Opinion: The real issue in the Liberal Youth elections

Liberal Youth action day

There have been many debates in these Liberal Youth elections, many of them, dare I say it, ill-informed. The situation Liberal Youth is in is an interesting one. The vast, vast, vast majority of our members never chose to join the organisation. Due to the very nature of the system where you are automatically a member if you are under the age of 26 or a student people don’t choose to be a member of Liberal Youth, they just are. There are around 250 members who are actively involved in the organisation and around 1000 members who are involved in Liberal Youth in local branches or who keep interest in the organisation, out of a total membership of around 4,000. In the upcoming elections, I expect there to be between 300 and 500 ballot returns.

The real question which has to be considered by the candidates in a post-General Election era is what Liberal Youth is here to do.

Let us consider what Liberal Youth currently does:

  • In terms of training, by July, we will have held 5 training events in a year, attended by around 150 members, in addition to the training we gave at Federal Conference and at Liberal Youth conference.
  • In terms of policy, we have contributed 1 motion and 4 amendments (including the flagship youth unemployment policy) at the last 3 conferences, and for the first time we have a Liberal Youth policy book, detailing in over 100 pages the various policies of Liberal Youth.
  • In terms of recruitment, we have seen our membership go from around 1,700 two years ago to well over 4,000 today. Our Freshers recruitment campaign was without doubt highly successful, recruiting almost 1,000 Freshers through quality materials.
  • In terms of involvement, we have held 2 conferences, attended by over 100 people combined as well as various social events at Federal Conference.
  • We have campaigned up and down the country, in around 15 target seats, the highlight of which was the Liverpool Wavertree action day, attended by 40 people.
  • In terms of communications, we send out regular all-member mailings, have had some high-profile appearances on channels such as Uni-Q and VBS and are beginning to get real interest from the press.
  • And I know there are some things I have forgotten.

    Now, I know that reads like an incredibly boring list, but I believe it makes my point. Liberal Youth does, in my opinion, too much.

    We try to do all the functions of the Federal Party, despite being run by a volunteer base of around 10 people, with one full time member of staff and a budget of £40,000. I honestly believe that given its resources, Liberal Youth massively overachieves. To have 10 people, with the support of just one paid employee on a tiny budget to do so much is a fantastic feat. But do we do these things as well as we could? No. Our volunteers try to do too much, get over worked, over stressed and eventually working relationships break down.

    Add that to the naturally strong personalities that youth politics attracts and you have a recipe for people not working well together and resignations ensuing, reducing the amount of experience on the executive and continuing this cycle of over-work, stress and resignations. It really is no surprise that only 2 of the 16 executive members elected this time last year are still on the executive. And if things don’t change, it will be the same next year. It may not be the ideal way we’d like people to act, but it is the way people are acting and will continue to act over the next executive term.

    Liberal Youth needs to decide why it exists. There is an infamous YouTube clip amongst us youth politics geeks of a former executive member being asked exactly that question. The only answer he could give was “Ummmm….”. Liberal Youth doesn’t have a mission statement. It doesn’t aim to do something.

    With the funds and the resources available to us, we now must make the choice: what do we focus on? I have my own answer to that question, but as the outgoing chair, my answer means little, the questions must be addressed by those standing for office.

    The shopping list manifestos some candidates have produced will sadly not work. And that’s no reflection on the candidates themselves, but the organisation they are running for. Liberal Youth does not need to do more, it needs to do less. And posters on this website and others who have made arguments that they want Liberal Youth to do x, y and z in addition to what they already do are not dealing with the possibilities of the organisation.

    Yes, expectations are high for Liberal Youth and yes everyone has something extra they would like the organisation to do. But we simply can’t do everything. I recognise this is a sad situation for the youth wing to be in, but it is the reality of the situation. A situation which I have immersed myself in for the last year. This also means, you, the wider party have to play your part – what do you think Liberal Youth to focus on. It also means that your expectations have to be lowered when Liberal Youth doesn’t do the things which it has de-prioritised. Real focus means putting our efforts into the things we really value. It’s on those things where you should be able to raise your expectations and Liberal Youth should be able to meet them as by doing less we can achieve more with what we do.

    Therefore I hope that we can have a realistic discussion about the future of Liberal Youth. Sadly I believe this debate needs to be framed in terms of what Liberal Youth should do less of, not what extra Liberal Youth should do. That’s the real way to get quality from Liberal Youth. I’m not going to pretend that it’s going to make everyone happy, particularly those who want help from Liberal Youth for one particular issue and don’t get it. But I hope this leads to the beginning of an acceptance that we can’t do everything, as much as we would like to, and as much as we have tried to do in the past, with less success.

    Alan Belmore is the current Chair of Liberal Youth.

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    11 Comments

    • If I’m right in thinking that this article is a ‘back to basics’ call, then I’m probably inclined to agree. Perhaps Liberal Youth does, as you put it Alan, “try to do all the functions of the Federal Party”, and after my experiences as Branch Chair, we probably do need to think more about the fundamentally important things, such as greater involvement with and of our grassroots members.

      Nevertheless, it’s certainly a very interesting outlook on Liberal Youth and the ongoing elections…..

      Best wishes,

      Mo x

    • Filter Victim 31st May '10 - 2:37pm

      Alan – I’d love to disagree with you but apparently the spam filter at LDV won’t let me. Here is a truncated version of my 1003 word response (thanks spam filter. You’re doing a bang-up job).

      —-

      “In terms of communications, we send out regular all-member mailings” – This isn’t actually true though, is it? There are occasional snail-mail communications sent out (in my case to my non-term time address on the other side of the country). I’m a member of the LY facebook group, I have been the head of an affiliate branch, and the federal party, my local party and so far as I am aware (I sent an email asking it be double-checked in the past) Liberal Youth have not one, not two but three email addresses for me. In the past year I have received:

      * A facebook message about freshers pack registration
      * A facebook invite to the conference in York
      * An invite sent not by Liberal Youth itself but by a member to take part in the battle bus.
      * 4 facebook messages regarding the Autumn Conference and a ‘post-conference update’ (so evidently someone must have my email address).
      * A facebook invite for a meet and greet event in London and another to take part in the London LY launch party in London (London is about 300-400 miles from where I live and am registered with the party)

      And that’s it. Over the same period I’ve received 22 seperate emails from a branch I’m no longer a member of but remain on the e-mail list of and 38 emails from the federal party purporting to be from Nick Clegg (not to mention other federal, branch and local party emails). Correspondence from my regional Liberal Youth to the federal Liberal Youth stands at a ratio of about 5:1, my previous student branch and one of my local parties send out weekly email updates. I’m not saying that Liberal Youth does no communication but given what communication it does do appears to be limited to sending messages via facebook to a self-subscription group I wouldn’t go resting on my laurels. I’ve seen better advertised pub crawls.

      How could this improve?: Get into the habit of (a) sending frequent updates, by email not just facebook and (b) start actively chasing email addresses and using other means of advertising for large events such as conferences (does the federal party give LY lists of members under >26? If not why not; make them if they have the information and it’s not against data protection. Do you have a list of local party addresses to contact if you are organising a conference? Have you ever used it? Have you ever requested that Students Unions advertise to their members at universities which don’t have branches that resources and help are available for those who wish to set up branches? Why not?).

    • Martin Shapland 31st May '10 - 3:55pm

      “Liberal Youth doesn’t have a mission statement. It doesn’t aim to do something.”

      Article 1 of the Liberal Youth Constitution says thus:

      A1.2 The objectives of Liberal Youth shall be to:
      a) Represent Liberal Youth members to the party;
      b) Promote Liberal Democrat policies amongst young people and students.
      c) Develop and train its members.

      That’s what we focus on.

      Alan, you have a point when you say that the Federal Executive does too much but you make the mistake of equating the federal youth executive with the youth party as a whole.

      I’ve already stated that my aims are not a shopping list of promises, but a radical plan to reform how the Youth Party works, to devolve power to a regional level, and in so doing, share the load of what we do.

      The problem isn’t how much, or little we do, the problem is how we do it, and the structures in place to cope. That’s what needs fundamental reform and that’s why I stood for Chair to deliver.

      Martin Shapland
      Candidate for Liberal Youth Chair

      *Mine too was caught by the spam filter…

    • Rich Wilson 31st May '10 - 4:50pm

      Martin – Except devolving power to a regional level on Day 1 as you’ve set out in your manifesto wouldn’t actually share the load, it would put power in the hands of powerful branches who have the member base to make it work – no surprises then that Liberal Youth London and Liberal Youth Manchester have come out in support of your proposals – they stand most to benefit by them as you would be forsaking the rest of their regions to them because they have the set up already in place. To take the North-west as an example, as I’m based there, you’d be giving power to Liberal Youth Liverpool and Liberal Youth Manchester, simply because they have the most members currently and resources would be allocated towards them. So what about Lancaster, UCLAN, Cumbria? Your proposals would make the North West Liberal Youth region stop at the M62. Devolving to regions is all well and good, but not when the regions are made up of a couple of big branches and some newer, smaller ones. The real work needs to be done on ensuring we have a member base that reflects the diversity of the various branches, regions and demographics before devolving power to the regions can be thought about.

      Alan is right in that we are stretched too thinly, but adding a level between branches and the federal LY executive is not the way to cure this. Only by getting the members more involved (and, by extension, more capable) and increasing the links with local parties can we start to see this “workload” shift naturally onto the membership at large. How would more powerful regions cure the schizophrenic communications output we see in place, which is there because of the limited resources we have (and certainly would be worse were it not for the hard work of many a VC Comms)?

    • Patrick Smith 31st May '10 - 5:05pm

      Liberal Youth should now expand and foster a new recruitment approach on all University campuses with the prospect of 5 years of progressive `Coalition Government’.

      Liberal Youth ought to lobby for an improved situation for all students and request Government Ministers and MPs to speak at Youth Rallies and Events.

      For the first time in 70 years Liberal Democrats are in Government and have talented front ranking contributors to new policy ideas and progressive new legislation including to help students avoid a lifetime of student debt etc.

      There is now a golden opportunity for Liberal Youth to keep the Government on its toes and ensure that it is consistent and refreshed to its Liberal Democrat Manifesto commitments on behalf of all young people.It is an important mantle of responsibility for liberal minded students but in this task they should strive.

      I suggest that if this present generation of Liberal Youth are in need of a new soul searching role of travel they ought to hold a national referendum amongst its members to find the most relevant issues and their individual policy concerns.

      The ability of Liberal Youth to succeed at stock taking is also vitally important to achieve in order to fuel young Liberal talent to stand as Councillors and MP`s and to challenge for the right to represent their peers.

    • Martin Shapland 31st May '10 - 5:55pm

      @Rich Wilson

      I’ve set out clearly that the new regions would not be based on existing structures, nor would they be introduced on day one – that would make a bad situation much worse – they would have to go through conference, and as such would be a full consultation process as part of that. I’d like to see regional execs elected by all member ballot within that region, working to build a regional base. to compliment the work of Branches, and the Federal Executive.

      Martin

    • Rich Wilson 31st May '10 - 6:27pm

      Martin – who would pay for an all member ballot in, what, six or seven regions AND then a national one also? Again, you’ve ignored that the problem with the regional devolution you propose isn’t with the regions themselves, but what comprises the regions, leaving federal LY at the beckon call of large branches and the smaller branches drying up. I note on FB you’ve criticised that the poor communication to members of the current leaves the regions led by the few from branches who can be bothered to help out. Your proposals do far worse – they hand power to the couple of branches in each region which have the resources to co-ordinate campaigns. At best, it fails totally and we’re left with the weak regions we have now, at worst, regions and regional elections become carve ups between the largest branches all because you’re putting your reorganisation plan before members and membership development.

    • Phil Jarvest 31st May '10 - 10:11pm

      The question is not what less can we do, but how can we build a strong, sustainable organisation that can feasibly do what we have set out to do. The constitution makes clear the three objectives of Liberal Youth and I believe we can achieve those aims, if we can make Liberal Youth work effectively. We think this can be achieved be devolution of power. This need not be radical; we don’t necessarily need an extra layer of bureaucracy or further elections, we simply need local branches to co-operate and work together and a Chair (or co-Chairs) who are willing to work hard to facilitate that change.

      The flaw with your argument is to assume that everything must be done from national liberal youth. For example, the mini-bus had little impact on the election, galvanised little enthusiasm among the wider liberal youth and couldn’t be justified in terms of cost to effect. In Sheffield Central, where we lost by 165 votes we were told it was not possible for a visit whilst the bus travelled to seats where we lost far greater margins. If the twelve months previous had been spent facilitating strong regional networks rather than focusing purely on the national campaign, we could have had many more successful regional action days.

      Our manifesto is not a shopping-list of policies; we have made a list of commitments by which we can be judged. In fact, few of our manifesto ideas are spending commitments. It is our blueprint for how we want to build a serious, effective and accessible organisation.

      Candidate for co-Chair of Liberal Youth

    • Filter Victim 31st May '10 - 10:31pm

      @Alan – Okay, fair enough however it would be useful if there was more effort made to actually obtain the email addresses. I mean, it’s great that if I realise there are emails I’m not getting and if I email Cowley Street I can get them but… how many people are going to do that. I’m sort of low-hanging fruit here. Local parties will have a rough idea of their youth members, university branches have membership lists: there are ways to get the addresses. I remember being told to make sure that I sent the signup sheets from our freshers fair to Liberal Youth rather than Cowley Street because if we sent them to the latter Cowley Street wouldn’t send them on(!) I’d hope this still isn’t the case; might be something work fixing if it is.

      @Patrick – “Liberal Youth ought to lobby for an improved situation for all students and request Government Ministers and MPs to speak at Youth Rallies and Events.” Exactly. There are some MPs who are really good about it, but it might be useful if it were less of an uphill struggle. I remember speaking to Mark Vallares ages ago about it and he said it was the kind of thing Ros would be on board for.

      @Phil – “In Sheffield Central, where we lost by 165 votes we were told it was not possible for a visit whilst the bus travelled to seats where we lost far greater margins.” : to be fair, no one knew how off true voter intentions the polling figures were. When the situation changed after the first debate so did the campaign strategy so less emphasis was put on seats we were ‘sure of winning now’ and more on those previously assumed to be long-shots. The decision view within hindsight was wrong, but it made absolute sense at the time and do have done the reverse (to continue with the targeting strategy from the very start of the campaign) would have been absurd (although, in retrospect, the correct thing to do).

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