What the Thornhill report should mean for Young Liberals

Many have rightly heralded the party’s open and honest attempt to understand our defeat as a gamechanger for the Lib Dems. This is a chance to address not just the damp, but the dry-rot and subsidence too. In the spirit of Dorothy Thornhill, I think it’s time we addressed all of the party’s structural problems. The report repeatedly and rightly mentioned the need for greater BAME involvement in the party, which is holding back our ability to win seats and appeal to a broader base of liberally-minded people. We are also being held back, however, by an absence of young people in the party.

In statistical terms, the Lib Dems are quite a young party; as of 2018, 27% of our members were between the ages of 18-39. If you look at the 18-24 age-range, which is when most young people who go to university will do so, only 6% of our party come from this group, relative to almost twice that in the population at large. Considering how many of our target seats have universities in them, there is huge opportunity for growth here. We do have a relatively young membership compared to Labour and the Conservatives. But this is like being the tallest penguin: our party is still overwhelmingly reliant on older, experienced, members who are dwindling in number. Unless young members stay within the party, we risk brain-drain to the two larger parties amongst ambitious young liberals. Unless we can recruit and maintain a cadre of young members who become integrated into party structures, we risk losing institutional memory whilst also campaigning with methods stuck in the past. The view that we can win in the 2020s with the same methods that won the by-elections of the ‘90s is beyond delusional. Young liberals are vital to future campaigns, and not just doing the grunt work.

Young Liberals should offer a natural recruitment ground in the party for such talent, and it should be a place where young members can gather experience of how to run serious campaigns effectively. But too often it falls short; irrelevant to the lives of most young members, YL is the preserve of a small clique of insiders. YL needs major reform; too few branches are learning best practice from each other about how to grow, too many positions go uncontested, or contested by the same old faces. Turnout in YL elections is shockingly low, when turnout is published at all. The Chair of Welsh Young Liberals was elected with 13 votes. 7 positions on the federal executive went uncontested last election season, other positions are vacant. The atmosphere inside YL, including the shutting down of the infamous Chatbox, certainly coheres with what many were saying in the Thornhill report: we’re quick to criticise each other and the party, and slow to encourage one another. YL at the moment is not fit for purpose; how will it make a credible case that it should keep its seat on Federal Board, whilst it continues to spend so much money on its conferences, and so little on developing branches and winning campaigns?

Inside YL, many people have been working hard to transform the institution to be fit for purpose, but the reality is that they are swimming against the tide. The structures are unwieldly: at last count there are 63 different elected positions across YL’s different organisations. This surfeit of positions mean that officers find themselves serving alongside people who took up the roles as a favour to the organisation, and lack the time to do the roles properly. The youth wing of Britain’s third party cannot be run this way any longer.

To be clear, this is not meant as a personal attack against members of YL, the vast majority of whom are constructive and enthusiastic party members. A culture within YL, of needless and baseless criticism of the party and each other does, however, abound. YL requires nothing less than root and branch reform; the roots in particular have a lot to learn from the branches. If it can reform, then we have the chance to turn it into a fiercely powerful campaigning force, recruiting young people in the country, and giving us the resources we need in areas that have had no activism, or that winning margin just where we need it. Let the Thornhill report be the start of that transformation for YL.

* Anonymous Young LIberal is a member of the Young Liberals known to the Lib Dem Voice team who is anonymous for professional reasons.

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  • Richard Underhill 23rd May '20 - 10:14am

    Reducing the voting age from 18 to 16 was passed at federal conference several years ago, as part of a package, all of which are now law.
    At that time there was a youth group and a student group. I voted for it.
    There have been attempt/s in the Commons to legislate for this by Green MP Caroline Lucas with support from the SNP.
    Our USP is democratic reform. We should do more on this. We have had the youngest MP in the past in Truro. Charles Kennedy became leader.

  • Jack Worrall 23rd May '20 - 10:48am

    This is an interesting and thought provoking article. I know that the Young Liberals exec are working hard to provide more training and resources for branches.

    The new accreditation scheme provides a great opportunity for really cutting the bureaucracy and providing direct support. The Coronavirus crisis has stymied a lot and the exec has focused on delivering engaging events to give our members direct access to MPs and other folk.

    I agree that YL was once very cliquey and that was fuelled by Chatbox. Chatbox was a joke within the party and the thing the Federal Party would use to hit us over the head with. Scrapping it and moving to Forum was the best way to stop the toxic environment and by and large it worked.

    I have thought that we should be using this time to really deliver the skills and training that young folk lack in the party. I think YL specific training on things like Affinity, Connect, Nationbuilder and everything is absolutely needed and I hope that is in the pipeline.

  • I’d say this is rather a fair assessment. There are a few gripes I hold with YL. But I will concede it’s much better than it used to be and has really come on leaps and bounds. Given its ability to self-improve in the past, I do hope that we can use the report to improve what we do along with the rest of the party. But like you’ve said, it starts with self-reflection.

  • @Anonymous Young Liberal. I’m afraid I probably fall into the category of “beyond delusional” as you so non confrontationally term it.

    However, having been variously organising elections for others and standing for election myself from 1987-2020, I have always been keen to learn about good new campaigning ideas. That is, the ones that can actually be shown to work and result in winning elections. As far as I am aware the ‘best ever’ Council elections success in 2019 and the 11 Parliamentary Seats we did mange to win last year, all owe far more to the tried and proven campaign methods of the past than they do to the new campaigning methods you allude to but do not provide examples of. The 2019 EU election success is a different category because those elections are (were now as that is consigned to history) fought under a PR system and across exceptionally large electoral areas. Even there however the use of highly targeted literature was a key campaign tool.

    Can you share your knowledge of the successful new methods with us – with examples of election success that resulted? If you have worked up examples then this “delusional” campaigner would be delighted to invite you to come and train our local campaign team.

    For the main message of your piece I congratulate you on a very well written case most of which I would agree with entirely. Regrettably however, over the best of four decades, I have seen similar pieces on a re occuring basis. I hope you have more reforming success than your predecessors.

  • I’m not sure how or why Richard Underhill can use Truro as a paradigm example of anything unless it is to illustrate what the electorate thought of the Liberal Democrats during the period 2010-19.

    In nine years they moved from narrowly failing to win the seat (20,000 votes – 41%, 2010) down to 7,000 votes (12% – 2019).

    Maybe it would be a good idea to do some intensive polling to establish why and where the missing 13,000 votes went to.

  • James Bliss 23rd May '20 - 2:33pm

    Overall I think this article has the right sentiment behind it, there are still issue with how YL operates and ways we need to get better. But in the end it’s an organisation run by volunteers, and there is only so much that can be done in the short term to fix issues that exist. We can’t just set up branches top down across the country, and we are working hard with things like the accreditation scheme to build up and support branches.

    I would also point out some factual issues. Firstly, there are not 63 elected positions in YL. In Federal YL there are 10 member’s of the executive and a further 20 elected members on committees (who are essential to having membership input outside the exec, and are good at allowing newer members not involved already to start involvement in how YL works). There are 12 elected members in English Young Liberals (mainly regional chairs), 6 elected members in Welsh young liberals and 7 elected members in Scottish young liberals. This puts the total across all the YL bodies at 55. I am not sure where you would make cuts to the number of elected positions? Eliminate the elected committee members? Thus reducing the number of voices on how things are run and decisions are made, and if anything make the risk of cliqueyness worse? Not sure where you would cut any federal exec members, without merging roles and giving people unmanageable workloads? EYL has already been cut back to the bare minimum in the last few years, an there is basically no scope to cut the Welsh or Scottish execs at all.

    Id also take issue with the idea that we spend too much at our conferences. People pay to come to in person conferences and how close to cost neutral they are depends on attendance, they aren’t costly things for YL when you account for revenue from tickets. They are really good events both from a substantive pov of us setting out own policy (which then gets submitted to federal conference, and in recent years passed by federal conference) and also as a great membership engagement tool, to allow people to make friends, get involved and invested in YL, and make connections with young people in the party from across the country.

    I also think the claims of cliqueyness are massively overstated and misguided.

  • Nonconformistradical 23rd May '20 - 4:09pm

    “YL is the preserve of a small clique of insiders. YL needs major reform; too few branches are learning best practice from each other about how to grow, too many positions go uncontested, or contested by the same old faces. Turnout in YL elections is shockingly low, when turnout is published at all.”

    Learning best practice etc. takes time. By its very nature Young Liberals has a transient membership – based on age or being a student. By the time a Young Liberal member has got to grips with the organisation they might no longer be eligible for membership.

  • Richard Underhill 23rd May '20 - 4:17pm

    David Raw
    This party has given young people opportunities to become MPs.
    Remember what David Steel said about Truro “His majority is bigger then mine.”
    At Ribble Valley I was doing the second knock-up. He was doing the third. I could hear him catching me up.

  • I was absolutely astonished to discover on reading YL’s budget that the organisation has an annual budget of nearly £60,000- £45,000 of which comes from the party. They even have a full time staff member being paid £24,000.

    For an organisation that fails to engage most of its own members and contributes very little if any tangible benefit to the party that I can see, I for one wonder whether YL’s federal board seat and receipt of nearly £250,000 of party members’ subscriptions over a 5 year period can really be justified.

  • An Anonymous YL 23rd May '20 - 5:25pm

    Hi, sorry for any offence given or taken Paul Holmes. In a ward that our local party decided to let our YL branch run ground operations for, we went from being a reach target in 2018 which we won narrowly, to increasing our win to a margin of over 500 in 2019. This Labour facing ward’s astonishing result was even called out as an especially good result in the New Statesman. We younger members learnt a lot from the campaigners in the ward, but with our methods we were able to increase hugely the number of available campaigners, as well as crafting new messages for younger voters, and turning out supporters digitally. I don’t think it’s delusional to think tried and tested methods work, I think it’s delusional to think they are enough on their own, especially if we want to the party to thrive, rather than survive.’

    In response to James’ comments, the 63 figure includes the eight YL delegates to English Council. Last year YL conferences made a £2,000 loss, not including a further £3,000 on executive travel and access funds, of which a large amount will be conference related. Considering the branch development fund gives out no more than £50 a pop, this is a staggering quantity to be spending, the equivalent to 40 branch development grants being given apropos of nothing. It might be easier to see which and whether positions could be cut if there was greater transparency and understanding about what these positions do. We’re all volunteers in the branches too.

  • James Bliss 23rd May '20 - 9:59pm

    The Young Liberals access fund is both for YL conferences and federal conferences, and from my understanding is mainly the latter because YL Conference tickets are rightly subsidised. Last year we had issues around one of our two conferences having lower attendance than expected (due to a mix of location and other issues I won’t rehash/bring back up again). Are you suggesting that YL just shouldn’t have conferences? Because there are plenty of members of YL who are only as active in the party (not just YL) as much as they are as a result of going to conferences. They are brilliant for engagement for young people to get involved in the party, as well as producing policy which has later been passed as party policy. Are you suggesting that YL just shouldn’t have a conference at all?

    The executive travel fund is not for conference, but is money for exec members to attend the monthly exec meetings which are usually held in-person in London. While some meetings can be held online (before Corona this term we had a mix of in person and online meetings), having some in person meetings is an important thing for an exec to have and I’d strongly be opposed to totally getting rid of them just because of the small coat of reimbursement of travel expenses, and it would be unfair and unrealistic to put the financial burden on exec members (who are under 25s) who for the most part work incredibly hard with very little thanks or recognition and tons of criticism.

  • James Bliss 23rd May '20 - 9:59pm

    On the elected positions. The English council delegates are elected alongside other elected positions, but they are delegates to the English council and are positions which exist as a result of the English council existing. I personally support either serious reform or the abolition of the English party, but while it exists in its current form EYL gets delegates to it, that’s not something that YL gets a choice over.

    While I get that there is an underlying issue if people lot fully understanding the structures of party bodies, both in the actual party and YL (both of which interesting enough I’m in the process of writing guides about explaining), those issues are significantly less with YL then the party overall. With all due respect, which roles in YL do you not know/understand what they do? Pretty much every year there are reforms either removing or adding positions that are unnecessary/needed (including me last year abolishing the role that I was then in, EYL non-portfolio officer, because being in that role I determined it was unnecessary and redundant). Talking about there being 63 (which is actually 55 elected positions within yl organisations) elected roles, and not actual going into what roles you take issue with nor what your actual issue is with there being 55 elected positions at all is honestly a copout.

    If you want me to go through every role and explain its purpose I’m more than willing to do so. If you have an issue with any of the positions then please make the case on a specific basis.

    I’ll also point out as policy officer that submissions for constitutional amendments to federal YL are currently open, if you want to propose an amendment (to our now online conference in july) then you are absolutely free to do so. Email me at [email protected] 🙂

  • Jack Worrall 23rd May '20 - 10:18pm

    John Smith

    The Federal Party mainly covers the full time staff member.

    We also have a grant system with the English Party which is an outlined budget where we can pay for things out of. If we don’t spend the money then it stays with the English Party. YL uses the money it needs to operate and do everything we need.

    I also really don’t appreciate folk who have never been to a conference say that “oh they spend it on conferences” YL conference provide vital training and policy experience that has directly resulted in policy being passed in the Party and folk having vital experiences and training.

  • Id also just say to John Smith on the staff member. YL pays for the staff member out of our budget, but alongside the essential job they so within YL they work in HQ and inevitably take on workload outside of YL directly.

    Every political party has full time staff in their HQ that work alongside youth wings, the staff member is essentially the party youth and student staff member. They take on essential safeguarding roles at events (including YL and federal conferences), liaise between HQ and YL and do a massive amount of work. We pay it out of our budget because it is a necessary part of having young members of the party, and it is not something you could just get rid of.

    Id also point out here to emphasise the import and essential job that the staff member does, that they were one of the staff not furloughed during the crisis.

  • An Interested YL 23rd May '20 - 10:55pm

    Sorry which is it? Does the federal party or YL cover the member of staff?

    Also as a member of YL, and an active member of the party what exactly is it this member of staff does? Because I was shocked when I saw our budget and if YL funds the member of staff that’s an extra £24k!? That money could be spent on preferably a more effective YL or at worst a better HQ. Money is money and I see very little of value coming out of YL tbh.

  • @AnonYL: No offence taken but I am very wary of the fairly frequent, unsupported, claims that ‘new’ methods make ‘old ones’ redundant.

    Congratulations on the successful vote increase in a Labour facing Ward last year. Our Party has always found it harder to take Labour seats/Wards. Were you able to use Marked Registers to compare young voters turnout in general and of your canvassed supporters in particular, in 2019 compared to 2018? That would help measure the success of your youth messages. But targeting messages to different parts of the electorate is not new.

    In my area last year we gained 8 Cllrs, 7 from Labour and 1 from UKIP. It was I think the biggest number of gains from Labour the Lib Dems made anywhere in England. We also, over the 3 previous years won a string of 3 by elections, all gains from Labour. Whilst our opponents made much of bulling themselves up on Social Media and spent money on Facebook adverts, we stuck to proven techniques of doorknocking and literature.

  • YLs money comes from both the federal party and English Party. The money for the staff officer comes out of YLs budget and goes to HQ to pay the staff officer. It’s probably a slightly complicated way of doing it, but the thinking is that the federal party sets aside money for Youth and Students, which includes having a staff member for youth and students, that money is then given to YL but the person is employed by HQ out of YLs allocated budget.

    Without the staff member YL would both be seriously disadvantaged in how we run and operate, the staff member is essential and does lots of hard work. But in addition there are a number of safeguarding roles that the staff member takes on that would be totally inappropriate for say an exec member to take on (which has been the case in the past and has been problematic).

    The staff officer is an essential role, and really isn’t something that should be up for debate.

  • So actually I’m just going to quote directly what our Finance Officer has said elsewhere on the staff member. Because he explains it much better than me or jack:

    “We pay the staff member with a grant given to us by HQ directly for that purpose – it’s not strictly speaking our money to spend on anything else, and the staff member works part time for other teams in HQ aside from us.

    So basically we can’t spend the £24k on anything else and it’s not like HQ can spend it on anything else because it’s already used to employ a member of staff at HQ – they just also work for us sometimes”

  • This kind of article happens roughly every three years, which tells me the problem runs deep. I served as Vice President of International Federation of Liberal Youth, where I had the benefit of working with more successful youth wing equivalents overseas. I think the main lessons to draw from them are twofold:

    1) Expand the definition of youth. As long as it remains a university club, it limits its potential. Expand to 16-30/35 – therefore incorporating young professionals who can bring experience, skills and money. We are still bound together by generational issues such as housing, climate and affordability crisis.

    All the most successful Youth Wings overseas have a broad movement of young people and have much more clout as a result.

    2) Funding. One staff member and sub 50k budgets is not enough to run an effective movement. The Federal Party should invest more into staff time to support a Campaign movement for now and a training facility that will produce the stars of the future. We will get back the returns on that investment.

  • I certainly agree with Bobby Dean that the Young Liberals could be of value as a campaigning organisation, particularly in regards to supporting young candidates.

    However, even with its current budget, only £1500 actually seems to be spent on campaigning- by my maths that is less than 3% of annual expenditure. By contrast, there are tens of thousands of pounds going to fund conferences (which make a loss), travel expenses and staff salary for what appears to be an admin, rather than a campaigning role.

    I’d ask whether more could not be achieved with existing resources. I don’t know of many local parties for example, that employ full-time admin assistants rather than using the funds for campaign staff.

  • Nobody has commented on the Anonymous Young Liberal’s statement that only 6% of Party members are in the 18-24 age group compared with 12% in the population at large. I am aware of one university group that struggles to attract members by comparison with the other parties. People in that age group have traditionally been passionate about human rights and international questions. In past decades YL’s led the debate and encouraged the Party to take strong positions on human rights, apartheid, Vietnam, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, racial discrimination etc. etc. Do young people not care about similar issues to the same extent today, or does our Party or its YL section not have strong enough campaigning positions on them?

  • @John Kelly

    When I was at uni the student support for the Lib Dems was absolutely huge due to the tuition fees pledge and general perception of cultural liberalism. Then the party U-turned and supported the trebling of fees along with supporting Conservative led austerity.

    I don’t think the party has ever recovered and I suspect those students who remained/became Lib Dem supporters during and after the coalition are a lot more likely to be economic liberals though I don’t know this for sure.


    – 48% of students voted for the Lib Dems on Election Day, compared to 22% voting for each of the other two main parties. (Fieldwork dates: 7 -10 May 2010)

    Of course young people still care about liberal issues but many of them switched to Labour, especially with Corbyn’s stance on tuition fees and many also support the Greens who are culturally liberal and appear to address the big issue of climate change.


    One of the most damaging aspects of the coalition is that it absolutely gutted our youth support.

    I’ve obviously only focused on university support and I’m aware not every young person attends university. It would appear that students at least are considering voting for us again. When I was at uni I joined the party and went to one event but never really got involved because I just wasn’t that interested in party politics at the time but it was a time when it felt like being part of the future to be liberal.

    Then came the coalition and Clegg repeatedly banging on about “grown up politics” while trebling tuition fees, putting people into poverty with the bedroom tax, benefit cap,benefit freeze (apart from pensions rising regardless of need), public sector pay freeze, cuts to legal aid..

  • James Bliss 24th May '20 - 4:54pm

    On Bobby Dean’s point, YL has been working for well over a year now to increase our age from 25 to 30, we have to change the Federal Constitution to raise it so there is an issue of us navigating the Federal Party in order to get it submitted to a federal conference (and with conferences being up in the air it has obviously delayed things)

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