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The Next Elections we need Newbies to Win

October 23, 2016 Comments off
thankyou

Liz Leffman, helped to a storming second place by our newbies.

This week, the Lib Dems stormed to a strong second in the Tory heartland of Witney, leapfrogging from fourth. Thousands of volunteers from across the country piled down to David Cameron’s former constituency, and sent a shockwave through British politics. Life-long Tory voters, disgusted by Theresa May’s lurch to the hard-Brexit right, supported our hard-working local candidate.

As important as the ground-breaking result however was that many of the Lib Dem volunteers who pounded the streets, hit the phones or reached for their wallets in this campaign were new members, since the 2015 General Election and the EU Referendum. Turning members into activists is vital to the success of any political party, but more so to the Lib Dems who don’t have much budget for paid staff operations. The activists in Witney learned from the best, whether it was Candy Piercey, John Aylwyn, Neil Fawcett and many others on the ground, or the phone bankers trained by Claire Halliwell and James Baker at ALDC in Manchester, or many more.

Between now and Christmas, pretty much every local party in the Liberal Democrats will hold its Annual General Meeting, at which it will elect its volunteer committee to run local affairs for the next year. It’s really important that we empower our newbies to get involved at this level, rather than just see themselves as footsoldiers, and support them in their endeavours – they will bring fresh ideas and energy to the local party, hopefully some often-needed diversity, and enthusiasm. And most importantly, they will help break down barriers between the local party executive, and the membership. We need every local party in the country to be actively engaged with its membership, bringing liberal values to local communities as best we can. If we can’t manage that, keen liberals will drift away from the party and find themselves homeless and disengaged.

So if you are a new member of the party, please do stand for election at your AGM, whether it’s as an officer with a specific portfolio, or as a member of the executive, and make sure your local party engages all its members and plays its part in bringing about Our Liberal Britain.

Policy without the Wonks?

May 30, 2016 Comments off

I’ve often said here that people join political parties because they care about specific issues, and they think the party is the best way to advance that issue. Having policy on an issue is one way to encourage people to join in the first place; being the kind of party that would do the “right” thing is another. If we want more people to join the Lib Dems, and to be enthusiastically engaged in our activities and campaigns, then we need to make sure that they’re getting traction on the issues they care about, and that often starts with a policy – a statement of what the Lib Dems think should be done about a particular issue.

Currently, policy making requires a certain amount of expert knowledge. There are a lot more people that care about issues, than know exactly what levers of power are available to be pulled, particularly at different levels such as council and Parliament. So how can we make policy formation more open to non-experts and more responsive? Firstly, we need to know what makes our members tick – what are the issues that move them? You’d be surprised how few local parties can answer this question, particularly about the members who aren’t already activists. Member surveys as part of your member communications process (whether that’s by phone, online or by post) can play a key role here, as can collecting this kind of data at a social event – get people to write down one reason why they joined on a post-it note, and collate them on a handy wall.

Secondly, we need to know what’s possible; this is where the policy experts do come in handy. We need to put the people who have the knowledge in touch with the people who have the desire. Ask around your current and former councillors, candidates and Parliamentarians. Nearby local parties or regions might be able to lend an expert; ALDC might be able to give guidance. How you put these together is up to you; different approaches will work for different local parties. Currently I’m planning some free-form discussion online, either using a forum over the space of a couple of weeks, or some online chat sessions, to flesh out proposals. I’d like to finish this with a day-long face-to-face event, perhaps structured like an Unconference.

Of course, the Lib Dems have a regional, state and national policy process for “official” policy which involves detailed policy motions being debated, amended and voted on at a conference. This requires a certain amount of expert knowledge, and the time and money to attend the conference. The approach I’ve outlined above is hopefully a little more flexible and can serve not only for local manifestos which tend to be a bit more ad-hoc, but also as a way of generating policy input into Conferences.

Inspired to Empower

March 30, 2016 1 comment
libertea-small

Libertea in Manchester

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceThis sounds like some massively cheesy slogan for some TED Talk or “motivational guru”, but it’s mostly how I’m feeling after an evening at my local Libertea – our Liberal Drinks / #libdempint evening that takes place in a coffee shop rather than a pub. We still do the pub on alternating months, and get a slightly different crowd coming to each.

I’ve been reminded of something I may have lost sight of in recent months; the devastation and loss of the General Election gave way to the elation of the Lib Dem Fightback, which slowly but surely ebbed into routine, and perhaps I’ve been going through the motions of campaigning and organising events without stopping to think what it means.

I’ve been reminded that when people joined the Lib Dems in the aftermath of the General Election, they did so because they had an instinct that the fight for liberalism was important. I’ve been reminded that people join political parties to achieve things for the causes they care about, not to act as footsoldiers for an unaccountable clique. And yes, getting people elected is almost always a key part of achieving those things, but we need a holistic view – what we want to achieve and how winning elections helps us achieve it – to inspire people to campaign enthusiastically.

I’ve been reminded that not only can peoples’ attitudes and behaviour actively put people off getting involved, but also frustration at not being able to achieve what they joined the party to support. I’ve been reminded that it’s the job of us not-so-newbies to use our experience to help our new members experience the power of a political party to achieve positive liberal change, to see the whole picture of how an idea becomes a policy, becomes a campaign, becomes a candidate, becomes a councillor or Parliamentarian, becomes a victory, and how the cycle repeats and overlaps.

So thanks to all those at Libertea who have inspired me to double down and help our newbies get a real sense of achievement out of being a Liberal Democrat, to clear the obstacles and smooth the road so we can deliver a Liberal vision of the future, together.

Navel Gazing? Let’s Start at the Bottom

May 12, 2015 Comments off
Post-election uses for a Risograph #2,381

Post-election uses for a Risograph #2,381

So we’ve had a bit of a rest over the weekend, which was much needed. Now we’re into a new week, the opinions are flying thick and fast. Where Clegg went wrong. What our national message should be. Who should be the new leader.

There’s a lot of media attention on all of these subjects, because that’s how the national media works. But, frankly, it’s not how our party works or should work. We are a grassroots organisation, built from the ground up. With new people joining us and keen to get involved, and without the pressure of Government upon us, now is the best possible time to examine these grassroots and make sure they’re fit for purpose. I’m going to pick three qualities that we can all try to promote in our own local areas.

Firstly, our local parties need to be engaging. At the simplest level, this means activity and communication. Any activity, from a simple social, to a Pizza and Politics night, to a regional conference, to a canvassing session. Do it, and let people know you’re doing it, and that they are explicitly welcome as newcomers. Give reminders, directions and travel information. Reach out. Make it easy for people to get involved. If there is no activity in an adjacent seat, co-opt it as your own and invite its members to your events – work through your Regional Party if you have to.

Secondly, our local parties need to be inclusive. Not every event has to be tailored for everybody’s needs, but we should aim to meet a range of interests, beliefs, incomes etc. Share events with nearby local parties and cross-invite, to avoid duplicating organisational effort. Try to make sure your events aren’t just a room full of middle-aged, white, cis men. Posh fundraising dinners are fine at the upper end of the income scale, but some more low-key events with less pressure to spend will get you more time-rich, cash-poor activists. Make sure that newcomers are welcome at your events, and that people will go out of their way to talk with them (and hopefully not bore them silly about risographs or Land Value Taxation). I heard a story recently about a volunteer who spent many evenings helping out, only to find that the existing activist team would cold-shoulder them when it was time to celebrate and wind down.

Finally, our local parties need to be rewarding. People get involved in the Lib Dems for a variety of reasons, and have a range of interests they may want to pursue within it. Part of welcoming a new member is understanding what their motivation is, and helping them discover how they can achieve it through the party. Most of us are happy to do some of the thankless work that needs doing to keep a campaign rolling, if we’re getting something out of it in other ways. I have some stories from the election campaign of keen volunteers being dropped into jobs without adequate explanation or training, occasionally facing a hostile public while telling etc., and coming away feeling that they don’t want to help any more.

Thousands of new people have joined the Liberal Democrats since the election because they want to fight for liberalism. But they can’t do it alone – they need us to show them the ropes, and help them achieve satisfaction for the urge that made them join. Many of them may need us to help them understand what liberalism is, beyond the vague sense that it’s important. It would be a terrible waste of enthusiasm to let them down.

We Must Not Repeat the Mistakes of Cleggmania

May 9, 2015 5 comments

3000 membersIt’s rumoured that over 3500 people have joined the Liberal Democrats since our electoral beating on Thursday, many of them even before Nick Clegg resigned as leader. It would be easy to be upset that these people didn’t consider that the cause of liberalism was important before polling day, but there is little that can be done about that now. We have new people prepared to put their money where their mouth is and support the party.

We’ve been in this situation before, in 2010 with Cleggmania, when the party’s membership jumped after the first ever TV debate. These new people joined across the country, both in active local parties, and places where the local infrastructure was more defunct. Between the election and the lack of action, most had no reason to stay after their first year and there was a commensurate drop a year later. Now the election is out of the way, we don’t have to worry so much about balancing targeting and growth, and can try to build critical masses more widely.

In places where we have active local parties, we need to reach out to our new members. Make sure they’re in touch and stay in touch. Introduce them to other members, and wider party bodies such as SAOs. Use social events to break the ice. Where we do not, regional parties have a role to play in bringing members together.

People have realised that Liberalism is important. Let’s make sure we help them to make a difference.

Coping With Activism

September 19, 2014 Comments off
Bisexual and Lib Dem mugs on a Bi Pride flag

I will never tire of pointing out the bisexual Lib Dem activists need a good cuppa every now and again.

This originally took the form of a post on my Facebook wall, and received a lot of positive feedback so I thought I’d share it here. I read this article on “digital detox” recently. Some of it’s a bit hippy-dippy for me, but the general theme of managing variable intermittent reinforcement rings true. Political activism is a perfect example –  sometimes you try something in politics and get a positive result, whether it’s winning an election, signing up a new member, getting a policy motion accepted etc. Often you don’t, but the rush is palpable. And there is always more to do, until we have every ward and constituency in the country a safe Lib Dem seat. There’s a phrase that “Activism expands to fill more than the time available”, which is why it’s important to get your priorities right.

Over the last year or so I’ve adopted a number of tools and habits which have made me more relaxed, more productive and feeling much better. Some of it’s about removing distractions. I used to be involved in a lot of geek chatrooms, which have the same intermittent reinforcement – somebody would come along and ask a question, and you’d answer it and they’d be happy and you’d feel good about helping a stranger. I’m now only in two chatrooms with any regular conversation, neither of which is hugely busy, and both of which are largely social chat with people I know personally.

I’m using Workrave, designed as an anti-RSI tool, to prompt me to take occasional short breaks and infrequent longer ones. I’ve turned off push notifications on my email client, and told it to check for new mail every 30 minutes so I’m not frequently distracted by incoming mail. I have made sure I have a decent chair and table to sit at, meaning I can work for longer stretches without getting uncomfortable or giving myself back ache. Occasionally I turn off wifi on my laptop to concentrate on typing up minutes or writing blog posts; I make a note of anything I need to research and come back to it after I’ve finished the draft rather than scampering off in search of data and getting distracted. As a result I’ve been writing more and better. Using Dropbox and ownCloud means I can benefit from remote backup and sharing but still have files available when I’m offline.

Most importantly, I’ve used the parental control feature of my ADSL router to cut off the Internet from my laptop at midnight; this stops those late-night Wikipedia / TVTropes binges, and encourages me to go to bed even if I’m not yet completely exhausted; lying in bed reading a book is more restful, and grants me better sleep, than sitting online until I feel tired. I’ve actually noticed that I wake up after less sleep, feeling better, by going to bed before I’m exhausted, and I’m squeezing an extra hour out of every day as a result. I’m doing better at looking after myself as a result – I’m eating better and not often forgetting meals or being too busy to eat, which keeps my brain fuelled and able to concentrate.

I’ve been making heavy use of my back garden over the last few months; sitting outside in the fresh air, listening to the noises of the neighbourhood and the feel of the breeze has been great for me, and there are two green spaces (one well-tended park, one more overgrown reserve) very close to me that I can walk around and enjoy, or sit reading a book within. I’m getting more actual reading done, more time to sit in thought or actively meditate, and I’m doing more home cooking which I find grounding.

The self-reinforcement of variable interruptions is starting to wear off; I’m finding it easier to put down non-urgent tasks when I need to rest, and also easier to complete tasks before they become urgent and stressful. I don’t currently have a smartphone so I don’t have the temptation to constantly check email and social media on one, but when I do get a new one (hopefully before Conference) I will need to work out a way to manage distractions through that as well.

In terms of my activism, I’m also doing things that make life a bit easier for other people – after last night’s local party exec meeting, I gave three other people lifts home, to save them slogging on the buses. It’s a simple thing, doesn’t take much time for me, and helps them stay positive.

Categories: Building

Building Critical Masses

August 29, 2014 2 comments

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!