I recently carried out a large survey of Liberal Democrat members. Oddly, a large proportion of respondents commented that they weren’t too keen on the emails from Party HQ. I was initially puzzled as much of the research in this area suggests that emails are an effective way of building up a relationship, and encouraging activists to do more. The common view suggested that they were much more useful than Facebook, Twitter and other related technology. Naturally when I found this contradictory evidence, I carried out interviews with party members and subsequently, a few trends emerged.
The first was that many members didn’t like Clegg’s formal tone. Surprisingly, a large number referred to it as patronising. Others felt that the emails were far too formal to be interesting. One respondent said that she read far too much formal correspondence at work to want to read more in her free time. I remember reading some research about Obama’s informal tone encouraging supporters to pay more attention to messages. One commentator remarked that the First Lady’s email concerning Obama’s birthday led to a surge in supporter activity. Of course we have a different grassroots culture in the UK, but this personal touch might work for Clegg.
It’s an encouraging sign that Clegg’s team recognises that their emails are part of a two way process. Recent messages have invited readers to reply with suggestions for future editions. Of course, this is only useful if the team acts upon responses. As research from Mark Pack shows, a multi-way relationship can promote trust and loyalty, encouraging members to participate more, which can only benefit us in these tough times.
Similarly, a considerable number of those I interviewed felt that the leadership was, “pretending that small triumphs or even failures are indeed big successes.” Clegg’s positive email following the failure of Lords reform was commonly cited. Members felt that it suggested that he was out of touch.
The final trend relates to the battering that we are currently taking on the doorstep. One Lib Dem council leader remarked that once he has spent 10 minutes chatting to a previous Lib Dem voter then they tend to promise to vote Lib Dem again, despite being overwhelmed by the negative media coverage. Other activists weren’t quite so positive; I do suspect that this man’s positive attitude has impacted upon his electoral success.
Nonetheless, activists frequently said that they would appreciate it if the leadership acknowledged the tough times that we face whilst out campaigning, rather than glossing over it. One respondent said he’d like to see a few, “Keep up the good work,” emails. He felt that the manner in which the leadership chooses to focus on triumphs overlooks the struggle we face whilst conducting pavement politics.
Reading back through this post, it is rather critical. I don’t like to criticise. I feel that, as a party, we work hard, and, of course, nobody is perfect. Nonetheless, I thought I’d share my findings, as it seems rather a shame to simply publish them in a journal that very few people read. I’d be interested to find out what you think in the comments.
* The author is known to the Liberal Democrat Voice team and worked as an activist and organiser for the Liberal Democrats.