Opinion: Consumer Politics‏

Working in public affairs means I get to travel outside the tribe and visit other Party Conferences, if exhausting after 3-4 weeks, it’s never a bad experience. In the main they are not dissimilar; set pieces in the conference halls, fringe meetings where the real debates happen, training sessions, social events with plenty of opportunity to end your career if you enjoy them too much, and halls full of exhibitors.

Within those halls one of highlights is the opportunity to engage in a little shopping. We have Lib Dem Image, Labour have their Campaign Shop, the Conservatives have Shop for Change… and as an innovation a mall of other suppliers from Harvey Nichols to Crombie, to novelty Christmas decorations.

Liberal Democrat Image was set up by the party in 2000 to supply a range of branded campaign goods. It’s a franchise operation run by Stuart and Leola Card, and the arrangement requires them to provide activist essentials but with the option to broaden the range should they wish.

This they do. Around 75% of the expanded product range has come from member suggestions, and some come from third parties like Bob Russell’s MP playing cards and Clegg and Cables Credit Crunch Chocolate. The only time LDI have hesitated to sell a product was a proposed range of party underwear “for reasons of good taste”*.

There is rarely anything at a Conference, beyond internal campaign badges that you can’t buy direct on the Internet, but there still nothing like a shop.

Political parties are a little like football teams at times. Although you go for main event you still want to wear the strip, buy the pin badge and repaint your living room in team colours (if you live alone and wish to remain that way). In particular proud parents regularly inflict their team on their children, and have a wide variety of crap to choose from should they wish to raise the next biggest fan of Leyton Orient or West Ham. Merchandising is not just an important income stream for football teams, whose finances are usually just as interesting as political parties, but it’s part of belonging to the club. You don’t have to buy anything, but most people want to, and beyond occasional whinges about the price of strips there are a range a choices for everyone.

The question I have then, which is perhaps highlighted by the underpants example is are we too conservative? Whilst I can quite see that boxers emblazoned with slogans such as “More than 30”, or “My second pair is in Eastbourne”, might raise eyebrows… it worked rather well for the pro-European campaign (“Better off Bigger”), and LDYS (“Lib Dems on Drugs”), and if there’s a market, why not?

In that regard a little more competition and diversity might be no bad thing. The Conservatives Mall experiment from this shopper’s point of view was a great success, and their basic goods are just a little bit more fun. And I’m afraid I did succumb to this item, I’m a new parent… we will buy anything… anything…

I guess a more pertinent question is whether we’re a big enough party to have more than one shop, or putting ‘money lenders in the temple’ of our Conference really fits the Party ethos. Certainly words like consumerism cause a number of our activists palpitations. LDI point out that campaign basics are their most reliable sellers, they are a business not a charity, and I doubt there is a queue of suppliers that are being excluded… but…

We are an entrepreneurial party, we have to be. We innovate, we campaign on things that no one else has thought of that frequently then become mainstream. We have an enormous well-pool of creative and business talent within the party that we periodically try, but fail to use. And there are clear gaps… where is the Lib Dem jewellery?… the clothing range is not exciting… the Brian Eno/Liberator MP3 collection (please god no)… and baby grows…

I reckon if LDV, LDI and the Party put their heads together and ran an annual style competition for new products a lot of new talent would emerge… and it would be fun… maybe with an annual dragon’s den event at conference. It won’t win us any seats, but don’t underestimate the importance of all those non-campaigning things we do in keeping people involved for the long-term.

Whether a Conference Mall would work or not is debatable, but it might be worth a try. Perhaps commentators on this thread could recommend products they’d like to see sold next time they stroll around… and if there are any budding entrepreneurs out there with items ready to shift… get in touch with the Cards at LDI here.

*For real bad taste party merchandising see here and then have a shower.

Andy Mayer is a Liberal Democrat member in Bermondsey and Old Southwark.

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  • Simon Titley 1st Nov '09 - 6:27pm

    Andy raises an interesting point but the problem isn’t so much ‘choice’ – after all, there’s nothing stopping other people selling things at conference and some, such as ALDC and Liberator, do.

    The main problem with Lib Dem Image’s range is that it is almost devoid of political content. Most of what it sells is tat.

    When I joined the Liberal Party in the 1970s, the precursor of Lib Dem Image was the Liberal Publications Department (LPD), which at one time had a Rowntree-owned shop in Poland Street in Soho. LPD did sell rosettes, Shuttleworths and the like, but its mainstay was political pamphlets.

    I appreciate that nowadays there are new, online outlets for political debate. But that does not explain the absence of political content from Lib Dem Image’s offer.

    I suspect this is not Lib Dem Image’s fault. The Westminster Bookshop and Tony Greaves’s second-hand bookstall no longer appear at conference because there is not enough custom to make it worthwhile.

    As long as conference delegates would rather buy a fridge magnet than John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’, we will lack the interesting range of merchandise that Andy seeks.

  • Andy – I take it you have a bought a “When I grow up I want to graduate from LSE” babygrow as well…



  • Liberal Neil 2nd Nov '09 - 10:43am

    Isn’t it Craig Card?

  • Sadly Tim I didn’t, although the vast array of hideous University paraphernalia tourists buy is a case in point about exploiting merchandising opportunities in small organisations with a big profile.

    Neil is correct… oops… new parent excuse… I have sleep deprivation…

    Eric, I’m not an American, but you get them godless unpatriotic socialists… you never know when they’re going to disarm and let the British in…

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