A Liberal Democrat membership revolution

We know that the Liberal Democrats, in common with other parties, have  been looking at declining membership figures for some years now. Tim Farron alluded to this in his conference speech at the weekend.

Three times as many people entered the X Factor this year than joined a political party.

In the Liberal Democrats it has been a tough three years. People have not felt confident about recruiting members because of the wider political environment. Also, many local parties feel that there is no incentive to put time and effort into recruitment when there is little or no reward for them. Of course they may get extra people or help on the ground, but the subscription rebate system is so complex that they don’t see the financial rewards for their effort. I’m not saying that they have to sign up someone on a Tuesday when it’s a full moon while reading the Spotted column from Heat magazine, but it’s not that far off.

Way back in January, the party’s Membership and Supporter manager Austin Rathe came to Scotland and we had a really good discussion with him about membership. I said to him that we needed to give local parties a real incentive to recruit. Now, Austin is one of life’s experts at taking a vague idea and building something amazing with it.

The scheme he’s come up with means that local parties could earn themselves a very tidy sum indeed to help out their local campaigning. Every quarter, membership will be examined. If membership has grown at all, the local party will get 20% of the total membership subscriptions for that quarter back in their pockets. If  it’s grown by more than 10, then the amount they get back rises to 40%. That is a radical incentive to recruit by any standards.

Local parties are automatically part of the scheme, there’s no bureaucracy to join. All they have to do is get out there knocking on doors, asking supporters to become members. For us, membership is really important because our members have clout within the organisation. Our members attend conference and vote on policy, they can get involved in interest groups like Liberal Democrat Women, Liberal Youth and LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, they choose parliamentary and council candidates on a one member one vote basis.

It is really good to see a radical and innovative plan to boost local parties’ campaigning strength while growing our membership at the same time. We want to see more parties join Bosworth, Ashfield and East Dunbartonshire and gain significant numbers of members this year.

Having more people around to do things makes everything easier, reducing everybody’s workload. Actually, who am I trying to kid? The workload will just grow to fit the capacity available, but that’s ok. This new deal for local parties wins more people and more money and shows how seriously the party considers membership.  So, what are you waiting for? Grab some membership forms and get out there. There are, by the way, some good recruitment training videos on the Online Sills and Resources section on the members’ part of the party website.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in News and Party policy and internal matters.


  • Brilliant idea, people should promote it to their local parties

  • Liberal Neil 20th Sep '13 - 5:43pm

    This is a great scheme. I had a good chat with Austin about it, and other recruitment ideas in general, and I’m confident this will contribute to a big improvement in membership recruitment.

    The activists in my (growing) Local Party had already started to recruit more members and this will encourage them to do so even more.

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Sep '13 - 6:01pm

    The way to boost membership is to make membership more attractive (and the party as a whole). Good products pretty much sell themselves. I don’t believe a sales and target driven approach is the right one.

  • Austin Rathe 20th Sep '13 - 6:07pm

    Caron, thank you for this. We obviously hope it will be effective and will be working to get the message out as widely as we can.

    One aspect of this worth bearing in mind is that it gives growing local parties who are not yet target seats access to a source of regular income they previously didn’t have. At a time when the party’s limited resources are (rightly) being focused on a small set of seats, membership growth can be a way for every local party to also grow their income.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 20th Sep '13 - 7:48pm

    Austin., I thought you were supposed to be having a day off!

    That is a very good point. Thank you for coming up with the scheme. Last year all I could offer Scottish local parties was a sweetie (and a smile if they were lucky) for recruiting members. This will mean a lot to them.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 20th Sep '13 - 10:13pm

    Wow, Mary, that is amazing. Well done.

  • Jonathan Webber 21st Sep '13 - 8:20am

    This is indeed good news – and Austin + colleagues are to be applauded for their pro-active and dynamic approach to both recruitment and, as importantly in my view, membership retention.

    My time as Regional Chair in the West Midlands will soon end. Throughout my three years in Post we have concentrated as an Exec on what we can do for members, supporters and activists through the Local Parties. Indeed, nothing has been more important than trying to provide opportunities and the means for Local Party engagement, political, campaigning and social where members and supporters are the centre of our attention and the heroes of our region. In trying to make this a cornerstone of our approach we welcome any initiative that strengthens the role and scope of Local Parties and our members and supporters, the bedrock of our party.

  • Liberal Neil 21st Sep '13 - 8:56am

    Well done Mary 🙂

  • andrew purches 21st Sep '13 - 9:57am

    The basic problem underlying the difficulty in recruiting members to the Party or any other political party for that matter,is that if the core policies fail to reflect peoples needs and aspirations, – or the making of manifesto promises that are supportable at grass roots, but then undelivered,the recruitment of new members to join or even to stay becomes nigh on impossible. I was unable to shell out the considerable cost of getting to conference – and I have no idea how anyone could justify so doing from down here in the South of England – but from what I could gather, very little was discussed that directly concerned me as a member. For example: no discussion or promises of action on the Scottish question, no real hard hitting policy announcements on our position in Europe, likewise with HS2 and climate change legislation – just superficial generalities here. My membership is still there, but I am wavering. Our Westminster members seem to be largely out of touch, and all the good things claimed for the party are,by and large,somewhat superficial, and the bad things could be terminal – not least the “bedroom” tax ! Selling the party is at present well nigh impossible to those of us that have seen it all before. There is more hope at local levels, but even that is often a let down.

  • Austin Rathe 21st Sep '13 - 10:26am

    Mary, that’s fantastic, well done! It really, really can be done – as so many places are demonstrating every week right now.

    Dave, we’ll be writing to every LP officer next week with the details.


  • Patrick Smith 21st Sep '13 - 12:32pm

    The new important move towards the local constituency party earning up to 40% of the membership subs enrolled each and every quarter is definitely worthy and will act as a real spur to `up the ante’ and substantially increase local membership.

    I agree that practical minded deliverers who will turn out in all weathers to deliver Focus in their road/street or estate are the salt of the earth beyond question.

    But there now real local incentive not just to sign up more members and `activists’ and deliverers but to value each person`s individual contribution ,so that they understand that they are all are respected in the wider effort to gain Liberal Democrat Cllrs and MPs.elected in the coming Elections.

    Social gatherings play an important part in the building process and some Constituencies do that better than others.

  • Local parties shouldn’t lose heart. I joined the party in 2012, after finally plucking up courage to ring our local organiser. It took me a while, as I couldn’t see much going on via Twitter, Facebook or more traditional media, so I really didn’t know if anyone was out there. I think it made his day, because the party had lost its last councillor in the area and they were very demoralised. Anyway, shortly afterwards, we had an AGM and things have gone from strength to strength. They now look a lot more rosy. We’re actively campaigning and leafleting anyway.

    My point is, if you don’t let people see you’re active, they won’t engage with politics, even if it’s just letters in the paper and the odd comment on social media. Don’t dismiss the latter, it’s how most people find us these days.

  • Simon Banks 23rd Sep '13 - 7:49pm

    This is positive, but on its own not radical enough. We should ask ourselves: “For the politically alert but not deeply partisan person being asked to join the Liberal Democrats, what is the offer?”

    Many of us joined when the idea of getting involved in party politics was not weird and when most people with a lively interest in political issues joined a party. Now party members (of any party) are a strange sect. We cannot count on people who voted Liberal Democrat last time wanting to join, and in any case, canvassing is in decline in many places and no other electioneering method identifies so many supporters. So what do we have to offer in return for the subscription?

    Within living memory, most constituency parties would have organised discussions on issues of concern. My impression is that this has largely fallen by the wayside as fewer and fewer activists have come under more and more pressure. This may be a mistake especially as the class of people who are interested in the issues but not committed to a party has grown. Yes, the meetings rarely got many attenders, but we do now have the option of virtual meetings.

    One final point. My weak but striving local party will welcome the scheme as we were already planning a membership drive. But what about areas that are even weaker? In concentrating understandably on held and winnable seats, we risk undoing the work of the 70s and 80s creating a genuinely national party with some organisation and activity virtually everywhere. After the next general election, will we prioritise the gaps and the endangered areas?

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