Opinion: the challenges facing Liberal Youth are not of policy, but of delivery

The following article is written by Martin Shapland who is a Candidate for Chair of Liberal Youth.

In an article on Wednesday, Richard Heinrich and Phil Jarvest – two of my competitors for the Chair of Liberal Youth – sought to open up a policy discussion about our Higher Education funding policy.

For the record I do fully support our current policy to abolish fees. I believe that education is the great driver of social change and individual liberty. I believe that widening access to quality education is fundamentally important, not just at higher education, but at Primary and Secondary level and also apprenticeships and vocational training. I believe that education is a public good and should be treated as such and I believe that a strong society is one which invests in education for all.

Our policy on education funding, not just for higher education, but also the Pupil Premium, was a driving reason for me joining the party, and staying committed to it. I’ve fought to keep the policy at conferences and in committees, and I will continue to fight for free education if I am elected Chair of the Youth Party and if I am not.

But the article is the wrong answer to the wrong question. We last updated our policy on Higher Education in December and it is a policy which continued to have overwhelming support at our special conference in Birmingham just two weeks ago – the policy is settled and there are far greater challenges that the Youth Party needs to address.

There hasn’t been a training event for months, nor has an edition of the member’s magazine the Libertine been published since July 2009. The Youth Party’s impact on the General election was minimal and our branches continue to languish without proper support and direction. The challenges facing the youth party are not of policy, but of delivery.

My priorities for the Youth Party are not policy based, but aimed at ensuring that members get real value from the Youth Party. Part of that is sound management – take the Libertine, I was the copy editor of the last edition in July 2009, delivering an edition in just three weeks in addition to my other roles.

I am also the only candidate with experience of chairing a national Committee and I know all about working in a team and achieving goals and projects to time and to deadline – my last project before standing down was to secure £18,000 of funding for an international seminar being held in July this year. Sure, professional management is a buzz word used by all candidates for all positions, but I’m the only candidate to have demonstrated it in office.

But much more fundamental is our internal structure and the way we support our branches at the business end of what we do.

At the moment we have an isolated and cumbersome national executive, and a patchwork of regional organisations which are ill-defined and badly organised. In some regions we have executives elected by AGM, in others Conveners are appointed. None have status in the Federal Constitution and confusion reigns.

If we are to encourage effective campaigns, and deliver quality training for our members on the ground we need to reform the way the Youth party works by devolving power down to a network of strong regions: Strong regions with responsibility for liaising between the national executive and local branches, co-ordinating and assisting branches, for membership development, local media and delivering training and national campaigns at the local level, the most effective level.

Breathing life into Liberal Youth at the regional level is imperative. I remember when Scotland was run from London by the National Executive only a few years ago. Since a new National Executive has taken over in Scotland there has been a new dynamism; we have seen our membership rise dramatically, we’ve seen new branches forged, and with it campaigns and media have followed. The same has happened in Wales since the Launch of IR Cymru last year.

As someone who has served as a Branch Chair, a regional convener and a national executive member I believe that adopting that model on a regional basis in England, and helping IR Cymru and Liberal Youth Scotland to grow is the missing link in the governance of our Youth Party. I believe that the party should be lead not by dictats from the top, but by our grass roots. I believe that the answers to the questions that candidates for Chair should be providing are not questions of policy, but of delivery.

At the end of the day the role of Chair is to set strategic direction for the organisation. Arguments about whether or not we should change our policy on a specific issue is a sideshow and a distraction – the debate candidates for Chair should be having is how we deliver for our members on the ground. That’s what I will be arguing for over the coming weeks and if elected, that’s what I will deliver in office.

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15 Comments

  • Very impressive. You’ve got my vote (for the second time this week).

  • It is all about delivery and the twin tasks of sustainable campaigns and broad member involvement. And signing up to the Holborn Manifesto’s commitment to openness. But Martin ‘gets it’ in as far as the problem with previous Chairs has been talking big, and doing little. The other thing that I have always liked about Martin is that he can write well. It probably shouldn’t be a major variable in who to vote for, but it does make it more enjoyable when reading his thoughts.

  • Duncan Crowe 28th May '10 - 1:12pm

    “Arguments about whether or not we should change our policy on a specific issue is a sideshow and a distraction – the debate candidates for Chair should be having is how we deliver for our members on the ground.”

    Perhaps. But (while I’d have no quibbles about the last point) it would seem that an aid to recruitment is the effect we can have on influencing party policy and practice, especially now we’re in government in Westminster and moreover there has been a natural tendency for Youth wings to be a more radical, more forthright and a reforming voice within their parties. One of the challenges the party faces if electoral reform is passed is making the transition from an organization structured around fighting elections under a First Past the Post system (“Tories cannot win here” politics) to more ideologically driven politics. Now, as compared to the other two major parties (or three in Scotland) we’re better placed to do that because we have a more substantive comprehensive political philosophy to fall back on however – to shamelessly rip of the buddhists – ‘change comes only from within’. I remember I was working the Cambridge freshers fair 4 years ago and a fresher complained to me that while he liked the LibDems his local party had done a lot of negative campaigning in the elections and that seriously put him off. I explained that local campaigns were run more or less independently of the central party and that I didn’t approve of that kind of thing, personally. I’m rather glad he later went on to become a Treasurer of the society, but I’d like to be able to say ‘well the Liberal Youth organisation functions amongst other things as a vector for change against retrogressive campaigning, and the kind of targetting politics which might have made sense under FPTP but which there’ll be little place for under a fairer voting system’. People would be more willing to participate if they saw the function of LY within the LibDems as acting as a voice for liberalism and reform, I feel, and not simply as an additional subset of the overall machine which happens to contain ‘young people’ and students.

  • Some very well made points and certainly hits the nail on the head for me

  • The task of the next Chair- whoever it may be- is to win the voting change referendum. End of.

  • Alix- but what about all of those synergies that need to be leveraged? Won’t the candidates have to perform some kind of Porter’s 5 Forces exercise?

  • Duncan Crowe 28th May '10 - 9:11pm

    @Martin – “and as International Officer I did just that with the Parties policy on Darfur”, not only am I aware of this but in fact the first time I met you, you were standing underneath a very large sign with ‘DARFUR’ written on it at the NUS conference. I certainly did not intend what I wrote to be a criticism of what you were saying merely pointing out that the youth wing of a party being clearly seen as a force for influencing policy (in a way which is perhaps free from the compromises which are often made in the interests of being ‘electable’) can be an important recruitment tool in its own right. As the former chair of one affiliated university branch and the current President of another I agree with you entirely that the organisation’s involvement with its affiliates certainly has a lot of room for improvement and (while wanting to remain as neutral as possible) a Chair who saw improving that support structure as his main priority would certainly be a very useful thing for the health of the organisation.

  • I agree with Alix. My principle concern is that of my experiences with Liberal Youth, they are perceived by candidates as being simply a free source of labour who can be shipped around the country to post leaflets. Putting aside the argument of whether this is even effective, people feeling as though they are being asked to do the work but enjoying not much of a say in key policies (which is of course what brings many to the party in the first place) is a cooking pot for disillusion.

    Martin has the right general idea I think – involvement needs devolving to a regional level. But the great priviledge of being a Liberal Democrat is that membership comes with a say in every level of party function. The policy debate is key, and Liberal Youth needs to be responsible to the legitimate concerns of its members. People need to see that their thoughts on policy are being carried to the Federal Executive and the Parliamentary Party.

    Of course, all this will need achieving on a shoestring budget.

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