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The Usual Suspects

March 3, 2016

Stagnant Power

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Local party execs sometimes remain very stable…
(photo by Okinawa Soba, Creative Commons by-nc-sa 2.0)

The Liberal Democrats is a party with a huge amount of internal democracy. However, that democracy is rarely held to account or challenged ,at all levels. Local parties stagnate, with the same small clique rotating the officer positions. One thing that’s vital as part of the Lib Dem Fightback and our influx of new members is making sure we get new voices and fresh ideas represented on our elected bodies, and empowered to make decisions.

Of course, most of our members didn’t join a political party to form committees, hold meetings and take minutes, so local parties need to push to find ways to engage members – that means understanding their points of view even if they’re not all at a meeting. This can involve members’ surveys, or social events where you can get to know people.

The Usual Suspects

Movie Poster for "The Usual Suspects"

Never mind your local party exec, meet the people who do the real work.

However, politics is the art of exercising power, and there are plenty of positions, both official and unofficial, where Liberal Democrats can hold and exercise power with no accountability to the membership. These positions are often held by the Usual Suspects – the fixers, the people who Get Things Done.

Take for example the person who has the authority to nominate candidates – this is arranged centrally by LDHQ and is a position of significant power. Or the person who ends up organising local authority candidate training and approval in a hurry, and just emails around enough of their mates to make sure the bases are covered rather than looking to a wider pool. Or the person who volunteers to represent the party to an external body such as a community group, but never reports back to the membership or executive. Or the party staffer who ends up accountable to no management chain, let alone to the members on whose behalf they supposedly operate. Or, in my own situation, the person who hosts various IT systems on which a party body relies.

I’m sure that pretty much everybody in such positions is well meaning and effective. However, as liberals, we need to maintain transparency and accountability as a principle, before something goes wrong. A lot of the scandals within the Lib Dems (and outside it too) boil down to unaccountable people becoming too important to criticise. Beyond that, the Usual Suspects are also more likely to match the pale, male and stale image of our party, and that can derail attempts to improve diversity.

The Objective

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Members old and new at a Manchester by-election, after opportunities to stand and help were advertised widely.

Everybody acting on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, whether at a local or national level, whether a volunteer or paid staff, should be in some way accountable to the membership, either directly or via a relevant elected body. Members should know who they are, what their powers and responsibilities are, and to whom they are accountable.

We should maximise liberty by promoting choice and taking actions to limit individual power. That can include having multiple people trained and authorised to do a job, making information widely available (whether it’s canvass data in Connect, or details of local community groups for candidates) and making sure that opportunities to volunteer or get involved are as widely advertised as possible. By advertised, I mean with enough background that a newcomer will feel empowered to get involved – whether that’s providing training before a campaign session, or letting people know in advance what to expect when they turn up to a Pizza and Politics night, and knowing whether there’s some kind of social activity once the Focus is delivered. Imagine you are a shy newbie who’s never been to an event like this before.

Ultimately, it’s about making sure members are empowered to achieve what they joined a political party to achieve. That might not fit in with the larger strategy that one of the Usual Suspects has come up with, but there has to be a balance between individual enthusiasm which keeps people motivated, and the worthy but dull admin work or leaflet delivery cult approach that ultimately wins us elections. And why should the larger strategy be decided by the Usual Suspects? The overall picture for our organisations should be clear, communicated to members, and open to debate and suggestions for improvement!

And yes, this is all easier said than done. A lot of these situations come about in the first place due to lack of motivated volunteers. But we always need to try and make them better, because stagnation will ultimately fail. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, even within the Liberal Democrats.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. March 3, 2016 at 9:13 am

    Preach!

    As a local ‘Usual Suspect’ (who remains so, despite giving up my Officer post – now occupied by a 2015 member – and various committee roles), this is very much my vision.

    Bristol’s perpetual annual electoral cycle comes to a stop this year, so I intend to be pushing this agenda more fully post-May, hopefully on top of Councillor responsibilities!

    • March 3, 2016 at 10:15 am

      Yes, I’m fully aware that I hold a few positions of relatively unaccountable authority, and I’m doing my best to break free of that – not by stopping, but by making it clear what I’m doing, making sure that exec / officers have full access to the data I host, and letting them know what the alternatives are if they get fed up with me.

  1. March 12, 2016 at 11:25 pm
  2. March 14, 2016 at 8:02 am
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