Where will we get and use volunteers?

The next election, whenever it is, could see major gains by the party, or not.

What’s the difference between the two outcomes? In my view it is knocking on doors. In the Brecon and Radnor by-election, although we won, we did not knock on enough doors, but almost certainly delivered far too many leaflets. Yet every measure of how to win people over to our cause says that we will do it by talking person to person, either on the doorstep (best) or over the telephone.

In their book, Rules for Revolutionaries (recommended by Mark Pack), Becky Bond and Zack Exley talk about distributed organising, which explains how the Bernie Sanders Team used vast numbers of volunteers – 80% of whom had never been involved in politics – as the mainstay of their organisation, giving them equal roles with paid professionals, and built a volunteer organisation that could contact over 100,000 by email at one go and could run a voter registration operation in every state as well as GOTV.

Their aim was to contact every single voter in the democratic primary in person or by phone and persuade them to vote for Bernie. OK they only got 46% of the vote, but since they started from 3% and were running against Hilary Clinton who had vast sums to spend, it was a pretty amazing achievement. Had they started even a month earlier, the might actually have won.

In the UK, in the European Elections and indeed during Cleggmania, anecdotal evidence suggests that there were thousands if not millions of people, who wanted to vote for us who never had before and would almost certainly have wanted to volunteer to help if we had had an organisation that could get in touch with them. The sad fact is that we were wholly unable to respond to Cleggmania and had no way of utilising people who might have helped during the EU campaign.

The authors of the book suggest that the biggest obstacle to creating a distributed organisation is the reluctance of the (far too) few professionals we have to trust volunteers to just get on with it, once they have been given the task and the tools. [Of course we may not yet have all the tools we need, but that’s another question]. The Sanders organisation had only a handful of paid people because they simply didn’t have the money. (Sound familiar?!). By the end of the campaign they had over 100,000 volunteers willing to contact voters and GOTV.

They used computer tools like Slack and Trello alongside bog standard consumer apps and put together a dialer that was capable of making calls and connecting them to people once they were answered by a human being. The found that text was the best way of persuading people to get involved in the first place and made thousands and thousands of personal phone calls to bring people into the organisation, once they expressed an interest and held thousands of meetings at which new volunteers were brought into the organisation.

All this on a shoestring.

The other interesting thing the book outlines is that compromising or toning it down is counterproductive. If you want to deliver a political revolution (and don’t we all?) then starting by saying we can’t achieve it or we should move in small incremental steps, stops a whole swathe of people from becoming involved at all. Our plans for the UK DO amount to a political revolution. We should say so and go all out to achieve it. In addition the authors point out that most of the things we want to change are connected, so not campaigning on issues that can be perceived as unpopular can rule out whole groups from coming on board. For example racism is inextricably linked to lower incomes for some ethnic groups, so toning down our message on immigration deters not only ethnic groups but the poor as well.

So my message is that if we are going to take advantage of the upswing in our vote we need to start NOW to build a volunteer organisation, which will involve people who have never been our committed supporters or who have never even thought of political involvement, but want to stop Brexit and tackle the causes of Brexit – poverty, job insecurity, the dreadful effect of austerity on our public services – especially the NHS – and the appalling political system that focuses on fear instead of hope.

Where is any of this on the Bournemouth agenda?

* Dr Michael Taylor has been a party member since 1964. He is currently active in the Calderdale Party.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Under no circumstances drop 300 leaflets on their doorstep and say “off you go” as the first contact from their local party (as happened to me).

    I have the impression that the party isn’t great at leveraging members’ professional skills (eg sales and marketing, finance, legal etc). But I might be wrong.

  • Richard Underhill 27th Aug '19 - 10:01am

    Michael Taylor
    “running against Hilary Clinton”
    She had the support of super-delegates, powerful and influential people in the Democratic Party, which is not one person one vote.
    Hopefully Elizabeth Warren will come through this time.

  • nigel hunter 27th Aug '19 - 10:07am

    Bollocks to brexit did us well, short sharp and to the point. These sort of messages hit home. A small slogan in a focus like BIN IT could lead to people reading the leaflet for the message headline stands out.
    If the BIN IT idea could be transferred to text (ie IN capitals) and then the message sent it could interest people (other subjects are available!)
    Be NOT toning down the message (out by 31st) Johnson is showing positiveness for his side we need to sell our message equally as hard.
    Pressure should be put on the organisation to push our agenda even if it causes disruption(could get into the media) mention it at fringe meetings etc.

  • David Warren 27th Aug '19 - 10:23am

    Absolutely Warren4President.

  • Nonconformistradical 27th Aug '19 - 10:34am

    I think we have to be careful when trying to compare campaigning approaches in the USA and UK.

    Historically the USA has had less stringent data protection rules than the UK – especially now under GDPR. I think most political campaigning there is done by phone or onlline. I’d suggest GDPR here makes organisations much more careful about to whom they entrust data.

    Also the USA has this system of registered democrats/republicans etc. Not sure of the date when the following was posted but it suggests 75% of the US electorate might be so registered. So parties know something about the political attitudes of a greater % of the population.

  • “All this on a shoestring..” Mick says of Sanders campaign in 2016.

    A shoestring of $73Million in 2016 and for the current selection contest Sanders has already raised $36M in the first 6 months of 2019.

    I have been on two study visits to look at USA elections (meeting with both Republicans and Democrats and in two States as well as in Washington) and did a small amount of campaigning for Obama in the 2008 Primaries.

    The most glaringly obvious points that always strike me are just what enormous amounts the USA allows to be spent on elections and just how many Professional Organisers and Campaign Managers US candidates employ. This makes many read overs from the USA experience to the UK very simplistic and inaccurate.

  • Paul Holmes. Oh well, nothing to learn then. Result, no change and few seats!

  • John Bicknell 27th Aug '19 - 12:46pm

    Having seen that Norman Lamb is standing down at the next election, I do hope that the local party has a succession plan in place. I feel that North Norfolk has been held on his personal vote for some time, and the Lib Dems do not have a great track record at ‘handing over’ seats to a new incumbent.

  • This article doesn’t answer the question it asks?

    Perhaps part of the answer is to ensure that each constituency puts out the free post and has another leaflet to give to volunteers to deliver. We want our canvassers to go to our target seats, so we don’t really want them in their own constituency training a new volunteer. I wonder how many of our canvassers do not canvass in a target seat during a general election? What can be done to get them to canvass in our target seats? Why have our existing volunteers not solved this issue?

    I wonder what Michael Taylor means by major gains; 26 which we made in 1997, or 50 needed to reach our 2005 figure? Perhaps he means 150 or so needed so we might become the largest party in the House of Commons with a four way split. Should we have 200 target seats? What financial support can the Federal Party provide them? If we had 200 target seats we might have seats more evenly distributed and this might increase volunteer movement to target seats. Or it might spread us too thinly.

  • @TCO

    I agree very much with your first point about not just dumping a bundle of leaflets on new members as a first contact. Leaflets still need to be delivered but there are ways of engaging a member to do this and developing buy in into the process.

    However your second point regarding harnessing members’ skills is more complicated.

    Liberal Democrat members in many parts of the country are overwhelming time poor but working in high skilled occupations. This is a problem for campaigns because campaigns tend to need continuity of commitment for all back end tasks (such as those involving marketing, legal and other skills). In my experience those members with those sorts of skills have ideas of dabbling their time volunteering for a campaign. Because they often have full time jobs, they often find that the demands of a campaign on their time are not at all what they anticipated.

    The most useful “skill” for a volunteer volunteering within the area of an established party is sadly “free time” and lots of it. The overwhelming majority of man hours going into a campaign involve menial tasks such as envelope stuffing, literature sorting, handwriting envelopes, and delivery. Even canvassing isn’t necessarily a high skill task, though those members who want to share their marketing, sales and legal skills are best signposted to that activity.

    Unfortunately there are a lot of members in the party who are willing to volunteer, but only for non-menial/executive function tasks. The need for these at local level is limited, and an excess of these people trying to do these tasks can be counterproductive

  • That said, local parties seem to really lack social media/graphic design/IT skills, and I imagine even in the the hypest parts of inner London, Bristol and Manchester, local parties would (or should) snap up members with those skills

  • Mick Taylor 27th Aug '19 - 1:38pm

    Michael BG puts his finger on the dilemma facing the party. If it targets the usual 40-60 seats then no-one will really see a big reason to vote for us. If we are THE party of remain, then this election, of all elections, is the one to aim high. With a possible four way split in the vote then who can readily predict the no of seats for any party.
    There are signs that the party is starting the get the message and intending to target more seats.
    My message is that without the volunteers and without the money that will be an uncertain strategy to say the least. We need many thousands of volunteers, hundreds in each target seat. I see no sign that we have any strategy to get them. The point about the Sanders campaign was they DID go out and find them. Where are we training people to recruit volunteers?
    One millionaire doesn’t make an election campaign. Serious money is needed both nationally and in constituencies and I see no sign that the party has grasped this nor how it is going to be found. We will have to appeal to people we have never thought of as our natural supporters, but who want to remain in the EU. Sanders raised much of his money through small donations via crowdfunding. Yet all we get from the party is caveats about GDPR and the rules for electoral donations. These are problems to be solved, not obstacles to starting!
    Sanders campaign thought big and asked its supporters to do big things. With the greatest respect TCO delivering 300 leaflets is not a big thing, though of course the action he talks about is seriously wrong headed. We need people to run campaigns, to organise canvassing, to organise phone banks and to run GOTV. We haven’t got professionals to do that, we haven’t got the systems we need and it’s not good enough.

  • Paul Holmes 27th Aug '19 - 2:40pm

    @MickTaylor. If I didn’t think there was anything to learn from other countries I wouldn’t have gone, twice, to look at how elections are fought in the USA -as well as having read a lot more on the subject.

    I do though think that there is far more to learn from looking at the hard reality of how a Party like ours actually wins in UK FPTP elections. What for example did we do ‘wrong’ between 1945 and 1979 when we thought that trebling our vote to 6 Million but only winning 14 seats in Feb 1974 was a great success? Or in 1983 when we took 25.5% of the vote (our biggest vote share over the last century) but only 22 seats. Strangeley some see the period up to 1979 as some sort of ‘golden age’ for the Liberal Party but 6 to 14 MP’s and a few hundred Cllrs at best doesn’t seem that ‘golden’ to me.

    What did we start to do ‘right’ when we doubled our MP’s in 1997 or when we took our highest number of MP’s for nearly a century in 2005? What did we do ‘right’ when we gained Chesterfield in 2001 -for the first time since the 1930’s?

    For my part I know that wishful thinking about great surges, from nowhere to victory, played no part at all.

    @James Pugh. Both of your comments are absolutely spot on. Not least your point about some volunteers (professional/working full time) not realising just how much of a time comittment is needed during an all out Target Seat campaign. Dipping in and out for an hour or two just doesn’t do it if you are taking on a key role -which is why I emphasised the point about just how many full time professionals US candidates like Sanders hire, in order to manage Campaigns and to train and manage volunteers.

  • lloyd harris 27th Aug '19 - 3:53pm

    We have first part the post constituencies which are much smaller than a state in the USA. So in the US they way you campaign to win the votes in a whole state is different to localised campaigning in the UK to win MPs.

    Volunteer can be empowered but should never be allowed to make up their own Lib Dem campaign as there is a big risk of breaking election law and the party/candidate/agent getting prosecuted.
    (volunteer in this context is someone outside the campaign team, who are also mostly volunteers don’t forget)

  • Paul Holmes,

    We lost Chesterfield in 2010 to Labour and have selected three different candidates to fight it since. Are there any lessons to learn from this? Was the Federal support inadequate? Did the Local Party fail to meet the targets set by the Federal Party? Were people asked to go somewhere else? Was Cleggmania a factor?

    Even with our current system of targeting some of the points I raised still apply.

    Turning to a general election, if one is fought before we leave the EU, it might be possible to win some seats which were not on our target list last year. It is likely we will get people volunteering in greater numbers than we have experienced for some time. Therefore asking questions about if the party is planning for such an event seems to me a legitimate issue to raise. Do you have any suggestions to make on how these volunteers, if they do appear in numbers, could be engaged in our general election campaign?

  • Andrew McCaig 27th Aug '19 - 7:29pm


    We have a relatively small pool of people willing to go doorstep canvassing. I agree that they should be going to target seats but when they get there they should be sent canvassing if at all possible not delivering the third leaflet in three days, which is all too common

  • @Andrew McCaig

    “”””We have a relatively small pool of people willing to go doorstep canvassing. I agree that they should be going to target seats but when they get there they should be sent canvassing if at all possible not delivering the third leaflet in three days, which is all too common””””

    I think this is an interesting subject about use of resources for delivery vs canvassing. Whilst more leaflets does mean more votes, there probably is a number of leaflets delivered whereby once that number is reached, that an hour of canvassing (speaking to probably 10 voters) will deliver more votes than an hour of leaflet delivery (delivering a written message to between 20 to 300 households; depending on letterbox spacing) to households who have already had X number of leaflets (what that X is would be great to know).

    I tend to think that an electorate should get 4 pieces of literature as a bare minimum during a short campaign (excluding EoP and GOTV leaflets). I do tend to think after that 4th leaflet that you’re working against diminished marginal returns and given finite resources that it’s more productive to be getting doors knocked than letterboxes rattled. But there is a tendency in target seat campaigns for organisers and front of house volunteers to be preoccupied with getting literature shifted out because it’s a very visible, at the expense of more canvassing, and so direct volunteers to “just get the leaflets shifted”. I’ll admit to being quite resistant to delivery when showing up at a campaign HQ, saying that I’d really rather canvass, which probably is annoying for front of house volunteers

  • @Lorenzo Cherin. Lorenzo I’m not sure that Democrat/Republican candidate selection processes are quite as you imagine them.

    Ocasio-Cortez (an excellent politician) was a Democrat who had to fight to get selected as the Democrat candidate for a particular district in New York- after which, it being one of the safest Democrat seats in the whole USA, she was more or less guaranteed to then be elected to Congress. She raised just over £2Million and spent nearly $1.7Million – imagine how much more she would have had to raise and spend in a marginal seat!

    In California I met a Republican who had just spent $100,000 simply to get elected to the School Board but who saw it as a good investment for the first step of his ambitions to later enter national politics.

  • It’s a great idea. Also allows you to go global. My friend’s son was making calls for Bernie, on this side of the pond. Are the Democrats helping us??????? At a grassroots level?
    Also I think volunteers are very flaky but if there were enough of them doing a little bit and some doing a lot that wouldn’t matter

  • For me, the key factor in volunteering is productivity – the feeling that the time that I offer will make a difference. I suspect that this is also the case for many (most) of our newer members.

    I spent two days volunteering in Brecon and Radnorshire, the first from Llandrindod and the second from Brecon. The Llandrindod office was run by a local councillor, who had sorted the delivery with local knowledge into groups that could be delivered by somebody without local knowledge.
    The Brecon Office was run by a team who had descended from HQ in London, who seemed to be organising as they would in London. I was given a bundle with a couple of hundred addressed letters – reasonable for London, but in this constituency the area of several London Boroughs. The addresses were not on a Minivan list, so I had no way to find them. In the end, I gave up.
    I also knocked on doors in villages, and was told by several potential Lib Dem voters that the excessive quantity of literature was putting them off voting Lib Dem.

    The best way to get volunteers is to make them feel that they are doing something useful and are being valued. For me, that happened in Llandrindod, but not in Brecon.

  • Mary Regnier-Wilson 28th Aug '19 - 1:12pm

    Engaging members and supporters to actually become activists was at the core of the winning campaigns I helped to organise in South Cambridgeshire in 2018 and Chelmsford in 2019. In both we were able to build delivery networks and teams of canvassers by using the data within the various systems we hold to focus on recruitment canvassing at the beginning of a campaign. I have written guidance and training for other local parties on how to follow those hugely succesful examples, but most of it is unuseable now as the Campaigns Department at HQ don’t see it as a priority and so have not invested in the technology to make it easy or bothered to fix the Heath Robinson systems we did cobble together when they broke. Proper organisation of volunteers requires lots of boring drudge work in the background to integrate membership/website/voter info and that’s just not as sexy as “telling stories” or “media cut through”

  • Paul Holmes 28th Aug '19 - 1:44pm

    Lorenzo -again I don’t think it is a simple as you suggest in the USA.

    US State Parties fulfill the role of “qualifying and nominating Democrat candidates…” to quote the website of the Georgia State Party as an example. Just as Parties in the UK have such processes. Jared O’Mara is an example of what can happen if they don’t do their job very well.

    The major difference in the USA is the system of incredibly expensive Primaries during which Democrat and Republican candidates compete with each other to secure the official nomination as their Party candidate -whether it be for Congress or President. This is a long drawn out and expensive process which winnows out those with variously no experience/backing/money.

    Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did not just appear from nowhere/stand on a whim. She began her political campaigning, on behalf of Obama, in 2008. She did a huge amount more in support of Sanders in 2016. After that she was mentored and trained by the ‘Brand New Congress’ movement that was set up to recruit more Democrat candidates in the mould of Bernie Sanders. To become a Democrat candidate for election she took on a usually unopposed incumbent in a safe Democrat seat, where she and her team knocked on 120,000 doors (just to get selected as a candidate not to actually fight the election). She raised and spent $1.7Million in a (by US standards) relatively low cost election for a safe seat.

    You also wrote approvingly of the 20 Democrat would be Presidential candidates. But again these are subject to the rules of the Democrat National Committee which was more ‘generous’ this time following the controversy over its partisan backing of Hillary last time around. Even so 4 of the initial 24 applicants failed to meet the criteria to take part in the first debate. Only 10 have so far met the criteria for the second debate -and for the third debate the bar for ‘entry’ is raised. All that is before the serious -and enormously expensive – campaigning for candidate selection via Primaries begins.

  • Pieter-Paul Barker 28th Aug '19 - 7:47pm

    agree strongly with comment above that external help should be sent canvassing – it’s another leaflet delivery as well and a very effective one as many leaflets are handed directly to the recipient and far more likely to be read before recycled – the calling leaflet itself should be very very strong with plenty of content alongside the key messages as it will be read more than any other leaflet in the entire campaign

  • Richard Underhill 28th Aug '19 - 8:18pm

    Paul Holmes 27th Aug ’19 – 2:40pm
    “We thought that trebling our vote to 6 Million but only winning 14 seats in Feb 1974 was a great success? ”
    No we did not. Our Leader was invited to Downing Street and decide to go. He asked for proportional representation but the PM was in no position to agree. We should not believe the PM’s memoirs on this point. This is a warning, NEVER GO ALONE.

  • Managing Volunteers: Free and Easy? That is the topic of the Radio 4 programme In Business on 29th August.

    A very worthwhile listen for any Lib Dem member who organises volunteers:
    Also repeated on Sunday evening at 9.30pm

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