Opinion: Three opportunities for us to do better as a political party

Understanding what party membership and political volunteering really means to people in 2015

I have always felt that we have missed on all the learning from the voluntary sector about how to motivate and engage volunteers, but in 2015 we need to go even further than that. Just like the electorate we need to know a lot more about our members, their motivations, their skills and the ways they want to be useful.

Technology allows to engage all our members in different ways that are not bound by geography (which bearing in mind our lack of organisation in many local parties this is really important) and makes use of the talents they have outside their political interest. Finding people I knew from party politics on LinkedIn was a revelation too me – what amazing and useful jobs they had on the outside.

The new party staffing and decision making structures need to be built around harnessing this energy rather than falling back on traditional structures of how an office and management structure should work.  We need to remove the obstacles for more people to be actively involved in a meaningful and useful way.

Reform conference – please!

The structure of party conferences is archaic and dull – all based around prising cash out of organisations who need to show they are in the right place rather than doing the right thing or moving the debate forward. Around us the world of conferences is changing, breaking out of the ‘table at the front of the room’ format, crowdsourcing agendas and speakers for debate and discussion, carrying on the conversation once the event has ended, forging collaborations that can bring new ideas to the fore and populate the next gathering.

Our normal decision making business needs structure and democracy,  but around it we have the chance to create an event that is leading the way in developing liberal ideas. I don’t care whether people are members, if they have a contribution to make to developing liberalism in Britain I want to hear from them.  Our conference is an opportunity to make something amazing happen and we now have space to do it. We can create the biggest gathering of liberal thought and debate in the country.

Break free of the left/right rhetoric – and remember politics is about how we act and organise as well as how we want to shape the world

I know this is very hard task, because we have had this discussion before. But I have never seen myself as being left, right or even on the centre of British politics. I know in equal measure why I would not be a Tory or Labour member.

So what is Liberalism in this day and age? We keep advocating policies that have conformity at its core rather than freeing us from it. Around us people are building far more liberal ways of living and interacting that we as a party could ever have dreamed, so why are we not celebrating, embracing and enabling this? Why are we allowing Labour and Tories hem us in? How does this then translate to how we act and organise as a party?

* Laura Willoughby MBE is a Lib Dem member in Islington

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  • There is a fundamental and urgent need to tap into the skills and interests of all our members and volunteers.

    What is the point in sending out a web-designer (who could be building web presence) to deliver Focus leaflets?

    it would be very simple to send out a survey allowing people to indicate what skills and interests they have and how much time they might have to volunteer.

  • Peter Hayes 18th May '15 - 5:17pm

    @TCO you are of course right about tapping into members and supporters skills but I wonder how many skills are relevant. I worked in computing before retirement but high performance scientific computing does not manage a contacts database. I also did web design but an astronomical ephemeris page is not much help. We need graphic designers but we also need people to come up with the ideas and policies the designers can turn into winning web pages and leaflets.

  • @peter but the point is unless we ask we won’t know. My experience of joining the party involved an email saying “good we need leaflets delivering” and 300 focus turning up on my doorstep. No welcome, no personal greeting, no enquiry as to my interests or skills. Many would nt stick that fort of treatment, and why should they?

  • Richard Church 18th May '15 - 7:38pm

    “What is the point in sending out a web-designer (who could be building web presence) to deliver Focus leaflets?”

    Because a piece of paper stuffed through a letterbox still, even in the age of the internet, reaches more people than a website.

  • @Richard church.

    Many people can stuff paper through letterboxes. Few can design and build websites.

    Has anyone commissioned research into focus pact. We fetishise leaflet delivering but it’s not just fighting the last war; it’s the last but 5

  • Phil Beesley 18th May '15 - 7:52pm

    TCO: “What is the point in sending out a web-designer (who could be building web presence) to deliver Focus leaflets?”

    Many people may not want wish to continue their day job in their political life. The hypothetical web designer who delivers leaflets may wish to share wisdom about security, design, technical standards etc to another, without being the person who does the job.

    I think Peter Hayes may be a bit modest. He must have learned about logistics or risk analysis during his work careers.

  • Mavarine Du-Marie 18th May '15 - 7:54pm

    “Communities are a deep call. Belonging is a call to becoming. Too much belonging crushes becoming and too much becoming leads to isolation.” Father Chris Jamison

    Even still in church there is high and low, even though all are God’s children, even there the approach to him is different for each, as to which path you take. Politics has the same call to be on different path but the same destination within their parties. It is not rhetoric but a respect to ones approach and individualism and to recognize that in being left or right or even centered.

  • Laura, you make some good points. There is an archaic, musty smell to a lot of what passes for political activity in 2015. Our party is not alone in this.
    Part of the problem starts with ” The Palace of Westminster” — that cross between a Victorian Theme Park and David Cameron’s idea of a school (he really should get out more). Westminster would appear to great if you are an odd-ball attention-seeker like Jacob Rees-Mogg with more public school pretensions than sense. It is completely useless as an example of how to structure democratic debate and involve ordinary people.

    I agree with you about our conference having declined into an excuse to screw money out of people.
    When a party conference has more people attending from the media and the lobbyists than it has registered delegates, there has to be a problem.
    Although I guess with 8 MPs and no seats in the Cabinet we might not have this problem in September, or at least not to the same degree. 🙂

    On the points made in comments from others —
    – I don’t really know what a “web designer” actually does.
    What comes to mind is the rhyme “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”.

    I know what a focus deliverer does and like many others in the party I have shoved a few hundred thousand Focus through letter boxes in y time. There is something very democratic about this activity. It can be an activity shared by large numbers of people of all backgrounds, professions and social class. If done in a group it can be a good way to build a sense of team camaraderie.

    It would appear that some people now think that web designers are “above” such menial tasks. I hope that they read what Richard Church has said in his comment. Some people seem to get carried away with “brand building” and other terribly modern stuff. It is unfortunate for such people that the simple fact remans that getting people to trust you and then to vote for you and hopefully even join you and become active in the party is essentially a human being thing not a “brand” thing.

    I expect web designers are very useful, talented members of society. They are probably nothing to do with spiders.

  • Tam Langley 18th May '15 - 9:00pm

    Absolutely agree with your points Laura. Just last week one of our new members was telephoned by someone asking her to go to Tower Hamlets and knock on doors. They didn’t stop to ask about her skills or interests, let alone if she was mobile or had any interest in Tower Hamlets. Instead of trying to shoehorn people into roles we have designed a certain way, we need to ask what people are motivated by and support their initiatives. We’ve learnt the hard way that ‘death by Focus’ isn’t a sustainable approach.

  • Laura Willoughby 18th May '15 - 9:36pm

    Peter – true, but as I know at least 3 people with knowledge and skills in Behaviour Change it would be a shame not to see how they can be applied – not everything and everyone – that would be hard! Tam – last election I thought we should never work this hard to do so badly again – and then we just repeated 2010 again!

  • Actually I’m a web designer – done a lot of Lib Dem sites – and I was delivering hundreds of leaflets each week during the campaign. The two tasks are not incompatible, and as it happens I enjoy doing both.

    But the key thing is to match the tasks to people’s interests and skills. We’ll be holding a meeting for new members soon to meet the local team and to explain about all the ways they can get involved – social media, standing for Council, printing and stuffing, organising events, donating – with leaflet delivery as an option too.

  • @John Tilley “There is something very democratic about this activity. It can be an activity shared by large numbers of people of all backgrounds, professions and social class. If done in a group it can be a good way to build a sense of team camaraderie.”

    Yes – democratic as in the German Democratic Republic. A few bigwigs wait in the warm directing operations, whilst the majority are required to do menial work to ensure that they are engendered with the right sort of collectivist spirit.

  • Mary,
    I knew that as well as edit LDV, you deliver thousands of leaflets, remain the mainstay of our local party even since stepping down as chair, deliver leaflets, write books, organise people, deliver more lealfets and even talk to our local paper about the death of the lead singer of Hot Chocolate last week! I was particularly impressed with that last one a hummed “every one’s a winner, baby” for some time afterwards.

    I also knew you did something clever with computers but had not realised that meant you were a ‘web designer’ . 🙂

    I am more techno-innocent than techno-phobe and certainly not suffering from arachnophobia but of all the things you do delivering leaflets is probably the one that provides the most direct link with the human beings we sometimes describe as “voters”.

    It is a worry that some people who write enthusiastically in LDV about brands and marketting and the latest version of computer gimmicks like ‘Contact’ or the sinister-sounding ‘Nation Builder’ have lost sight of the fact that the people who live in the streets around them are more than a blip on a computer screen analysis of trends.

    Suffice to say that if all web designers were like Mary Reid it would be a top priority for the party to aim its recruitment drive exclusively at web designers. The problem is that you might be a one-off, Mary. 🙂

  • SIMON BANKS 19th May '15 - 1:41pm

    “The structure of party conferences is archaic and dull – all based around prising cash out of organisations who need to show they are in the right place rather than doing the right thing or moving the debate forward.” I don’t understand that comment at all, especially the bit about prising cash out of organisations. There was me listening to lively and well-informed debates on nuclear power, Trident, a 50p in the pound top income tax rate, internet filters, devolution on demand, and thinking the point was to thrash out and decide on key policies. No, it was about getting money from someone.

    Our conferences now have far more relatively small-group meetings, call them what you like, with opportunities for these to feed into formal policy. I’ve worked in and with the voluntary sector and I agree a VCS conference will have lots of breakout groups, but sometimes they’re misnamed and maybe three people at a table will take up 90% of the time talking before there are a few rushed questions. We actually do better than that.

    Certainly there are many more things we can do using the internet, but we must not forget that this party’s policies, unlike our main rivals’, are decided by votes by the members. Yes, many members can’t afford to attend conference, but most virtual alternatives are much more open to bias and even fraud. To be sure of doing things fairly, some system is essential.

  • Whole-heartedly agree with you Laura, regarding skills and experience, and that’s very much how we ran Lib Dem Team 2015.

    A s for conference, to be frank with 8 MPs, 1 MEP, and fewer local government councillors than ever we should be focussing on events that recruit members, support their development, and afford people the opportunity to shape of programmes of policy and direction.

    So, let’s cut them down to size: fewer days, less cost, and a greater focus on returning us to be a campaigning and activist force.

  • I think some have missed the important part of TCO’s post:

    “My experience of joining the party involved an email saying ‘good we need leaflets delivering’ and 300 focus turning up on my doorstep. No welcome, no personal greeting, no enquiry as to my interests or skills.”

    The welcome to new people is important and often done badly by many organisations. Some people would be happy to do certain tasks down the line once they knew more people, delivering leaflets is much more pleasent with people you have an existing relationship with.

  • Bill le Breton 19th May '15 - 6:37pm

    Jon, yeah, there’s a garden, but Voltaire looks after it.

    (you sound THE perfect member – welcome, hope you can stand my sense of humour and ‘get’ the Voltaire quote)


  • Jon Davies
    Welcome to the party.
    All the best Liberal Democrats are gardners.  
    Joyce and Richard Wainwright had an excellent garden and had a collection of Delphiniums which was of national significance.  
    As a new member you probably will not remember who they were, so check out Joyce’s obituary and it will help you to understand why one of our 8 MPs is Greg Mulholland –

    There is more to Liberal Democrats than meets the eye.  🙂

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