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Posts Tagged ‘membership development’

Policy without the Wonks?

May 30, 2016 Comments off

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

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

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

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

Inspired to Empower

March 30, 2016 1 comment
libertea-small

Libertea in Manchester

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

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

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

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

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

Navel Gazing? Let’s Start at the Bottom

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

Post-election uses for a Risograph #2,381

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building Critical Masses

August 29, 2014 2 comments

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceTeamwork by  Yoel Ben-AvrahamI’ve had some interesting conversations recently with fellow Lib Dem activists around the country. Some of them are excited and happy about their activism, some are feeling isolated and miserable. Is this to do with their opinions on a particular policy which is being promoted or ignored by the party? No, it’s down to being part of a critical mass.

Everybody’s engagement is limited by three factors. Firstly, space: the Liberal Democrats are a highly federal party, organised mostly along geographical lines, and mostly run by volunteers. As with all such organisations, from campaign groups to the WI to trades unions, this leads to massive variations in members’ experience, based on the time, energy, skills and motivation of the volunteers “in charge”. As a new member, I never found out what was happening in a local party with a sitting Lib Dem MP because those in charge were poor communicators. A keen party member might never find out about activities and campaigns half a mile down the road because they happen to be across a constituency boundary.

The second factor is time. Activism expands to fill slightly more than the time you have available, if you let it, and people get tired or burned out and move on to different things. This is particularly a problem with Liberal Youth branches which are based around Universities, where most people are only there for 3 years. The other thing that happens over time, and as things change, is that people either forget information or it becomes outdated. The “institutional memory” of a small organisation, other than that required by law such as accounts, can be incredibly poor leading to future activists reinventing the wheels of the past.

The third factor, and the most critical, is motivation. When you feel like a lone voice in the wilderness, or the only one actually getting things done, or like your efforts are being countered by others’ resistance to change, it makes it incredibly hard to feel bothered to do anything. It’s easy to lose heart and give up.

The examples I’ve given are all negative, but there’s an upside – it only takes a small number of Lib Dems, in the same place at the same time, to create a critical mass. I find there’s nothing that motivates me more than knowing that other people are working with me to further the liberal movement. I’m going to say that you need three to really get stuff done. Sometimes you can  use the formal structures of the party to build critical mass, say by forming an executive with particular powers. Sometimes you don’t need to. Sometimes you need to actively work around them, particularly if somebody is being obstructive.

The Internet is great for keeping members in contact and for spreading knowledge and good practice. This is what allowed me to talk to activists from around the country in my first paragraph. It can solve the problem of space obviously, but also time; I’m in touch with former chairs of party bodies I’m involved with and can ask their advise and pick their brains for good practice from before I ever joined. Some of it will be out of date, of course, but it’s mostly very valuable. And it can solve the problem of motivation; by posting about my Lib Dem success stories on social media, I inspire others. I get people asking me for details of things I’ve achieved, who then improve it themselves and share back. I email the local party secretaries around me to make sure we’re all on the same page; I don’t know whether they pass information on to their members but at least I’m doing my bit.

Real life contact is important too. I’m a big fan of Liberal Drinks and other simple socials, just as a way of getting liberals together and talking about whatever they like and seeing what comes out of it. I’m having lunch with two of my fellow local party officers later to catch up, and later I’ll have a cup of tea in another city with an Internet friend and Lib Dem fundraiser par excellence who needs a bit of cheering up. As an extreme example, I’m actively trying to poach good activists from around the country and convince them to move near me. Of course this is in their best interests, but I can’t deny that the thought of the effect on local campaigning has occurred to me.

Conferences, both federal and regional, can be fantastic energy-builders; it’s a great opportunity to meet people, chat with them, discuss subjects you’re interested in, and learn new skills and ways of thinking. Passing policy is important, but it’s far from the only reason to go. You can, with a bit of luck, come away feeling energised and motivated, and then share that around your local party.If we’re going to grow the party and have a stronger liberal movement, then it’s important that we not only stay motivated ourselves, but we create an environment that inspires others to join and get involved, that we build and maintain critical masses. That can involve putting nearby activists in touch so they can compare notes, or cheering up somebody who’s toiling away on their own far away, or writing stuff down for the next Executive to look at, or making a nice cup of tea for your busy girlfriend, or a million other things. Go and put a smile on somebody’s face, and you’ll put a smile on yours too!

Combining Targeting with Growth

August 3, 2014 4 comments

Howard Dean, chair of the DNC, at Lib Dem Conference 2009

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceIt seems obvious in Lib Dem circles that in the run-up to the next General Election we’re going to have to significantly concentrate our strength in our held seats, and the small smattering of (mostly Tory) constituencies where it looks like we can take them from our opponents. This is the subject of a recent op-ed by Stephen Tall on Lib Dem Voice, referencing a Guardian article.

It’s also a continuation of what’s been referred to as the “Rennard Doctrine”, a strategy which emphasises concentrating resources on where we can win adopted by Chris Rennard as Chief Executive, which saw the Lib Dems’ share of the seats won in General Elections more closely matching our share of the popular vote. A 20% discrepancy came down to around 10% – still a long way short thanks to the vagaries of “First Past The Post” plurality voting, but enough to make the party a more effective Parliamentary force.

The problem, as discussed in Stephen’s article, is that by concentrating resources on the places we can win, the places we can’t win get weaker and weaker. This was the story of Cleggmania in 2010; the biggest rise in membership in 20 years, most of whom joined in places where there was no Lib Dem presence, and hence nothing to engage or retain them. Yes, the fall in 2011 was even bigger than the Cleggmania rise, but the disheartening feeling of joining and getting nothing out of the party can’t have helped. (You can see more on Lib Dem membership figures over here.)

The alternative to purely concentrating our strength where we think we can win, is what’s termed in the US as a 50 State Strategy. It was popularised by Howard Dean as chair of the DNC (and indeed he came to Liberal Democrat conference in 2009 to tell us about it). This attempts to mobilise Democrat supporters wherever they are in the country, even deep in Republican territory – introducing them to each other, encouraging street-scale campaigning, standing for election… generally low-level grassroots activity which can build up over time. This doesn’t make much short-term sense; even the vote for President isn’t a direct popular vote, but filtered through the electoral college which is pluralistic in almost every state. However, in the longer term it can pay dividends; starting to flex campaigning muscles in Republican turf in 2005 may well have led to Obama winning Virginia, Indiana and North Carolina in 2008, since the party was more able to capitalise on Obama’s national media profile. The comparison to Cleggmania should be obvious.

Lib Dem vote and seat share at General Elections.

Lib Dem vote and seat share at General Elections.

We fought this year’s Euro elections on the idea that our areas of strength would give us enough votes to win seats in a PR system. Generally, our vote held up in those places thanks to our campaigning, but our vote elsewhere collapsed horribly, and we lost almost all our MEPs. We will need to build our strength nationwide before the Police and Crime Commissioner elections in 2016, and the European Parliament elections in 2019. But what of the General Election in 2015?

To borrow a phrase from bi activism, we can embrace the power of “and”. While it’s clear that the majority of our resources must be dedicated to campaigning until polling day, I think there’s room to look to expand, using the General Election as a driver. While we can’t run a full 650 Constituency Strategy, we can look a little wider than the boundaries of our target constituencies. Most of our held seats are non-adjacent, so we should be reaching out to bring members, supporters and activists into the campaigns.

As a Lib Dem in a constituency adjacent to one of our held seats, this is what I’ve been doing. I do a lot of work on member engagement and retention, trying to make sure my members are supporting campaigning and fundraising events in our held seat. I’ve organised simple social events to draw in people from across the area and get people talking and enthused, and their reach is spreading to other nearby “black holes”. Through all this the drive is to get people worked up, more keen to play a part in their local area, but mostly to come and help in our targets.

In the longer term, we have two options – keep rolling out from the centres of strength, which is a slow-but-steady grassroots approach, or try to identify potential hotspots where we might be able to start up activity more or less from scratch. I think that regional parties have a strong part to play in the latter. (One thing I like about CiviCRM as a membership management tool is that it allows you to map members, supporters and activists by postcode, giving you a good “feel” for where you might have a nexus of support.) But this will require strong regional parties who are committed to rebuilding in black holes, and I’m not sure how many of those the party has.