Opinion: Youth Careerism – A Problem or an Opportunity?

I’m currently sat at the pub with fellow young Liberals, young Labourites and young Conservatives. Now, we all face the same problem: how do we engage with voters? The young Labourites and the young Conservatives are bankrolled to success, they have media and policy training and, more importantly, they are made to be the future leaders of their party. But what do young Liberals get?

For a long time the Liberal Democrats has been a party that has seemed to make its young members campaign fodder, instead of supporting their personal development. Lib Dem members are fantastic in supporting young people, but the party as a whole doesn’t appear all too keen. We as a party are champions of social mobility; we strive to ensure that every individual should have the opportunity to be who they want to be, yet we seem to hold our young members back.

We should not shy away from trying to develop our members. After all, that in turn develops us as a party.  It is not progressive to demonize members with such charges as ‘careerism’, there is nothing wrong with an individual wanting to aspire, to get from their council house to the green benches of parliament. If anything, Liberal Youth should be a vehicle of social mobility. Of course we worry about our values being compromised by this, but if a party of ‘liberals’ can’t believe in people’s freedom to be who they wish to be, then why would anyone else?

The problem is highlighted when you take a look at the number of MPs who were involved in Liberal Youth – the statistic is shockingly bad. Indeed, the Tories and the Labour Party aren’t scared of ambition from their young members, they encourage it, they utilize it, and because of it I’m sitting here next to people far better equipped to fight the elections of tomorrow.

Times are starting to change in the Lib Dems, and Liberal Youth in particular. The leadership programme is a step in the right direction in terms of investment in our young members, but it still caters for the few not all. Next month, Liberal Youth will be staging a lobbying day of action on Further Education loans to call for a pause in the scheme, something the organisation hasn’t done for years, if ever. We’ll also be hosting Activate, a massive training weekend for our members. We’ll also be campaigning over the coming months for the party to provide information about Liberal Youth to every relevant person who joins the party. We’re taking huge steps forward right now, creating a Liberal Youth that truly represents its members, reaches out to all young people and hits home on the political stage.

Now more than ever, we as a party, using our youth wing and its members as our foundations, need to move forward. We need to be inclusive and, most of all, we need to trust in our principles. We cannot afford to be left behind.

* Callum Morton is the Campaigns Officer in Liberal Youth. James Potter is Vice-Chair of Essex University Liberal Youth.

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36 Comments

  • Callum Morton 31st May '12 - 5:22pm

    @Kavya Your article actually got me thinking about how Lib Youth and the Lib Dems should interact, so please don’t think like we’re ranting at you 😛 I personally agree with you that politicians should be like that (i.e. in touch with their local community) but I don’t see why Lib Youth can’t train its members to be like that. Most people active in Lib Youth want to be involved in politics in some way, and they’re more likely to come back if they feel like they’ve learnt something.

    Lib Youth may be the youth wing of the Lib Dems, but we’re different from Labour students and Conservative Future because we have our own policy, and can change party policy if we wish. We don’t get listened to when we stand up for our members, so we need to do things differently and get Lib Youthers into council seats, standing as MPs, etc. I’ve heard from countless Liberal Youth members who feel overwhelmed by the party and don’t feel confident enough to stand to be on the local council, let alone stand to be a MP – the only way to change that and to increase social mobility is to focus on supporting and developing our young members so they have the skills and confidence to be who they wish to be,

  • James Potter 31st May '12 - 5:24pm

    Careerism is here. It’s not going to disappear. The whole point of this piece is an argument that opportunities should be given to as many as possible to progress, and not be limited to the few.

  • Antony Taylor 31st May '12 - 5:50pm

    I agree fully with this article, there is no reason why people should made to feel ashamed if they wish to use LY as a stepping stone to further their career. So what if they do? Why should LY simply be an organisation where we sit around professing our love of Liberalism whilst the other youth wings are training up the successful politicians of tomorrow for their parties? Just because we should set ourselves apart from the other parties doesn’t mean we should accept second best in so many areas.

  • Grammar Police 31st May '12 - 11:55pm

    “For a long time the Liberal Democrats has been a party that has seemed to make its young members campaign fodder, instead of supporting their personal development.”

    Does “the party” treat any members, any other way? (ignoring the fact I’m not sure “the party” exists in the way you describe). Do you not think that campaigning experience is personal development in a political context?

  • Grammar Police 1st Jun '12 - 12:00am

    You suggest that more of our MPs should “come” from Liberal Youth, and that this must imply that the party is “scared of ambition” from young members. I’ve been a member of the party since I was 19, involved in some level of university politics (anti-tuition fees) and actively involved in the party since I was 24, stood for council twice and now been an agent in multiple elections. I’m too old now, but I was never a(n active) member of Liberal Youth.
    The reason I wasn’t involved in Liberal Youth (LDYS as it was then) was because of the organisation itself, not the way the party related to it. By all means campaign for changes the Party can make to get more people involved in Liberal Youth, but also look to changes to LY.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Jun '12 - 12:12am


    For a long time the Liberal Democrats has been a party that has seemed to make its young members campaign fodder, instead of supporting their personal development. … We should not shy away from trying to develop our members. After all, that in turn develops us as a party. It is not progressive to demonize members with such charges as ‘careerism’, there is nothing wrong with an individual wanting to aspire, to get from their council house to the green benches of parliament

    So why do you think it is NOT “personal development” going out canvassing and leafletting and other forms of local activity? I’m sorry, but yes I DO want to “demonize” people who think they are too superior to do that and instead want to go straight into Parliament. It’s not that I don’t want to see representation of all strands in Parliament, I do, so yes, there must be young MPs. It’s that I am concerned that your minds are FIRST on getting these fancy jobs and only after that on serving the people. That is what is meant by “careerist”.

    I wish we had many more MPs – and above all a party leader – who had “come up through the ranks”, had done local campaiging, had sat as councillors, and gained a thorough knowledge of the way ordinary people are and what really works in politics through that.

    I don’t want MPs whose main interest is “power” by which I mean fancy jobs for themselves where they can order people around and look good and be on the TV etc, I want MPs who want to serve the people, make this country better for everyone, and only for that reason to they want to be MPs.

  • Callum Morton 1st Jun '12 - 12:44am

    @grammarpolice & @matthewhuntbach I agree with you both. We should change Liberal Youth as an organisation too. I’ve only just started getting involved in Lib Youth as we’re started having the right focus unlike years previously. I’m not saying we shouldn’t campaign, just that we should support young people if they want to stand for election. Like I said in my response to Kavya above, I’ve heard from countless Liberal Youth members who feel overwhelmed by the party and don’t feel confident enough to stand to be on the local council, let alone stand to be a MP – the only way to change that and to increase social mobility is to focus on supporting and developing our young members so they have the skills and confidence to be who they wish to be.

    To be clear we’re not proposing that everyone suddenly turn into ‘careerists’ – more that we should train all young people who want to learn how to be an effective local campaigning MP. Being supported and developed as an individual about politics does not automatically make you a careerist – in fact any training the Lib Dems and Liberal Youth offers should be open to all, and focus on how to debate and campaign on behalf of residents.

  • Paul Pettinger 1st Jun '12 - 12:59am

    LIberal Youth has never been a fastrack scheme for becomming an MP, and some make a mistake (that many before have) in believeing that it can be. However, if you look back, many Liberal Youthers are councillors, staffers and still activists, while some many try to affect political change through non-party political routes. Happy days 🙂

  • Callum Morton 1st Jun '12 - 1:56am

    @mike Going out campaigning is really important, we’re just saying there’s more to it than that. Debating, assertiveness training, different things that give people some confidence – after all not all young people are as capable as us at knocking on doors 😉

  • David Rogers 1st Jun '12 - 8:28am

    Fascinating discussion! I agree strongly with Matthew Huntbach’s post above (long time no see, Matthew…) about the importance to personal development of engaging in local campaigning activity.
    Moreover, we are a localist party, and the reality is that what councillors do – and in particular those who successfully become parts of majority council groups – has a much greater impact on the daily lives and living environments of our communities than the efforts of a backbench MP ranting about “the Government” (whether or not we are involved in that government). My point is that becoming an MP is not necessarily the best way to serve one’s community, but I suppose it is more of a career!
    And to reminisce, in late 1976, a gang of four Young Liberals (one of whom was to be the candidate) persuaded their constituency Liberal Association that they should take responsibility for a ward with the objective of winning the following May’s county council election. It was at the height of the party’s unpopularity over the Lib/Lab pact, but our mission succeeded: we gained the seat, and I’m still a county councillor in East Sussex. Just do it!

  • Grammar Police 1st Jun '12 - 8:42am

    @ Callum Morton, I don’t disagree with you that the party has to be better at encouraging and supporting people to be candidates, but this is at all levels, not just Liberal Youth members . . .

  • Callum Morton 1st Jun '12 - 9:24am

    @grammarpolice That’s a fair point, it’s just from my experience young people often fall away from getting involved because they feel overwhelmed. Some go so far as taking up the liberal youth space on their local party executive, but then get ignored throughout.

    I don’t know about you, but I always tend to look to Scandinavia for inspiration. A mate from Norway was telling me about his political youth wing over there, which deliberately focusses on training, training and more training. The reason? They understand that people who get active in their youth wing want networking opportunities, a chance to learn how to be a forceful campaigner, debater, leaflet-designer, etc. This party expects a lot of its parliamentary candidates to have been involved in its youth wing in some way. Despite being a much smaller country population-wise, hundreds of people turn up to their conferences! Just imagine if we had that here! The Lib Dems would be an incredibly different party.

  • Grammar Police 1st Jun '12 - 10:39am

    @ Callum , I certainly agree that the party would be very different if Liberal Youth had a much wider base of support.

    I must admit, I don’t understand what you mean by “overwhelmed” (or why there is a specific problem with this and members of Liberal Youth – most members of the party aren’t actively involved).

  • Callum Morton 1st Jun '12 - 10:54am

    Most members aren’t actively involved, but they not wish to be. I’ve just heard loads of example where Liberal Youth members have tried to get involved and feel shut out – I don’t hear that from older members of the party. I just feel we could be doing more to be inclusive of all, particularly the young who often get shoved in as paper candidates rather than giving them a chance somewhere challenging.

  • “The problem is highlighted when you take a look at the number of MPs who were involved in Liberal Youth – the statistic is shockingly bad.”

    What is the statistic?

  • Callum Morton 1st Jun '12 - 12:45pm

    @hywel From what we can work out through research it’s under 5, 5 – 10 maximum

  • Who are they?

  • Farron, Swinson, Hames, Gilbert, Willott., Hemming. That’s 6 for starters 🙂

  • Callum Morton 1st Jun '12 - 1:50pm

    That’s all I could think of :/

  • Callum Morton 1st Jun '12 - 2:33pm

    Why are you saying I’m proposing some kind of end to campaigning and suddenly focussing on getting young people elected? Campaigning is ONE part of someone’s personal development – debating (i.e. for hustings) is another, along with how to work with community leaders, and how to best reach out to all members of your constituency. That’s what I’m talking about, not sitting here going ‘elect us elect us’. Liberal Youth should not be all about action days and nothing else. Liberal Youth members should not be shoved in as paper candidates, when a local party doesn’t even look at what experience that young person actually has. Liberal Youth should be a loud organisation within the Lib Dems, willing to fight for what is right for its members. If people are involved in Liberal Youth, as I have been the past 4 years, they would realise that’s what is needed. We should be training local parties on how to engage with young members, and using local parties who have done it well in the past as shining examples. We need all young people who join the party to know about Lib Youth when they arrive. Only when we do these and more will we create a Lib Youth that is actually respected.

  • James Potter 1st Jun '12 - 2:51pm

    Let’s have a look at some criticisms of the article.
    1) “Campaign Fodder” being a development process.
    Let me clairfy the position that me and Callum are holding here. We’re not saying canvassing is a fruitless activity, what we’re saying is that some local parties take an attitude that all Liberal Youth members are good for is delivery and an odd bit of canvassing. I’m a defector from the Tories, and after my first by-election the first thing the local chair said to me, is that it’s time that I stepped up. He gave me campaign training, then got me involved in the higher levels of campaigning, (Leaflet design, Organisation and GOTV). because of that, I think of myself now as a reasonable campaigner. We’re not saying that we are too good for campaigning, frankly, I bloody well love a local campaign. The point of this post is saying, don’t be scared of us liberal youthers, trust us, let us develop.

    2) Liberal Youth as a ‘fast-track”.
    We don’t want a situation where every MP must have been Liberal Youth national chair. What we want is a Liberal Youth that helps people aspire, the fosters their ambition and equips them with skills that would make them great campaigners and politicians, (What is a liberal democrat MP if not a great campaigner?). Kavya talks about people who do no campaigning, and also the fact that their “personal development” is second stage after they have learned basic campaigning skills. Me and Callum want good campaigners, but training is a holistic process, you can’t be a good canvasser without policy knowledge, you can’t design good leaflets without good media knowledge. Furthermore, we want a liberal youth where every member is given the opportunity to become great campaigners, and because of it, great politicans.

    3) The demonisation of Careerism.
    When I grew up in my council house, and was sent to do BTEC’s at college instead of GCSE’s, I had a burning ambition to get out of that situation, to better myself and realise my potential. There is nothing wrong with that, and indeed I don’t understand why anyone who subscribes to liberalism would believe their is anything wrong with individuals wanting to do the best they possibly can. My ambition or “careerism” is the reason why I’m at University instead of on the dole.
    Careerism is not at odds with our values. You become a politician in this party through merit, through a commitment to liberal values and through hard work. Instead of demonising the 16 year old who expresses political aspirations, what me and Callum want to see, is a Liberal Youth, where we encourage them to earn it. We capitalise on the ambition of our members and invest in them when they invest in their communities.
    (P.S I have no political aspirations, a summer in parliament was enough to turn me off becoming an MP for a lifetime,)

    4) Lack of respect?
    Our article challenges assumptions, debate is progressive and this is the forum for it.

  • What was your research?

    John Leech and Greg Mullholland both seem to have been politically active at school/university – don’t know about ULS/LDYS but certainly probable.

    Jeremy Browne was an LDYS delegate at NUS conference in the early 90s so clearly involved to some degree.

    Paul Burstow was active in the Young SDP (ran for chair IIRC).

    I’ve got you to 10 without a lot of detailed research.

    If there are 10 MPs with a past involvement in Liberal Youth (or predecessors) then that is 17% of the parliamentary party. When I was chair LDYS had 2,500 members out of a party membership of c.95,000 so it would be well ahead of the proportion of party members.

  • Callum Morton 1st Jun '12 - 3:20pm

    Why can’t most of our MPs have been involved in Lib Youth in some way? We should be reaching out to as many of our members as possible!

  • Callum Morton 1st Jun '12 - 3:22pm

    Also, we were in the pub. Research wouldn’t have been the best!

  • Ming – President of Glasgow Uni Liberal Club (in the early 60s – and turned down numerous offers to join the Labour party. The last thing you can say about Ming was that he was a careerist! 🙂

    And I think Charles probably joined the SDP at University

    “Why can’t most of our MPs have been involved in Lib Youth in some way?”

    No reason – in fact I’d say it was a good thing. But your were arguing that : “The problem is highlighted when you take a look at the number of MPs who were involved in Liberal Youth – the statistic is shockingly bad.” (but which I assume from the subsequent context you meant low).

    My main reason for querying it was that when I was involved in LDYS to promote the organisation we can a scheme at conference inviting people to put their names on a piece of paper if there involvement in LDYS has played a major part in their development in the party. By the end of conference the stall was covered with a massive list of names of the party great & good!

  • Callum Morton 1st Jun '12 - 3:44pm

    Haha okay fair enough I’ll accept we might have put more of a bad light on that one than is actually realistic, but there’s still a big problem with training. And who knows, if we had better training back then, we might have more MPs!

  • Richard Church 2nd Jun '12 - 5:06pm

    Another two. Nick Harvey was a member of ULS (Bristol Uni I think), Vince Cable was chair of Cambridge univeristy Liberals in the ’60’s (it’s in his autobiography), but went off to Labour before coming back via the SDP.

  • Stephen Donnelly 3rd Jun '12 - 2:47pm

    Richard Church: Now you are ‘talking about my generation’. Nick Harvey was chair of ULS, I think followed by Liz (now Baroness) Barker and ( after my time) Martin Horwood (Cheltenham). Around the same time Duncan Brack was active in ULS, and Chris Rennard a members, as well as many others who have worked in local government, and even some who made their names in other parties.

    Just for the record, I was OVC, and Richard, I think, European Officer. In my three years involvement I remember one training day, run by Simon Titley.

    It really is not a bad record at all. It just does not all happen over night in the Liberal (Democrat) Party, you have to work for it.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Jun '12 - 11:15pm

    James Potter

    Let me clarify the position that me and Callum are holding here. We’re not saying canvassing is a fruitless activity, what we’re saying is that some local parties take an attitude that all Liberal Youth members are good for is delivery and an odd bit of canvassing.

    I’ve read what you and Callum Morton have to say, but I don’t understand your point. In over 30 years of membership of the party, I’ve never found anywhere that isn’t short of people willing to stand as councillors or hold executive positions. My experience is that they are often quite desperate to find people willing to take these positions on. Mostly I’ve found as soon as you turn up and say “I’d be interested in … “, if you’re not careful you find yourself already signed up to be a constituency officer or a council candidate in a winnable seat. But if you feel you’re not quite sure about it, hang around and find out. Getting involved in things like leafleting and canvassing is a good way of finding out and meeting fellow members, and also a way of demonstrating your interest and commitment.

    If you think being handed a pile of leaflets to deliver or a canvassing sheet to fill is an insult (that’s how it comes across even if you didn’t mean it that way), that’s the way our party works. There ISN’T a big machine that does it all. The people who are standing as councillors and holding constituency office are the people doing a lot of the canvassing and delivery. Now, despite what I said above, there might be a bit of suspicion about someone who turns up, says “I want to be a councillor/MP” but turns round with disdain when asked to do a little bit of work, but I can assure you once you’ve shown you have a bit of commitment by taking up your share of leafleting and delivery, your biggest problem will be resisting getting pushed into standing as a councillor or taking on some major organisational role.

    I don’t think you need special top class training for all this. If you live in an area where the party is reasomabley successful, has a few councillors etc,the BEST form of training you can get is to work with them. If the party is semi-derelict where you live, then maybe some training elsewhere, through the Yout Organisation or whatever, will help, But if the party is semi-derelict where you live, then there’s even less reason to think there are other people holding you back. Just go out, take on a ward which has had no activity, and work it. Simple – no-one’s going to stop you doing that.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Jun '12 - 11:40pm

    James Potter

    you can’t be a good canvasser without policy knowledge

    Canvassing ISN’T about policy knowledge. It’s about knocking on as many doors as possible and finding all those who are enthusiastic supporters of the party. Any canvasser who gets sucked into long debates on policy is a poor canvasser. I don’t think being a good canvasser is something you pick up from formal training – you mearn from experience. Sure, a bit of training where you might be told “the purpose of canvassing is to get the vote out, it is NOT about arguing on the doorstep” might help, but you only need a day or two to learn things like that.

    you can’t design good leaflets without good media knowledge

    Yes you can. Sorry, but I think your problem may be that you are putting yourself down. All that’s needed is passion and commitment to the party. If you have that, not only will you design GOOD leaflets, you will design leaflets that are hugely BETTER than those produced by the marketing men and PR-people who infest the upper levels of this party and get things wrong all the time. The big problem with these people is that they have fancy PR and marketing training, but not the doorstep real-life experience which is really required to know how to get the message across. Again, get a bit of experience by working with the people who are winning on the ground. If you come from the sort of background you say you do, YOU know how to communicate with other people from that background MUCH better than some lah-di-dah type who knows all the theory but none of the practice.

  • Callum Morton 4th Jun '12 - 12:16am

    @matthew I’ve never liked the way we do canvassing. I agree with on polling day it should be about getting the vote out, but before that it should be talking to the electorate, talking about their concerns and winning them round. That’s how I will always spend my time on the doorstep as you’re ignoring the views and concerns of the electorate otherwise.

    I think part of James’ point here was that you can’t design good leaflets if you understand how the media would react. No one wants a leaflet that says something daft about a candidate! And surely more training on leaflet-designing and the media is a good thing, rather than having nothing?

  • Callum Morton 4th Jun '12 - 12:19am

    Also Matthew, the experiences of Liberal Youth members up and down the country is not how you describe. Many come forward asking to stand, delivering and putting in the hard work beforehand in many cases… and the local party pushes them into paper candidates without a) looking at the experience they have to offer or b) doing it anyway. I frankly think it’s a disgrace.

  • Charles Beaumont 6th Jun '12 - 2:47pm

    I seriously doubt it’s a lack of training that is holding back youth LDs from becoming great politicians. And I also think that there is enough public suspicion of ‘professional’ politicians to mean that the LDs benefit from having a set of MPs who have actually had a real job. Vince Cable a socialist? Tell that to the board of Shell where he was their chief economist, etc.
    I think our problem is that we end up with too many winnable seats where we don’t field a winnable candidate. We put a lot of emphasis on our candidates’ “local” credentials and that’s often helpful, but we should be prepared to bring in outside talent if it looks like it will help. And we should be talent-spotting candidates – not youth candidates, but people who have come to the end of a successful career and demonstrate personal credibility, real-world experience and don’t look like professional politicians.

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