Party membership – let’s get real

All the political parties seem to be having trouble with membership issues at present for different reasons.

Both the Labour and Conservative Parties have problems with factionalism and racism which Liberal Democrats do not. We have little factionalism and are happily united behind Vince, but membership is not big enough and not active enough. However, membership nationally is way over twice what is what in 2012 and in Liverpool is at its highest since the Party was formed more than twenty-five years ago.

Our problem is that not enough of the members are really active. In Liverpool, we have made massive progress in converting new members to activism without too much friction. Two-thirds of our Liverpool Executive were not members before the 2015 General Election. We listen to them with respect because they do have new ideas and enthusiasm both in terms of policy and in terms of ideas about campaigning. Our problem is converting them into candidates and hard activists. This is for two reasons:

1. The local one is that there is a bullying culture inside Liverpool Council which starts inside the Labour Group and largely affects them but moves beyond the Group into the Council.

2. Politics is just plain hard work. Now I am sure that in some parts of the Country people get elected easily, don’t do anything for four years and then pop up to be re-elected. In Liverpool, it’s not like that for most of the councillors in any Party in Liverpool. There are some councillors who are idle but most commit to many hours of work a week both inside and outside the council whilst being subjected to abuse by keyboard warriors in the social media and contributors to phone-in programmes.

I have just written to our candidates saying what I expect of them as candidates for a target ward. I won’t go into detail here but it is a lot of work and for part of the time involves leaving their loved ones behind and just getting on with the work. All this at the same time as earning a living.

Once elected, it’s even worse. You do get an allowance for being a councillor so some are able to negotiate flexible hours and have bosses who actually value having a councillor and their experience in house. Most do not. They have to add on council work to employment and family. I don’t believe that you can be a good councillor on a large council with many problems without being on the job for the equivalent of two days a week. You knock on doors; write leaflets; deliver them; e-mail; take up cases; attend community meetings; attend Party meetings and attend Council meetings.

There are those in the Party who seem to be suggesting two solutions to our problems which are laughable.

  • To have a Leader from outside Parliament. There are reasons why this won’t work. Having a Leader or co-leader who is outside Parliament means that they are ignored; they are out of the groove of things in the centre of political gravity; it seems to assume that our MPs aren’t up to it. I believe that they are.

  • To create a new class of party supporter who will have equal rights to vote for candidates at all levels as members. This gives me no concerns. In my own ward none members do more for us and donate more money than many of our inactive but fee-paying members, but they are not members.

So, what do I suggest we should do?

1. Build up the role of the President. I have always believed that the President should not be a Parliamentarian.

2. Establish a supporters’ group who would be kept informed about policy making so that they can contribute ideas to policy; join campaigns and join us socially.

3. Create policy in a much more inclusive way and then disseminate it in such a way that people can get involved with campaigns

4. Have more fun!! Where have all the Lib Dem pint invites gone?

These ideas and more (yes, I do have more) are things that we need to seriously discuss. I’d be happy to come and discuss them with you and your members if invited.

* Richard Kemp is the Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool and a member for 51 years. An expanded version of this article can be found here.

* Cllr Richard Kemp CBE is Lord Mayor of Liverpool for 2024-2025.

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  • Peter Martin 3rd Sep '18 - 8:59am

    “Both the Labour and Conservative Parties have problems with factionalism and racism which Liberal Democrats do not”

    It depends on what you mean by racism. The definition of anti-semitism seems to be changing so quickly that anyone who even so much as suggests the possibility that Israel may be an “Apartheid State”, as John Kelly did on LDV recently, is going to fall foul of the rules as defined by the IHRA.

    And if we don’t accept those rules? Well that’s even worse! That just proves how racist those of us, who dare to criticise Israeli policy, actually must be!

  • James Bliss 3rd Sep '18 - 9:07am

    What’s wrong with facrionism exactly?

  • Richard speaks for many councillors in the Mets. Winning and holding seats is hard graft, expensive in terms of energy and cash – sometimes in areas where the proportion of people struggling to survive from month to month is way above the national average and voluntary activity can be very fragile. I am not questioning the commitment of those who have much smaller electorates in more suburban/rural areas. They need to know that the bloody-minded persistence required by Lib Dem Councillors in areas like Liverpool and my own Bradford is something we don’t often talk about in wider party circles but Richard is the right person to highlight it.

  • Michael Bukola 3rd Sep '18 - 9:58am

    Richard, firstly, we can’t afford to be complacent about factionalism or racism. The launch of the Lib Dem Campaign for Race Equality ( at this year’s Autumn Party Conference is a reminder that we still have a long way to go if we are to truly reflect a modern-day, diverse society.

    Self evidently, not everyone wants to knock-on doors or get elected to public office. Not all are moved by manifestations of local government, community politics and Connect! Besides, those of us in Labour-facing areas are often finding ourselves in Opposition rather than in power!

    Here in London, I too have noticed apathy amongst our post-2015 and post-Brexit party members particularly. They need time to understand the Party, its values, its structures, its methodology to campaigns and to be ultimately won over by the Party’s leadership and direction. That’s a lot to consume when you cannot be sure that the Party will even be in existence in 5 years time.

    On the issue of new reforms, I am not in favor of a Supporters scheme largely because it will lead ultimately to entryism as has proved with the destruction of the Labour Party currently. The proposal for the Leader to be a non-parliamentarian reflects in my view a sad reality of where the Party finds itself post – 2015 UK General Election where most of its talent lies outside Westminster.

    All of this, reflects a Party which is in managed decline, hence why there is a big push from within our own ranks for a new centrist party.

  • To have a Leader from outside Parliament. … it seems to assume that our MPs aren’t up to it.

    The trouble is that currently, given the very small pool of MP’s this does seem to imply that when selecting PPC’s, local organisations need to also assess whether the candidate has the aptitude and skills to be a leader of the party. Which seems to raise the bar on candidate selection…

  • “All of this, reflects a Party which is in managed decline, hence why there is a big push from within our own ranks for a new centrist party.”


    The party has been in worse spots than this, electorially and financially. What it lacks are MPs willing to take over a weakened party, lead by example and put in the graft. Tim, for all his faults, knew this. He put in the work and actually got results. We all know there are wannabe leaders in the PP, they just long for the glory days and their turn to shine.

    Granted there’s not a wide number of members where I live but I don’t know of one that wants the LDs to merge with a new party. THAT kind of thinking lacks ambition and frankly, loyalty. Someone needs to convince me why a new party is required other than a few labour and conservative MPs egos deciding they want to be it’s leader and not lower themselves to towing the Lib Dem line. It’s doomed to a fate much worse than what we are going through.

  • Firstly, we must not be complacent over racism or other forms of discrimination. I’m almost certain there will be members who would catch the spotlight if we got more attention as a party.

    Secondly, we need ambition, but we also must be clever with our resources. We have some financial problems as the most recent data on party finances shows, so we must have a clear plan and strategy when it comes to spending money.

    Thirdly, we need ways to engage members and get them knocking on doors. Labour had this problem when lots of people joined but none of them knocked on doors. That is how we will win elections and that is how we can rebuild.

  • A very good article from @Richard Kemp – and I enjoy reading your blog from afar and learn how you are challenging labour in Liverpool. Very good luck! And a very good comment from @Ian Shires.

    @Michael Bukola We need people to shake us up. It reminds me going along to my first Lib Dem branch meeting in a fairly rural and not active area, ALDC campaign guides in hand and suggested they put out a Focus. It is an area where we subsequently won at a General Election (it did “move” with a boundary change into a more winnable seat) and still have the councillors for.

    We need people to shake us old so-and-so’s (even the young so-and-so’s) up! And we need to shake ourselves up!!!!! If you are standing still and doing the same thing and not improving you are going backward!

  • Mark Blackburn 3rd Sep '18 - 5:25pm

    When I joined my (new to me) local party a couple of years ago, I was struck by the amount of work needed to make it an effective force again – and this was in a Lib Dem seat until 2015. Without going on in too much detail, there was a dwindling but committed ‘old guard’ putting out an ever-diminishing number of leaflets, and a lot of (often newer) members who were disinclined to engage, or put off by what they discovered. I suspect this may be a wider issue. Anyway, one initiative I’m currently trying is creating a ‘virtual branch’ whereby those who are unwilling to get involved in a branch set-up but keen to be involved in campaigning and those who don’t have a functioning local branch operation can join online. It takes an hour and a quarter to drive from one end of the constituency to the other (public transport? what public transport?!) which is another factor hampering physical engagement. Initial response is encouraging – we’ll see how it goes.

  • @Michael Bukola – “I too have noticed apathy amongst our post-2015 and post-Brexit party members particularly. They need time to understand the Party, its values, its structures, its methodology to campaigns”

    Perhaps we are actually a bit rubbish at explaining the party’s values, structures, methodologies etc. My experience as a post 2015 joiner was that even long standing party stalwarts struggled to explain those things to me, and I had to battle to find out how some stuff gets done.

  • Innocent Bystander 3rd Sep '18 - 8:23pm

    I joined in 2015 because I felt the nation was facing 20 years of Tory rule. I hoped (perhaps just dreamt) that the LibDems would fill the centre ground with a new vision of a reformed and revitalised Britain with a fearless and strong economic agenda.
    After the referendum I hoped again that the party would heal the nation’s wounds and bring us together (I think it said it would, the day after).
    Instead the party has become wholly and solely focused on reversing the referendum by whatever means it can and has firmly taken one side and accused the other of being racist (Marr/Cable interview), stupid and easily hoodwinked by manipulators (unlike themselves of course).
    So I didn’t renew. I don’t support a party that wants to tear my country in half. It hasn’t even paid lip service to unity or any attempt to understand 17 million people’s views.
    The Party also seems to be a political machine “in being” existing for its own sake but without a compelling vision or any aim to get one. It seems to be trying to be “Nice Labour” rather than New or Old.
    My son and daughter-in-law, who I dearly love, also joined (but have not been active at all) and what puzzles me most is that, when I question them, they don’t appear to have any alignment with “orthodox” LibDem views but have a general malaise with the political scene (like so many of us) and are casting around for a clear message and clear leadership for the nation.
    If the Party can find that then the hearts of millions like them (and me) are up for grabs.

  • I think a major issue behind lack of involvement or engagement by members or supporters is the party’s obsession with Brexit. It’s just enough to get the keenest of remainers to sign up in the emotion of the referendum result, but not enough to get them actively involved in the majority of cases. What the Lib Dems really need to do is focus on developing and marketing an effective set of policies dealing with things like housing, taxation, immigration, the cost of living and the ageing population crisis, not obsessing endlessly over Brexit.

    The majority of the public don’t really in their day to day lives care about Brexit (it tends to be a more middle class, white obsession) and are crying out for a party that cares about more. Until the party snaps out of its obsession I, and I suspect much of the electorate, will struggle to return to the fold.

  • Toby Keynes 4th Sep '18 - 9:01am

    “To have a Leader from outside Parliament. There are reasons why this won’t work. Having a Leader or co-leader who is outside Parliament means that they are ignored; they are out of the groove of things in the centre of political gravity…” [Richard Kemp]

    What if our new leader were a member of the Scottish or Welsh parliaments, or the mayor or council leader for a major city? There’s more than one parliament, and more than one centre of political gravity.

  • Nonconformistradical 4th Sep '18 - 12:08pm

    “What if our new leader were a member of the Scottish or Welsh parliaments, or the mayor or council leader for a major city? There’s more than one parliament, and more than one centre of political gravity.”

    Perhaps a ‘leadership team’ is needed – involving people from the Westminster Parliament plus Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assemby and local government…?

  • Peter Watson 4th Sep '18 - 2:05pm

    @Innocent Bystander “So I didn’t renew.”
    Just over a year ago Lib Dem membership was reported to be 103,300 when Vince Cable became leader, following a “surge” in membership under Tim Farron.
    Yesterday the membership figure was being reported as 99,200 at the end of August (having been reported as 100,500 at the end of April).

  • Neil Sandison 4th Sep '18 - 2:21pm

    Richard Kemp Think your bullet points have some merit particularly building up the presidency .Also have some sympathy for nonconformist radicals view .We used to make much of being a federal party but not heard much of those views recently have we been too easily put off by the Brexiters who make disparaging comments about federalism .Whats wrong with a nation of equal parts and a leadership that reflects and celebrates our diversity and our ability to represent all of the United Kingdom ?.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 4th Sep '18 - 4:19pm

    A shame the terrific Richard makes the mistake typical of so many on here or elsewhere in politics by describing suggestions as laughable.

    As the excellent Michael Bukola demonstrates, elevation of talent is far from laughable. Richard makes it so obvious in his very appropriate suggestion not dissimilar to the ones he dislikes, for the President of the party to not be from parliament, not a bad idea at all, but not dissimilar to Sir Vinces ideas , no idea laughable!!!

    Peter Martin is totally and absolutely wrong about the IHRA definition, it does not stop any criticism of Israel unless that is an antisemitic criticism! Find me non offensive criticisms of Israel, they are not racist, many are , the antisemitism on the left is shocking, which is why some of us do not consider we are on the left at all, but the radical and moderate centre and centre left.

    We do need to shake up this party.

    I would suggest the extremely sensible Innocent bystander reveal his identity. We need you back and your kids enthusiastic also.

  • Peter Hirst 4th Sep '18 - 4:25pm

    I think that for the supporters’ scheme to work it must give more influence to them such as electing and selecting candidates and Party officers. We need them to be loyal and become activists. Supporters could exceed members though they should not be able to stand for office themselves.

  • paul barker 4th Sep '18 - 5:17pm

    Our membership has been steady around 100,000 for Years now, thats as high as its ever been, something no other British Party can say.
    The facts about the 1980s are clear enough : The Liberal/SDP Alliance was a great sucsess, The subsequent Merger was an utter disaster. Thats why there are lots of people arguing for another Alliance (if Labour MPs can break away) & no-one serious is arguing for a Merger into some New Entity. Thats an idea popular with business types & “Journalists”.
    On the surface British Politics looks frozen but theres alot of movement below the surface, we have every reason to be optimistic about the next Year.

  • Robert (Somerset) 4th Sep '18 - 5:37pm

    4. Have more fun!! Where have all the Lib Dem pint invites gone?

    Politics and a pint is alive and well in Portishead!

  • Peter Watson 4th Sep '18 - 6:16pm

    @paul barker “Our membership has been steady around 100,000 for Years now, thats as high as its ever been, something no other British Party can say.”

    I’m not sure that is correct.

    Mark Pack has tracked party member numbers here:
    and this suggests that the membership has only been back at around 100,00 for about a year to 18 months following a drop from a much lower figure after 2010.

    Subsequently reported/claimed Lib Dem membership figures suggest a 4% drop under Vince Cable following a 70% increase under Tim Farron.

    Meanwhile, another British Party, the SNP, can point to a membership “as high as its ever been” which makes it the UK’s second largest party (with around 125000 members, presumably mostly in Scotland), ahead of the Conservatives and Lib Dems, but behind Labour whose membership has grown to its highest for 40 years.

  • Peter Watson 4th Sep '18 - 6:22pm

    Oops, “100,00” should of course be “100,000”

  • Meanwhile tonights poll from Survation has UKIP on 7% up 4, Lib Dems on 6% down 4.
    It appears to be a real struggle with no light yet, at the end of this long long tunnel of Coalition despair.

  • Tony Greaves 4th Sep '18 - 10:22pm

    Politics being fun is not about organising the occasional event – it’s about the politics itself being fun. It used to be real fun. Now the party is as boring as an old ….

    I was once accused by the then Chief Executive/Clerk of Lancashire County Council of blocking the formation of a new administration after the elections because I had too much of a “sense of fun”. Of course that was not the reason – we managed to overturn some really awful old conventions and create the new ones that lasted until Exec arrangements came to blight everything (and some of our changes persist even to this day). But the way we did it was fun – we even enjoyed all the po-faced the attacks from Labour and the Tories – and that meant we were able to keep going and win what we wanted. Radical, progressive politics must be fun. At last our kind must – I could not comment on the Labour Party which too often seems to be based on anger and hatred and being more conservative than the conservatives…

  • Neil Sandison 5th Sep '18 - 10:34am

    We must not fall into the trap of thinking because politics is dire at the moment the party must be equally as dire and radical constitutional change is the only solution .The slogan we used of the party being tolerant ,open and united pretty much summed up the liberal democrats and we should not be ashamed to say so .Where does the Social Liberal Forum stand in all this it is a supporters group where non members can participate and cross party campaigns are encouraged do we need another one or should we better resource the one that is being successful ?

  • Ruth Bright 7th Sep '18 - 9:32am

    Richard mentions a bullying culture in the Labour Party. The Lib Dems are far from immune. He rightly talks about the impact of money worries on our hard working councillors. It is easy to “have fun” with your politics when you get £300 a day for turning up to the Lords!

  • David Evans 7th Sep '18 - 11:43am

    Ruth, I would simply point out that when Tony and the rest of the Lancashire Lib Dem team brought Lancashire County screaming and kicking into the 20th Century (as it was then), it was long before he was in the House of Lords.

    All in all, It looks too much like a cheap shot against someone who has worked for decades for Liberalism, than objective criticism.

  • Ruth Bright 7th Sep '18 - 9:35pm

    Sorry David, a person who called the painful episode over allegations of inappropriate touching of Lib Dem women a “storm in a teacup” and told people on this site who advocated maternity/parental leave for candidates to “get real” sounds pretty pre 20th century to me.

  • There is racism in our party, but low-level and discreet. I guess we can say we have less of it than Labour or the Tories, but less is not good enough. It’s an issue which makes many good people uncomfortable and is therefore put aside. That does not help when unjust allegations of racism (for example against non-anti-Semitic critics of Israel) are made.

    I agree with Richard about the non-MP leader, but for slightly different reasons. We would still need a leader in the Commons, so there would be in effect two leaders and media and opponents would be watching all the time to exploit differences. Also as soon as the idea was mooted, there was speculation about sundry celebrities and heros of the moment, most of whom would have no understanding of the activists they needed to enthuse; and if you keep talking about the possibility of doing something, pressure builds up to do it.

    A supporter scheme – great – but hard thinking is needed quickly about how it will be promoted and organised, how local supporters will be linked to local parties and how it will increase rather than reduce actual membership.

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