Opinion: The Lib Dems need to move into the 21st Century

I attended my first English Council at the weekend, the little-known body nominally supervising the party’s administration in England. Amid the constitutional amendments and letting off steam about the evil Federal party, it was possible to reflect on the huge challenges the party now faces. Inevitably most of the attention is on policies and messaging. This is vital but not sufficient. But we also need to catch up with the way politics is now done. I don’t think enough people appreciate the implications of this.

We can overdo the analogies between politics and warfare, but some of the same dynamics apply to both. Warfare is polarising between the high-cost, high-tech approach of the US, and low tech insurgencies. Those stuck in between are unable to cope with either threat.

And so the most effective political machines are now using expensive databases, paid professionals and nicely produced literature and advertising. We have seen both the Tory and Labour parties deploy these modern techniques to our cost in marginal constituencies. Meanwhile, insurgencies – loosely organised activists making a splash – are also becoming more effective, thanks to social networking and the internet. The Liberal Democrats are in severe danger of being caught in between – with the clumsy structures and techniques of a mainstream party, without the money and professionalism to compete.

As a party we have critical mass in some parts of the country, but not in most of it. Somehow we need to be both a mainstream party and an insurgency, depending on the local situation. The first part means money. Most Lib Dem activists have little idea about serious fundraising, agonising on whether £10 or £15 is enough to charge for the next Pizza and Politics event and favouring high-cost low-return techniques. But we have to get more, bigger donations from wealthy people. There is also a future for online fundraising of lots of small donations gathered cheaply, though this is hard to get going. Neither method can be isolated from the rest of our campaigning. People will give money to support a cause, and especially people, they believe in. This can’t be left to a shadowy group of fundraisers; everybody, and especially candidates, has to be involved. Gathering in the money is as much part of modern campaigning as gathering in the votes. The party has had some success at this nationally – but the concepts need to be extended more widely, and we need to develop online techniques.

But we also need to celebrate and facilitate insurgency. Low cost, big splash efforts organised by handfuls of activists. These will draw new people in, especially younger ones, who can contribute time and money to mainstream campaigns. And they are fun.

It is tempting to follow on these thoughts by thinking of ways to reorganise the various parts of the party. That is a distraction. Yes, much of our organisation is obsolete (especially local parties in my view) – but it is much more important to develop modern techniques first. The rest follows.

Modern campaigning tools; modern fundraising; having fun. These will be as important as getting our message right. And we can’t go back to how we used to win elections.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • perhaps this subject would be better ‘indoors’ ie the members forum.

  • Give this man an honorary VPship of Liberal Youth at once!

  • Excellent post.
    One might add that we also have to raise our game when it comes to online communication. Wherever we are going, that side of things has to work really well…

  • Nick (not Clegg) 28th Jun '11 - 5:53pm

    “we have to get more, bigger donations from wealthy people”

    “much of our organisation is obsolete (especially local parties in my view) ”

    Oh, brave new world!!!

  • Robson – what monstrous crime did he commit to deserve that?

  • Quite correct to say that it depends where you are, how big / influential in an area as to how you do it (whatever “it” happens to be). So, no one -size (or shape) fits all. I am not at all sure how Campaigns Dept’s current shape helps this kind of approach.

    Fundraising by (esp) candidates from rich people is no new idea – it started coming to prominence in our party (or should I say I started noticing it) around 5 or 6 years ago. I am intrinsically wary of this approach. Other parties have found great difficulty with this, as large donors will want to control the action, get something out of the arrangement etc. Democracy loses by tending to plutocracy!

    The party has lost serious funds by being in Govt and losing the Short money, and this has come at a bad time. I would like to think we could raise mass funds from a mass supporter base, but in reality, Lib Dems are not popular enough at present to expect much largesse out of that. I actually think we need to do something about the politics before the fundraising is likely to come good. IMO you are right in saying we mustn’t be caught between two stools.

    But I am struggling to get my head round how to bring in enough funds. I think you have to look locally to generate money. Maybe, just maybe, spending will then be designed more to benefit local campaigning needs. But I have also seen the problem of parochialism ( a classic case being a few years back when certain members campaigned hard in a Town Council byelection to the direct disbenefit of the Euro Election on the same day!)

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Jun '11 - 9:53am

    But we have to get more, bigger donations from wealthy people.

    And tailor our policies to attract them?

    P*** off.

    I mean that seriously, (well, ok I could have used politer language, but it would have taken longer to say the same I said succintly above). In general when I see words like “modernise” or “move into the 21st century” in the headline, I know I the details will be an argument to move further to the political right. And my response to that is two words, the first has four letters and the second is “off”.

    Our party was most successful when it discovered different ways of campaigning which were NOT what the professional ad-men and PR people said we should do. Homely amateur style Focus leaflets worked because they showed us as something different, not remote alien “politicians”, but ordinary people who had got together to work in their community. Now THIS is what we need to be getting back to as a party, and funnily enough if we do we will get the members back, and then we will be able to expand. Flashy ad-men campaigns dictated by big money from the top don’t always work, and anyway if that’s what our party is going to be like in the future, it’s against all I stand for in politics and have ever stood for, so count me out, I don’t want to be part of it.

  • Pompey Richard 29th Jun '11 - 12:22pm

    I am disappointed to see a knee jerk attack on ‘wealthy people’. For me one of the core values of a liberal is judging people as individuals not on group labels. Just as importantly it is a nonesense to suggest that we don’t have plenty of support among those who earn over £50,000 or that they want policy to be changed before they give a donation. They are a lot of liberal minded profesionals in both private and public sectors who are good prospects for donations or regular standing orders. 10 people giving £40 per month is just under £5000 a year. Remember plenty of liberal minded doctors earn well over £100,000 (and we were happy to listen to their views before arguing for a change in Government policy). Would it really be wrong to try and see if we can can get an average of just 1 doctor in every constituency to support us with a £500 donation?

    Traditional regular Focus style campaigning is important but it in many places it is not enough on its own in many areas, particular those facing Labour campaigns backed by Union money and resources. better funding doesnt mean an end to community based campaigning but it can make it a lot better and allow local parties to be more flexible and responsive.

  • Kirsten de Keyser 29th Jun '11 - 3:00pm

    “The Liberal Democrats are in severe danger of being caught in between – with the clumsy structures and techniques of a mainstream party, without the money and professionalism to compete.”

    How about some Passion? Conviction? Anger? Blood!
    All free stuff at the very heart of any self respecting political party.

    The party needs to stop behaving like a political Rotary Club look-alike and start shouting about our values and how we’re going to fight tooth and nail to get them through the morass that is our outdated privileged political system.

    Get that right and the money will flow in all by itself.

  • “People will give money to support a cause, and especially people, they believe in.”

    Sadly, in the tuition fees fiasco, we lost their trust. Sadder still, we aren’t doing anything constructive to regain that trust.

    Drew Westen’s book “The Political Brain: the role of emotion in deciding the fate of the nation” is written about the problems of the Democrats (pre-Obama). Sadly most of the criticisms apply to us, now. Why on earth would people vote for us because of some arcane technical issues to do with the NHS when the Tories had already stolen the moral high ground and promised to protect it?

    Unfortunately we have wandered down the wrong pathway in our early approach to the coalition and there is a marked reluctance to retrace our steps and try to get that trust back. It will happen, but it will take a long time.

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Jun '11 - 4:48pm

    Pompey Richard

    I am disappointed to see a knee jerk attack on ‘wealthy people’.

    It was neither knee-jerk, nor an attack. It was carefully considered, and it was just to note that there is always a danger when relying on certain sources of income to tailor one’s policies to suit those sources. Over the period of my adult lifetime UK society has become much more unequal, yet it is now considered bad form to talk about these things in a way that it was not in the more egalitarian times of my youth. It is as if racism or homophobia was increasing, but it was considered bad form to talk about race and homosexuality.

  • Pompey Richard I echo Matthew in saying I wasn’t “attacking” rich people – I was suggesting that ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune”, and saying that isn’t necessarily a good thing. I may be wrong, but I think Matthew Green had a rather different level of donation in mind than your “just £500 from one doctor in each constituency”. However, I have no objection if people come forward wanting to donate, or even if we organise promise auctions etc with pricey items for sale – if that is what our constituency would sustain.

    It is not the people who make the donation who are the issue, but the size of the donation – and the level of influence it potentially brings. One other particular problem with candidates being in the lead over this, is that there will be a tendency to fetter that candidate’s judgment, if they know their major donor has a particular view on a particularly critical issue.

  • Kirsten de Keyser 29th Jun '11 - 6:48pm

    So let’s beat the drum louder for that overhaul of the funding of political parties, limiting individual donations to £5K.
    It’s an idea which would send a tsunami through our politics, with effects far beyond the earthquake of the idea itself.

  • Nick(not Clegg) 29th Jun '11 - 9:53pm

    The English Council is a lot like the House of Lords as depicted by W S Gilbert. It does “nothing in particular” but does it “very well”.To put it another way, it’s a waste of oxygen.

    @ Pompey Richard: your fourh sentence may have been true eighteen months ago; I’m not sure that it’s still the case..

    @Tim13: quite so.

  • Martin Land 30th Jun '11 - 8:24am

    Not sure I find your approach to fundraising any more professional than that we have in place today. It just seems to be a poor imitation of ‘new’ Labour.

    21st Century fundraising must be based on small regular donations – £5K limit? That’s an absolute maximum in my book. Why do we think so many charities have settled on the ‘Just £3 a month…’ formula?

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