The Liberal Democrat challenges for 2011: using members and supporters as a campaigning resource

Over the festive season we’re running a series of posts on the main Liberal Democrat challenges for 2011. You can find all the posts as they appear here.

Looking back through the emails I have received from the party centrally since the formation of the coalition, very few have asked me to do anything. Some have asked for money, requested I come to conference or suggested I go and help in elections – but even those, whilst being good stuff, have been drawn from a very narrow conception of what members and supporters can do. When it comes to policy areas, campaigning disappears and it is nearly all top-down broadcast mode communication telling me what someone has done.

Those communications are important (as I’ve said before) but should be only part of a wider ambition. It is as if all a local councillor did was tell people what has happened after a planning committee has ruled, rather than telling them in advance what is going to happen and how they can influence it.

The party is not exactly short of opponents to overcome when it comes to implementing Liberal Democrat beliefs in government, yet we are not using the party’s grassroots strengths to help win those struggles.

The Conservative Party is, to take one example, split on civil liberties. Many key figures take a similar view to the Liberal Democrats, yet there are also many opponents of what a Liberal Democrat majority government would do. Public pressure has an important role to play in this, yet exhortations to write letters to local newspapers, online petitions, information about how to help key pressure groups – these are all absent from the party’s internal communications as if they only thing party members can be is passive outsiders to things their betters are off doing in meeting rooms in Whitehall.

It’s a remarkably non-Liberal Democrat approach (and the responsibility for this, in fairness, rests others than with those who actually pen the emails and ensure their despatch). It runs counter to what Gordon Lishman rightly stressed about community politics – the move from “passive acceptance to positive participation”.

John PrescottEmbracing the campaigning power of members and supporters would not only boost the party’s impact on government, it would also give members and supporters ways of feeling involved, committed and motivated – and to see how Liberal Democrat presence and pressure can make a difference.

It is also the route by which a much stronger data culture can be built up in the party, valuing the accumulation and good use of data such as email address lists.

Understandably, Nick Clegg may be reluctant to walk out of a meeting with a Conservative Cabinet Minister and send out an email asking people to lobby that minister, but with more imagination there is much the party – and in particular via the President, not in government – can do to campaign rather than watch.

John Prescott is not every liberal’s first choice as a role model but the campaigning he did on banker bonuses whilst Labour was in government was a good example of how being in power does not have to kill grassroots campaigning for national objectives.

By this time next year, there should be Liberal Democrat role models who can be pointed to instead of John Prescott.

For the final piece in this series, check back on Sunday.

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4 Comments

  • David Lawson 24th Dec '10 - 10:57am

    One of the problems with betrayal is that it leads to cynicism and disengagement. The party worked for a policy it believed in, close to the soul of the party and strongly in the interests of its members and supporters. It then approved MPs abstaining on this. Not even satisfied by this the two leading members of the party went as far the other way as they could and then campaigned hard for that alternative.

    You now tell the party that it must seek to mobilise public support behind a LD agenda. Only someone who works in politics could write that. As for asking us to move from “passive acceptance to positive participation”. Amongst the harm caused by The Betrayers over tuition fees is huge damage to democratic engagement (in England in particular). The LDs can no longer claim to have a particular message about community engagement, other than at the Tory level that we would be convenient citizens if we cleaned the snow from the front of our houses.

  • Simon McGrath 24th Dec '10 - 11:50am

    All excellent points. But how to get the Party to do it?
    Perhaps next year you should run for the Federal Excutive as well as the Interim Peers Panel!

  • @ David Lawson

    Would you just give over about tuition fees? What is behind this is the fact that we don’t have any more money to spend. The public are using this issue as a stick to beat the Lib Dems for saying this. They don’t want to be told that the piggy bank is empty and are in a rage about that. The Lib Dems are just a convenient scapegoat. If we are supposed to be The Betrayers, then what about the Deniers (i.e. deficit deniers)?

    In the mean time, our message is being drowned out by New Labour supporters in the BBC (anyone else noticed the slant of their coverage of the cuts?) and by continued vicious attacks from the right wing press, particularly the incessant hate campaign of the Telegraph. Under those circumstances, simply getting our message out is a massive challenge and one that at the moment we are failing miserably.

    We are in the middle of a battle for survival against huge odds at the moment. I agree that communications should lie at the heart of how we wage our war for survival, both internally within the party and externally. We are absolutely being set up to carry the can for everything at the moment, and we need desperately to marshall our resources on the ground against being cast in this role.

  • I’m surprised trusted volunteers aren’t used more, particularly now we’re short of money. In other organisations, volunteers are recruited to do specific tasks and use existing skills. For example, among our membership, surely we have people who work in PR and communications and can help lead this strand of work? Surely we have experts somewhere in retention and recruitment of volunteers? Do skills get registered anywhere when members join and can they be updated? We have to bear in mind that some of the people with the skills we need will be too busy to come to Conference and so we have to be wary of only recruiting from that pool.

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