian and gay people; bisexuals are tacked on as an afterthought, or bundled in with L&G people, while 2012′s ground-breaking Bi Report clearly demonstrates that bi people have different needs and outcomes than L&G people do. Stonewall have a very poor record of support for bi people and described mixed-sex civil partnerships as “a matter for heterosexuals” rather than something which affected a bunch of people they invite donations to support; most of their bi work was a direct response to a heavy “Some People Are Bi” community lobbying effort.
I’m proud that in LGBT+ Lib Dems we make serious conscious efforts to include all sexual and gender minorities. I did a “Queer Question Time” event on Gaydio last year in which the Labour and Tory representatives (Manchester City Council’s lead member for gay men, and the chairman of LGBTory) described bisexuals as “the grey area of the gay movement” and complained that “nobody knows what they want”. On this topic in particular, we advertised Bi Visibility Day at our party conference stall last week complete with some back issues of Bi Community News. One of our reasons for opposing web filtering in motion F17 at conference was that the word “bisexual” is seen as a porn term rather than an identity even by Google which blocks access to educational resources (including our SAO’s own website). We avoid using terms like “gay marriage” in favour of “same-sex marriage” – it’s not as glib, but it doesn’t contribute to the erasure of bisexual and other identities. We haven’t quite gotten this message through to the Deputy Prime Minister’s speech-writers yet, but we’ll keep trying.
Most of my audience is political – think about your last Pride press release, or your council’s non-discrimination policies, and whether they’re inclusive of people who aren’t lesbian or gay (Manchester City Council used to claim that bi people were, at any given moment, either “being gay” and protected by their policies, or “being straight” and in no need of protection). Is your local Pride actually inclusive? A couple of years ago, a bisexual friend left her first Manchester Pride in disgust because the opening ceremony had biphobic vitriol spewed onstage from the compére, an incident which was not deemed serious by the organisers who assured us it was “just a joke”. If one of the UK’s biggest LGBT Pride events isn’t a safe space for bisexuals, where is?
On Bisexual Visibility Day, which happens to affect me personally, I’m highlighting the way that sexuality can be political, and public policy affects different sexualities differently. Read the links in this post – particularly the Bi Report – and reflect on how you, and the institutions you’re involved with, relate to and think about bi people.
A quick reminder to those at Conference that this is a great opportunity to invest in a Lib Dem table flag, which is all you need to organise simple socials to engage your local membership.
There are also a lot of AGMs on the fringe today for you to get involved with party organisations.
I believe that it’s important for the Liberal Democrats and its members that more people get more involved more widely in the party. I’ve been trickling out posts about background and procedure, but it’s time to flip around the Kolb learning cycle from Abstract to Active, and encourage you to do something. Mostly, I’ve been talking here about local parties because it’s the most obvious and geographically proximate way for people to get involved.
For this post I’m going to talk about party interest groups, because it’s Conference now (it wasn’t when I started this post a week ago, but I’ve been busy) and most party interest groups have their AGMs at Autumn Conference. The Lib Dems has a wide, eclectic, federal structure. There are many ways to get involved, if you know about them. Unfortunately, few people do know about them and it’s not easy to find out. New members get details about Specified Associated Organisations in their member packs now, which is a vast improvement; there’s a horrible hard to navigate list of party bodies on the party website. But if you’re at Conference, go look around the Exhibitions to find party bodies which are at least organised and funded enough for a stall.
If there’s an area of Lib Dem policy you’re interested in, stand for election to the executive committee that runs the interest group – pretty much all of them are elected democratically at each autumn conference, either at the AGM or by postal ballot shortly afterwards. If you can’t get elected, ask the executive to co-opt you to any vacant spaces. Get involved and become part of a team – rope in a friend to stand with you, for moral support. If you’re not sure what to do, I’d make sure the following are happening:
- The organisation knows who its members are and chases up renewals
- The organisation communicates with its members through some combination of post, email or social networking
- The organisation asks for feedback and input from its members
- The organisation advertises its existence and actively seeks new members
- The organisation is creating, sponsoring or supporting policy motions to achieve its goals within the Party
- The organisation’s executive communicates effectively, regularly and frequently
In my experience, an executive list on the party list server or another mailing list provider is very helpful for the last point.
This is the bare minimum that an organisation needs to do to self-sustain. It’s not enough to make it an effective and useful organisation, but it’s a way of getting more people more involved and engaged to achieve that. People can’t do everything themselves, and organisations need to encourage strong teams of diverse talents. Once those requirements are being addressed – not necessarily perfectly, but things are moving in the right direction, think about:
- The organisation is promoting the party’s action on its policies and goals outside the Party
- The organisation is campaigning on its policies and goals outside the Party
Party bodies don’t exist just to sell the party to outsiders – that’s why these external goals are secondary. But they should exist to make the Lib Dems do the right thing (in their opinion) and to engage the public with these issues. Organisations need to be inward-facing to sustain themselves and grow, but they also need to look outward for fresh ideas, and to make sure we’re either representing or persuading the public in liberal directions.
This guide is nearly short enough for a Lib Dem Voice article (and following LDV is not a bad way to find out about some of the things happening in the party, particularly in its member-only forum). I hope it sets out how you can get involved in an SAO and what you can do. Getting more involved in the party can be frustrating at times, and can involve a lot of work if you haven’t got a strong team pulling together – or if you’re trying to bite off more than you can chew. But it can also be incredibly rewarding, from the small victories to the big ones. It can teach you skills, and lessons, and talents you can put to use in the rest of your life. It’s worth it for you, and it’s worth it for the cause of Liberal Democracy.
Nominations are open for the Liberal Democrat Voice awards, affectionately known as the BOTYs. Despite having a blog, I don’t really think of myself as part of the Lib Dem blogging scene; I’d have to update a damn sight more regularly for that! I started this blog to put up discussion drafts of articles intended for print, and sticking things on a piece of paper and putting them through somebody’s letterbox is still my authorial intent one way or another.
However, I am a LDV reader, and I do have opinions about who should be recognised for doing things online. I remain cynical about the merit of online campaigning as a replacement for real world activity (or indeed for online support, development and retention activities), but there is some good stuff happening online in two specific categories:
- Liberal Democrat Tweeter/Facebooker of the Year
- Best online campaign run by a Liberal Democrat
Many moons ago, when the Coalition was young, I posted about the negative narrative, and how uniformly negative comments about the Lib Dems (justified or otherwise; this is about narrative, not facts) tend to breed and reinforce themselves. Over on the party’s Facebook page, every post will attract at least half a dozen negative comments, most of them irrelevant to the post (usually about tuition fees, still).
Over time I noticed somebody called Pete Brown routinely going in and responding to critics – rebutting outright falsehoods, and contextualising the statements which were at least partly true. Where he led, I and others followed and now most posts by the party will have some positive comments from supporters, and most negative comments will be challenged where possible.
The immediate thing to note here is the disruption of negative reinforcement – the overall level of negative comments goes down. The more reasoned and reasonable the Lib Dem side of the argument, the more antagonistic and illogical the opposition seems in comparison. And occasionally, just occasionally, people do engage in debate which leads to understanding each others’ position a little better.
I do not believe that this changes the minds of the people posting negative comments. But there are over 90,000 people who follow the Lib Dems on Facebook, more than the membership of the party. Not all of them will support us, of course – but for those who aren’t steadfastly opposed, seeing the negative narrative being challenged in the comment threads will help present a counter-narrative which will encourage them to make up their own minds.
It’s not fancy, it doesn’t have its own hashtag or the might of Campaigns Department behind it. But Pete Brown and his campaign to challenge the negative narrative and spread a bit of truth are, in my mind, the best online campaign we’ve got going right now, and well worth recognition. If my nominations make the shortlist, please consider voting for them.
(trigger warning: discussion of domestic violence) Read more…
The ever-so-lovely Alex Wilcock has invited people to blog about Lib Dem Values. Typically, I didn’t respond in a timely fashion ahead of Spring Conference 2013. Although in a sense I did, because one of my first posts on this blog asked “What does being a Liberal Democrat Mean?”. In the 2.5 years since that was published, I think it still stands up, but is not sufficient. The key argument is this:
However, Liberal Democracy is about finding the balance between the individual as an entity in its own right, and the individual as a member of a wider society; between a free market which encourages competition, and regulation which restricts that competition to efficiency rather than exploitation. Balances are always precarious things to maintain, which is why you often see news headlines about the party leaning towards “the left” or “the right”. It’s worth remembering that those shifts are compared to the party itself, and are relatively minor compared to our positioning relative to the other parties. These shifts are also within the context of the preamble itself.
However, that post is more about the Liberal Democrats from the perspective of a member, while I think what Alex is asking about is from the perspective of an outsider. I guess if I were to start again, inspired by that post and some of the others I’ve written here, and by Alex’s writing which is always my starting point for discussions on liberalism, and by the thoughts and words of other liberals I respect, it might look something like this:
The Liberal Democrats stand for increasing people’s freedom to enjoy their own potential, helping everybody to get on in life. We believe in meaningful representative democracy to balance people’s conflicting priorities, and in ensuring protection for the individual from the State and other powerful organisations.
We believe that nobody should be constrained by lack of opportunity, particularly by the circumstances of their birth. We believe that Government should set the rules by which society operates, so people are rewarded for hard work and innovation, but not for exploitation or pollution. We believe that people should be respected as individuals regardless of their gender, colour, wealth, sexuality, or any other quality – not as homogeneous groups defined by those qualities.
We believe in accountable, democratic institutions giving people more of a say in their immediate lives and local communities, as well as more of a say in the issues too big for one person, or one country. We believe in solutions which get to the root of the problem rather than just addressing the symptoms.
That’s closer to 200 words rather than 150, but I’ve thought about it and tweaked it a bit, and I think it’s both accurate and distinctive; what do you think?
This was going to be titled “Why You Shouldn’t Campaign for Mike Thornton”, but I was too busy campaigning for Mike Thornton to do it earlier. Now you shouldn’t campaign for Mike Thornton because the polls have closed for the Eastleigh by-election so there’s not much point. I’ve written this before the count finishes, so my prediction is Lib Dems, UKIP, Tory, Labour in that order and none losing deposits. By the time you read this you’ll know if I was right and can laugh at me.
Politics will take as much of your time and energy as you can give it. There’s no real point in politics at which you have achieved all your aims – or if there is, it’s usually beyond the capacity of any one person. While some people can dedicate their entire lives to politics, others have different commitments and interests – whether it’s education, a day job, a partner, caring responsibilities, a hobby or just taking some time to chillax. It’s important to realise that it’s OK to have a life outside politics. Indeed, given the complaints about identikit politicians with no experience outside politics, it’s positively encouraged. Doing something unrelated to politics gives you some distance and perspective. Similarly, identifying full time as a politician means you put a lot of pressure on yourself to be a politician. This is why I took the Lib Dem reference out of my Twitter username and started using it for less political ends.
It’s also important to set reasonable expectations for yourself, and for others about you. We can achieve nothing if we take on more than we can handle. As a party we rely on too few shoulders bearing the load (which is why I’m also a fervent believer in recruitment and engagement – find people who want to do some of the stuff you feel obliged to!) One of the hardest skills is learning what you have time to achieve. Many people take on multiple responsibilities and then fail to do any of them well; since I stepped down from one Executive at the start of the year, I’ve done a lot more on aggregate for the Lib Dems as a whole. And my replacement should do more for the body I left than I could. One or two people have made negative comments about my stepping down, which is a shame, but I don’t feel guilty for it.
And finally, it’s important that we look after each other. One of my favourite tips from the world of bisexual activism is one piece of activism that you can do in five minutes – make a cup of tea for another activist. Organising Liberal Drinks social events is one of my favorite things. A night in the pub relaxing with friends, and yet somehow it’s a Lib Dem thing too which makes it look like your local party is active and encourages newcomers out of the woodwork! During one particularly tense polling day row in the committee room, I ordered the candidate and agent to separate rooms away from the activists, got the delivery rounds out, made tea and toast for the candidate and agent and told them not to come out until they’d finished. I spent quite a bit of time that day refuelling hardworking pavement-pounders to help them get back out faster. When I see a friend struggling, my first questions are whether they’ve had enough food, drink and sleep – and whether whatever they’re struggling with is honestly as urgent as they’ve convinced themselves it is.
These techniques can be applied inwardly. We’re all terrible at taking our own advice, but sometimes I consciously ask myself what I’d advise a friend to do in the situation I find myself in. I have studied mindfulness and meditation at the Manchester Buddhist Centre, and have a reasonable handle on how my brain works and its failure modes. I have friends who look after me and show me the same love and concern as I show them. I’ve suffered medically from stress in the past due to having more day-job work thrust upon me than I could cope with, and it’s not something I’d wish on anybody. Years later, I still don’t have as much energy for politics as I used to, and I’m grudgingly coming to accept that that’s OK too. The odd evening at home cooking dinner mindfully, or chilling out with a movie with the activism-filled laptop folded shut, is OK.
It’s OK to cut down on your activism. It’s OK to take a break entirely until you’re ready to come back. It’s OK to put your energy into making things easier for yourself and others. It’s OK to have not made it to Eastleigh because you couldn’t spare the time, money or energy. It’s OK to strike a balance between doing enough to avoid feeling guilty, and not doing so much you burn out. It’s OK to try and avoid feeling guilty in the first place – we shouldn’t feel bad about doing for the party only what we can spare time and energy for.
During Eastleigh, the party has relied heavily on e-mails, phone banking and SMS to encourage activists to come and help. This works out well for the party – I probably donated more money and time to the campaign as a result than I otherwise might. And it was great to be there with friends old and new, enjoying the buzz of the headquarters, running a canvassing board one minute and taking direction from a colleague the next. The quiet canvas round on my own and the group of 7 running up and down terraces. Driving around farmhouses with a bemused city dweller. Phonebanking upstairs with campaign staff. People’s favourite crisps. Spending a naughty ten minutes on one doorstep explaining why the Lib Dems and Labour couldn’t have formed a workable coalition. Night driving through the New Forest, full beams picking out sleepy donkeys. These are all good memories I will cherish.
But I went down when it worked for me, a fortnight before polling day; I could in theory have taken more days off work and gone down today, but it would have caused more stress and hassle than I could reasonably spare, so I did a spot of phone banking after work instead. And that’s OK too. I know people who didn’t contribute any time or money to Eastleigh, and that’s OK too – they had their reasons and priorities, and I respect that and don’t demand that they justify themselves to me. They are good people and good Lib Dems and they will do what they can when they can.
To summarise then – let’s be a party of enthusiastic, mutually-caring part-timers that people might want to join, rather than being guilt-tripped into self-flagellating martyrs competing to deliver more Focus. It’ll be better for us, but it might just be better for the party too. Be excellent to one another.
PS: If you liked this post, you really should be reading Louise’s blog. She’s great at this kind of stuff.