Building a movement based on our values

People join political parties because they are interested in politics.

That may seem an obvious thing to say, but those of us engaged in the grind of day-to-day campaigns must regularly remind ourselves. Because, while lots of us are passionate about our community activism, a large majority of our members are more motivated by values and bigger ideas.

If we want to galvanise them into a campaigning force – helping our community campaigns in the process – we need to remind them why they joined. That means talking about our liberal values and giving our members an opportunity to campaign for them.

Think about what happens when you join the Liberal Democrats in an area where we campaign. You’re feeling outraged about Brexit, the Tory government, school funding and the NHS, so you sign up and enthusiastically agree to deliver leaflets. But when you get the leaflets they’re probably about parking, potholes or stopping local housing developments.

How long will it be before somebody, face-to-face, talks to you about political values? For some people, that moment will never arrive – even if you’re in a place where we have elected representatives.

We all know that looking after our communities is really important and we must continue to be community champions at the local level. But the question is how we fill the gap between what new members want to campaign on and what we usually do.

The answer is obvious: we must give people more politics and more political campaigns to take part in. I’ve seen plenty of great advice from people like Mark Pack on how to make local party AGMs more engaging. Examples include having a political speaker or a debate to add something to the drudgery of reports and bureaucracy.

On a wider level, the Your Liberal Britain initiative brought thousands of members together to talk about liberalism and political ideas. The Your Liberal Britain event I organised and chaired in Cheltenham attracted more than 70 people, proving that if we offer our members politics then they will be interested.

The success of the EU referendum street stalls provides more evidence. When I set up a series of stalls before and after the referendum last year, I was delighted to find that new people would show up.

On a much larger scale, it’s been heartening to see so many Liberal Democrats leading the charge at pro-European marches.

Our members showed up to the Your Liberal Britain events, the street stalls and the marches because that’s what they think politics is. And they’re right.
I think we should be doing much more like this and I’d welcome your suggestions in the comments below.

If you don’t believe me that this is a successful approach, we need not look very far to see the power of energising people to campaign by reinforcing their values. Just consider the hoards of Momentum activists who in the snap election dragged Labour across the winning line in so many seats, while stacking up huge majorities in others. They worked so hard because they wanted their values to be realised.

So here’s my recipe for building our movement:

  • Do more campaign stuff that’s overtly political to inspire our members out onto the streets and attract new people too – discussions, street stalls, marches and much more
  • Turn your local party into a hive of raucous debate and let everyone have their say, even if it’s being invited onto the local party’s Facebook discussion group
  • Don’t ever let the first contact for new people be a request to deliver a leaflet about cleaning up dog poo or filling potholes – as worthy as these issues may be, they aren’t identifiably liberal

I’m confident that if we get this right, we will attract more members, retain them and get more of them actively campaigning for us when we’re in need.

I know diverting some effort away from the excellent community campaign you’re running might seem a bit of a faff now, but it will help us build winning teams up and down the country.

* Max Wilkinson is a Cheltenham Borough Councillor and the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Cheltenham.

* Max Wilkinson is the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Cheltenham. He’s also a local councillor and cabinet member for economic development, tourism, culture and wellbeing.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • David Warren 27th Nov '17 - 2:27pm

    I agree.

    How about a campaign for radical reform of the broken Adult Social Care set up in this country.

    Such a campaign would unite millions of people suffering in various ways because of the failings of the current ‘system.’

  • paul barker 27th Nov '17 - 4:11pm

    Absolutely agree, how about a campaign against Universl Credit ?
    Personal note, I have been intermittently active in the past but I am currently not for purely personal reasons, my comment is thus from the sidelines.

  • @ David Warren As a former Cabinet Member for Social Care (and my wife was a Director for Social Care in a different authority), absolutely agree about ‘broken Social care’. Just one problem though, might be embarrassing to google up our record when in Government :

    “Social care funding cut by a third since 2010, ADASS survey finds ………………/social-care-funding-cut-third-2010-adass-survey-finds
    4 Jun 2015 – Local authority funding for social care services fell by nearly a third”.

    Still…… if we’ve got the right values…….. what does reality matter ?

  • Ashley Cartman 27th Nov '17 - 4:44pm

    At Western Counties Regional Conference we ran a policy brainstorming session, it’s amazing how engaged people become when you ask them how they would make Britain a better place to live. The session was a trial run for a new Your Liberal Britain initiative coming out in the new year.

  • Anecdotal, but one thing that helped attract a lot of my friends (who ranged from anarchist-socialists to right-libertarians and every anti-authority ideology in-between) to support and vote Liberal Democrat in the past, was the party’s outspokenness on two core liberal value: civil & personal liberty. ID cards and by extension the surveillance state and rights to privacy was the main issue as I recall, but other stances on lgbt rights and drugs policy were also attractive. I feel the party is not as vocal or consistent as it could be on these issues, and that perhaps using people power to occasionally draw attention to issues like these things that are “identifiably liberal”, and so building a distinctive national image could be the way to go.

  • An excellent piece which gets to the heart of why we are so often seen as uninspiring. We have a huge resource in the form of our new members. To waste that talent, as is happening in many places due to fear of change, is both illiberal and illogical. If liberals become reluctant to change, they cease to be liberal.

  • George,

    The problem with asking some one to leave the party because they don’t agree with you is you’d end up with a party of one (in my case if I wake up grumpy it could even be a party of none).

  • David Warren 27th Nov '17 - 7:22pm

    @Paul Barker

    Agree 100 per cent on Universal Credit. Liberals should be campaigning for welfare reform across the board.

    @David Raw

    Yes being in coalition means we have a record that our opponents can point to. I feel that some of those who held government office need to have a hard look at some of the decisions that they made.

    That said I became a carer when Labour were in office and things were bad then.

    We need to develop and campaign for a radical reform of adult social care in this country.

    I don’t want to see others suffer the way I did in the future.

  • George, perhaps there is too much toleration, is this what made people continue to support the leadership through the coalition years as they led us from one electoral disaster to another, destroying 50 years of patient hard work and leaving us with our current legacy..

  • Mick Taylor 27th Nov '17 - 8:51pm

    David Raw. That was then, this is now. Our sister parties in both German and Holland were trounced after a period in coalition, but have now bounced back with new programmes and D66 have just gone back into government. Everyone makes mistakes – even cabinet members for H+SC [I was one too] – but you can still go on and achieve things.
    Time to stop harping back to the very real mistakes that were made and get on with promoting our policies for the future

  • Mick Taylor 27th Nov '17 - 8:54pm

    Theakes. During the coalition there was very little toleration in the pages of LDV. Indeed it could very well be argued that the constant criticism of the party by its own members was at least party responsible for the trashing we took in 2015.
    There was too much public criticism and too little quiet talking to the leader, cabinet members and other ministers. If you tell the world the party is up shit creek, then that’s where it ends up.

  • Little Jackie Paper 27th Nov '17 - 9:35pm

    A serious question (and to be clear I’m not getting at anyone here). There is some mention on here of Universal Credit. I keep hearing that UC is a really good idea, just badly implemented? Can someone please explain why it is that UC is such a good idea? I am yet to hear a single decent argument.

    It just seems to be a cover for cuts and a dream come true for corporatists.

  • Jackie,

    In theory UC is a good idea because instead of applying for multiple benefits, you just apply once and get one amount. The problem in practice is the Tory government have used it as an excuse to reduce the amount you get. So they are using the implementation of a simplified system to pay people less and that is why problems are developing for claimants. If they hadn’t used the new system as an excuse to cut benefits then yes UC had plus points, but they did and it doesn’t.


    I think during the coalition many people pointed out being the Tories fig-leaf would lead to disaster. Libdemvoice allowed some comments to be posted but many warnings never made it past the editors. Blaming the messengers for trying to point out the foolishness of the course the senior leadership had set might make you feel better. It doesn’t however change the fact it was foolish too get so close to the Tories and extremely foolish not to extract a price for the pain we would suffer.

  • @ Mick Taylor “it could very well be argued that the constant criticism of the party by its own members was at least party responsible for the trashing we took in 2015.”

    Yes, if you stretch the elastic of credulity it could well be so argued – just like saying it was the crowd’s fault for not turning up that Everton lost 5-1 at home to Atalanta last Thursday.

    I’d be more encouraged if there was any sign of a paddle up your proverbial creek let alone any glimmer of understanding about what’s happened as a consequence of austerity since 2010. At the moment it’s still a case of Matthew 7.20 :

    “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.”

  • David,

    I think the fault of Everton 5-1 loss was the team not turning up, now you could make a case for the horrors of the coalition were down to the team not turning up as well. That and not listening to the best manager we have had in recent years who stated

    Certainly, they drive a strategic coach and horses through the long-nurtured ‘realignment of the centre-left’ to which leaders in the Liberal tradition, this one included, have all subscribed since the Jo Grimond era. It is hardly surprising that, for some of us at least, our political compass currently feels confused. And that really encapsulates the reasons why I felt personally unable to vote for this outcome when it was presented to Liberal Democrat parliamentarians.”

    and voted against the coalition.

  • Gosh, what a crabby comment thread this has turned into under a post intended to be positive.

    I wonder if that might be telling as to what puts off newbies, too?

  • At the risk of making this comment a blog post, I would like to suggest we are missing a trick in the present political climate. The Brexit saga is slowly unfolding and it is becoming easier to predict where we’ll be in a few years time. Surely, as the only Party that unambiguously campaigns for a further referendum once the mist has cleared, we can start building a philosophy that takes into account that and how our target audience will respond to the situation. Then we can start marketing it and be leap years ahead of the other Parties.

  • Sue Sutherland 28th Nov '17 - 1:05pm

    David Raw. I agree with you that during Coalition we did unpleasant things in the name of austerity, but does that mean we can’t get back to our old ideas about the welfare state? Tony Blair’s Labour was very different from Jeremy Corbyn’s. We were, after all, trying to deal with the worst recession many of us have known, which is why we went into Coalition in the first place. If we were still in Coalition the country would be in a very different state than it is now. No Brexit Referendum so better growth in the economy so more money for Health and Social Care post recession. It is the Tories who have totally undermined welfare provision because of dogma, not us.
    Please help us to reform our policies to help the impoverished rather than telling us we can’t have those policies because of what we did in Coalition.

  • Peter Watson 28th Nov '17 - 1:35pm

    24 hours and 20+ posts in and I am no clearer what are those distinctive Lib Dem values and what specific policies naturally derive from them.
    I still see a party that doesn’t know whether its actions in Coalition were good or bad, or even whether they were consistent or inconsistent with those supposed values.

  • Peter Martin 28th Nov '17 - 1:45pm

    @ Sue Sutherland,

    “I agree with you that during Coalition we did unpleasant things in the name of austerity”

    Well, yes, but all three parties were barking up the wrong tree at the time. 2010 onwards. The idea was that the budget deficit could be reduced by cutting spending and raising taxation – like VAT to 20%.

    That didn’t work. Just attempting to cut spending, and raising VAT, meant that the economy was pushed further into recession. Further recession increased the call on Govt’s non-discretionary spending – so ironically it probably ended up not spending much less. Recession reduces the Govt’s tax take. So the gap between spending and revenue didn’t close as hoped for. It can’t do. It’s just impossible.

    Politically, the repercussions were horrendous for Lib Dems. Initially there was a large loss of seats in the 2015 election. But the real punishment came just a year later in the 2016 EU referendum. The more prosperous parts of the country tended to vote Remain. The “left behind” parts voted Brexit. You can argue that the voters should have blamed the Tories. But voters can blame who they like, including the less affluent ones. They blamed the EU and everyone who supported it.

  • Neil Sandison 28th Nov '17 - 6:12pm

    I think some of you are missing the point of Max Wilkinsons article it is not to go over the entrails of the past which i am sure we have learned lessons from ,and its not about just giving someone 200 leaflets or target letters on a matter of local concern its about the party and its members addressing some of the current issues like the lack of affordable rented housing,insufficient local school places with adequate teaching provision ,the falling number of doctors surgeries without GPs and unfettered housing growth without sustainable infrastructure to build sustainable communities rather than commuter belt ghettos where you have to travel by car to access schools,medical and social provision.

  • This post is about talking about policy. This means talking about economic policy and this has to include a discussion of our MP’s ditching our 2010 economic policy to support the Conservative one, which nearly took us into another recession caused by the Coalition government.

    Therefore before we can talk about financing all the things we want, we need to agree on an economic policy. For me Liberalism is about liberty and equality. Therefore an economic policy should increase the liberty of the poorest in society and this means a great reduction in economic inequalities back to the 1970’s levels. History should teach us that full employment is the best way to reduce economic inequalities as it did between 1945 and 1979. Austerity and balancing the budget will not bring about full employment. Rejecting the idea that we need about 5% of the working age population unemployed to control inflation would be a start. We need to recognise that inflation is a good thing especially when wages increase above inflation because those who lose out are those who save, encouraging people to invest instead.

    So yes, Neil Sandison let us have a policy of building 400,000 new homes a year half of which are either council houses or housing association houses for rent; scrapping university tuition fees, providing bursaries for teachers and doctors, ensuring there are enough training places and divorcing nursing from a university education; and if you like the nationalisation of public transport to ensure it is always cheaper than using the car. And for me the introduction of a Basic Income, scrapping Jobcentres and giving the responsibility to help people find meaningful work to district and unitary councils; a work guarantee; as well as restoring all the cuts to benefits made since 2009. We could also talk about what we would increase the National Living Wage to after 2020.

  • paul barker 28th Nov '17 - 8:12pm

    On UC, the problem is not just the constant pressure to reduce benefits, its the attempt to make the whole experience as unpleasant as possible. I reccomend everyone to apply for UC just to get a sense of what its like, the 1st stage at least. For someone educated to Degree level, with plenty of savings & no Mental Health problems the process isnt so bad but that doesnt describe most of the poor sods that actually rely on it.

  • “There was too much public criticism and too little quiet talking to the leader, cabinet members and other ministers.”

    There was plenty of talking to ministers and the like. Not much listening though. What there was on LDV was relentless “it will be alright, things are not that bad” optimism on LDV which drove a large chunk of the party debate. Caron and the editorial team were very clever in how any discussion was framed. Ultimately – and this was IMO very much not their intention – they did the party a great deal of damage.

  • Max Wilkinson 4th Dec '17 - 8:47pm

    Thank you for all your comments and sorry for the delayed reply. It’s been a busy week or so since the selection in Cheltenham.

    To all those who used the post as a way to reopen the debate about coalition government, I think I should direct you to Neil Sandison’s reply. There’s little to be gained by going over this ground, though we will need to be prepared to explain ourselves for what happened during the coalition and not all of those conversations will be easy. Looking back, I’m sure we would all agree that we did some things which were not in line with our values. Having said that, we must defend our role in government and all that we achieved.

    To all who wanted to discuss policy, then that’s almost what I’m talking about. I do, however, think that not everybody who joins us wants to indulge in wonkery. The vast majority will just want to engage with us on politics and that’s what we’ve got to give them.

    If anyone fancies coming to Cheltenham on Wednesday night, for a foreign policy event with a national expert in that topic, please get in touch.



  • Simon Banks 1st Feb '18 - 6:17pm

    Yes, I agree. However, people joining because they’re angry about Brexit or interested in politics does not easily translate into a local party being a hive of raucous debate. It may well translate into holding a well-advertised discussion meeting and getting three members of the Exec and two other members (neither new) turning up, or putting a lot of effort into a discussion function on the website and drawing in one already known Euro-enthusiast. What works? This needs more discussion and guidance. A well-known speaker can work, for example. Local parties are vital elements in local campaigning, but only some of the new members will want to be involved locally, so more needs to be done to link up members with common interests across the country and encourage them to contribute to party policy. Finally, the most local of issues does sometimes connect to wider issues, the potholes to a centralised system of government with local authorities spending what little they receive from Whitehall, the traffic calming measures to the question of how to reduce our dependence on cars. It’s up to Focus editors to take the opportunities to make links where they exist and can be explained punchily.

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