Liberal Youth in the spotlight

There’s an in-depth feature on ‘the next generation’ of politicians by Simon Usborne in today’s Independent, with a particular focus on Liberal Youth, the youth wing of the Lib Dems. Here’s an excerpt:

When I suggest to [Elaine Bagshaw, Liberal Youth’s chair] and her colleagues that they are unusual, they pause. “Not unusual as in weird,” I suggest, “just as in uncommon.” Bagshaw looks up and down the row, smiling, and jokes: “No, we’re probably quite weird.” The fact is, few young people care enough about politics to vote (37 per cent of 18-24-year-olds, according to a 2005 Mori poll), much less engage in youth politics. Liberal Youth boasts “about 1,200 members”. Its biggest branch, at Reading University, has about 80 members. Bagshaw was re-elected as national chairwoman in a fiercely contested battle last March (more of which later) with only 148 votes. Figures like these hardly suggest British younth is queuing up to enter the corridors of power.

So, apart from knocking on doors during elections and recruiting new members, what do the parties’ youth wings actually do? Bagshaw, who grew up in Nottingham, the daughter of a painter-decorator and JobCentre official, insists Liberal Youth has a direct influence on party policy. “The campaign to lower the voting age to 16 is policy because we passed it,” she says. One of her proudest achievements was organising an event for Liberal Youth’s “Homophobia is Gay” campaign while she was at university. “It’s still the most successful event in the history of Liberal Youth,” she boasts. “We got about 250 people and made about 450 quid.” What was the event? “Basically it was a bar crawl with the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Society.”

You can read the article in full HERE. Anyone interested in joining Liberal Youth should email [email protected]

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  • “Liberal Youth has a direct influence on party policy. “The campaign to lower the voting age to 16 is policy because we passed it,””

    But wasn’t that ages ago? I’m sure I summated on a conference motion for votes at 16 in 1999.

    Meanwhile the website remains un-updated since about 18 months ago

  • Grammar Police 17th Jun '09 - 8:21am

    I was genuinely shocked at how few members LY seems to have. However, what the article does mislead on slightly, is that it’s entirely possible to me a young member of the Party and not involved at all in LY activities. My local party exec has 3 or 4 people who either are under 26 or have been on the exec since they were under 26 (like me, even if I’m pushing 30 now!).

    Although I always voted in LDYS elections, the whole thing seemed to lack any obvious drive or point (but then again, all the groups within the Party feel the same way – I’ve tried to join ALDTU several times, and was briefly a member of Green Lib Dems. We just don’t do factions like the Labour Party/movement).

  • Martin Land 17th Jun '09 - 8:34am

    I was an active YL in the 1970’s. Even in those highly-charged, Peter Hain led days, membership wasn’t enormous. 1500 perhaps. I certainly remember that when I was Chair of Richmond & Twickenham YL’s in the late 1970’s we were the largest branch in the country with 70 members.

    Youth politics are always difficult; not because young people are necessarily less interested, simply because they are moving around much more and are trying to get the best job they can; a home, etc.

    Often, young people are unable (especially in our party) to cross the bridge from the national issues that may have stimulated them to get involved to the local issues that pre-occupy local parties.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Jun '09 - 9:50am

    From the Independent article:

    The organisation became heavily involved in foreign policy in the Sixties and Seventies and, under the leadership of the South African exile and now Labour minister, Peter Hain, spearheaded the opposition to Apartheid while the moribund Liberal Party dithered.

    Moribund, as in six million votes, 19% of the total? Why is history rewritten in this way? The February 1974 general election (I can’t recall quite when Hain was Chair(man? in those days?) of NLYL, but it was around then) was the turning point when it became clear that the third party movement in English (that was deliberate – Scotland and Wales are separate cases) was NOT moribund.

    Although a lot of it was a protest vote rather than a committed one, enough support and organisation was maintained in 1979, a difficult year for us for many reasons, to make it clear we were back to stay. The people who were working the party in the 1970s were heroes – they got it right and they laid the foundation of the party we have now, mainly by carefully considering how a third party could break the system. They were the complete opposite of “moribund” and it is a lie (or more likely ignorance and stupidity of the sort we know is general with journalists covering us) to say otherwise.

    My own view, as someone who joined the party in 1978 and was active in the 1980s in various places and at various levels, is that the 1970s foundational work was actually more fundamental to the existence of the third party we are now than the 1980s SDP flash party. There is perhaps a PhD to be written here, when we are all long dead and someone actually digs up the records and says (as good PhDs in history sometimes do) “Oh look, when you actually see these things, you can see that what the history books tell us is wrong”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Jun '09 - 10:18am


    “Liberal Youth has a direct influence on party policy. “The campaign to lower the voting age to 16 is policy because we passed it,””

    But wasn’t that ages ago? I’m sure I summated on a conference motion for votes at 16 in 1999.

    I remember the Liberal Party Assembly passing a motion on this in the 1980s …

    Regarding the small number of members, yes it was always so, at least in modern times. I’m not sure if there was more of a peak in the 1960s, but if NLYL ever had much more than a thousand members I guess it would have been way back when there wasn’t television etc so joining clubs was something far more young people did for basic entertainment and socialisation. Remember also that in the 1970s and 1980s there was the separate “Union of Liberal Students”, and as university participation expanded that took on many of the people who might previously have been NLYL.

    It is true also, and always was so far as I know, that NLYL membership was never a sort of “junior” membership, but rather an additional membership. People of an age where they were entitled to join the Young Liberals did not always do so. Many people do not understand this, I do recall being asked so many times when I was in the Young Liberals “Oh, so when do you become a full member of the party?”.

    If one looks at its history, it was originally an organisation of young adults, not a “youth movement”. That later phrase suggests it’s for organising teenagers – I don’t think that was its original purpose. It had an age limit of 30 (and I think there were times and places where it was 35). The reduction of the age limit to 26 and the establishment of it as primarily a “youth movement” was the deal its then Chair, Rachael Pitchford (later Vasmer – anyone know how she is now?) got in the merger negotiations with the SDP in return for continuing autonomy of the organisation. Rachael was one of the elected members of the Liberal Party negotiating team which worked with an SDP team to get us the merged party. At the time, I was a member of the NLYL national executive, so involved with advising Rachael on these things and receiving feedback on progress (or lack of). I remember hearing from her the first proposals for what became the “dead parrot” document, and warning then what a stupid idea that would be. From this you will see I do have a very long history of telling the party where it’s going wrong in presentation and being completely ignored.

  • Elaine Bagshaw 17th Jun '09 - 12:30pm

    Just to clear up a few things:

    1. Membership is now over 2,000. We hadn’t checked when we did the interview, we’re working on getting a letter in. Membership figures are always a slight problem, as it depends on people putting their D.O.B. on membership forms and/or stating that they’re a student.

    2. Both the email address in the article and the one Robson posted will work, or you can email me directly: [email protected]

    3. Yes, Votes at 16 was a while ago. I did mention others but as we were at a Votes at 16 event and it’s also mentioned in the Labour write-up (doubt they’re happy about it being written as a ‘joint campaign with the Lib Dems), that’s probably why he used it. There’s also the fact that we observe FPC and can contribute that way.

    4. Website’s going up 1st July. We had server issues which we’ve now resolved.

    5. James’ point about the benefit change is very pertinent. I have a 9-5 job, so I’m posting on my lunch break. The organisation’s run by volunteers with the help of one staff member. Don’t get me wrong – we all love it, we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t, but sleep would be quite nice some point!!

    Also, many thanks for the history lesson. Didn’t realise the 26 limit was a result of the merger.

  • Matthew – I joined the Young Liberals in 1974 which was a period of great optimism and rejeuvenation not least because of spectacular by election successes. However my heroes were the small band of people who kept the party going for no reward during the barren 50’s and 60’s, most of whom sadly are no longer with us.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Jun '09 - 1:18pm

    More on this article, now I’ve looked at it a bit closer.

    There’s a whiff of anti-democracy about it. The “London Citizens” group is put forward as a good thing young people ought to be involved with, while party politics is put forward as bad and nasty.

    The real question is which would you rather be: someone who assumes the politicians we have are fixed and thinks the best way to get change is to beg and plead with them to think about it, or someone who actually goes out and gets involved in elections to change the politicians? Now, come on, is it really so weird to think the latter path is more effective?

    We have some fellow quoted as saying “We don’t have jobs, we can’t afford housing, we’re the first generation that has had to pay for university education directly, and we’re not getting our money’s worth. Meanwhile, we’re struggling day-to-day to pay utility bills while MPs are spending our money on things we couldn’t dream of buying.” Well, ok, yes, but look how it gives the impression that MPs are the main people leading upper middle class lifestyles. Now you can see how well the anti-democracy movement has used the expenses scandal – there are many thousands of very wealthy people, many of them leading hugely more luxurious lives than MPs. Yet look how it’s been twisted and MPs are turned into the villains and all those city boys forgotten?

    I don’t know much about the two contenders in the recent Liberal Youth leadership election, but having seen Sara Scarlett’s recent article here, I can see the issue. It was painted as two silly girls having a cat-fight, but now I can see it as about a very important issue – the attempt by “libertarians”, the shock troops of the anti-democratic movement, to infiltrate and steal our party.

  • Martin Shapland 17th Jun '09 - 2:08pm

    Seeing as I was that fellow, Matthew, I would argue that we have a lot to gain from being anti-establishment, as long as we continue to demonstrate how we are different and more principled than the two establishment parties.

    We are not establishment enough to be considered truely part of the westminister club, yet established enough to make the jump from the third party to a party of government; If we can attract those who are anti the current political settlement then we will build a coalition for change.

    I am not a libertarian, so I don’t recogise your last point however

  • Indeed, the election had precious little to do with ideology, and only at the end on any kind of substance with the introduction of the Holborn Manifesto group.

    This is good publicity. Let’s work for much more and some effective campaigns.

  • “4. Website’s going up 1st July. We had server issues which we’ve now resolved.”

    It doesn’t take 18 months to resolve server issues. If they are that fundamental then you can just point the domain at another server.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Jun '09 - 3:30pm

    Sara, I’m happy for you to pass on to Rachael that I was asking after her, my name is easily Googleable which will get the contact and I am not an actor (the only other person of my name who comes up on Google is).

    Martin, I’m not saying you are a libertarian, but I do think your comment indicates how the anti-democracy movement has seized on the MPs expenses scandal to further their aims. In echoing their lines you probably do not realise you are being used as part of the fight against democracy. Why single out MPs as evil people because they earn a lot of money, and a few have been dishonest with expenses, when there are hundreds of times more people who get that and much more? Very convenient that the scandal over useless City boys getting large amounts for easy paper pushing jobs has been hushed up and put aside by all this, isn’t it? Persuading people to believe that anyone who is an elected politician is therefore bad is a central objective of the anti-democracy movement. It leads to an acceptance of the shift of power to the City boys, and to support for more direct anti-politics measures such as taking away voting rights for elected councillors and giving all power to a local elected dictator. It is the sort of thing which may eventually lead to fascism, which, as I keep saying, should not be assumed only comes in a racist guise.

    Recent events have shown that we are now seen as too much part of the political establishment to suppose we can gain from a simplistic “all politicians are bad, but we’re not” line. If we try that, only the part before the comma will be heard. We need to be careful in the way we put it, so that we are not in effect aiding the anti-democracy movement.

  • Matthew- you obviously have no idea what those ‘City Boys’ do. Firstly, they don’t all do the same thing. Secondly, it isn’t ‘easy’. And thirdly, populist warfare is any guise is a little irritating. This isn’t to absolve the greed that did help lead to the finanical meltdown that we might be just about surviving, but you can’t just channel Stalin’s hatred of the kulaks. We’re meant to be more thoughtful than the other parties.

    Politics should be about service. Attacking ‘politicians’ doesn’t help that. Martin does, however, have a very good point about how this generation have been screwed by their parents’. Less guaranteed pensions, higher prices for houses (sometimes impossible to pay for), having to pay fees and loans back, worse environment, more public debt to pay back etc etc.

  • Hywel,
    The website’s going up in 2 weeks. It’s been a struggle, but it’s almost there. I saw one draft of it, but let’s hope that it fits our strategic needs as well as being pretty.

  • Elaine Bagshaw 17th Jun '09 - 3:58pm

    Sorry, when I mention the server issues I should have pointed out that that’s why it’s been delayed from it’s May launch.

    It’s taken a while to sort out because we had to get quotes and see what we could afford for a server.

    The current website was so ridiculously badly built no-one can actually get into it to update it.

    And it did take some time to work out exactly what we want our website to do, but as of 1st July it should be sorted.

  • Martin Shapland 17th Jun '09 - 4:08pm

    “In echoing their lines you probably do not realise you are being used as part of the fight against democracy. Why single out MPs as evil people because they earn a lot of money, and a few have been dishonest with expenses, when there are hundreds of times more people who get that and much more?”

    Because it’s the public’s money, not private money – bemoan the lifestyle of the city trader, but they did’nt earn it from public funds…

    I joined the Lib dems because we are different, we’re not happy with the status quo and we want to change the political system – thats not anti – politics, it’s pro reform and that is the message we have to get accross

  • Spot on, Martin.

  • “bemoan the lifestyle of the city trader, but they did’nt earn it from public funds… ”

    Eh???!!! Did I hear that right?

    Wherefrom did they “earn” it? Did a flock of storks bring it, or did they find it under gooseberry bushes?

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Jun '09 - 10:43pm

    Simon R – it is not possible in a short comment written in minutes to go into huge details. Of course I am aware that there are people doing a variety of jobs in the world of finance. In fact I do happen to know a fair amount about what many of them involve. And I do believe many of them are vastly overpaid for the rwal skills they show.

    Martin – what you say is rubbish. The idea that there is some big divide between public and private is silly. In order to survive in the modern world and live a normal life, I have to use the services of the big corporations. So I am forced to pay towards the vast salaries and bonuses and expenses of their leading figures just as I am towards MPs salaries.

    I’m not happy with the status quo, and the status quo is that the City boys are all genius wealth creators. The recent crash shows that was rubbish – many of them had business plans which assumed house prices would go on rising forever. Well I don’t earn pots like they do, but I made plans for my personal finance on the basis I knew they wouldn’t, so why couldn’t they? Others of these wealth-creating geniuses threw money at Madoff’s pure Ponzi scheme (that was only the worst case of several), so they obviously hadn’t checked anything out at all. I.e. they were paid pots for doing nothing but look up a figures on a spreadsheet “Oh, regular 10% return, must be good”. Duh.

  • Grammar Police 18th Jun '09 - 9:09am

    I thought Mark’s quote in the article was interesting: just exactly what is Liberal Youth ‘for’?

    Are they to represent young(er) people in the Party’s policy making? Are they to get young people involved in politics? Are they to train up the next generation of activsts, or to filter “youth” into the relevant parliamentary and council campaigns and by-elections. Or more likely I suppose, a combination of all of these.

    What do people think they should be?

  • Matthew,
    That might well be so, but a broadsided attack on them all as a class is the worst type of populism that we rightly decry in the other parties. There were all types of shenanigans going on in the City, from continuing to trade CDOs when they knew that they couldn’t value them (‘dancing until the music stops’) to the ratings agencies effectively rating things higher than they deserved to be in order to get more business.

    However, none of this merits the sweeping statements you made. Nuance is good.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Jun '09 - 12:28pm


    You might note the point I made was in response to a broad-sided attack on MPs of a sort that has been widespread since the expenses issue hit the headlines. I was deliberately making that point. If someone is going to make the point “all MPs are evil because they make £100,000 a year (or whatever it is when expenses are included), while others get a lot less”, then a sensible reply is to point out that many others get income well in excess of that, so why single out MPs? To mock this point, one may go on to point out other areas of employment where earnings are high, and be equally as lacking in nuance as the anti-democrats and those duped into supporting them are when they single out MPs as somehow uniquely evil because of their earnings and because a few of them have misused the expenses system.

  • My point wasn’t to excuse a generic attack on politicians, but merely to point out that a broad-based and populist attack on bankers is as bad as the same at politicians. There are some great politicians, some bad eggs. Some great bankers, some people who deserve public opprobrium for what has happened. Two wrongs etc.

    Just as we need a thoughtful and long-term answer to political reform in this country, we also need a similar far-reaching debate on the future of the financial services sector in this country. I am afraid that I regard your comments as making this less likely, rather than more so.

  • I’m not sure the LY Chair election was really all that based on ideology – though plenty of people have felt that Elaine’s controlling management style owed rather a lot to her New Labour origins – but it was certainly about more substantive issues than personality.

    Many of Sara’s supporters expressed concern over our falling membership figures, our focus on student politics rather than public elections and Elaine’s apparently very close relationship with the Leader’s Office – the the extent that LY did not campaign on student fees last year in case it was embarrassing and got in the way of plans to change the Party’s policy.

    There were and are very real issues involved in this year’s Liberal Youth elections and it is greatly to be regretted that both candidates’ eccentricities have allowed it to be portrayed as two girls having a tiff rather than what was more like a battle for heart and soul.

  • simon mcgrath 22nd Jun '09 - 9:09pm

    “useless City boys getting large amounts for easy paper pushing jobs has been hushed up and put aside by all this, isn’t it?”

    What a stupid comment. You would rather they get paid less so the big city firms can make bigger profits?
    On the point abouit Liberal Youth what effect did having combined Youth and Student make. In my day ULS was much more realistic than NLYL as we actually had to persuade real people ( ok students) to vote for us. NLYL could afford to be far more detached from reality

  • Mike Falchikov 23rd Jun '09 - 11:53am

    I started out in the party through ULS at the end of the 50s. My first campaigning
    was with an all-ULS group in the late summer of ’59 helping to build Jeremy
    Thorpe’s win in North Devon. Anyone
    around who still remembers this? And didn’t we have fun!

  • Mike Falchikov 23rd Jun '09 - 11:55am

    I started out in the party through ULS at the end of the 50s. My first campaigning
    was with an all-ULS group in the late summer of ’59 helping to build Jeremy
    Thorpe’s win in North Devon. Anyone
    around who still remembers this? And didn’t we have fun!

    (and whatever the “editor” thinks, this
    isn’t a duplicate comment!)

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