Responses to an anonymous Young Liberal – how to unlock the transformative power of the branches

We were surprised by the response of Young Liberals (YL) to a recent article by “Anonymous Young Liberal”. While much of the reaction was measured and accepting, we felt responses to the article along the lines of ‘it’s too difficult’ were inappropriate. We were both broadly sympathetic with the article and now is the time to think about what YL can do to better stimulate branches.

I have been South Central YL Chair for over a year now. I started the role planning improvements that would make the job easier for both me and my successors. Chief amongst these was the creation of a YL mailing list for my 40 local parties, writing a guide to boost youth membership for them and working with them to produce bespoke membership strategies.

Although people were sympathetic, a combination of technical problems and lack of YL visibility beyond myself meant that local parties often didn’t see the potential that YL offered. Having led a large, active university Liberal Democrat society, I had seen what success could look like, and how vital accountability was. Officers that ran events were gently but firmly held to account when things failed to go to plan, and subsequent discussions on how to improve things involved the whole committee. Similarly, manifesto pledges were fulfilled and institutional knowledge preserved. If pledges weren’t pursued, or handover messed up, this had notable impacts on re-election or progress up the society. Currently, YL elections do not offer adequate opportunity to scrutinise whether manifestos were implemented, or to ensure that plans are workable.

When I first got involved in my university branch, it was small. I wandered into its AGM by chance, and was subsequently appointed to the committee to fill a gap. Without me, it would not have been quorate. Over the next three years, we transformed the society into one of the party’s largest university branches. Such rapid growth required a full rebrand and rethinking how to appeal to a wider audience beyond existing liberals. In the 2019 local elections our local party knocked on the most doors, and made the most contacts, of any local party in the country. 50% of that was from the students. In short; if we can reinvigorate our branches, we can transform our campaigning potential.

People have rightly pointed out that YL cannot impose successful branches from above. It can, however, offer help beyond the Branch Development Fund, which I think we can agree is a first step in the right direction. I know from my experience what I really wanted, in those difficult early days, was just a couple more bodies at events, to make the society look popular. I wanted templates for potential events, guidance as to what works and what doesn’t. I wanted institutional memory at hand. YL could facilitate these things, but, right now, it does not even know when new branch chairs arrive. The lines of communication aren’t open. Yes, that “Anonymous Young Liberal” article may chafe, but it carries important lessons. Lesson one is that our success is best measured by how many active and healthy branches we have. At the moment we have too few.

When I returned home, I organised an action day where members of my university branch came and did more leafleting in a day than the local party had done in months. I can date the beginning of my local party’s campaigning surge to that moment. Here again, there is enormous latent potential for YL to push membership development across the country; if YL branches can help each other out. An effective YL could approach local parties with finance for young membership development, following the models of branches with seasoned campaign experience.

Both our experiences have shown that the key to success comes from active members. Energy, momentum, confidence – these things are crucial in activism, but currently YL’s structures do not facilitate them. The complex web of positions offers little opportunity for us to help each other. The limited lines of communication leave branches with the sense they are operating on their own.

If our experiences show anything, it’s that branches can be transformative. The goal now must be for YL to help transform those branches.

* Damayanti Chatterjee and Gabriel Barton-Singer are both active Liberal Democrat members and Young Liberals

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  • Richard Underhill 16th Jun '20 - 1:22pm

    Please will the university students accept the recommendation of Shirley Williams and read “Small is Beautiful” by E J Schumacher, who worked at the National Coal Board. It is only 250 pages and was priced in paperback at £3.99.
    ISBN 0-349-13132-5
    He also wrote “A Guide for the Perplexed” also published by Abacus.
    The party was founded with a youth group and reserved places on levels of democratic representation. Therefore the youth group should be stimulated. There is already a policy of voting at 16 to be achieved.
    The university Liberal Democrats should not ignore it.
    I am over 21 and voted for it at federal conference.

  • James Bliss 16th Jun '20 - 3:58pm

    So while I do agree that YL should do better in terms of how it deals with and supports branches, and people on the current exec have been getting things going in terms of how to improve things (it isn’t a matter of waving a magic wand and can’t just be done from the exec top down).

    Branch development doesn’t come anywhere near within my portfolio, and I’m just speaking on a personal level here. But I would just note some hesitation at the idea that branches are the solution to all of our problems.

    I first joined the party in 2014 whole living in Southport, there would be basically no chance of Southport ever getting a branch. I then moved to Oxford, and while I attempted multiple times to set up a libdem society it was not something that was successful due to numbers. As you two both know I did eventually become involved in OULD for a bit, and that was a brilliant experience and helped me engaged with YL more. But otherwise my engagement with the party and with YL is not through a branch, and I don’t see the likelihood of there being a non-OULD Oxford YL branch any time soon.

    The issue YL has is not engagement with University societies, like sure YL can and should do better to assist them, but they are not the group that are least engaged by a longshot. And to a certain extent university societies will have their own events and engagement in a way that means that a lot of society members aren’t going to be fully interested in YL. The issue for YL is engaging the many people who either don’t go to University at all (young professionals, under 18s ext) or are at universities who don’t have successfully societies. In some cases that would involve helping them set up their own branches, if there are enough members to do so, but in many cases that won’t be possible or realistic.

    I just want to raise some caution on people putting all the eggs in the branch/society basket. You both come from successful and large societies from very prestigious universities, and you’re very lucky to have had that, but we shouldn’t lose track of ensuring YL caters for the many members who are never going to have a proper branch or society.

  • The issues with YL in my opinion all come down to the organisation’s budget and how it is spent. For a body with a budget or £60,000, it has neither the impact nor the engagement with its members that I would expect.

    When you look at the budget, that is not a surprise. £24,000 goes on the salary of a staff member who seems to have no involvement with either campaigning or supporting local branches. If nearly half the budget is going to be spent on staffing, why can this person not support young candidates for example?

    There is then nearly £15,000 spent on events that make losses and are not attended by the vast majority of members. £2000 in admin costs and £2000 more on executive travel expenses.

    Remarkably only £600 was spent on campaigning in a year with General, European and local elections! £30, yes, £30 was spent on helping local branches.

    To sum up, until Young Liberals looks from scratch at what its substantial budget is spent on, it will continue to be not fit for purpose.

  • James Bliss 16th Jun '20 - 7:42pm

    To John Smith.

    The staff member is not something which YL has power over nor control over what the staff member does or if it exists. The staff member is the HQ Youth and Students Development Officer, we are given the money by HQ to pay their salary and that money can only go on the salary. The staff member works in HQ, is line managed by HQ and does other work outside of YL within HQ. It may seem like a large chunk of our budget but it really isn’t a part of our budget. People keep bringing up the staff member, and keep ignoring that is is *not something that anyone in YL can change*

    The amount that we spend in elections is limited by how much we are allowed to spend (this isn’t within my portfolio so I am just doing this from memory), but afaik we didn’t spend anything at the GE because we were not allowed to. We have young and winning and other ways of supporting young candidate’s, but that requires people to apply which they don’t always do (we can and are trying to get better on our end however).

    There is not £2000 spent on exec travel expenses, last year we spent 1500 and this year it will be next to nothing. Exec travel expenses are essential so that students and young professionals on low incomes can afford to get to our exec meetings. And having in person exec meetings is an important and essential way of the organisation operating, it would not be sufficient to always have online meetings (unless like now where we have to) and we are consititionally obligated to have in person meetings.

    People keep bringing up the amount we spend on our conferences, and I seriously object to the notion that YL should merely be a campaign machine and leaflet fodder. Many many members get a great deal of experience, training and life experiences from attending our conferences. The idea that we should not have conferences is absurd, and having quality in person conferences is something that basically everyone who has gone to one appreciates as a brilliant things that YL does.

  • Tony Greaves 16th Jun '20 - 10:09pm

    I am not going to get involved with current day Young Liberal discussion such as this but I do wonder one thing – why is “YL” used in the singular? Just sounds odd to me!

  • @James Bliss

    1. I’m not disputing that YL is obliged to spend the £24,000 on a staff member. My query is around why that staff member could not be employed to focus on something more impactful than admin. I think a lot of young council candidates, for example, would appreciate support with things like leaflet design and campaign strategy (sort of like a constituency organiser does, but on a national scale). I don’t know of many local parties that have a full time staff member employed to to admin.

    2. I can see why physical executive meetings are nice to have, but again I don’t know of many other organisations the size of YL that fund staff travelling from all over the country to regular in-person meetings. That £2000 could go towards getting young candidates elected.

    3. Similarly, physical conferences are nice to have. But l don’t think spending tens of thousands on events that will only ever be accessible to a tiny fraction of members is really an effective use of funds. Why can this money not be used to facilitate more local social events (perhaps at branch level or between nearby university societies) that many more members could attend?

    4. It is the responsibility of the organisation offering the existing funds to branches and candidates (YL) to encourage people to apply for them. Equally if higher grants were available (by freeing up money wasted elsewhere), I think you’d get more interest.

    To be frank, if I were the Federal Board or HQ, I’d be wondering whether the party may not well get better results from channelling funds directly to young candidates and local societies and cutting out the bureaucracy that seems to exist in YL with only around 1% of the current money that is spent actually adding value to the party.

  • James Bliss 17th Jun '20 - 2:39am

    1. It is very reductive to describe the Staff Officers job as just doing admin, it really isn’t. Their job isn’t mostly spend on campaigning, but that’s because both YL and the party has other things in place to help with campaigning. In yls case this is the campaigns officer and the campaign’s committee.

    4. YL does a lot to advertise the branch development fund and young and winning, there are definitely ways that we can do better, but it is by no means a lack of trying. The people who run YL are volunteers who spend a large amount of our time and energy doing the things we do, and there are limits on how much we can get done and reform in a term, and us being successful in developing branches and supporting young candidate’s requires people to engage with us in applying for the help and telling us how we can help them better.

    (Splitting into 2 comments because of size)

  • James Bliss 17th Jun '20 - 2:39am

    On the rest of your points. YL is not a campaign machine, it’s purpose is not to churn out as many young and eager leftlet deliverers for local parties as possible and is not there to get as many young people as possible to stand as paper candidates to help out local parties. It is the consititionally recognised and mandated youth wing of the party, and is there to engage young members, represent their interests within the party, push issues they want pushed, support them in the campaign’s they are involved in, and push the policies that they want.

    The direction that YL takes and the things that we do are decides by the YL members. They elect the exec, they have power over the roles and responsibilities via consititional amendments at conference. You may not see the virtue in having a competent and professional executive who meets on a regular basis, you may not see the virtue in having 2 conferences a year where YLers from across the country can come together, meet, socialise, engage with YL and the party, get training and pass policy. But that is what YL is, it’s what a youth wing does.

    The exec deals with a lot of stuff, it is time consuming and stressful at times. We aren’t just sat around thinking of how we can waste money. There are many young members of the party who do not come from parts of the country with successful university societies at prestigious universities nor places with lots of young people to set up a branch and hold local social events. People who come to our conferences love them. Unless the membership closes otherwise, and decides to pass a consititional amendment to abolish conferences, the policy officer, events officer and the respective committee’s those things will continue, and to be honest the day that the party decides it wants the youth wing to be an empty shell an just a campaign machine is the day I leave the party

  • Lighthouse informs me that my constituency, Congleton has 10 under 18 members, 4 under 18 supporters, 8 YL members and 0 YL supporters. Our regions could do more to get these and others in adjoining constituencies together. I suspect there is a high turnover and this is partly because they are not award of others of a similar age living close by.

  • There is, on twitter a newly launched Lib Dems + Conservatives Together youth organisation

    Assuming it’s not a spoof that I have been totally suckered by, can I say as a former chair of the youth & student wing that the people behind this are an embarrassment to the party, to liberalism and to the history of the youth and student wings of the party(ies)

  • Richard Underhill 17th Jun '20 - 10:00pm

    Peter Hirst 17th Jun ’20 – 12:03pm
    A job for region

  • Richard Underhill 17th Jun '20 - 10:03pm

    Peter Hirst 17th Jun ’20 – 12:03pm
    Geoffrey Howe campaigned for a Liberal candidate in the1945 election.

  • Tony Greaves 17th Jun '20 - 10:55pm

    “There is, on twitter a newly launched Lib Dems + Conservatives Together youth organisation”

    Please tell me this is a spoof! here do seem to be a lack of real people involved!

  • James Bliss 18th Jun '20 - 9:24am

    Just to state the obvious, YL has had nothing to do with that particular twitter account or any other proposed plan for a “joint youth wing” with any party

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