New members, En Marche and non-target seats

Our huge number of new members are making me think differently about the familiar problem of balancing resources between target and non-target seats, and the possibility of attracting support in a way that parallels En Marche in France.

For a long time targetting has been a difficult decision. The electoral system means that, if we lean too far one way, we spread ourselves too thinly and are even more badly under-represented in parliament. If we lean too far the other way, we create Liberal Democrat “holes” where there is more-or-less little for people to join, which makes it really hard for that situation to change.

But one of the many unusual things about this General Election campaign is that it is taking place in a period of rapid growth while our membership is growing rapidly. At the moment I am parliamentary candidate in a constituency where membership is up 400% since the General Election and 250% since the EU referendum.

This brings three things to mind:

  • Nick Clegg’s speech at the first Leaders’ Debate in 2010, talking of a new way of doing politics, away from the tired old parties, which got a strong and positive reaction;
  • Nick Clegg’s resignation speech, at in an excruciating moment in our history, triggered a membership surge, as people recognised the value of a liberal way of being which has the depth to survive a harrowing experience;
  • Emmanel Macron’s En Marche movement in France.

En Marche seems to have come out of nowhere, reacting to the failure of the main parties in France. It is Liberal and pro-European. It’s vanquished the forces of the far right in France, and has the wisdom to reach out to the disaffected, offering something more valuable than the extremist rhetoric which would only make things worse.

Parallels with the UK rather scream. Both Labour and Conservatives look like dysfunctional parodies of themselves, and we are seeing continued membership growth.

Looking beyond this General Election, it seems vital to engage new members properly. When a new member comes along wanting do deliver leaflets and knock on doors, it’s essential to have leaflets to deliver and doors to knock. When they bring new ideas, we need to listen.

People do recognise the need to adapt to the unfairnesses of the electoral system, but the comment I keep hearing is “I want to go to a target seat at the weekend and do something locally in my evenings”. My strong suspicion is that this is producing more activity in target seats at weekends than we’d get if they were met with a limp “We’re not doing much, but you might like to drive for an hour or two and see what is going on”. And the flip side of people going to target seats is that one wants them to come back saying “How do we do that here for next time?”.

Over the coming months I assume the Tories will continue making a mess of Brexit. We will continue to show this up. Mobilising our membership is a good way of applying pressure, and of connecting with others uncomfortable at what the government is doing.

A “both-and” approach to working with the energy of new members can feel counter-intuitive, but, if we can get it right, offers more for target seats, and more away from them to build for the future.

* Mark Argent was the Liberal Democrat candidate in Huntingdon Constituency in 2019 and blogs at

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  • Laurence Cox 22nd May '17 - 11:38am


    But Labour have seen massive membership growth since Corbyn first stood for leader. How can this make them dysfunctional if this does not make us dysfunctional? Arguably, Corbyn is the British equivalent of Melenchon, who took 19.6% of the first-round vote, and what has happened is a loss of support for the inheritors of New Labour, just as for Hamon in France. France’s two-round system of elections tends to magnify winning margins where one of the two remaining candidates is an extremist, but if we look at the first round Macron had the support of less than one-quarter of the voters (24.0%) while Le Pen received 21.3% and Fillon 20.0%. Had Hamon stood aside in favour of Melenchon, then the run-off would have been between Macron and Melenchon and I suspect it would have been much closer with many of Le Pen’s supporters giving their second-round votes to Melenchon as the anti-globalisation candidate.

  • Dear Mark,
    I am surprised that we have 400% more members, as it is impossible to have more than 100% of anything. You really mean we have 4 times more members. I am picky, I know,
    ( ask Chris! ) and I am pleased in the surge, as there will be many more supporters who are not members. I just hope it will last to the election! Unfortunately, many people vote for one extreme just to keep the other extreme out! The see-saw effect!
    We shall see!
    Dilys Lamb

  • Daniel Walker 22nd May '17 - 12:25pm

    @Dilys Lamb If you have, say, 200 members and you then gain 800 new members, your membership has grown by 400% (and you now have 500% (i.e. 5 times) of your original membership in total) so Mark’s usage is not incorrect.

  • John Bicknell 22nd May '17 - 12:55pm

    Labour and the Conservatives may look like ‘dysfunctional parodies of themselves’ but the opinion polls continue to indicate little appetite for an alternative here in GB.

  • Nick Collins 22nd May '17 - 4:45pm

    Brilliant: four comments so far, and not one of them addressing Mark Argent’s central point. A typical LDV thread.

  • Diana Simpson 23rd May '17 - 1:26pm

    Older people may not be able to travel multiple times to a target constituency but lots of us have energy, and time, in short amounts to back a local campaign!

  • Simon Banks 23rd May '17 - 6:32pm

    In reply to Laurence – the surge in Labour membership has not led to a surge in campaigning except in a few places. Ours has vastly strengthened our campaigning strength, especially in weaker areas. It may be we’ve been better at encouraging and drawing in new members to become activists – we’ve certainly been successful in my local party – but it’s also evident that many of the Labour new members were heavily at odds with the older members and the MPs. My experience of new members at least up to the referendum result has been that their values are amazingly similar to those of the established members. What’s different is their enthusiasm, their skill-set (social media campaigning, for example) and often, their youth.

    I strongly agree with what Mark says, but with one caution. It’s very easy to talk about a new way of doing things without thinking through how the new way will work. Consider the Arab Spring. Even when not crushed in blood, the new movements lacked staying power compared to older parties and, of course, the military. Nick Clegg could disparage the old parties partly because he’d never been a grassroots activist understanding how the grind must be kept going and how without democratic local structures, decisions are ill-considered and imposed.

  • Hilton Marlton 24th May '17 - 8:50pm

    Couldn’t agree more. We now have more members that the Royal Mail has delivering letters. Can’t help thinking this is a major weapon in our armoury and one that could turn black holes into bacons of Lib Dem light. Not all 50000new members want to schlep across the country to help out a target seat. They want to see a liberal revival in their patch. Lets not waste talent and enthusiasm. Time for fresh thinking.

  • Richard Underhill 25th May '17 - 9:48am

    Consider the elections for the National Assembly. Party list means voting for the top candidate or the name of the party. Many people who thought they had voted for Nelson Mandela actually voted for his supporters without being able to move them up or down the list (Ref Alan Beith MP, Jack Straw, Tony Blair). Two rounds for the Presidency and two rounds for the parliament is a lot and leads to blank ballots. STV is quicker.

  • Bernard Aris 28th May '17 - 2:51pm

    @ Simon Banks (part 1 of 2)

    A bit of Dutch Socialist history.
    Our Labour Party (PvdA) used to score about 20-30% at elections, based on a “Pillar”-network of newspapers, a trade Union, housding corporations etcetera, with the party as its political leadership. That assured the party very similar results at every election, and made the Labour party organisation cadres lazy as far as campaigning was concerned.
    When the student revolts happened at the end of the ’60’s, many young leftist activists invaded local PvdA branches and with leftist rhetoric and sheer numbers took them over. Inside 4 years, this translated to National Partry Executive and parliamentary level.
    This gobsmacked the PvdA establishment, and at local level older members (experienced councillors and the like, many from working-class background) felt alienated by these young intellectuals (the Netherlands, like the rest of Europe, saw an explosion of youngsters getting better educated and going to university) talking not about bread&butter issues, but about Vietnam (2003 & Corbynist translation: Iraq), Development Aid and the Environment.
    Within two years after this “New Left”-youngster invasion, older PvdA members and cadres, former prime minister Willem Drees among them., split off and founded a new “socialdemocratic” party, DS70. Like many split-off parties, that didn’t manage to get a steady electoral foothold and folded around 1978.

  • Bernard Aris 28th May '17 - 2:53pm

    @ Simon Banks (part 2 of 2)
    Reading books like the “Anatomy of Britain” series of Anthony Sampson, you see that Wilsons Labour Party too had trouble with leftist young: they weren’t able to gain as much weight as their generation did in the Nertherlands, so asctivism in Labour declined and membership withhered.

    My point is: the Corbynistas/”Monumentals” remind me (born 1956) strongly of the New Left of around 1970; and they alienated some core constituencies of the formerly solid PvdA vote. Now with (optimistic) Millennials voting Remain; and working-class, demoralized “JAM”‘s voting Leave, that contrast will be even starker.

    Social Liberals, by contrast, share an optimist attitude, agree on international Rule of Law (no Labour party leader atteded the 2003 Anti-Iraq demo in Londen; our Charles did); and offer an alternative to worn-out mass parties like the Tories, Labour or the French, Spanish, Greek socialists and Gaiullists.

    So our membership explosion does NOT alienate older core Liberal/LibDem voters, but remind them of the optimitsic Grimond/Thorpe years, and the Alliance surge against Thatcherism.
    And as I said in a previous post, it helps us win the “ground war”, jiust as Macrons young EM members and the Spanish Ciudadanos

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