We need to work more on engaging party members

Autumn 2012 conference - Some rights reserved by Liberal DemocratsAny passing observer will note the state of national politics with little more than vague disinterest and apathy. A Centre-Left Labour Party lurching between a nationalisation candidate and three also-rans. A Tory Party sharpening the knives ready for the evisceration of most public services, chasing the ghost of UKIP and Scottish Nationalists pressing a separatist agenda regardless of the recent referendum. There’s a malaise in public life of seeming inevitability to politics, that what is done is done and there’s no opportunity for change.

Most people have only a cursory appreciation of political rhetoric – Conservatives being for free markets and self-interest, Labour being for working people. But we’ve yet to establish the Liberal identity in common consciousness. Saying “We’re about freedom” doesn’t quite cut it. I’ve seen much discussion, on social media, and on blogs such as Lib Dem Voice, offering varying analyses of how we might have a deficient policy platform, or how a strategic mis-step might have cost us so dearly at the last election. This isn’t addressing the elephant in the room – perhaps we need to reform how we operate and engage with our internal supporters as a Party.

We are the only non-authoritarian party in UK politics and we happen to be pretty good at arguing for change and fairness on a case-by-case basis. But we need to embody and represent that change in all respects and I’d argue that’s where there is much room for improvement when addressing concerns on a systemic basis.

Anyone who has taken a look at the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate criteria will note that embodying values is a key skill which any representative will need to demonstrate in order to be approved (and indeed stand any chance of winning at all). But it seems we can achieve much more on an organisational basis. Let me offer a few examples.

Collectively, we spend hundreds of thousands of hours on campaigning in our communities every year: canvassing residents, surveying, becoming champions of engagement at all civic levels. Yet I struggle to recall the last time I was canvassed or surveyed on my opinions, ideas and goals as a member of the party. I suspect many other members can say the same.
It is unsurprising then that there’s a feeling that ‘politicians don’t listen’ when we aren’t embodying those values in everything we do. You might argue that we ‘survey all the time’, yet such surveys tend to be a tick box of several closed options, or open-ended questions which are hard to measure a consensus of. They don’t address systemic problems.

We don’t pick our fights wisely. We argue on the specific rather than the substantive. Sure, we may have demonstrated success by opposing Labour’s war in Iraq, but we haven’t established how a Liberal Democrat-controlled Government will view and respond to the world.

The key to reform starts by embodying values. We need to start working towards, not only, being the best political party at engagement, but the best public organisation in the UK. We have a campaigns department. We have a policy structure. I offer no comment on their role in our current public standing. If we truly want to reverse our fortunes, we should give the membership department the resources required to be the most engaged institution in the country. We need to start arguing for civic education for the young and active engagement with our membership. Only then can we hope to see such values embodied across the country and in our 15000 new members in coming years.

* Ross is an activist in North-West Hampshire and a former staffer in Parliamentary and Campaigns offices.

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  • Simon Thorley 14th Aug '15 - 6:32pm

    Timely article, Ross. ” Conservatives being for free markets… Labour being for working people” – perhaps we could start by making it clear that we stand for both of these things, and that they are not mutually exclusive? The public perception of the Tories as being pro-free market particularly grates – they are anything but!

    I particularly agree with your points about engagement and arguing on the specific rather than the substantive. For our presence in British politics to be sustainable, we need people to vote for us on our merits, not because we are ‘neither of the above’. Trying to capture Tory votes in certain areas and Labour votes in others is a fine tactic, but a fundamentally flawed long-term strategy.

  • Good article.

  • Nice.

    I was surveyed recently by Austin Rathe and the team, maybe that was an isolated case. I agree that more can and should be done.

    Tim I believe has promised to help find ways to do these things involving people more in policy making and voting above and beyond conference attendance.

    I completely agree we need to stake out areas and values and less so the specific policy positions in voters minds – though specifics do count with some.

  • Richard Underhill 15th Aug '15 - 7:49pm

    Please allow a little pedantry, according to my schoolteacher in English for the Oxford and Cambridge examination board.
    Someone who is disinterested is interested, but impartial, such as a judge. If he/she falls asleep the situation changes. He/she could become Wednesbury Unreasonable.

  • Richard Underhill 16th Aug '15 - 3:39pm

    Ross Fifield | Fri 14th August 2015 – 2:10 pm ” … Scottish Nationalists pressing a separatist agenda regardless of the recent referendum.” Not really, not yet. Holyrood is up for election, all-up, in May 2016.

  • Richard Underhill 16th Aug '15 - 3:49pm

    Ross Fifield | Fri 14th August 2015 ” … we may have demonstrated success by opposing Labour’s war in Iraq, “.
    Charles Kennedy was wise to oppose the war that George W Bush wanted, (with Tony Blair and Ian Duncan-Smith), but why did George W Bush want to do what his father, George H W Bush, had decided not to do when he was US President?
    Could it be a generational change? George Bush senior had fought in WW2, as had British politicians such as Ted Heath (army)and Jim Callaghan (navy).

  • Richard Underhill 16th Aug '15 - 3:56pm

    Ross Fifield “Only then can we hope to see such values embodied across the country … “. ONLY is a four letter word.
    as a conclusion it can all too easily lead to defeatism and inactivity.

  • Ross Fifield 17th Aug '15 - 11:34am

    Hi Rich,

    As recently as last month, Alex Salmond was shopping around the idea that a 2nd referendum is an inevitability, the only question being how soon, I expect the Holyrood elections to remain competitive for us, but the SNP is far from accepting the status quo.

    With regards to Foreign Policy, you’ve missed the wider point I was making. We get caught up in pursuing and delivering wins on single issues, because it is easier than delivering a Foreign Policy agenda which will stand future and on-going scrutiny. My rhetorical point was this – until we start promoting a start to finish vision of a Liberal Democrat Government, we will always be a single-issue, opportunitistic protest Party. The key to changing this is not only by engaging our activists ideas, but actually supporting those ideas in being delivered.

  • Richard Underhill 17th Aug '15 - 12:12pm

    Ross Fifield 17th Aug ’15 – 11:34am
    Alex Salmond said was that the decision as to when the SNP would campaign for another referendum would be taken by the SNP leader. She has not done so yet.
    They are, of course, well aware of the Holyrood elelctions in May 2016 and the EU referendum, probably soon after. Connecting a Scottish referendum and an EU referendum complicates both issues.
    Alex Salmond has precise and detailed opinions on these issues, requiring journalists to listen, attentively if possible.
    The SNP want to remain in the EU and do not have an opt-out.

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