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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.

Navel Gazing? Let’s Start at the Bottom

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

Post-election uses for a Risograph #2,381

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Must Not Repeat the Mistakes of Cleggmania

May 9, 2015 5 comments

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

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

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

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

Vote for Policies

February 15, 2015 Comments off

Nobody trusts political parties, and everybody’s judgement is biased. Therefore, every General Election, a number of sites appear which tell you which party to vote for, based on their policies or some other blind, seemingly unbiased test.

Choosing Policies

The Vote for Policies Logo

The Vote for Policies Logo

As a test: based on these policies, which of these parties would you choose between?

Party 1

  • giving the concerns of cyclists much greater priority;
  • cut Ministers’ pay by 5 per cent, followed by a five year freeze
  • develop a measure of well-being that encapsulates the social value of state action.

Party 2

  • increase the private sector’s share of the economy in all regions of the country
  • make sure Academies have the freedoms that helped to make them so successful in the first
    place
  • amend the health and safety laws that stand in the way of common sense policing

And a second example. Based on these policies, which of these parties would you choose between?

Party A

  • control immigration through our Australian-style points-based system
  • make full use of CCTV and DNA technology: new weapons deployed to strengthen our fight against crime
  • extend the use of our tough-but-fair work capability test

Party B

  • ensure that people are not held back at work because of their gender, age, disability, race and religious or sexual orientation
  • alcohol treatment places will be trebled to cover all persistent criminals where alcohol is identified as a cause of their crimes.
  • reduce Britain’s dependence on imported oil and gas and increase our energy security

As you’ve probably guessed, this is a trick; the policies of Party 1 and Party 2 are all from the Conservatives’ 2010 manifesto, and Party A and Party B from Labour’s. It’s a fairly simple demonstration that picking from a sub-set of policies isn’t an objective way of finding out which party matches your views. While the creators of Vote for Policies claim no political affiliation, I would be wary of any possible connection between its founder blogging about reducing income inequality and the unexpectedly high support for the Greens and low support for the Tories among the test results (which are of course further biased by who takes the test, disfavouring parties with an older and less web-savvy demographic)

Choosing Parties

The Political Compass chart.

The Political Compass chart.

The second problem with these sites is matching policy positions with parties. As an example, iSideWith said I disagreed with the Lib Dems because I want to replace the House of Lords with a fully-elected chamber, which has been Lib Dem policy since forever! Their evidence for the Lib Dems’ stance on various issues also seems to be taken from our ministers voting with the Government rather than the party’s policy uncontaminated by Coalition.

I was spurred to write this piece because pretty much every Lib Dem party member I’ve seen taking the Political Compass test has ended up in the “left / libertarian” quadrant, roughly in the middle – some just edge over the axis into the right wing, and some are more or less libertarian, but they’re all in that area. This might be sample bias, but I think I have plenty of Lib Dem friends representing a wide variety of opinions within the party. Firstly, this reinforces my point (assuming the Political Compass model is valid) that there’s far more that unites us as a party than divides us.

Secondly, and more importantly, it’s interesting to note that none of the Lib Dem results I’ve seen match up anywhere near the Lib Dem “position” on the Political Compass website; I went to have a look at how the results are calibrated for the UK 2015 General Election, and found this quote:

The Lib Dems are now widely — and correctly — viewed as a party of few fixed principles, and their vote this time may haemorrhage more to the Greens than to Labour.

Political Compass is describing the Lib Dems as a right-wing, mildly authoritarian party, and the descriptions page seems to be written by a Green supporter. With pretty much every Lib Dem I’ve seen scoring where they put the Greens (and the Greens I’ve seen generally being further left and more authoritarian than the Lib Dems), I can’t see that they’ve calibrated on anything other than biased opinion. Also, their positioning of parties means that almost everybody who takes their test will show up closest to the Greens. I’ve seen Green supporters tell people they should vote for the Green Party on the basis of this, so it’s actively being used as a recruiting tool.

Choosing Politics

Ultimately, there’s a more fundamental problem than selection bias and calibration bias with these tools. They cater to the “supermarket shelf” approach to politics, where you pick and choose who to vote for based simply on a list of promises. This then leads to a race to the bottom with different parties just making bigger promises on the same things, which soon become undeliverable because the promise (and getting elected) is more important than the delivery or because events make delivery impossible, which leads to people becoming disenchanted with politics, which leads to bigger promises to get peoples’ attention…

Unfortunately, this is how a lot of people do decide how to vote – we get the politics we vote for, in a way. And these sites just contribute to that problem. Fundamentally, we elect representatives to the Commons to make decisions on behalf of their constituents, constituencies, and the nation as a whole; a constituency election is to decide the representative with the best judgement – as Edmund Burke said back in 1774. Manifestos and shopping lists of policies probably aren’t the best way to choose a representative.

As long as voters don’t listen to (or don’t believe) politicians talking about their values or beliefs, and do respond to these shopping lists, then taking this approach in campaigning won’t win you an election. This is one reason why I like the Lib Dems’ “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society” slogan. It may not pass the negation test – no party would call for a weaker economy (except the Greens) or a less fair society (except UKIP), but it’s a statement of intent, far more meaningful than “One Nation Labour” or whatever the hell the Tories are using as a slogan these days. The Lib Dems need to demonstrate more explicitly that our record of action in Government, and our promise of more in our manifesto, come back to that core message and to liberal values.

If we can do that, then perhaps “ideology” will no longer be a dirty word in politics, and maybe we’ll see undecided voters in 2020 visiting sites like “Vote for Principles” instead.

Autumn Conference: Time to Recharge the Batteries

October 3, 2014 Comments off
The Clyde Auditorium, by Ross Goodman. Licensed as CC-BY 2.0.

The Clyde Auditorium, by Ross Goodman. Licensed as CC-BY 2.0.

Liberal Democrat Autumn Federal Conference begins this weekend in Glasgow, and runs through until Wednesday. Other people will have opinions about the policy motions on the agenda, the challenges facing the Leadership, even the Presidential and Federal elections which are ongoing. But this is an activist’s blog, for activist people, so that’s where I’m going to concentrate (apart from plugging one campaign).

The biggest problem we face as activists right now is fear and self-doubt. We think that people will hate us on the doorstep (pro-tip: generally they don’t). We’re not sure we can live with the compromises we’ve made in Government – letting the Tories do some stuff we don’t like, so we can get some stuff they don’t like through. We can’t quite be bothered to do that Focus round tonight… maybe tomorrow. And maybe we’ll canvass next week instead of this week. The weather might be better, after all.

The negative narrative has been pounding on us for nearly five years now, and it’s harder to maintain our energy and build critical masses. While we’ve always believed in theory in pluralism and pragmatism and the art of the possible, it’s hard to avoid worrying about what the party as a whole could have done differently or better, and how things might have turned out otherwise. Even those of us who wholeheartedly believe that going into the Coalition was the right thing to do for the country, that we knew it would make us unpopular but at the time felt it was worth it, even those people get disheartened at the way that our political opponents just spam our Facebook page with TUITION FEES YELLOW TORIES over and over again.

If you’re at Conference, this is the biggest critical mass of Lib Dems you’ll see until after the General Election. Many of them, like you, are disheartened, are burned out, are fed up. You can sit over a coffee with them and complain at each other and you will come away from Conference more disheartened than when you went. But there are also people there who are energetically fighting the good fight, and you can benefit from that energy. There are people making impassioned conference speeches because they strongly believe that it’s important to make good political policy democratically. There are people giving up their time to teach you new skills in the training sessions, or to get involved in discussions in fringe meetings. Listen to some of those speeches, go to some of those fringes and training, and be inspired. Buy a table flag for a local Lib Dem social event. Go back to your constituencies and share that inspiration – tell your members what you did, how you voted and why, discuss what you learned and saw, who you met, what friendships you made.

Let’s get together, inspire each other, work hard, party hard, and go back to our constituencies and prepare to hold our head up high and fight the good Liberal fight, win or lose!