Action and Visibility – what the Lib Dems can do for you

Here in the North West, my experience as a Liberal Democrat will be like many members’: cold, wet days knocking on doors, delivering Focus leaflets and reporting that same damn pothole again week after week. For me, this is the pinnacle of local, community focused campaigning. What you’re trying to achieve is betterment of a small area and rather more cynically, get/retain Liberal Democrat seats on your local Councils.

Yet, this method of hard work, starting early if years before polling day can work wonders on a local level, sweeping up seats on councils – so, why does it not translate well to the national level? For me, the answer is the right combination of action and visibility.

Where I’m from we’ve been doing some community weeding (an action) and then posting us working alongside other local councillors on social media. This had residents sighing with relief that we were actually out there doing something. This wasn’t the case in the 2019 General Election, at least for me. We’d sent the freepost, full of what we considered brilliant policy, promising to halt Brexit and save the NHS with a plan deemed credible by the IFS etc. We were being visible, but we hadn’t a track record of achievement to show. We didn’t have any action. I’m aware this will not translate everywhere, as well known local councillors stood as PPCs and our incumbent MPs who work their socks off stand proud on their own achievements – but for the countless seats where this wasn’t the case, we’d been severely lacking.

It dawned on me a few months after the General Election as I knocked doors in Prestwich that there was a plethora of people who would happily vote for a local Lib Dem because of their record of action. But they would simply not vote for them on a national level. Do we therefore require greater action and increased visibility to override a seemingly inherent desire to vote Labour or Conservative nationally? Well, yes.

There is no substitute for hard and smart work. The power of going to talk to the landlord at your local and asking if there’s anything they need, asking your members to report issues in their own wards is astounding. You must then follow up by getting it on your website, getting out a press release, sharing a colourful graphic on social media.

Our message need not be endlessly complicated, niche policy but reaching out a hand to your local community and saying, ‘We’re here to help.’ Working for your area, ensuring locals know who you are, what you’ve done and how it helps them – that’s how we gain voter trust, that’s how we translate it to a national level. Outpace, outwork and most importantly be outspoken.

Sometimes I look starry eyed at our policies, our ideas for a better Britain and the first thing I think now is not ‘Great this is a credible policy’ but ‘How does this affect my community, if at all?’ and I feel if this approach, a bottom-up one focused on action and visibility is considered more in our messaging, our training and how we present ourselves as Liberal Democrats to the Great British public, we may see more success.

* Owen stood as the candidate for Morecambe and Lunesdale in the 2019 General Election.

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  • If you believe that getting Liberal Democrats elected at every level is the most effective way of helping to create a more Liberal society and Liberal world, the community politics need not be in any way cynical. The cynicism comes in when we reduce the community action to a means of getting elected. I suspect we are slowly relearning that one – but you’d have to ask Gordon Lishman!

  • Really liked your article, but I think you hit the nail on head early on:

    “so, why does it not translate well to the national level?”

    It does – we just don’t do it – which I think is your conclusion – but that’s down to centrally managed messaging and limited national air time. I think we should be radical one general and ignore and really hammer the local messaging….however….and this is really the kicker…

    How many candidates for MP do we have that will be able to do that?

  • Gordon Lishman 4th Aug '20 - 11:41am

    I was just about to respond to this when I saw Geoff’s comment!
    The points I’ve been making for (almost exactly) the last 50 years are:

    (1) Start from where people are – that means talking with them about what’s important to them rather than big issues on which the two of you are unlikely to have much immediate impact.

    (2) Work with people in the communities where they live and work; engage with other people to help them to learn and use the habits and techniques of participation, influence and power. Help to organise, challenge and create change. When you’re campaigning on issues, ignore party boundaries and any other prejudices. Build powerful communities and re-build trust in politics.

    (3) Never, ever, apologise for being a liberal. Show by your actions, everyday comments and arguments that it’s an essential part of who you are and why you are involved. Challenging power locally is the same thing as challenging it nationally and globally.

    (4) Tell people on doorsteps, in meetings, by social media that you’re a liberal and why. Social media makes that much easier than it was.

    The biggest challenge is the growth of simplistic cynicism amongst ordinary people. Challenge it always, but in ways that help everyone listening to understand your point, your passion and your respect for others.

  • Mary Regnier-Wilson 4th Aug '20 - 1:26pm

    I think we have quite a lot Ian. It’s HQ that has been the issue in the past.

    Our national messaging doesn’t have to be the same as our local messaging. But it has to add to it rather than be completely separate from it.

    Of course the other side of that is that our local messaging has to link to our national values. Too many of our local cllrs see eg: the reporting of pot holes, as a thing to trumpet by itself, rather than attempting to frame it as a thing that happens because of our liberal values.

    (It’s one of the reasons District/county wide literature programmes with local content work so well – centrally produced framing of messages with room for local detail is the way to present local work within a fundamentally liberal framework

  • Sue Sutherland 4th Aug '20 - 3:52pm

    It’s great to see this discussion happening Owen. You ask yourself how does this policy affect my community if at all and, like you, I think we have failed to follow through on our ideal local approach and apply it to national politics. We instinctively think of our nation as a community, one that is damaged if minority communities are failed. I’ve noticed since the pandemic that there has been a lot of talk about community as people make an effort to help the weaker members of that community. It’s not just about people disobeying lockdown rules. So the opportunity is there for us to discuss our values because people are already practising what we preach.
    Although we instinctively think of the nation as a community we have failed to apply this consciously to our policies and yet Gordon’s points, especially item 2, can apply to the national scenario and to communities that aren’t based on a particular location. We shouldn’t just restrict ourselves to a voting method and regional governments but use our beliefs and skills to change peoples’ ability to ‘learn and use the habits and techniques of participation, influence and power’ at a national level. To take back control perhaps?
    This is the reason why we don’t fit into the left/right arguments of present day politics or the privatise versus nationalise debate. We want a society which best meets the needs of all the different communities within it, not one side or another and our politics is about balancing communities not dividing them. We have positive messages to put forward and I think they stem from our unique vision of society so we must put that forward too.

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