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Building Critical Masses

August 29, 2014

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 The other thing that happens over time, and as things change, is that people either forget information or it becomes outdated.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!

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