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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.

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.

On THAT Motion, and Diversity within the Party

March 12, 2016 1 comment
New Liberal Democrat chair of candidates, Mitt Romney

New Liberal Democrat chair of candidates, Mitt Romney

I’ve been following the discussions on motion F20, “Electing Diverse MPs”, for a while now. It’s also known as “the All-Women Shortlist” motion as that is one of its recommendations. It’s certainly controversial, particularly among women, and I honestly don’t know which way the vote is likely to go tomorrow morning. I am not going to get into some of the antics surrounding the establishment campaign to push this through, though I’d really like to rant about the (white cis male) person who told me I don’t care about diversity if I don’t support this motion.

When you strip away the reams of facts and figures in the run-up, what it’s proposing seems fairly limited to me:

Conference therefore resolves that to increase the proportion of Liberal Democrats from under-represented groups in the House of Commons the Liberal Democrats will:

  1. Continue and extend support for individuals seeking approval or selection as Westminster candidates from under-represented groups, thus building on the work that has been done in the past including the Leadership Programme.
  2. Create a ‘2020 Candidate Diversity Task Force’ to co-ordinate partywide efforts to actively recruit parliamentary candidates from underrepresented groups from both inside and outside the Party. This will include a focus on recruiting candidates with more than one protected characteristic and from minorities who are under-represented even within under-represented groups. The Task Force will work with ALDC and our cohort of councillors, recognising that, whilst local government is important in its own right, it can also be a good recruiting ground for potential Parliamentary candidates. It will report to the Federal Executive, working with the Diversity Engagement Group as appropriate. The Task Force will have one representative each from the three state parties, the Federal Executive, ALDC, EMLD, LDDA, LGBT+, LDW, Liberal Youth and PCA and be led by a Candidate Diversity Champion appointed by the Leader and the President. The Federal Executive Report to Conference will include updates on the work of the Candidate Diversity Task Force.
  3. Through the work of the 2020 Candidate Diversity Task Force and Candidate Diversity Champion, in association with SAOs, AOs, ALDC and parliamentary candidates, examine the party’s approval and selection processes, and the role of PPCs after selection, to identify barriers that may exist for under-represented groups, including those identified in the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Selection, as well as disadvantaged groups including those from a low socioeconomic background. Solutions will be proposed to overcome these barriers; to seek to make proposals to increase diversity at all levels in the party; and to bring forward proposals on how to address the emotional, practical and financial challenges facing candidates from under-represented groups.

So point (A) is doing what we’re already doing; point (B) is also doing what we’re already doing – the groups mentioned are already represented through the Diversity Engagement Group, so this is just recreating the same organisation and giving it a task it should already be doing. (C) is an expansion of the thing that the group in (B) should be doing.

Conference recommends that:

  1. Any local party should be able to vote for an all-women shortlist or an all-disabled shortlist, or reserve some spaces for candidates from other under-represented groups.
  2. As a minimum the three state parties should follow the Canadian Liberal Party practice of requiring the relevant Local Party to provide documented evidence to their region or state (as relevant) of a thorough search for potential candidates from under-represented groups before being granted permission to start their Westminster selection process; this should apply in those seats where the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate received more than 15% of the vote in the 2015 General Election but the seat is not held by the Liberal Democrats.
  3. In Scotland, Wales and each Region of the English Party, take measures to move towards a slate of candidates that reflects the diversity of the state or region, in line with the Leader’s ambition of having at least 50% women candidates and at least 10% BAME candidates across Great Britain.
  4. If any sitting MP elected in 2015 decides not to contest the next General Election, his replacement should be selected from an all-women shortlist.
  5. In Scotland, Wales, and each Region of the English Party where there are two or more non-held seats which gained 25% or more of the General Election vote in May 2015, the regions should designate as a minimum of one seat not held by a Liberal Democrat MP to select its candidate from an all-women shortlist. Where these seats are affected by boundary changes, the party’s rules on re-running selection processes will apply.
  6. In addition to the one seat identified in 5. above, where the Liberal Democrat parliamentary result at the 2015 General Election was in the 10% of seats which had the highest percentage vote without returning a Liberal Democrat MP, the selection shortlist for the 2020 General Election should, subject to sufficient applications, include at least two candidates from under-represented groups.

Most of the points are aimed at all-women shortlists, and some of the others are vague, particularly the unspecified measures in (3). I was speaking to a regional candidate’s chair who was hard pressed to find enough people to stand in the 2015 General Election, who feels that the requirements to “provide documented evidence” and include candidates for under-represented groups will be either meaningless or impossible to meet based on the current ratios of women and BME people in particular who put themselves forward for candidate approval. He anticipates finding one or two token potential candidates to ship around the region to selection meetings to make up the numbers where local parties haven’t made any real effort to address diversity. I think this hits the crux of the problem for me – this motion is a top-down solution to a bottom-up problem.

I’m not going to get into whether doing this, or failing to do this, is “fundamentally illiberal”. That’s a silly argument, and I believe that most people, however they plan to vote, have good intentions. There are of course some people who deny that the Lib Dems have any diversity problem at all, but there’s no accounting for whatever planet they’re on. The question is, what problem are we trying to solve? Given the number of women who’ve told me they won’t stand for Parliament if the party adopts AWS, I’m not sure it’ll get us many more female candidates. I don’t think it’ll do anything to address some of the sexist attitudes within the party, nor the concentration of power among the typically male, pale ad stale usual suspects, and I fear that it may engender ill-will among activists which will make us less likely to elect female candidates selected under AWS, since we don’t have any safe seats to speak of.

Fortunately, the Federal Conference Committee has selected two good amendments for debate. The one from Ethnic Minority Lib Dems which aims to improve the motion’s approach to BME diversity is a no-brainer. The second, from the East Midlands Liberal Democrats, keeps the working group and the requirement for state and regional parties to take measure to reflect diversity, but removes the proposals for all-women shortlists. Since the proponents of the motion have been telling me that it’s about more than AWS and is a comprehensive strategy for diversity, I’m sure the same people wouldn’t describe this as a wrecking amendment. My hope is that the motion passes with both amendments, and that’s what I’ll be supporting. If the East Midlands amendment falls, I’m not sure how I’ll vote on the main motion – it comes down to whether perceived inaction on the part of the party will do us more harm than the negative effects of introducing AWS, and that’s a tough call to make.

Where Next?

As I mentioned in my conference diary post, I’m feeling a bit guilty that I didn’t engage with this motion sooner. I’m sure this blog, coming ten hours before the debate, won’t influence too many people ahead of the vote. But whatever Conference decides, we’ll have to live with it and move on. One argument in support of the motion is that “we’ve tried other things and they didn’t work” – this is unarguably true, but I think we need to consider why those other things didn’t work, and why we think that AWS might succeed where they failed. If we don’t understand that, and I haven’t seen any real attempt to do so, then this motion simply follows the “Yes, Prime Minister” adage – something must be done; this is something, therefore we must do it.

When challenged to provide an alternative to AWS, I thought back to the party’s membership rebate scheme – by giving tangible rewards to local parties for improving recruitment and retention, we saw a massive grass-roots recruiting effort which has increased our party’s membership base for eleven consecutive quarters. I’m wondering if we can do something similar here; since the motion is talking mainly about Parliamentary elections, let’s try to solve the diversity problem that way. I propose two simple tests; the more I think about them, the more I think this approach has legs.

  1. A constituency can only qualify as a “development seat” with regards to support provided by LDHQ if its Liberal Democrat membership reflects the diversity of the people it seeks to represent.
  2. A constituency can only qualify as a “target seat” with regards to support provided by LDHQ if its Liberal Democrat local executive reflects the diversity of the people it seeks to represent.

Of course, (2) is rather at the whim of the people who choose to stand for internal election, and the people who vote for them in those internal elections, but the same applies to Parliamentary candidate selection, so I’m not going to rule it out straight away.

There are other noble things which we can attempt – for a while, I thought that carrots and sticks to get people to attend the party’s excellent diversity and unconscious bias training would help, but the adage about taking a horse to water applies here.

We also need to tackle the big cultural problem that we select candidates who have plenty of personal time and money to invest into the election campaign, rather than selecting the candidates who would make great Lib Dem MPs and working around their current personal circumstances.

In any event, the only way we’re going to tackle this problem is by getting enough people at the grassroots to grasp it and address it head-on in their local community. I am sad to say that there is not enough of this in motion F20.

Dealing with Sexual Harrassment at the Grassroots

February 9, 2014 2 comments

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:

  1. Create a package of training for local party officers focussed on:
    1. Dealing with complaints and recognising harrassment
    2. Valuing and improving diversity
    3. Local party officer roles and responsibilities
  2. Work with party trainers throughout the region to make it available as locally as possible
  3. 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)
  4. Consider the local party’s attendance on the training when it comes to allocating support and resources from the Regional Party to local parties
  5. 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.

Improving Diversity at the Grassroots

December 30, 2013 4 comments

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceThe 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:

Overview

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.

Actions

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.

Further Reading

#LibDemValues – This Is What the Lib Dems is About

March 31, 2013 1 comment

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceThe 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?

Why are Local Parties Important?

January 19, 2013 1 comment

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceConstitutionally, the local party is a key organisation in the Liberal Democrats. It is the principal route by which ordinary members can influence party policy, receive training, and meet other members. The principal route by which groups of Liberal Democrats can fundraise, campaign, select candidates, and fight and win elections.

I’ve not had much experience of effective local parties. I believe them to be a minority, and not a large minority, of all the Lib Dem parties. Most local parties don’t have enough engaged members to form an executive which engages its members, leading to a clear downward spiral. Some local parties are fiefdoms, with the same people gripping onto power year after year, ineffectually lording it over an ever-declining membership and actively keeping volunteers away in case they do something productive.

In practice, party members don’t need local parties as much as we used to. Many (most?) of us are on the Internet, and we can hang out with other party members online. Groups of conference reps can sponsor policy motions directly. So why bother with local parties at all?

I believe that the Lib Dems is and must remain a grassroots organisation. We need to be rooted in local communities. The federal structure exists to allow the grassroots to exert power upwards as well as allowing the Federal Executive to distribute organisation downwards. I also believe that as Liberal Democrats it is healthy for us to mix with other party members with whom we might not agree on every policy issue, and to work alongside them. The problem with online membership engagement is that it’s very easy to form inward-looking cliques.

If we can’t hone our skills at persuading others where possible, or agreeing to disagree on some issues but collaborate on others, within the party then what chance do we have of working with potential supporters and voters outside? Meeting local people face to face remains the best way to bring more people into the Liberal Democrat family, introducing them to our beliefs, philosophies and policies.

The difference between being a member in a strong local party and a weak one is one of energy and vitality. A local party with good leadership and engagement makes its members want to get out and do stuff. It gives them a reason to be a Liberal Democrat and stay a Liberal Democrat. It gives them a voice at the highest levels of the party. Some people find reasons outside their weak local party to stay involved, but that’s a minority. People who get enthused and join a weak local party will fade away when their membership first lapses, lost to us. Strong local parties are vital to the future success of the party and of liberalism.

Energy and Action

November 24, 2011 Comments off

The concept of “energy” is increasingly influencing my thoughts on Lib Dem campaigning of late. We all know, yet have had some difficulty in expressing, that a good campaign team has a positive vibe – that a small team of volunteers will feed off each other’s successes, support and encouragement, and this virtuous cycle will help everybody involved do more and feel better.

While the Lib Dems were probably the first political party to embrace the Internet as a method of member communication back in the CIX days, today’s mass adoption of ‘net connectivity and social networking sites like Facebook mean that there are dozens of places for Lib Dem members and supporters to have discussions – some public, some private, some open to non-members, others not. They are set up and sustained by people who like the party, outside of party control, and there’s no central index of them.

With the media’s negative narrative still raging against our party members, and with many local parties still moribund, these groups have done a great job of generating energy. People have felt that they have a safe haven, a place to discuss the party and its members without being attacked by knee-jerking rhetoricians. I’ve seen members inspiring each other, and talking about what makes them remain a part of the Lib Dem family.

The problem with online discussion groups, political or otherwise, can be that the lack of focus means there’s nowhere for all that positive energy to go. That can lead to long, pointless, nitpicking debates, bickering and infighting. Those of us familiar with online groups, mailing lists and Usenet have seen the patterns before – though Facebook offers neither the threading nor killfile features of email/Usenet. This not only wastes energy that could be used for something productive, but also kills off the positive energy-generating function of the group.

Of course, telling volunteers how they should be spending their time is like cat-herding; it generates resentment. A party like the Lib Dems largely follows the bazaar model, with people scratching their own itches and addressing the problems that particularly annoy them. Some people just want a place to blow off steam before arguing against trolls online; others are already out pounding the pavement with Focus, and chilling out online when they get home. Some people aren’t interested in anything in anything other than fluffy chat with fellow Lib Dems.

However, I’m finding that a lot of people simply need to know how to get more involved, rather than being told that they should. I’ve spent time online advising people how to get involved in local and regional party execs, join SAOs, write policy, campaign in their communities, write and deliver Focus, and all the other Grassroots Liberal Democracy stuff.

These groups have reached members and supporters that the local, regional and federal parties have missed. Even with the increased importance on member engagement in LDHQ, that top-down approach will never reach or suit everybody. We should welcome these groups and not try to control them – but we should not forget that there are productive ways to tap into the energy generated from camaraderie before it turns in on itself. If those of us who are more experienced in the campaigning and internal workings of the party can advise, support and encourage these energetic and keen members, it’ll help them get more out of the party, and mean that together we can all achieve more.

Helping Local Lib Dem Parties to Engage, Recruit and Develop Members

November 3, 2011 10 comments

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice The other night, I caught the tail end of a discussion on Twitter, wherein Andy Emmerson had decided to leave the party, seemingly because his local party were inactive and unresponsive. Fortunately, by the time I looked, he’d decided to transfer membership to a more active local party instead. I was pleased to see Tim Farron taking part in the discussion, which spurred a lot of debate and raised some important considerations, such as the disconnect between online Lib Dem communities and the real world, particularly for members in geographically distant or less active constituencies. However, the point I wanted to talk about today was the one raised about Liberal Democrat HQ providing training to local party membership secretaries and membership development officers.

The party’s emphasis during the Chris Rennard years was on winning elections to the near exclusion of all else, but that was never going to be sustainable in the long term. Party membership is by no means in the terrible state that Polly Toynbee would like us to believe, but fewer people are joining us unprompted, or staying with us without good reason, given the relentless negative media coverage of the last 18 months. Still, local parties which are putting some of their energy into recruitment and retention are getting good results at all levels, and we need to promote and create resources to help them to do that.

As readers of this blog will know, my experience on joining the party was pretty awful. I had no contact from my local party for years until I moved away, other than the local MP coming round to ask me to deliver Focus. My main motivation in starting this blog was to share good practice and information to save other people from the same fate.  I’ve put my money where my mouth is and been a local party membership development officer. So I know first-hand that it’s bloody hard. Like most positions, there’s very little idea before the fact of what the roles entail or how best to carry them out. There exists a guide to local party exec roles which has some ideas, which should be available on Huddle, but it’s not widely known.

I’m not keen on suggestions that as a party we should be reliant on LDHQ to do things on behalf of local parties. In this particular instance there’s actually already quite a lot that the party at all levels can provide to help local parties help themselves. The first thing to consider also is lines of communication – there are membership officers in your nearby local parties whom you can contact for advice and support, along with your region’s membership officers, and the Membership Department at LDHQ. Of course, there are plenty of other membership officers online, using Facebook, LDV fora and other communications outside the party hierarchies.

On the national level, the Department for Campaigns and Skills has realised the need to improve training in membership engagement, development and recruitment, and the last couple of Federal Conferences have seen more modules and sessions in this area alongside the ones on campaign skills etc. Of course, not every local party membership officer, or potential, is going to be able to make Federal Conference. Regional Conferences usually have small training programmes, and regions run training days – particularly if a local party, or group of them, request training in membership activities.

Formal training might not work for everybody. While rewarding, it involves organisation, travel, and volunteer party-accredited training. So resources to help membership officers engage, recruit and develop members are needed, which can be distributed more easily. I’m working on a membership engagement pack, which I’ll be distributing to local parties in my region in the New Year. It contains template letters and artwork, some good practice and FAQs, but most importantly a series of checklists, starting from the very basics that every local party should do regardless of size, to the sort of thing a party with plenty of volunteers and activists can achieve to expand further.

This post is designed to give local party membership officers some hints as to where they might go to get advice, training and information about how to develop their membership. It’s not intended to provide specific details on engagement and recruitment – I’m not going to put those on the Internet where activists of all parties can read them! But please do circulate this to membership officers and officers-elect, and let’s see what we can do to make sure that membership of the Liberal Democrats is fun, engaging, rewarding and inspiring for all our members.

Party Conferences #ldconf

June 19, 2011 3 comments
Lib Dem Voice "Golden Dozen" logo

Lib Dem Voice "Golden Dozen" #226

Regardless of the concerns over conference security, I want to add to my Grassroots Liberal Democracy series to talk about party conferences – what they’re for, and how to get the most out of them. There are two main types of conference in the Liberal Democrats – Federal Conferences, for the entire party, and State / Regional conferences which are for Wales, Scotland or specific regions of the UK. Every Liberal Democrat party member is eligible to attend Federal conferences, and the State or Regional conferences relevant to their location.

Regional and State conferences tend to be one-day affairs in Spring and Autumn; Spring Federal Conference takes place over a weekend, and Autumn Federal Conference is a very long weekend, now Sat-Tue or Sat-Wed. Regional and State conferences will have the conference floor, exhibition and training on a smaller scale to Federal Conference, but are easier to attend since they’re one-day affairs, and cheaper to register for.

There are a lot of things going on at a conference, often simultaneously, so it’s impossible to do absolutely everything. Here I’m going to talk about different areas – the conference floor, the fringe, the training rooms, the exhibition, the bar and Glee Club – as well as how you can attend.

Ways To Attend

As a Member of Conference

While every party member is eligible to attend conference, to be a Member of Conference (i.e. somebody who can speak and contribute in policy debates), you have to pay a conference registration fee. This can cause problems for some people attending, though the “early bird” registration is cheaper, and Liberal Youth among others will pay their conference representative’s fees. There’s nothing to stop local parties from doing the same, though few do. Both day passes and full weekend / week passes are available.

If every Lib Dem who turned up at a conference could vote on policy motions, then the voting in the party would be biased towards those parties closest to the Conference – and some parts of the country don’t have suitable facilities for hosting a Party Conference, particularly now we’re a party of Government. So each local party elects a number of voting representatives, based on the membership of that local party, to attend Conference and vote on its behalf. People who don’t get elected as voting reps can still attend conference as non-voting members, and make speeches in debates to influence others’ votes.

As an Exhibitionist

Organisations who book stalls in the Exhibition (see below) get a number of Exhibitor passes. These do not allow you to speak or vote in policy debates, but can usually be used to get around most of Conference. Volunteering to spend time on an exhibition stall for a party organisation in exchange for a pass can be a cheaper way to look around. Also, the party leader does a tour of the exhibition each Conference, so this can be a good way to get a photo of you shaking hands with Nick.

As a Steward

The Stewarding Team are the life blood of a Liberal Democrat conference. They are hard-working volunteers who deal with every problem that crops up – often by just being in the right place at the right time, and referring the problem to a more senior member of the team. Volunteering as a steward will mean work, but can be a fantastic way to get a wide and detailed overview of Conference and its goings on.

The Conference Floor

The main room at conference is where the formal business of conference happens. The formal business includes policy making, which I will cover elsewhere, but also various party bodies such as the Federal Executive, Conference Committee, a few Specified Associated Organisations etc. will present reports to Conference and answer questions (many of which have to be submitted in advance). There are also Business Motions, which are about the way the party conducts its business.

The conference floor will also usually be home to the Rally, the big kick-off event designed to get people in a good mood for the conference. It’s also used for the Leader’s Speech at the end of the Conference. Increasingly, Lib Dem ministers will also hold Q&A sessions on the conference floor, and conference attendees can put questions directly to them, improving our party’s accountability and democracy.

The Fringe

The Fringe consists of events which are not part of the main Conference agenda (or training). Traditionally they have occurred outside the main Conference venue and been accessible to party members who are not Members of Conference, though this may change due to increased restrictions now we’re in Government.

Fringe meetings can be organised by commercial organisations, charities or party bodies, and generally take the form of a panel discussion with a mixture of Lib Dem and non-Lib Dem speakers, with questions from the audience. There are also reception events, where the focus is more on mingling, networking and conversation. Fringe meetings which provide food at mealtimes are very popular, and ones with free wine doubly so!

Attending a fringe can be a great way to spark a debate on a subject that particularly interests you, or to hear opposing viewpoints on a particular issue. Reception events are often focussed around a particular theme (such as LGBT campaigning or a regional party) and can be a good way to meet people with similar interests. One fringe that campaigning Lib Dems will pay attention to is the Penhaligon Awards, named for former Liberal MP for Truro, David Penhaligon. Penhaligon was a keen community campaigner and the Penhaligon Award is given annually to the local party using the best campaigning techniques.

The Training Rooms

Training often happens in a hotel near conference rather than in the conference centre itself. Again, training sessions have traditionally been outside the main conference venue, though this may change. Either way, they are only available to party members, so take your membership card if you’re going. Training sessions are usually organised by the Campaigns Department and ALDC.

There are training sessions on a variety of themes, from the intensely practical (how to canvass on the doorstep; how to use various software packages for campaigning), to the more general (time management skills, diversity awareness). Some training sessions are run by the Gender Balance Task Force and aimed at women campaigners and candidates, but most are open to all party members. Some people go to Conference largely for the free training opportunities, and it’s one of the ways we make sure Lib Dems are skilled grassroots campaigners all around the country.

The Exhibition

The Exhibition is a set of stalls inside the main conference venue. Many organisations will have stalls in the exhibition, from party bodies to charities to corporations. It’s a good way to find out about active party bodies (the inactive ones are unlikely to be there, or to have fewer people on their stall), and other things you might be interested in. Traditionally the regional party responsible for the town we’re in will have a stall, as will the tourist agency of not only this Conference’s town, but also next.

The Exhibition is also home to the stall of Liberal Democrat Image, where you can get campaigning resources. You’ll be a lot more convincing on the doorstep if you’ve got a Lib Dem-branded clipboard or badge, and their membership sign-up booklets can be kept in a wallet for those chance encounters with potential members. However, if you’re wearing the polo shirt, the baseball cap, the tie, the scarf, the badges and the stickers all at the same time, you might seem a little too keen for potential voters!

The Exhibition is also often used as the venue for scheduled photo opportunities with Lib Dem MPs and ministers, so if you want that photo with Vince Cable for your next Focus leaflet, make sure you check your Conference Guide for the time and place.

The Bar

I’m using the word “bar” to refer to socialising and networking, in a fairly generic sense – not all of this happens in a bar. Though quite a lot of it does.

At a Liberal Democrat conference, you will find people from party bodies, think tanks, councillors, MPs and Ministers all rubbing shoulders with other party members from around the country. This doesn’t quite mean that you can grab Nick Clegg by the shoulder and bend his ear for an hour about Land Value Taxation (though you never know…), but it is a great opportunity to meet people, find out what makes them tick, and make friends. As mentioned in my introductory piece, my first years in the party were lonely ones, and for people from inactive or downright self-destructive local parties it can be great to meet people in a different situation.

The main place to meet people is the bar of the official conference hotel, but these are usually horribly expensive and get crowded very quickly. Some organisations like Liberal Youth will arrange social meets at Conference, usually by Twitter. A lot of party activists will default to the nearest Wetherspoons or other real ale-serving pub outside the Conference – keep your eyes peeled for the yellow lanyards.

Glee Club

I couldn’t let an article on Conference go without mentioning Glee Club, the traditional Federal Conference sing-along. A rowdy and raucous occasion, Glee Club consists of singing satirical and often downright rude songs about the Liberal Democrats, our MPs and other parties. It’s usually a noisy, sweaty, and often drunken affair, and a great way for people to let their hair down on the last night of Conference. If you’ve not been before, go to one at Autumn – it’s much better attended than Spring – and give it an hour or so to get going before you turn up.

The Glee Club song book is published by the never-satisfied Awkward Squad behind Liberator magazine, and is available at every Glee Club for a couple of quid. It has to be seen to be believed – my first experience of Glee Club was walking in to find Baron Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon standing on a chair in the middle of the crowd, singing something very rude about Tony Blair at the top of his voice while conducting an MP on the piano.

Summary and Survival Tips

Lib Dem conferences have a variety of activities going on. The range at Federal Conferences can be truly bewildering, and dealing with clashes can be awkward. However, they present great opportunities to party members to meet other Lib Dems, get involved in policy decisions, speech making or debates, get valuable training, and have a great time.

The most important tip for a multi-day conference is to look after yourself. While it’s possible, particularly for younger members, to stay up in the conference hotel bar until 3am and be in a training session at 9, remembering to sleep and eat helps you maximise your involvement and enjoyment. It’s perfectly possible and reasonable to take some time out from the hectic schedule and just visit a local tourist attraction, or enjoy some peace and quiet watching daytime telly in your hotel room (and if you’ve slept in for a policy debate, you can often catch it on BBC Parliament while still in your pajamas.)

I’ve only been to about 8 or 9 Federal Conferences, and half a dozen regionals, but I’ve taken something different out of every one and had a great time at all.