Why, after a year of being involved with the Lib Dems, I’ll be renewing my membership

I was sad to see Josh Lashkovic’s article explaining why he won’t be renewing his membership. I was one of the enthusiastic newbies he refers to; I met him in that summer of 2015, and I thought he was a great guy with interesting ideas for ways the party could move forward after its electoral wipeout.

I’m a great enthusiast for the idea of the Lib Dems as a startup, and I share his desire for the party to change. My experiences over the last year though have been completely different to his, and I’d like to explain where I think he’s wrong and see if he might reconsider.

Just because we need new methods, doesn’t mean we should throw out the old ones

I have indeed knocked on a lot of doors and I’ve delivered a lot of leaflets. But just because those methods are old doesn’t mean they’re obsolete. My first full campaign was, yes, ‘another council by-election’ and we did ‘spend evenings and weekends knocking on doors’. But we came second somewhere we’d never had a candidate before (a new entrant disrupting an established market, you might say) and we learnt a lot.

Doing those things enables us to gather data, to test and learn, to develop new methods, see what works and get rid of what doesn’t. For the GLA elections we’ll be split-testing different campaigning and get-out-the-vote methods in a randomised trial. Eric Ries would be proud.

As for fundraising; well, every startup I’ve ever worked for or advised has spent a fair chunk of its time working out where the money is coming from. We need four more years of runway and the burn rate is as low as it can be; we’re going to need money from somewhere.

There is room for new and radical ideas; we just need to convince people they will work

In ten months in the party, I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in many new initiatives that haven’t involved leaflets.

I’ve been appointed to our local executive and worked to streamline how we collect and use our data. I’ve submitted an amendment to our economic policy calling for a recognition of the Digital Economy (partly successful), and spoken to conference twice. I’m hoping to run as a candidate myself later in the year.

I’ve even spoken at the House of Lords on eGovernment and the need for citizens to control their own data. If you feel that the establishment is resistant to change… well, you can’t get more establishment than the House of Lords.

All of the above was possible because people who had been in the party for years were encouraging and helped me every step of the way. And you can see this across London – in by-elections in Southwark and Camberwell, we saw new members encouraged to stand for election and well supported when they did so.

Yes, there are those in the party who want to keep things more traditional, who perhaps resent new ways of doing things. But persuasion and compromise are the nature of democracy. We have One Member One Vote now. If you can persuade people of the validity of your ideas, if you can take them with you, there’s nothing any ‘establishment’ can do to prevent it.

But you do have to take those people with you, and sometimes that does mean compromise. Remember that Napster failed in the end because it was too combative and wanted to throw out the old too quickly. New ideas need time to settle and they need advocates like you and the many other people in this party who know we need to change and have ideas for how we can.

Josh, if you have suggestions on how we can improve local parties and win more votes, it would be great to hear them. My local party is always looking for new things to try. We’ll be campaigning hard for the next eleven weeks; perhaps you’d like to join us one day? We can go for a #LibDemPint afterwards and talk what needs to change.

This is the seed stage

Politics in this country runs on five year cycles. We’re just getting started. In startup terms, this is the seed stage, and scaling takes time.

Perhaps Josh is right, perhaps this was another bright idea that has faltered and lost momentum. Perhaps. But perhaps this is just the start. Perhaps we’re preparing, building, getting ready for an explosion of growth. I don’t know. But only people within the party can influence what happens.

I’ll be sticking around to find out. Josh, don’t throw away those options just yet.

* Benjamin Sims runs a technology consulting firm in London and lives in Tower Hamlets. He has been a member of the Liberal Democrats since May 2015

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27 Comments

  • The point of involvement with the Lib Dems is that opportunity exists to drive the party forward. Many members dont do leafleting and canvassing , they support in so many other ways. Serving on committees ,spending their energies in fund raising,hosting political debates in their front rooms but if we are to have sufficient MPs to, once again, get LD policies on the statute book and to demonstrate our ability as a reforming party at local level with increased numbers of Councillors,then door knocking and leafleting now including the many additional digital campaigning methods are essential.

  • Peter Watson 11th Apr '16 - 8:00pm

    I think this article addresses Josh Lashkovic’s concerns about the management of the party but not his more important (IMHO) point that “The party has gone in the wrong direction”. His statement that “We have no genuine philosophy, but instead pick and choose stances on things as and when issues arise” rings very true. I would be tempted to add “change” as one of the things the party does to its stances.

    However, I suspect that Lib Dems less “libertarian” than Josh would prefer very different stances on policy, defining the “right” and “wrong” directions very differently, and that is possibly the biggest problem faced by Tim Farron and the Lib Dems. The apparent lack of a “genuine philosophy” seems to make it difficult for the party to move forward with a default, shared, consistent position on many policies. Lib Dems might claim that the philosophy is “liberalism” or “evidence-based”, but I am not convinced that either term is particularly helpful or meaningful as many seem to define “liberal” differently and the world of politics and economics is so complex that people often choose the evidence that best matches their priorities or prejudices.

    I wonder if some sort of scorecard based on the party’s preamble might provide a consistent way to evaluate and select policy positions.

  • Eddie Sammon 11th Apr '16 - 8:34pm

    Someone from Ipsos Mori knocked on our door today. My Dad answered and I wondered whether she asked me who I was voting for I would say Liberal Democrats. I don’t know if I could have done it.

    I’m only 50-50 about voting for the party in May. There is a lot of what Tim is doing that I like, such as his support for small businesses and on military action, but mandatory all-women shortlists were as close as a red line as I had when it came to relatively popular ideas.

    We’ll see how things go until now and May and if no one else will campaign locally then maybe I’ll have no choice. But a spoilt ballot is always an option.

  • Stephen Hesketh 11th Apr '16 - 8:47pm

    Peter Watson 11th Apr ’16 – 8:00pm

    You mention the ‘evidence-based’ Peter; eager proponents of this phrase repeat it as if it represented some sort of sub-set of Liberalism.

    If members of each political party (or none) were to debate something each would claim to have ‘evidence’ for their particular view and solution. As I think you are suggesting, it is our values and beliefs that unite us, not cold evidence.

    If we looked at the evidence alone, our party would have shut up shop last May. Again as you point towards, we keep going because of our shared belief in a better way of living and doing politics i.e. the values set out in our Preamble.

    If the evidence was that an unequal or intolerant society worked would we change our values? I think and hope not!

  • For some this has not been a particularly good year.

    The shelving of the Trident issue yet again at the behest of the old guard, the Syrian vote fiasco, and the focus on internal navel gazing such as AWS instead of on major issues to do with economic inequalities and the failure to stand up against the dismantling of local government are major disappointments. Add to which there is still a strong element of denial in certain circles about the fiasco of an election result last May.

    The only bright radical light at the moment seems to be across the Atlantic in the shape of the Liberal Bernie Sanders.

  • Graham Evans 11th Apr '16 - 8:59pm

    If we are to make comparisons between political parties and businesses we surely have to identify what sort of business environment we are operating in. It is all very well talking about start-ups, but this comparison is only valid if the barriers to entry are low. While companies like Facebook and Google have grown from small beginnings to enormous corporations in a relatively short period of time, it is noticeable that subsequent start-ups, particularly in the UK, operating in the same environment, have actually sold out to their existing big brothers. Moreover, while existing businesses, like publishing and data processing, have undoubtedly come under pressure from new technologies and approaches, there are plenty of examples, particularly in manufacturing, and in the provision of utilities like water, where fundamentally the businesses have remained unchanged over many decades, and where the barriers to entry remain enormous. In these sorts of business change is essentially incremental. While pressure groups are undoubtedly posing a challenge to conventional political parties, it’s not at all obvious how such pressure groups can break out of their existing narrow confines. It is true that in countries with some form of proportional representation, as in Spain and Greece, this has been possible, but in the UK even those parties such as the SNP and UKIP which have had recent success, have actually been around for a very long time. Their recent success has been based on the changing environment, not on any particularly change in direction or approach.

  • Benjamin thank you for sticking with it and questing on for Liberalism and democracy. I share the vision of embracing the inevitablity of change for a #LiberalBritain indeed a #Liberal #UK

  • Benjamin Sims 12th Apr '16 - 12:00am

    Regarding the policy point, I didn’t want to get into a detailed policy discussion in such a short article. Suffice to say that I’ve come to accept that a political party is a group of people who share a similar outlook and aims and have agreed a process to try and agree on how to achieve them.

    There are current party policies I disagree with. Some quite strongly. But ultimately I look at the people around me and the party and ask myself: would Britain be better off with Liberal Democrats in government? Are they the party that best fit my beliefs?

    As long as I am sure that the answer to both those questions is ‘yes’, I will remain a Liberal Democrat. As for the policies I disagree with, I do what I can to get them changed. A party able to agree 100% on all policy would be a very dull, if not worrying, organisation.

  • Benjamin Sims 12th Apr '16 - 12:12am

    Graham, I’d disagree with you about the pressure from new technologies and approaches; it’s about perspective in that we’re at a very early stage and as the pace of innovation and development accelerates, those other industries will be transformed as well. But that’s another article.

    You’re right that the startup metaphor can become over-stretched when drawing lessons for political parties. Still, there are attitudes and approaches we can use. Try different things, learn what works, don’t be afraid to experiment. But most of all, never get too far away from your customers / voters.

    It may feel like the barriers to entry are high when we look at the 2015 result, but there are hundreds of other elections every year and in each of those local parties can be building up their skills, learning how to win and reconnecting with voters.

  • I was an agent in a seat we won in 2010, candidate in 2011 and agent for wards we won in 2012, 13 and 15. So not exactly an enthusiastic new member. In May I’ll be voting Green (though if I wasn’t temporarily relocated I would have voted for the Lib Dem candidate) and am no longer a member.

    The Lib Dems are badly led both politically and organisationally and I’ve no idea what the party stands for or is trying to achieve. (And the tolerance of unacceptable behaviour of elected members on tribal grounds continues just as it did before – claims of changes post Rennard are just not backed up in reality). Twice as many people told me they were thinking the same as tried to change my mind.

    I told Tim why I was leaving the party – whilst in the leadership election he was responding to messages within minutes if not hours – but whatever I said to him didn’t matter enough for him to bother to reply.

  • David Raw
    Democrat Bernie Sanders.

  • Manfarang.

    Actually, Independent Bernie Sanders.

  • Graham Evans 12th Apr '16 - 10:38am

    @ David Raw: “The only bright radical light at the moment seems to be across the Atlantic in the shape of the Liberal Bernie Sanders.” Bernie Sanders describes himself as a socialist. If he really understands the meaning of the word “socialist” I’m not sure that Liberal Democrats should look to him for guidance on policy and philosophy, though we may have something to learn in terms of techniques. A much better inspiration for us is Justin Trudeau, and it is surely significant that the Canadian Liberals economically are to the right of the New Democrats who are Canada’s socialist party.
    @ Benjamin Sims. “Still, there are attitudes and approaches we can use.” I completely agree, but this is more to do with techniques than philosophy. “Pavement Politics” in the 1970s and 1980s helped Liberals to break through electorally in many areas, but this technique has now been extensively copied by our political opponents. Nevertheless there are still swathes of the country where the only time electors hear from any of the political parties is an election time. What I cannot understand is why the social media techniques used by Obama when first elected, and more recently by Bernie Sanders, only seem to have much impact in the UK in terms of rather narrow pressure groups. Even the EU “Remain” campaign seems to be preaching to the converted.

  • @Hywel
    Hywel’s commitment to and work for the Party extends back much much further than the short period he describes around 2010 onwards. It is a tragedy that the Liberal Democrats are losing so many people who contributed so much to the long slow build up of our Party. A process that was then trashed between 2010-2015.

    Anders Hanson in his blog before the Last English Executive meeting noted that “..the Party ended 2015 with 52,654 members [not the figure of 60,000 much touted during 2015]…….the challenge now is to get the large post-election increase to renew,whilst the first quarter of 2016 showed a drop in the rate at which some of the longer-standing members were renewing.” I have to wonder if any thought has been given as to why that might be?

    The danger of losing some of the transient members who joined last May/June is one thing -the SDP experienced that after its initial membership surge in the early 1980’s. Losing long standing, committed and talented election campaigners, like Hywel, who built the Party’s electoral fortunes over preceding decades, is a bigger issue. Hywel notes that it no longer seems possible to get any response from the Party Leadership even though it is no longer locked away in a Downing Street bunker. I would suggest that closing down the lines of communication is not the way to rebuild after the recent near death experience.

  • Neil Sandison 12th Apr '16 - 12:37pm

    Hywel .There does seem to be 2 way traffic between the Liberal Democrats and the Greens we have had green members join us to escape the chaos of the green party and who have realised waving a placard outside the building doesn’t change what happens inside the building . When I was first elected I used to get scoffed at by Cons and Labour regarding Sustainability ,renewable technology and recycling now all accepted as the norm. Benjamin is right you do have to win the arguments in the Liberal Democrats we don’t just sign up for things because it is trendy or a fashionable position to adopt if we did then we would be UKIP or the Greens and not the Liberal Democrats,

  • David
    In 1980, he served as a presidential elector candidate for the Socialist Workers Party, a Marxist party that is committed to nationalizing major industries.
    Bernie Sanders has never been a member of the Democrat Party but he is seeking its nomination.He is also attracting support among independents however he has not yet declared an intention to run as an independent if as is likely he fails to get the democrat nomination.

  • Conor McGovern 12th Apr '16 - 1:35pm

    David Raw – “For some this has not been a particularly good year.

    The shelving of the Trident issue yet again at the behest of the old guard, the Syrian vote fiasco, and the focus on internal navel gazing such as AWS instead of on major issues to do with economic inequalities and the failure to stand up against the dismantling of local government are major disappointments. Add to which there is still a strong element of denial in certain circles about the fiasco of an election result last May.

    The only bright radical light at the moment seems to be across the Atlantic in the shape of the Liberal Bernie Sanders.”
    This, a hundred times over. As for those claiming that Sanders is too radical for us: what he’s demanding is universal healthcare and wealth redistribution from the corporate 1% to the rest of us. If that’s a problem for Lib Dems, it’s either that we’re not radical enough even for those positions or it’s that we’re too weak to back them.

  • Conor
    “what he’s demanding is universal healthcare” The UK has the NHS.
    I think the Liberal Democrats favour a system which means Google and the rest of them pay tax on the amount of trade they do in the UK.

  • I am one of those who repeatedly warned of the disaster the party was going to face if it continued in the direction the leadership was taking us during the coalition, and I told myself I would think about the future after the disaster happened. I’m sure a lot of long-term activists like Hywel did the same, so I am not at all surprised that the party is losing them at this point. I joined when I was 19 and was part of the generation which built a party which had the Members of Parliament and talent to make a major contribution to the government of our country, but which was served disastrously by a leadership which appeared to believe that because Cameron and Osborne smiled and patted them on the back that they didn’t have a knife in their other hand. There still seem to be plenty of people commenting on here who just don’t get it either: Tories are ruthless in pursuit of their own interests – not the common interest, not the national interest, not the interests of the misguided who vote for them, but the interests of perhaps 10% of the population that form the privileged elite in this country. I’m older than Hywel so I don’t have any hope that supporting another party is going to be any better than carrying on with the Liberal Democrats. But conversely I don’t have the energy to start pushing the boulder up the mountain again.

  • Conor McGovern 13th Apr '16 - 1:48am

    Manfarang, do the Lib Dems back an external market for the NHS? After the Lansley act I’m confused as to what our policy actually is. An internal market – healthy competition – I can deal with up to a point as long as the service is free… but a free-for-all for profit providers is unacceptable and currently exists.

  • Conor
    As I live abroad I am more or less excluded from the NHS. I use the service where I live of both private and state hospitals. Which hospitals are better-the state ones of course, although at the crowded state hospitals it takes many hours before anyone gets to see a doctor.

  • I suspect anyone who describes themselves as a libertarian such as Josh Lashkovic’s
    isn’t really going to be happy in a Liberal political Party. That aside though, his points seem entirely valid. Years ago I used to draw comparisons between the Lib Dems and the Jehovah Witnesses as they two groups most reliant on door knocking and leaflets. It wasn’t meant as a compliment. Look at the parties national website – latest news – 19th March, 18th March, 16th March, nothing for the past 4 weeks ?

  • @Neil Sandison. I’ve no intention of joining the Greens (which aren’t a Liberal party) but their candidate in my ward (Central and something) seems to be saying some interesting things. Were I not displaced I’d have voted for the Lib Dem at my regular address.

    @Paul – thanks. Not everyone has been so pleasant – but there are some pretty unpleasant people in the power echelons of the Lib Dems.

  • Dave Orbison 14th Apr '16 - 7:13am

    I have listened to several Bernie Sanders speeches, such a refreshing alternative to Blair Hilary and the ugliness of the GOP. He had constantly referred to himself as being a socialist.

  • @ Graham Evans. “it is surely significant that the Canadian Liberals economically are to the right of the New Democrats who are Canada’s socialist party.”

    Sorry, but we’ve had enough of that right wing economic stuff over the last five years. There’s no evidence that the economy is any stronger (if anything it’s getting worse) and there has been a great deal of misery and injustice for people at the lower economic end of society…… meanwhile the CEO of BP is to get £ 14 million. It also crippled – possibly fatally – the Lib Dems’ credibility.

    @ Dave Orbison Completely agree, Dave. I don’t care what he calls himself now or what he did in 1980, but how refreshing to have a courageous intelligent oldie talking about the real issues instead of the bought by big corporations establishment politicos such as Hillary Clinton. If Corbyn had a bit of his charm and humour…. who knows ?

    @ tony hill Amen to that.

  • Just to give a notion of the mountain we have to climb and the legacy of the last five years, does this sound familiar ?

    Wales On Line 06:15, 12 APR 2016 “Welsh Lib Dems pledge to protect university funding””The party says it will pump £80m back into Wales’ university sector by scrapping the Welsh Government’s controversial tuition fee policy.

    I can already hear the chortles from Aberystwyth to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 15th Apr '16 - 1:15pm

    Much that is sensible here.Firstly , well done Benjamin, stay with it , we need your enthusiasm .

    Disappointing those such as Josh , leave .I sympathise , have drifted in and out of politics myself.It has always been the attitude of the left that have influenced me to , ironic as in general terms many of my views are centre left or centre and not on the right !But I loath the anger and bitterness that the leftward tendency at its worst reveals to its own side when they do not match their own preferred viewpoint . In our it is gentler , than in Labour , definitely , but it is there. And I do not mean now , I can understand the disappointment,now . I mean way back , when anyone deviates from Red guard so called Liberalism circa 1970 !Those of us who are in what we describe as the radical centre are Liberal Democrats !

    We need more open mindedness and open hearts too . The worst of the left is caring about others so long as it does not mean doing so about others not exactly of ones own views ! We need much more political discussion at local and every level . And many more social events .

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