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Grassroots Liberal Democracy

September 27, 2009

When I joined the Liberal Democrats back in 2003, I received a membership card in the post, with a letter of thanks. And for over a year, that was my only interaction with the party. I kept paying them and feeling good about doing so. I volunteered to help out with IT and secretarial duties at my local party offices, but never heard back from them. One day, my Lib Dem MP (the lovely Evan Harris) appeared on my doorstep with a stack of Focus leaflets and asked me if I’d take a small delivery round in my neighbourhood, which I was happy to do. Delivery and payment were my contributions to the party; in return I got my MP asking me how I was when he dropped off more leaflets, which is very kind of such a busy man.

When I returned to Manchester in 2005, two good things happened. Firstly, I transferred to a more involving local party which actually invited me to AGMs. Secondly, I made friends with a dyed-in-the-wool Lib Dem activist through a mutual acquaintance, and started to learn about what I could do as a Liberal Democrat. I learned that I could attend the party conferences I’d seen on TV, that they were not just for MPs. I learned that I could have some influence on Liberal Democrat policy. I learned that there were all kinds of interest groups I could get involved in, either as a campaigner or just socially.

Over the last four years my involvement in the party has increased significantly, and it’s easy to forget the years of frustration and uninvolvement. I go to conference and meet Lib Dems from all around the country who are actively and happily engaged with the party at all levels, and it’s easy to forget that it’s a self-selecting sample – the people who aren’t thus engaged aren’t at conference! Recently I’ve learned that new party members get sent a diagram of the party hierarchy, from the Leader and the President down to the local parties. I really don’t think that’s the right way to increase member engagement – like our campaigning in communities, we need to start from the bottom and work up.

I put off writing this post and the posts I intend to follow it for about a year, for lack of an audience. There’s no point investing energy in a guide to being a Liberal Democrat if nobody’s going to read it. However, I’m now fairly confident that if I write it, I can get it distributed. Here’s a list of the things I’m intending to tackle in a series of blog posts, and I welcome comments and suggestions on it:

  1. What does being a Liberal Democrat mean?
  2. Your Local Party
  3. Grassroots Campaigning
  4. Associated Organisations and Interest Groups
  5. Conference
  6. Keeping Informed – Lib Dem News and the Internet
  7. Influencing Policy
  8. Standing for Election

Just a quick word about the Federal Constitution – this is clearly the sine qua non of how the Liberal Democrats works. When I’ve complained in the past about not knowing what the duties of the President are, or similar things, people who’ve been in the party for years tell me to read it. I’m fairly certain they haven’t tried to do so themselves, or at least not through the eyes of an inexperienced new member. It’s largely opaque, has deeply nested cross-references, and finding anything out from it is bloody hard. Perhaps when I write about things here I’ll include references to the Constitution so people can check it for themselves, but I feel that people need to have a good handle of how the Party works in general before the Constitution is useful as a reference for the specifics.

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