Opinion: Can We Win Our Young People?

I wasn’t going to comment on Liberal Youth’s latest endeavours in eating its own young while the executive elections were ongoing; for all the passions they’ve engendered, the candidates themselves aren’t the problem. But I felt I couldn’t let Jenni Clutten’s contribution to Lib Dem Voice yesterday go unanswered; not because what she said was wrong, but because what she didn’t say was…

When I talk to people in the party about Liberal Youth I ask them one simple question; what has it actually done? Reading University branch is a great success, but that’s because Gareth Epps is an outstanding PPC and the Reading campaign team have worked hard to make that happen; Liberal Youth as a federal organisation had very little to do with that. Jenni herself became a councillor, which is a stonking result and very welcome, but I rather suspect that it had a lot more to do with the excellent work of the campaign team in Lewisham and Liberal Youth London that it did with the SAO corporately.

It’s only natural that all the fuss has focused on Liberal Youth’s status as an SAO; Paddy Ashdown’s words on the importance of the organisation’s independence continue to ring in its ears. But that concept of Liberal Youth as an independent campaigning organisation and internal pressure group is very specific to those two aims, and it’s worth reflecting on how poorly Liberal Youth is performing even that function; the revisionists have painted a fascinatingly inaccurate tale of how Liberal Youth maintained its opposition to tuition fees, for example.

What we have failed to recognise for too long is that what we actually ask of Liberal Youth is for it to deliver the whole enchilada; all campaigning and recruitment of those under 26. Now that’s fine in and of itself, but to deliver it you need a radically different organisation from the internal pressure group. And what do we do to ensure that Liberal Youth is that sort of organisation? We pack it all up in an SAO and tell it to get on with it.

The result is an organisation that writes its own ticket, that decides for itself what to do, how to manage doing it and how to evaluate whether it has done it right. And again, that’s fine if the organisation can be guaranteed to have the skills and resources to make those decisions, but with Liberal Youth we know that isn’t the case; heck, if there’s any party member who believes that the ability to do the job is necessarily correlated to the ability to get elected to do it, you might as well leave now, because clearly Labour and the Tories are far better at doing the job because they’re better at getting elected…

I’m put in mind of Martina Navratilova’s famous comment on the difference between eggs and bacon; the chicken was involved, the pig was committed. It is of course vital that young members are involved in these activities, but at the moment we expect them to execute them too. The Liberal Youth Executive now being elected will need not only to decide what to do, but then to go out and do it; if Much Binding In The Marsh Parish Council operated like that we’d be up in arms, a barrage of Focuses at the ready, and yet it’s that sort of basic structural deficiency that we allow to exist at the very heart of our party.

Above all, let us never underestimate how vital it is that we get this right. We knew that achieving a generational shift in voting was vital long before Obama proved how spectacularly it could be delivered. But all of our success in delivering that shift in university towns came from the local parties and the regions; the SAO charged with making it happen was nowhere to be seen.

When Liberal Youth rebranded (and by the way, the answer to my original question, what has Liberal Youth done, is exactly that; it’s changed its name…) it got one thing absolutely right; Britain has a liberal youth and we need to make it Liberal Democrat. But what are the next ten words? Liberal Youth didn’t have an answer then and it doesn’t now, because the answer isn’t to be found in the basement of Cowley Street, it’s to be found on all the other floors. As Jenni pointed out far better than I, we have the policies and the values to achieve that Obama-esque generational shift. But unless we fundamentally address Liberal Youth’s position within the party and reverse the almost negligent under-resourcing of its activities, the shift will never be more than a gentle nudge.

* Gareth Aubrey is a Liberal Democrat councillor and a former LDYS General Executive Member and Policy Committee Chair

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  • Amen to all of that Gareth. Liberal Youth can’t simply jump on other people’s outcomes. They have to have their own and then activities aligned to meet them. It isn’t rocket science. What has Liberal Youth done over the last couple of years? No idea… It isn’t bureacracy, it’s a lack of conception of why they exist and getting down to doing it.

  • Liberal Neil 18th Mar '09 - 1:10pm

    There is a lot of sense in what you say.

    For what it’s worth I don’t think anyone in the party expects the youth organisation to be soley responsible for campaigning to young people and students.

    I think a key role for LY is to help enable all party campaigners to do it more effectively though.

  • “Jenni herself became a councillor, which is a stonking result and very welcome, but I rather suspect that it had a lot more to do with the excellent work of the campaign team in Lewisham and Liberal Youth London that it did with the SAO corporately.”

    I agree up to a point.

    I must confess to a little irritation at the election of two liberal youth exec members – Jenni and myself – as councillors being used as an example of the success of Liberal Youth. I can’t speak to the result in Lewisham but my win in Oxford was down to the hard work of my agent, my predecessor and a small group of other activists.

    Where LDYS/Liberal Youth did play a part, however, was in the provision of training and as forum for sharing ideas. I represent a very student heavy seat and the local party in Oxford is better able to campaign to students because of what we have learnt from other seats that have been succesful at winning the student vote. This is where Liberal Youth can have value and should focus its efforts, supporting and enhancing local campaigns.

    Liberal Youth does have a valuable role and the gruesome turn that this years elections have taken should not lead us to forget.

  • But it’s surely an improvement on my days in the Young Liberals, when half a dozen of us (the Regional Executive) would meet in the buffet at Manchester Victoria’s station and plot the annexation of Yorkshire ……

    Sad but true!

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Mar '09 - 11:17am

    Much of this seems to be in code, there are references to events and personalities and issues which it seems to be assumed we all will know, but to those of us who have no recent knowledge of Liberal Youth are meaningless.

    It does not see, from what I can make out, however, from wrangles that have gone on in the past and will go on in the future. When we are young, these things do seem to be epic, and perhaps looking back on them years later we think “oh, what was all that fuss about?” but also we may find them useful learning experiences on which we may draw. Encouraging a group of young members to come together and do their own campaigning and organisation seems to me to be a thoroughly good thing, even if in the end it doesn’t work out too well.

    The idea of SAOs was that the party would have structures which feed into its decision making system based on other groupings than geographical. It is important to recall that it was never the aim that the “Young Liberals” (as they were when I was a member) was some sort of junior membership of a lesser status than “adult members”. It conferred full membership of the Party on its members.
    In fact, at a time when full membership of the party required membership of a constituency party which paid its fees – and some didn’t – membership of an SAO could be the only way you could be a member of the party (my membership of the Young Liberals was the only way I was a member during the years leading up to Liberal/SDP merger).

    The original idea of the Young Liberals was that it was an organisation of adults in their early careers, not just youth and students. Thus it had an upper age limit of 30. It was one of Jenni Clutten’s predecessors as a LibDem councillor for Downham (though this was some years before she became a councillor), Rachel Pitchford as she then was, who as Chair of the Young Liberals and a member of the negotiating team which forged our party’s constitution, who negotiated the retention of the autonomy which the Young Liberal had at the cost of accepting the lower age limit of 26.

    The higher age limit meant there were some in their late 20s who found positions in the leadership of the movement quite a convenient way of having a stage to speak from in the party. The lower age limit was meant to focus the SAO more directly on youth recruitment and perhaps to quieten down the way it was used by older people seen as dangerous careerists. If it was run by younger people, they would be less interested in doing radical things in the wider party. The cost of this, however, may have led to the lack of longer experience which members in their late 20s gave to the organisation.

    It wasn’t the aim of the organisation that it should be the only way young people could be a member. It always was the case that some chose to be active through it, many others chose to be active through mainstream party work. In some cases, I know it was with me, it was a way of keeping involved in the party during one’s young adulthood when the many moves one makes as one pursues study at starting a career means one doesn’t stay in one geographical place long enough to do much through local associations.

  • “had at the cost of accepting the lower age limit of 26.”

    You can be a LY member up to 30 on the payment of an additional membership. I was chair aged 27-8. The federal party only recognises members under 26 but that is only really relevant when it comes to conference representatives.

    Students of any age can also be members.

  • I enjoyed reading this so thank you for writing it. I just wanted to say that I wasn’t in any way implying that it was solely because of liberal youth that members including myself had got anywhere. I know that’s not true. But what I would say is that we are able to make partnerships between the party in general and liberal youth. The idea that we can support each other is important and I think cases that show this kind of relationship are helpful and personally what I feel should be encouraged.

    I would never want to imply that my win in Lewisham was not down to the hard work of so many local members, but I wouldn’t even be in the position if it wasn’t for Liberal Youth engaging me before my local party had ever met me.

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Mar '09 - 9:06am

    Hywel, thanks for the clarification, I was unaware of the provision to remain a LY member until 30. I guess this was an amendment since the organisation was set up with the Liberal/SDP merger, since I don’t recall it being in place at that time. My own membership of the youth wing finished with the merger since the age reduction ruled me ineligible to be a member, and I’ve paid very little attention to it since then.

    Are those aged 26-30 who pay to be members also voting members? Or are they non-voting members who are allowed to be office-holders if the voting members vote them to it?

    I’m aware also of the mature students issue. There’s an awkwardness to this, but there was also an awkwardness when there were two separate SAOs, the Young Liberals and the Union of Liberal Students as there seemed then to be too much of an overlap of functions. I seem to recall that claiming to be a “mature student” on the basis of some part time study and then on the basis of that joining ULS was also a way of being an official member of the Liberal Party when your local association hadn’t paid its affiliation fees.

    The theoretical possibility of the “youth wing” being taken over by a bunch of middle-aged mature students is an interesting one.

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