Opinion: Why do we need Liberal Youth?

Since getting involved in the party almost nothing has disappointed me more than Liberal Youth. At times it appears remote, unaccountable and to have little to say on policy outside of the tuition fee debate. Given its elections are going on, I thought it was the right time to ask, why do we need Liberal Youth? Because working regularly with enthusiastic students (and being a young person myself) I’m not sure we do, for the following reasons…

1. As ‘young Lib Dems’ do we actually need a single voice?

I would argue no. Unlike a student body at a university or say, a geographic region, I would argue young members of the Lib Dems are not a collective that is advantaged by having a singular voice. I’m not convinced that a recent graduate living in London, a 16 year old lad in Scotland and a current student at Exeter have enough in common to justify an organisation speaking for all of us to the party on issues. Surely like all other self defined groupings in the party, the young (or HE students) can come together to campaign on issues when we need to (tuition fees, street crime and youth unemployment) and fit into other groupings when we don’t (most other issues). I really don’t believe our age, or study status, is a particularly defining political characteristic.

2. Is LY the best way of getting university students involved?

If students at a university wants to set up a Lib Dem society they will, LY or no LY. After all there is nothing more resourceful than an enthusiastic student with only 10 hours of contact time with lecturers a week. Speaking from experience, the biggest challenge for any student group is maintaining itself over a number of years. University turnover means most student groups lose between 30%-75% of its active membership to graduation every year. How does LY help tackle this? I see the relevant local party as being a much better life support than the national youth wing of a party. In addition, if we encouraged student groups to get on with it and produce their own materials from their SU grant, run their own campaigns, not only would they get more out of it but it would cost the party a whole lot less. The quality of materials wouldn’t be as high but it is plain wrong to think flashy flyers make a good student campaign. A strong, primary link between a local party and a student group benefits both the students involved (giving them real, on the ground campaign experience) and the local party (giving them willing and skilled volunteers), I’m not sure the LY model of supporting student groups benefits anyone in the same way.

3. Is LY the best way of getting graduates/non-university goers involved?

Again, I would argue no. There is often no more difficult time for people than when they finish full time education. I have seen this first hand with my volunteering: all of the social opportunities university and high school gave are suddenly taken away, friendship groups disperse and best friends are often an expensive trip away. On top of this with the recession, many young people are struggling to pay the bills let alone find a role in life which they can be passionate about.

To engage these people, not only should we campaign about the right issues but we should also be providing a community for campaigning and meeting new people. Nothing I have seen from Liberal Youth has done this. Where are the local LY clubs outside of universities? Where is the outreach to members not already engaged? Many people join political parties because they are effectively social clubs and from the outside looking in, LY only looks fun for the small number of people already involved. A less centralised organisation of ‘young’ Liberal Democrat social clubs, operated by volunteers regionally would be a whole lot better at providing both campaigning and social opportunities for young Liberal Democrats than a distant and removed London based group. By propping up LY we are taking resources away from allowing organic, grass roots youth involvement that is much more sustainable, less expensive and in a small L way, more liberal.

So candidates, why do we need Liberal Youth?

I’d love to get comments from upcoming LY exec candidates or its supporters to convince me I’m wrong and that we do!

Martin Crosby is 24 and a recent graduate and works as a volunteer coordinator at Kingston University. He is also involved in youth projects as a volunteer and is membership officer for Merton Liberal Democrats.

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27 Comments

  • I like the idea of societies using their SU grant funding to produce campaign literature and this effectively adding to the national level of resource. Though grant funding varies hugely from institution to institution so it may well not work everywhere, or there may be other things that a limited supply of funding can be used for of equal benefit.

    However, from a “standing start” I’m not sure that works all the way – if I had rolled up to uni a week before Freshers, and managed to wrangle a Lib Dem stall, I’d have needed some resources for the stall to draw people in. Would what my local party had lying around ready to lend have been suitable to use? Society funding for producing materials would at most unis only have followed if I’d managed to recruit whatever number of members it took for a recognised society, which varies from place to place. So I think there needs to be at least some kind of central resource pool to tap into to get going.

  • Great article Martin

  • “Went to Uni and made loads of friends through the Lib/SDP socities, using national literature on their freshers stalls”

    Signing me up in the process IIRC! (Hi Bill 🙂

    On the main point – LDYS/LY existed as A route to involve/train/develop/encourage young activists. Jo Swinson’s party career developed through LDYS, Sarah Teather’s (to the best of my knowledge) didn’t. Part of that is to provide a “sandbox” type environment where people can learn the skills of speech making, motion writing, working in and through a committee etc etc in an environment where it doesn’t matter if you get it wrong. Even if an LDYS/LY motion is tottally pointless in what it says (many are!) every passed policy has involved someone in researching the issue, writing a motion in a structured coherent way, lobbying for support for it, making a speech etc.

    It’s not the only route

  • Some local parties are absolutely moribund when it comes to discussing political ideas (‘save the local [fill in the gap]’ is about as close as it gets), so Liberal Youth could, and certainly used to, operate as a forum for similarly-minded young liberal to work through ideas/ideological debates and policy motions. The forums, the magazine, campaigning documents etc used to serve this function. For some time it has just been the centre of petty squabbles over personality issues.

    Look at youth politics in the 60s- it used to mean something! The difference was that they were motivated by ideas rather than personal advancement.

  • Scrapping LY and relying instead on help from the Local Party also depends on there being a functional Local Party in the area that wants to engage with the students. It’s just possible, dare one say it, that sometimes that isn’t the case.

  • matt severn 29th May '10 - 1:46pm

    when i was york uni a couple of years ago we had no time for student politics- we preferred to get stuck into real campaigning with the local party. Liberal Youth has little relevance for any uni society looking to make a real difference in their area.

  • As a party member of 18, having joined at 16, Liberal Youth have only contacted me probably once, and seem pretty invisible outside of universities…

  • Malcolm Todd 29th May '10 - 2:59pm

    nothing more resourceful than an enthusiastic student with only 10 hours of contact time with lecturers a week

    And we wonder why all our politicians seem to have arts & humanities backgrounds…?

  • Couple of points I’d like to reply to…

    On the failings of local parties at engaging young people which Jen and Bill both point to. I agree but I think that one of the reasons for this is because they’re given very limited training or help at recruiting and then holding on to younger members.

    One reason for this is that holding onto younger volunteers is particularly difficult and I wonder if one of the reasons for this training gap is that the party thinks to itself ‘don’t need to worry about our younger activists, that’s what LY is for…’. If the youth party and national party had no false division then this wouldn’t be so much of an issue.

    Hywell and Craig on the opportunity that LY gives young people… Well it does, but the kind of life lessons a party youth wing can give someone is pretty underwhelming and even a touch patronising given we’re in essence talking about giving young members make-believe politics.

    Writing speeches, working in committees etc. can all be learnt by young people doing so much more than going to an LY conference once a year. There are community groups to found, local charities to become trustees of, petitions about local issues to be written up. I don’t like the idea that people will be put off doing those things because LY is meant as a gateway into the party. A network of grassroots ‘Young LD’ clubs set up (with encouragement) by members could be much better at passing on how to do the things you’ve talked about than an overstretched LY central office.

  • A word on charity law.

    Students’ Unions are at the moment not allowed to have their devolved budgets utilised for political purposes except where those benefit the whole membership. They get away with doing so at the moment because they are not registered charities. However, an Act of Parliament changed this recently and they will now all have to become registered charities. This idea is thus unrealistic.

  • Robson, interesting post. Will get back to you with my thoughts a little later.

    Damien, Students’ Union are able to support political societies whether they are legally a charity or not because it is clear that the whole membership i.e. the cause of the SU as it constitutes a charity, benefits from having the opportunity to organize and campaign in that way. If Students’ Unions had been disallowed from that kind of activity you would have heard an awful more from groups like People and Planet (and probably Liberal Youth 🙂 ). It is not even slightly on the agenda that political societies are going to be banned by students’ unions.

  • Grammar Police 29th May '10 - 9:14pm

    @ Sarah,
    I didn’t interpret Martin’s article as a suggestion that we have no “youth oriented” organisations within the Party – just that we might do it differently than a disorganised and chaotic LY.

    You say: “Liberal Youth exists to give young people a voice within the party. It gives them training, inspiration and a forum to express their opinions.”

    Well, I personally think it’s a little patronising to suggest that young people need special help to have a say in the party. ALL members need to have a voice within the party, training, inspiration and a forum to express their opinions. Does LY provide that? As someone who has been a party member since the age of 19 I can honestly say that LDYS (as it then was) was not such an organisation throughout my 20s. Indeed when I eventually became active at the age of 24 in 2004 it was with my local party.

    I really think there needs to be a two pronged approach to this. Local parties need to make sure they have the framework to run successful social and policy events, that engage with all local members – as well as the campaigning and leaflet delivering. Secondly, we need to run internal factions better! ALDC is the best in my opinion, as it has a clear “provider” function – assisting campaigners to do their job, and supporting policy changes that enable this. But other SAOs are much weaker. ALDTU? I’ve tried to join on a few occasions, but they don’t seem to want any new members. The Green Lib Dems had me as a member for a short while, but didn’t really inspire me – and they’re supposed to be the largest SAO.

  • Richard Marbrow 29th May '10 - 9:23pm

    The last thing we need at the moment is to close off ANY routes that people choose to take to get into the Party, particularly routes that encourage activism as opposed to armchair quarterbacking.

    LY isn’t perfect but the youth wing of the party never has been in all my 20+ years as a member of this party. It does however perform a number of useful functions including the “sandbox” described by others above. It also has a habit of acting as a pull towards the more radical tendencies of our party. Sometimes they may be a bit too radical for some of us but that is one of their jobs.

    Also given some areas prejudice against younger members LY is a useful escape route that enables young people to be active when their Local Party may be hostile (or may not even exist).

    In my area LY is helping to generate a huge number of new activists, long may it continue. As for the accusation in the article that LY is London-based, I know some of the LY activists and last I looked Liverpool, Southport, Manchester and Lancaster weren’t suburbs of the capital.

    One comment in this thread made me angry – that of Nich Starling. Joke motion or not, no-one gets to be the arbiter of what other people think is important to them. That’s a good thing too as if we stuck to the “mainstream” issues then I suspect the other parties would view our commitment to electoral reform as “fringe” or “single issue”.

  • Young people dont need a special interest section- everyone can just get stuck into the real business of politics- thats one of the great things about the Lib Dems. LY , if it is to have any purpose, should focus on campaigning to people on the outside, not just talking to themselves.

  • Hey Richard, Robson and Sarah thanks for replying!

    I definitely don’t feel like I’m armchair quarterbacking, am responsible for membership in my local party and work in an SU in a Lib Dem constituency and so I’m right there at the coalface with you, seeing this stuff first hand. I’m as passionate as anyone about getting young people involved in the way that suits them but my point is that Liberal Youth doesn’t suit most young people.

    If it did then it wouldn’t just be the 5 or 6 smallish regions that Robson mentioned with active chapters but almost everywhere, and I get no sense of that (although I recognise I very well might be wrong). That said, if it was truly successful the LY executive of cities like London and Manchester would be powerhouses in the party and that is definitely not the case. But I don’t want this to seem to be a ‘LY isn’t run well’ thread because that’s not what I’m getting at, I know that LY exec do a magnificent job, but I’m just not convinced a dedicated youth wing makes a lot of sense. Particularly when someone’s youth isn’t a particularly defining attribute. For example, my guess is that if used a ‘Green Lib Dems’ message on campus that would get more people signed up than a ‘Youth Lib Dem’ message, purely because more people care about environmental issues than youth issues.

    I fully accept that some local parties for a number of reasons aren’t always attractive to people (all people, definitely not just younger ones) but I really think this is something the national party should focus on and help parties with. Maybe LY could give itself a role in this? Running training sessions about how to recruit and hold on to young members for example. Or even more effectively, putting together a video on YouTube that provides that training? But I just can’t see however, that unless there are some major changes in what the party expects of LY and how LY perceives itself younger members are going to be well served by it.

    But let me repeat, you guys who are standing are great. This is not by any means about having a go but looking at exactly what LY is for and whether its the best body moving forward to deliver that. Oh and am more than happy to take back what I said about it being London-based. I still think it is too distant and too centralised as an organisation but accept just because it’s office is in London doesn’t mean it is London-centric and I was wrong to indirectly suggest it was.

    Martin

  • @ Martin – you are simply wrong. I am not suggesting political groups are going to be banned by SUs, but they will not be allowed to use the Students’ Union’s budget for political campaigning as is advocated in the article.

    I have explained the reason they ‘get away’ with this at the moment is that they are not regulated. This is about to change.

  • Sorry Damien, but if what you’re describing was the case then Students’ Union would in effect have to ‘ban’ campaigning groups. Almost all Students’ Unions employ a societies coordinator that provides admin and organisational support for their student groups. In law this staff time given to youth political groups counts as ‘using a Students’ Union budget’, if legislation was about to do what you describe then all staff support would have to be withdrawn, in essence banning LY, People and Planet and all other campaigning groups. This isn’t happening.

  • David Parkes 31st May '10 - 1:31pm

    Picking up on point (2). You rightly observe that University Groups have a high membership turn-over rate, because people finish their degrees and move on. But isn’t Liberal Youth (or shouldn’t LY be) an ideal umbrella group to retain graduate membership?

    I accept that doesn’t address point (1), but student groups are often very focussed on Student issues, we leave university and all of a sudden student issues don’t affect us so much. Where’s the link to channel us into the party mainstream?

  • Martin Crosby 1st Jun '10 - 5:38pm

    That’s a fair point David. That’s one of the reasons I don’t want as strict a grouping as a ‘Liberal Youth’ though. If people get more involved with the mainstream party there won’t be so much of a chasm between student membership and graduate membership. I’d also be much more confident with a trained and experience party worker managing this transition of hundreds of university students every year than LY volunteers and executive members. Who should be freed up from operational decisions and given the opportunity to do more advocacy and representation on behalf of young members.

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