1 Supporters’ Scheme 2. ?? 3. Profit!

Conference this weekend is due to vote on Vince Cable’s proposed expansion of both the electorate and potential pool of candidates for Lib Dem leadership contests (in case anyone hadn’t noticed already from the parade of leadership-supportive articles on LDV so far this week). I call it that, rather than a supporter’s scheme, because I think that is the real heart of what is controversial about what is proposed.

Thus far, criticism of Vince’s proposal has centred around entryism, and I have to say I share those concerns, despite the assurances that these concerns have been addressed. We must assume that bad faith actors will target our weakest defences, not our strongest, so for HQ to say that our new electorate for leaders would be screened by bank card checks, and then mutter under its breath “unless they claim not to have a bank card, in which case they just need to prove that they have a postal address” seems naïve to me.

Of course, we are told, if people are found to be acting in bad faith, they can be chucked out. All we need is for our bad faith entryists to a) publicly announce that they are dodgy and b) be noticed by (*checks notes*) our army of HQ staff with free time to comb Twitter for Labour and Tory trolls.

But I’d like to look at this from a different angle. Nakedly self-interested it may be, but my question is: what is the benefit of this supporter’s scheme supposed to be for the party?

Proponents tell us that, even if these supporters aren’t obliged to give the party money to join, we may still benefit from them as new recruits to our army of deliverers, tellers, door-knockers etc. They might even donate to the party in the fullness of time. Sounds great, but any local party worth its salt is already running a mailing list and offering opportunities to get stuck in helping the party. They are, to all intents and purposes, running supporters schemes. Centralising these schemes so that HQ can run them instead achieves what, exactly?

“Ah yes”, proponents say, “but not everyone has a local party worth its salt”. Quite so, but people in black-hole areas who want to deliver or canvass will find themselves distinctly underwhelmed by the incapacity of their local party to take them up on the offer. If they don’t even want to call themselves a party member, the chance that they are going to want to jump straight into a leadership role in campaigning seems, to me, a stretch.

In any case, none of this is a reason to expand the electorate for our leadership elections. “Trust our supporters”, the argument seems to be, “to behave the same way party members do already.” So why is it important for these changes to happen? It seems to me, cynical as I am, that the only good reason to push a controversial change like this through in the face of party grumbling, would be if you expect it to materially change the outcome of leadership elections.

So what is it that we as party members have been getting wrong when we elected our leaders in the past, that we think a wider electorate of people can help us with?

I don’t like to resort to conspiracy theories, but in this case, I am struggling to find an answer other than that the great and the good of the party foresee an eventuality where we, as party members, ought not to be trusted to make the “right” decision, whatever that might be in whatever scenario one might imagine. Perhaps it is a product of my fevered imagination, but the one that suggests itself to me is a TIG takeover. What might a thrusting young Blairite looking to lead an existing former opponent party need? Well, a requirement that they can stand as soon as they join, for a start (N.B. the proposal to remove the 12 month rule). Next, the ability for their existing supporters to follow them, with the lowest barriers (like financial costs) possible, and full voting rights immediately (NB. The proposal to give supporters the vote, immediately).

Is it just me? I’d love someone to explain a nice, liberal reason for this proposal, but the only benefit that makes sense to me is if you were looking to do an end-run around the party membership.

Someone convince me I’m wrong?

* Andy Hinton is a Lib Dem member from London

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  • Mick Taylor 14th Mar '19 - 4:49pm

    I can’t, because I think you are absolutely correct

  • Absolutely agree Andy Hinton. We should be looking for ways instead of involving our present members in the party and it’s decision making. This to me is crucial. If we cannot find ways of ensuring that all members are able to participate in decision making. My starting point would be the New Economics foundation publication “Participation Works – 21 techniques of community participation for the 21st century” (date not given)
    We need to look at the actual experience of people who volunteer to help with deliveries etc who are persuaded to join the party. They receive constant emails asking for money. Little if any interest is shown in their views. We have had members resign because of this. Many activists would prefer not to be associated with the national party, but we must regard this as our fault. There are many people enthusiastic about getting information out to the community and finding out their views. The challenge is to replicate the attitude from the party that is shown by the better parties locally.
    I was one of the many who, as a councillor at the time, went through the period of seeing many people come out of their houses to tear up the Focus I had just put through the door. It would have been a big step forward if the party had asked members about their experiences and for their suggestions, rather than repeating the same requests for money.
    If you want to find a solution to a problem the first step should be to define and investigate the problem. Then to look for possible solutions. We have the ideal opportunity to do this.

  • Andy: I think you miss the benefits of a comprehensive, integrated supporters scheme that is run across the party. This isn’t (for me at least – someone who has been arguing in favour of this since before TIG, before Vince’s leadership and even before Tim’s leadership) about HQ control, rather it’s about moving to a system that all parts of the party can get the most from.

    For example, someone who is a keen supporter of the party, who doesn’t like the idea of joining and who lives in an area with a weak local party currently tends to get pretty much neglected by them. But if we have a proper scheme across the party, they can benefit from what their region/state party does, they can hear about what the federal party does – and if they move to a new area, their new local party can get the chance to follow up on and, hopefully, get even more out of their support.

    Bits of all that are possible to do at the moment – but are often too hard to do, miss out too many people and don’t get done often. Simplifying the mix of what we do into a system for the whole party will help greatly with all of that – and so also help us concentrate on that personal contact which is so often the key.

    Or take another example: in amongst those supporters are quite a few younger people. The way we currently do things makes it very hard for Young Liberals to be able to benefit from that network of young supporters we are in a hotchpotch fashion building up across the country. Again, the proposed system would make that far easier.

  • My concerns aren’t just about entryism. I’m worried that a supporters scheme will canabilise our membership, with newbies choosing to register as supporters when they might otherwise have joined as paying members.

    I don’t think the party can afford reduced membership income.

    I also totally agree with Tom Harney above. The party needs to get much better at engaging with and involving actual members first, before worrying about supporters.

  • marcstevens 14th Mar '19 - 5:50pm

    I agree with Mark Pack, the Supporters scheme could encourage ex-members to re-join who have not aligned themselves to another party. I am thinking of those of us who are Social Liberal and not of the Orange Booker persuasion who found ourselves outcast in the dark days of Nick Clegg. With the right direction, many ex-members could re-join, judging by some of the free market views on here, they do not represent my liberal views of public ownership having its place in a mixed economy. It seems to me that some of the extreme OBs already infiltrated the Party before the idea of a supporters scheme was even mooted.

  • Mark: I am yet to hear anyone explain clearly how adding another layer of centralised bureaucracy run by already overstretched and under-resourced HQ team will give, actual, practical, tangible benefits to anyone.

    The example person you give above, who lives in an area with a weak local party is not going to magically improve their local party if they can’t even be arsed to join, and merely register on an HQ-held list. I can think of two regional parties who are big enough and organised enough to do what you suggest regional parties might do (neither of which are my own, sadly), and the state and federal parties (as others have said) already struggle with activating members, without giving them a whole other class of people to deal with.

    The reason I share Andy’s suspicions that we are being softened up for a take over is that despite months and months of people evangelizing about the supposed benefits of this scheme I haven’t seen a single one that is actually convincing. Therefore there must be some other reason behind it.

  • Jennie: I guess you should count yourself lucky at having escaped years and years of evangelising from me then 🙂

    David Howarth and I talked about the merits of a registered supporter scheme back in our 2015 pamphlet. There are many things that can be said about David, almost all complimentary, and a leader patsy wanting to plot a takeover most certainly isn’t one of them 🙂 (I hope that’s not me either, but I suspect David is the more convincing name in this case!)

    I’m a little surprised that you used the phrase “can’t even be arsed to join” about people who are active supporters but don’t join us. My own experience of such people is that they often give huge amounts to the party and are just as much liberal, democratic and Lib Dems as you or me, but for a variety of reasons joining isn’t for them.

    I’d rather thank, praise and encourage such people rather than knock them for deciding not to join… especially as the academic research into why committed party supporters do or don’t join parties shows that political party membership in the UK disproportionately appeals to people who tick most of the privileged boxes. It’s disproportionately unappealing to women, people with lower incomes, and so on.

    If we’ve got a form of involvement (party membership) that fails to be as attractive to all parts of society, then I think our response needs to be to look at how we need to change to address that rather than to put the onus on those who choose not to join to behave differently.

  • Sean Hyland 14th Mar '19 - 9:29pm

    if my own local party are anything to go by it will not make a blind bit of difference. Most of the elected councillors haven’t even bothered to update their website since 2017 when they asked for help in the elections. Only thing on there now is national party news occasionally.

  • So you’re still not going to actually tell me any of the benefits then? Right-oh.

    Tonight’s news announcement does not do anything to dissaude me of my opinion either. I hate to say this, Mark, but perhaps your pet project has been taken by other people to use for their own ends?

  • Mark Pack, I wonder are we in the same party. What contact do members have from the Federal Party to engage them? Do you really believe that Regional Parties are engaging with the membership?

    When was the last time the English Party sent an email to all English Party members?

    Does any Regional Party send emails to all members in its area telling them about by-elections and how they can get involved in canvassing and delivering?

    You must be aware that the majority of members are happy to pay their subscriptions but do not want even to attend their Local Party AGM let alone get involving doing something.

  • Maureen Rigg 15th Mar '19 - 8:48am

    I too have concerns about this scheme, and cannot see how it will help with the huge problem of engaging our membership in any form of activity in the party. Quite some time ago we voted at conference for a broadening of our policy making democracy with one member one vote. None of us who voted for that motion thought it would happen overnight, accepting that some changes in procedure would need to be worked out. We waited, and we waited. Still, our decision making happens at a conference attended by those who can afford the time and the money to attend. This weekend we are in the campaign for the biggest round of local elections for 4 years, but a huge change to how the party is structured and organised is going to be decided by those who can be in York at a peak campaign time. The party does not take its membership seriously. Why should I believe that the “supporter scheme” as proposed will make any difference?

  • John Barrett 15th Mar '19 - 10:07am

    Well said Andy.

    One other problem which has not been adequately explored, which could make the entire plan a costly folly, is that if existing members decide to cancel their membership direct debits and opt to become supporters instead.

    As the benefits of being a fully paid up member decrease, in comparison to being a supporter, there may be many existing members who might naturally think the time is right to make that change. Especially those who have stuck with the party for a long time, but have witnessed a range of actions and policies that make the current party quite different from what it was in the past. If the scheme goes through, it is optimistic to the extreme not to think that some people will make this choice, especially those who have been in full time employment and have retired.

    As those members look at their financial commitments and priorities for the future, it will not take many to make that decision to make the entire exercise a costly folly.

  • Of course we shouldn’t try to involve those that are interested in our party in a systematic way and maintain a list of them! What a terrible thought!

    I say maintain the Lib Dems as a cosy little sect – in fact it is something of an impertinence that new people should want to become members. We should close our membership list and maintain the purity of the creed from these entryist no-gooders!!!

    Well – may be not – we need to be at a broad welcoming liberal movement. More welcoming than the comrades or the right-wing nutters!

    I assume that all those that are against a registered supporters list have signed up every last one of their poster sites, deliverers, helpers etc. as members. They may have some grounds for opposing a supporters’ scheme – no-one else has.

    And yes – local parties and the national party needs to work far better and harder at keeping members and supporters informed and engaged. And looking back it has been one of my biggest failing as an activist. But because we have failed in this work is not a reason for having a registered supported list – indeed the complete opposite. And to be fair there are now some Federal Board members – Mark Pack in particular helping to set up LDV and his blog and Lib Dem newswire service who have improved things on their own back and work and others as well.

    Unfortunately we are sometimes too busy to engage in this vital work – if only there were some people we could have a list of to help us! Or may be I am missing something here!!!

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