Look beyond local politics to attract new activists

In crude, self-interested terms, Liberal Democrats owe a great deal to pavement politics. In many areas, our credibility rests on our engagement with local issues that matter to people beyond the bubble of the chattering classes. Yet, we are missing an opportunity to recruit new, motivated activist members while our only profile on global issues revolves around EU membership.

Lib Dems have a great Parliamentary team on international issues: Layla Moran and Baroness Northover (FCDO shadows), Sarah Olney and Lord Purvis (international trade), with Alistair Carmichael relentlessly raising Hong Kong and the Uighurs in China. Yet, judging from the motions submitted to the conference committee, constituency branches seems to have little interest in the world beyond domestic UK politics.

Why should we care what is happening in Yemen, Syria, Venezuela, Belarus or Myanmar? In the narrowest terms, we know these issues won’t win us votes. But speaking out on matters of conscience can benefit the Liberal Democrats. Many of us joined the Party precisely because of principled stands taken by our representatives: David Steel on the Kenyan Asian crisis and immigration in the 1960s, Jeremy Thorpe on Apartheid in the 1970s, Paddy Ashdown on Bosnia in the 1990s, and Charles Kennedy on Iraq in 2003.

It is appropriate to feel disgust at the British government’s appeasement of Saudi Arabia, to whom we sell arms, or China, where we speak with two voices (Boris embracing trade while Raab offers words of condemnation on Xinjiang – no prizes for guessing which side will prevail).

It is especially repellent to young, idealistic students when what Foreign Office officials say bears no relationship to the UK’s actions. This justifiable outrage prompts the best of each generation to look for ways to change the status quo. Liberal Democrats should be ready and willing to recruit people who are motivated by the injustice they see overseas and the hypocrisy of Britain’s response to that injustice.

Moreover, Liberal Democrats can exploit the fact that Labour has nothing to say about global issues. As Conservative backbenchers make ethnical noises about China and foreign aid, we must remind voters that the Conservatives remain the nasty party, funded by unsavoury oligarchs.

This means using our conferences to amplify the work of our Parliamentary team and to highlight human rights abuses and the steadily narrowing bandwidth of liberty around the world. If this appeals, you could start by joining the Liberal International British Group which gives you access to InterLib, an excellent online publication stuffed with articles by Liberal Democrats with personal experience of events in the world’s hotspots, edited by the excellent Stewart Rayment.

* Rebecca Tinsley is a member of the Liberal International British Group executive, and the founder of the human rights group, www.WagingPeace.info. She stood for Parliament twice for the SDP-Liberal Alliance.

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14 Comments

  • There’s a lot to this. In my area we have only councillors with slim to no hope of an MP or MSP any time soon, and so it’s perhaps inevitable that local meetings are dominated by the councillors and their campaigns. They campaign as hard working local champions for whom party is virtually irrelevant. I don’t doubt that’s an effective campaign strategy for them, and I know how important that work is, but it’s hard to see why a young, idealistic, politically motivated member would think it a good use of their time to sit in on too many meetings.

    I would love it if we could as a party, national and local, have more to say on these bigger, international issues. Perhaps in this new age of online meetings, and beyond conference, we can have more ‘national’ or even regional meetings where these more interesting concepts are discussed. I know there are particular special interest groups, so maybe that’s the route, but do people know enough about them?

  • John Shoesmith 12th Aug '21 - 7:00pm

    This post is makes a lot of sense. We are losing our support base because people don’t know what we stand for. Everything we say should be prefixed with a phrase like ‘Liberals stand for individual freedom so……….’. Foreign policy gives many opportunities to drive that home. Individual freedom is a modern and attractive philosophy.

    re brexit etc., I think we should stop just saying we oppose it, at least for the moment. We could however go back to our philosophy – eg ‘Liberals stand for individual freedom so we believe that our young people should be just as free as other Europeans.’

  • Steve Trevethan 12th Aug '21 - 7:54pm

    Might we have some precise definition/definitions of freedom/freedoms?

  • I am afraid that spending too much time on policy issues where Britain can have little or no influence is at best pointless, and at worst counterproductive – it simply demonstrates how out of touch we are as a party with issues that affect voters lives. At least Labour has learned this lesson.

    From Kenyan Asians to Iraq, the great examples quoted by Rebecca were all areas where the British government could make a real difference and were legitimate areas for UK politicians to focus on.

    Surely a better area for campaigning is the UK’s immigration policy, where money seems to count for so much more than family ties and history. Is this is an area where campaigning can demonstrate our liberal values, produce implementable policy for government and make a real difference to the lives of some families?

  • William Wallace 13th Aug '21 - 10:26am

    I recall canvassing in Hull 17 years ago, accompanied by a Washington journalist who wanted to get a sense of f what people in Britain thought about the Iraq war. I thought we wouldn’t hear anything about that on a Hull housing estate. The first door we knocked on, the owner started about parking cars on grass verges. 90 seconds later, he reached what he thought about the Iraq war…

  • John Marriott 13th Aug '21 - 12:11pm

    I was an ‘activist’ once. I genuinely thought I could change the world. Returning to the U.K. after four years working abroad and after a couple of years teaching in red West Yorkshire, I moved to true blue Lincolnshire and, at the age of 36, joined the liberal Party. Those were to days of knocking on doors at election time, delivering FOCUS leaflets, getting elected and being confronted with difficult decisions.

    Nobody canvasses around here any more, unless they are using the internet. Hardly anyone delivers leaflets any more, even at election time. As for hustings, well! Welcome to our post political age, where a sound bite takes the place of a policy statement and where what happens at Westminster caps virtually anything that happens in Town or County Hall.

    I’m not surprised that so many potential activists today prefer to look after their nearest and dearest and are not prepared to make the kind of sacrifices that people like me made some thirty years ago when we really felt we had something worth fighting for.

  • John Roffey 13th Aug '21 - 1:24pm

    The first of four policies nominated on the Party’s website is:

    Tackle the climate emergency
    Tackle the climate emergency by generating 80% of our electricity from renewables by 2030 and insulating all low-income homes by 2025.

    I must say that following the IPCC’s recent report – which is far more damning of Human Activity than most expected – I assumed that the Party’s primary interest would be this single issue [fitting the other policies in around as best as possible].

    It is certainly a subject of special interest to the young and those with children/grandchildren and therefore one that is likely to attract new members – but reading the comments on the subject on LDV – I don’t get the impression that this is the case for most contributors.

    Presumably there is work underway within the Party to update the Climate Emergency policy in light of the IPCC report – but not obviously so.

  • See we won the two Highland Council by elections last night. The hard work has paid off.
    Well done to all concerned.

  • John Roffey 13th Aug '21 - 1:34pm

    Is there a Strategic Planning group within the Party? If so – who leads it?

  • John Marriott,

    you are not the first to bemoan the changing mores and attitudes of younger generations.

    “”The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.” Attributed to SOCRATES by Plato, according to William L. Patty and Louise S. Johnson, Personality and Adjustment, p. 277
    (1953).
    “I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.” — Peter the Hermit in A.D. 1274
    “”I believe what really happens in history is this: the old man is always wrong; and the young people are always wrong about what is wrong with him. The practical form it takes is this: that, while the old man may stand by some stupid custom, the young man always attacks it with some theory that turns out to be equally stupid.” G.K. Chesterton.

    I think Rebecca is right to point to what engages younger people. It is indeed wider International issues, not least climate change, that stirs the blood rather than the number of potholes in local streets.

  • John Marriott 13th Aug '21 - 4:40pm

    @Joe Bourke
    Me and Socrates agreeing? Wow, I MUST be older than I thought. I don’t know about the youth of today being more interested in ‘international issues’ such as climate change than in potholes. I reckon that they might still have more chance of sorting out the latter rather than the former!

  • Jason Conner 13th Aug '21 - 4:52pm

    I agree John Marriott. These local issues, buildings covered in graffiti are a problem in inner city Labour controlled areas and we now see more young people forming volunteer groups to remove it. The environment does not just mean climate change but litter, fly tipping, pollution etc.

  • @ Jason Conner. Are you suggesting Labour organised working parties to paint the graffiti ? It’s obviously a Marxist plot !!

  • Rebecca Tinsley 14th Aug '21 - 5:57pm

    Responding to Jim Webber, the UK does still have international influence because of the aid HMG gives to countries like Nigeria and Pakistan. Yet, strangely, we hesitate to use our leverage, except when it comes to promoting trade, rather than human rights.

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