Opinion: Can we trust in our young people?

To hear someone talk down a youth organisation purely because it is being run by young people and therefore ‘set to fail’ is offensive to my ears. I have long witnessed and experienced the importance of young people being able to make decisions for themselves and to be involved in the production and implementation of the services they access. It is along these lines that I must defend Liberal Youth and the young people that it represents.

I have fallen in and out of love with LDYS, now Liberal Youth, various times but I would never proclaim that it should not exist. To state that it should not have the freedom it currently enjoys is misguided. There are so many ways that young people can offer an amazing and refreshing way of dealing with problems and really carve out a place for themselves by being given the freedom to experiment.

Yet it is important that as young people we are not expected to get things right all the time and that we should not be overtly punished for getting things wrong. Whether or not we like to forget it, LDYS gave a lot to the party, including a number of MPs and good strong campaign messages with the ability to mobilise a large amount of energetic support. Liberal Youth will be the same and has already shown encouraging signs of engaging young people with the party, including two of this years executive becoming Liberal Democrat Councillors and the success of the recruitment at Reading University branch leading to the leaders award for membership.

I wonder what is the point in life if we are not allowed to make mistakes? I know we as a party are concerned about reputation and media perception but it is important we allow young people the space to practise, to engage and to enjoy being both young and politically active. Much of the problems that arise within Liberal Youth centre around the reputations that people build. I have always found that we as a party tend to expect a lot from a small number of people, this seems to be a natural development which we could all try our best to break away from. The fact remains that decisions are best made by the people that they directly affect and as far as youth provision is concerned it should be coordinated and developed by young people of a variety of ages and backgrounds.

There are several problems that it is possible to identify in regard to Liberal Youth which I think cause problems in the long term. One of the key issues is the practicality of carrying out a full programme whilst executive members will be at school, at university, doing training and/or working in full time jobs all over the country. This needs to be addressed urgently, although I fear it will be difficult to come to a satisfactory conclusion. It is impossible to discuss a month’s amount of political change in an afternoon meeting, sitting for hours in Cowley St with a large executive all keen to have their say. Technology has allowed us to communicate more easily using mobiles and emails but sometimes, as I’m sure we’re all aware, these channels are more susceptible to emotional outbursts and misjudged wording leading to unnecessary and unintentional upset and offence normally drawn from misunderstandings.

We have fought as a party for a liberating education for young people and we therefore must trust in young people to make the best decisions that they are able to. I worry that the party but perhaps instinctively our members will loose faith with Liberal Youth if we cannot wipe the slate clean and get up and try again. It is clear to me that we must build on our previous mistakes and apologise to anyone who’s been demoralised or discouraged by recent events. We must strive to provide the most we can, to the highest standard for our members, in the way only Liberal Democrats are able to.

* Jenni Clutten is a Liberal Democrat councillor and a General Executive Member of Liberal Youth, and writes here solely in a personal capacity.

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  • Liberal Neil 17th Mar '09 - 2:42pm

    There is a lot of truth in what you say.

    It is inevitable that any youth organisation will learn from mistakes, as everyone of whatever age does.

    You are right to argue that the fact that mistakes will be made has to balanced with the benefits that stem from the enthusiasm that comes from young people being given some autonomy.

    I think it is about balance. It is sensible for there to be structures in place to help the youth organisation benefit from the experience of those who have gone before without completely stifling any autonomy.

    When I worked with LDYS I was always very keen to help with training and team building but at the same time to allow each new executive to set their own objectives.

    There is alwasy a range of views about what the objectives should be – a mix of campaigning for the party and campaigning within it, a mix of pragmatism and radicalism, some who are pro involvement in NUS and some completely against it. This is a good thing.

    But it is also a good thing if a new executive don’t have to learn everything through mistakes and if they can be supported with good advice so that they get some things right first time 😉

    One good thing that many of the people you mention as being good products of their time in LDYS is that many of them are still around and willing to help their successors.

    [I was a student activist and then the party’s Youth & Student Officer 1993-5]

  • David Heigham 17th Mar '09 - 3:25pm

    “It is inevitable that any youth organisation will learn from mistakes, as everyone of whatever age does.”

    I wish that were true, but two groups that are relatively good at learning from their mistakes are LibDems and young people. (Tories make a virtue of learning slowly; Labour of not learning.)

    I prefer our young stirring up us elders all the time, but if a good few of the young want to spend their time in more interesting politically congenial company, it is and should be their choice.

    Certainly every new executive of Liberal Youth or its sucessors should choose their own objectives. However, I think it should be the duty of each retiring executive to contribute a short note to a master file of”What Worked and What Didn’t”. That could be much more use than our geriatric ‘advice’, however well intentioned.

  • Libertarian 17th Mar '09 - 3:51pm

    Young people have been corrupted by welfarism. Time to dismantle it and set the people free.

  • I don’t know the detail of the current row going on in Liberal Youth, but I do share a similar impression to Rob that LY is perhaps too concerned with looking professional.

    I wonder if this is a combination of the wider professionalisation of the party and the fact that there are now more career chances so the feeling is that you have to impress at a young age if you want to get on. I don’t doubt the latter did apply a little during my time as well, but I still remember the majority of people of my generation being pretty down to earth, including the most notable success of it so far Jo Swinson.

    LDYS gave me a clearer understanding of what I believed in and why I cared about those things, a knowledge of how politics and campaigning works, a bit more self-confidence and huge numbers of friends. If LY can do those things for other people, (they aren’t really that difficult, but they do take time and energy) then people will forgive its mistakes and will give it the respect it deserves.

    [LDYS Vice-Chair 1998-1999]

  • James – as someone who was around at the same time I agree there were stitch ups in the elections (one of which probably led me to be vice-chair) but I am not sure the organisation was necessarily too big as it ended up being a good way of getting more people involved. Also as a member of the LDYS Conference Committee I thought that it worked quite well and we had some good conferences as a result. Maybe though that was because its role was clearly defined.

    I don’t remember there being factions per se (maybe I’ve just forgotten them), except for a brief period around the 1999 Chair’s election. There was perhaps a clique that ran LDYS and therefore knew what was going on, but it always seemed to me that the only way to break it was to bring more people in to it rather than remove all the structures.

  • Comically enough, both candidates for Chair have suggested that it should wind up! As such, Jenny’s Op-Ed is scrupulously neutral.

    Institutional reform is key and then let each exec create their own culture. I think that it is more than possible to be friendly, daring and professional in how they execute it.

    Do think about signing up to the Holborn Manifesto (group on Facebook) to make the changes that Liberal Youth needs.

  • James,
    Thank you for your reply, which is very thoughtful as per usual. I agree with the general thrust of what you say. I don’t think, however, necessarily that there is a contradiction between Holborn and Obama, if you’ll pardon the shorthand.
    The problem is that Liberal Youth has not:
    a) thought strategically
    b) put in place procedures to audit what’s happening at regular junctures both for the office, exec and members.

    I remember when I was on the exec. The only way to do anything was simply to go ahead and do it and work out the budgetary consequences etc afterwards. There was little exec cooperation so joint working was a bit of a fantasy.

    Within the scope of Holborn, there is loads and loads of scope for bringing members in, being original and inventive etc but it does mean that you have regular contact with the Chair, your colleagues etc and know the financial ground on which you stand.

    Obama was bottom-up but it still had top-down discipline, direction and messaging. The river of activism needs to be dammed and brooked but without expecting it to happen on its own.

  • Oh, and James, I would seriously dispute that LY’s problems stem from an excess of professionalism. The Chair has spoken to the office once in the past year. I, a volunteer, did the vast majority of the Darfur campaign and had to drag the Chair and others along. It isn’t a feeling of being constrained by process, it’s a failure to institute a culture of doing ANYTHING or knowing how Liberal Youth could and should be helping Chairs.

    As soon as we have regular meet-ups to organise things, we can be daring and spunky as you suggest! : )

  • Couldn’t find the Holborn Manifesto on Facebook so can’t comment on it.

    However rather than wittering about being professional LY could actually be it. Starting with sorting out the aberation that is the website (which STILL lists candidates for last years exec elections)

    Gripe over, James is right that LDYS/LY became obsessed with procedures – the last conference I went to (14 years after my first!) saw procedural motions of high degrees of pointlessness being moved in just about every debate. It was that rather than discussing anything significant that seemed to be main raison d’etre for debates.

    I’m not sure I’d concur with James views about the structures though. They were a way for people to get involved and – with a growing organisation could have been developed. They weren’t ideal – at best useful – at worst irrelevant.

    The wider issue though is not what should have been done in 1999ish but what the situation is now. The elephant in the room of course is the funding issue which wrecked the organisations relatively sound financial footing. Another aspect is that in the past LDYS was seen as a stepping stone to a career in the party. with the number of paid positions now around that is less the case.

    LDYS/LY had/has two distinct roles. Firstly as a “sandbox” (and I mean that in the Wikipedia type sense not a patronising one!) which helps young activists develop political skills in an environment which is supportive and fairly risk free.

    Secondly is supporting the party when it comes to things like campaigning for the youth/student vote.

    In the first environment mistakes are a good thing and part of the learning process. That’s not so in the second.

    Both candidates for chair have some good ideas. However the specifics of delivering on them are staggeringly light and having been there I don’t think there is the slightest chance of either of them delivering promises of that scale without doing the job on a full-time basis (and possibly not even then).

  • Given that the pattern was started above
    First Student Democrats Conference 1990 (Alex Wilcock’s first)
    Last LDYS conference 2004 (Alex Wilcock’s last!)
    In between various roles including chair 1997-8

  • Hywel,
    I largely agree with the the pointless procedural warnglings in conference policy motions which are debated over 30 people with little knowledge of the topic in a cold hall in Guildford. Personally, I would pass policy on our main campaigns and then usefully spend the time training, creating tools and working together to make that policy a reality.

    My main concern is how lacklustre we are at delivering campaigns. We have done the square root of f-all over the last few years, even part screwed Freshers this year, and there has been plenty of get angry and campaigning about…

  • Delete the “pointless procedural wrangling” and was ever thus.

    However that had benefits (IMO) in terms of helping people’s development as politicians.

    From what I’ve seen I agree with you on the campaigns angle. Whatever the “homophobia is gay” campaign was a mainstream, centrepiece campaign for freshers it wasn’t

  • David Morton 18th Mar '09 - 12:25am

    A couple of quick points.

    1. the article is difficult to respond to properly because it doesn’t set out briefly and factually what has gone on. i understand the desire not to wash dirty linen in public but it seems that rubicon has been crossed. I’m not very interested in internal wranglings of Liberal Youth ( but thats just my prejudice, perhaps I should be) so i haven’t persued the story other than picking up on a couple of Tory Bear postings. The whole article assumes everyone is an illuminati which we aren’t. If its got to the point where mainstream articles are being written on a national site then perhaps time to drop the semaphore?

    2. The artcile seems to to suffer from deep seated neurosis both arguing that Young People should be trusted to run there own affairs but then equally that age is an excuse/explaination for all sorts of mistakes being made. I’m not sure I really buy this. If you are talking about people who in most cases are old enough to vote, fight in afghanistan, be a social worker, care for children etc then surely they can be judged on there own merits.

    3. I think Jenni is in many ways being far too hard on young people. How many “Adult” sections of the party have self destructed over the last 10 years ? Why bring age into it at all ?

  • I loved LDYS conference policy debates.

    They were a chance to make set-piece speeches without having to get called at Federal Conference; they let me debate issues with other liberals and work out what I really believed and what sort of liberal I was.

    You should debate the big issues at LY conference in order for people to explore their own opinions and to work things out.

    And why isn’t there an LY position on faith schools? Why wasn’t LY in the lead of the battle to save party policy against fees?

    And yes, there will be procedural motions; young people are working out how Conferences work – they will need to try most of the procedures out.

    I remember we used to have a silly motion – usually during hangover time on Sunday motion – when we could all (by consensus rather than formally) play stupid procedural games so that the worst of the “can you propose every procedural motion in the book in a single debate” nonsense was dealt with on a motion on relocating Radio 1 to Manchester rather than on something important.

    (Various positions, including two years on executive around the 1997 election and two more as Returning Officer)

  • Firstly thank you for all your comments.

    To clarify, I really just wanted to write the piece to clarify that young people should be able to make decisions for themselves.

    I wasn’t in any way arguing that young people only make mistakes I was merely pointing out that they should be able to make them without people sitting around looking down their noses at them. Most of the tone of people commenting has been light hearted and encouraging which is refreshing. However, many people don’t have this feeling, particularly people who were not involved in youth politics themselves.

    I have to say I am suspicious of the Holborn Manifesto in total but there are bits of it I personally agree with. I agree in general with the idea of accountability which this seems to lean towards but I just wonder how likely it is that this will happen. It’s difficult enough for people to be able to get things done as it is, adding more layers to this process I would argue isn’t altogether helpful and could cause things to grind to a halt.

    It is also wrong to assume that all members of Liberal Youth are 18+ there are a large amount of members who are not. And this is another point, there is a large difference in the ideals of people across the age range and I think it is difficult for any of us to claim to speak for everyone.

    I wasn’t trying to make this piece an argument for or against anyone in the executive. I have to admit it was in response to some recent comments about Liberal Youth and I felt that I wanted to argue the case for young people in general. This is particularly important to me as I have been a member since I was 16 and I wouldn’t be so involved in the party if it wasn’t for LDYS.

  • Simon Wilson 18th Mar '09 - 12:23pm

    In the days of the Student Democrats, we also got used to working together and supporting one another while fighting our corner (pretty successfully) in the scrum of NUS politics.

  • OK, hand declaring time – party supporter since time immemorial, member since 1990ish, member of SYLD Executive 1991 – 1997 (including as convener 1996,) now a councillor in Fife.

    The problem with the youth wings of the party (remember, LDYS and SYLD were distinctly separate organisations for years) was money. In Scotland, there was a limit to what we could do and we were largely dependent on money and support coming from Clifton Terrace (more support than money) and Cowley Street (very little ever.) At the same time, it gave a number of us experience of the party at a high level which we undoubtedly wouldn’t have got through normal elections. But was it real politics?

    It provided a good grounding in learning campaigning tactics and also learning about public speaking and debating, away from the spotlight of Conference. It allowed us to make mistakes, have radical views, and express them through our publications. It was LDYS, supported by SYLD, who got the motions on cannabis and the royal family on to the infamous 1994 conference agenda.

    The problem is that as the general tolerance of radical (and sometimes outlandish) views within all parties has reduced, so has the effectiveness of the youth wings (and that goes for the Tories and Labour too.) Would the party now really stand by someone as outspoken as Peter Hain was when he was chair of the Young Liberals? Probably not.

    Someone made the comment that too many people are interested in a political career and don’t want to blot the copybook before selection. That may be the case – I’ve not had a lot of connection with the youth wings over the last 10 years so wouldn’t like to comment on the people involved – but then there’s always been an element of that. Just as there’s always been a cliquiness about the top groupings. The key thing really is how does the party benefit from the youth wing? Does it get more members? Does it get more people on the ground out knocking on doors at elections? Does it generate interest in the party in a generation which is still turned off by politics? If it ticks all of these boxes, as far as I’m concerned they’re doing their jobs and can be left to get on with it.

    By the way, I was very impressed to note that Liberal Youth Scotland not only had a motion at the Scottish conference the other week, but even though it was the 10am Sunday motion they managed to get their speakers to it. Not sure that would have happened in my day…!

  • James G- I can understand that there is a big difference, but I am a bit lost as to how it has made itself a problem. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of professionalism, or even a desire for professionalism or even an obsession with professionalism. Just a lot of people not doing much…

    JC- thanks for this piece, it’s sparked some interesting debate (especially from those who have been in the party much longer than long-in-the-tooth LDYS people like me), but I fail to see your suspicion with ‘Holborn’. How could the organisation possible ‘ground to a halt’ further than it has? Would be start actively put out Tory leaflets?? Seriously, asking the exec to promise to communicate regularly and plan properly shouldn’t be too burdensome. It is what they should be doing as a basic rather than some luxury.

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