Unfortunately, the amendment to remove all-women shortlists was defeated at Conference earlier today. The debate was generally good on both sides, though the summation was patronising in the extreme. Ultimately though, the strength of the leadership support and the long-trailed campaign including paid Facebook and Twitter adverts, helped to win the day. Sarah Brown’s excellent canary speech swayed a few undecided voters to support the amendment, but not enough.
Still, the voice of Conference has been heard, and it is time to look forward. I do not believe that AWS will solve all our problems, and I believe they need solving. This means I need to play a part in changing my party for the better, and help obviate the arguments made to support AWS before they become entrenched. Thinking more about the points from my last post on this, and from talking to members at conference, it seems that the problems that need to be tackled can be divided into a small number of intertwined areas:
- Direct discrimination and harassment, particularly of young and female members. This is effectively a pastoral care issue. We know from the Morrissey Report that the pastoral care in the party has been lacking. We now have a Pastoral Care Officer at LDHQ who is highly praised, but the party hasn’t managed to embed a culture of challenging harassment using the pastoral care system. I get the impression that people still think it’s too awkward, too much red tape, or too unlikely to get results. Perhaps we need another update to the Morrissey Report following the preliminary December 2014 review to give more confidence to members, or the Rock the Boat group to become some sort of support group for those making complaints.
- Concentration of power among unaccountable cliques, which entrenches unconscious (and conscious) bias in ways that are difficult to challenge through the democratic processes of the party. Changing the processes to improve transparency and accountability is a governance issue; the current Governance Review may be a good opportunity to challenge this at an institutional level, but practical suggestions must be made.
- Bias in recruitment and retention – this is a membership issue. The idea of my previous post, that development and target seats must meet local membership and leadership diversity targets to receive support from LDHQ, still seems to have merit; this would go some way to tackling the bias in winnable seats. As with the membership rebate scheme, giving ownership of this problem to local parties is likely to be the best way to see concrete results.
- The expectations we have of potential candidates, and the criteria we use (consciously or otherwise) to select them. This is a campaigns issue. We expect our candidates to primarily be “good campaigners”, rather than people who will make good councillors or Parliamentarians. This biases us towards the able-bodied, those without caring responsibilities, those who do not work long hours, and those who are able to handle the stress of being the focal point of the campaign trail. This even goes against our own best campaign practice about building strong teams and identifying candidates who will be good at the job once elected.
These problems are all interlinked to some degree – for example, if your local party isn’t diverse, then the power will always be held by a homogeneous group no matter how transparent and accountable the members of that group may be. And the solutions to these problems will be far more complex than the glib outlines I’ve made above. But I think that trying to tease the issues apart into different areas of responsibility may be helpful in finding a starting point. So what have I missed? Let me know!
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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:
- Create a package of training for local party officers focussed on:
- Dealing with complaints and recognising harrassment
- Valuing and improving diversity
- Local party officer roles and responsibilities
- Work with party trainers throughout the region to make it available as locally as possible
- 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)
- Consider the local party’s attendance on the training when it comes to allocating support and resources from the Regional Party to local parties
- 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.
The 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:
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.
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.
In the middle of the local election campaign, Federal Conference Committee have decided to ignore last September’s conference vote against their controversial CRB checks for delegates, and are holding a one-week “listening exercise” advertised on an unofficial party-aligned website. I’ve drafted the following response, and post it here for two reasons – to check I’ve not missed anything obvious, and to give guidance to others on a response (though the comments on the Lib Dem Voice article pretty much sum it up).
Coincidentally, I have a list of Brighton conference venues for hire courtesy of a friend who’s been looking at running a tech conference there. If FCC insist on imposing accreditation again, I will be organising an alternative conference for those disenfranchised by these measures. Hopefully there will not be more to come on that later because FCC will back down.
Some people have been discussing standing for Federal Conference Committee as a result of this, but since I don’t live in London I can’t really do that. As a voting rep however I will support FCC candidates who are opposed to disenfranchising our elected members through imposing unnecessary and useless CRB checks.
Again, if you oppose this security theatre, do e-mail FCC to let them know on email@example.com – while I suspect that with under six months to go, the decision has already been made, we can’t let FCC claim that nobody responded to their poorly-advertised “consultation” and use that as an excuse to do what they want. Also, please vote for this article on LibDig, and share it on Twitter and FaceBook, so more party members will see it and respond.
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.