Why do we insist on making each other the enemy?

I told myself I was going to avoid joining in the whole narration of the General Election review, but this part really hits home for me.

We are as critical of ourselves as we are of others; many talk of being under ‘friendly fire’ from our own members or colleagues, with mistakes viewed as personal failures.

Members who have previously held office frequently contact staff – at all levels – offering views, advice and criticism. They expect to get heard and are disappointed if they are not. Staff feel that ‘no’ is an answer that cannot be given.

During my 10 years in the Liberal Democrats I have been active at almost every level. Sadly, more often than not, I have found that we are our own worst enemy.

For too often any mistake or slipup is weaponised against those who made it. It can come across as if it is impossible to make a genuine mistake and, instead of trying to constructively work with to rectify it, many people seem to want to tear people down publicly for slipping up.

No one is perfect. I have done many things for the party while working into the early hours of the morning. As a result, sometimes there have been mistakes – whether that be a typo, a link not working, or something else. But that is hugely outweighed by what I have done overall.

However, instead of the volume of work and time put in being recognised, people immediately seek to highlight the mistakes and things they do not agree with. It is this lack of appreciation for the time and effort people put in that is demoralising and leads to people walking away.

There is also a problem with personalities. If someone does not like you, for whatever reason, everything you do gets extra scrutiny – like they are looking for something to use against you. This is not a nice feeling and leads to actively having to second-guess everything you do.

We also spend so much time arguing with each other. We should be focused on working together to share the huge volume of work and do it to a high standard. It is not right for people to sit back and snipe from the sidelines just because they do not like who is in charge.

Doing so leads to a dangerous cycle of a small group doing all the work, facing constant attacks for what they do and getting little praise/recognition. They then become demoralised and burned out, stepping back from all their roles, and meaning we lose core members of the team.

We are a volunteer lead party, if you want something to change or something done you need to get involved and help make it happen. We do not have the staff capacity to just expect them to do everything for us, often we treat staff almost like slaves.

We need to remember that staff are human, and they do have lives outside the party. Just because they are employed by the party does not mean you are going to spend every waking second looking for things to do and being on call. Sometimes we forget that, and that needs to change.

Often it‘s daunting to get involved and even join in the discussion online. I consider myself to have quite a thick skin, but I actively avoid commenting on a lot of things on social media simply because I feel anxious whatever I post will be attacked for no real reason.

We need to stop making each other the enemy. We all joined the same party because we believe in the same core values. Openness, inclusivity, and respect. We need to practice what we preach and make our party a nicer thing to be involved with.

We all have a duty to call out inappropriate behaviour, no matter who it is coming from or who it is being directed at. We need to change the culture of the party, but we can only do that by doing it together. So, let’s get to it!

* Callum is a member of the Welsh Liberal Democrat Board. He was previously been Co-Chair of the Young Liberals and worked for Jane Dodds during her time in Parliament.

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  • Well said, I felt this was lacking from the report. We seem to have a blame culture problem and also an inability to disagree well. This isn’t restricted to any level of the party either. It’s common for senior party figures to take to the press to air their personal disagreements rather than working out why people who share their same core values may have a differing view. When ordinary members and sympathetic non-members see our own MPs and Councillors arguing bitterly over social media it’s both off putting and also creates a culture of hostility.

    I think the party needs to think about how it puts the welfare of the people who work for it (either paid or voluntary) first.

    Personally I will try to do better to respect the effort people put in whether that is writing an article for libdemvoice or delivering focus or leading the party. I’ll try to understand why liberals may support differing policies and not dismiss their liberalism even if I disagree with the policy or reasoning.

    Many of our issues (lack of respect for opposing views; disconnect between leadership and rank and file; overly critical of failure) are the same issues we have with the wider electorate.

    To that end I was a bit diss

  • I meant to finish with “electorate.” (I was going to continue with some things I felt are disappointing but decided against it: we all have individual responsibility to consider how we may communicate better.)

  • Tony Hutson 19th May '20 - 3:55pm

    You’re so right Callum. I’m sure this is a post that will strike a chord with many members. There’s another bit in the election review that actually had me laughing out loud. That was where it referred to the fact that LibDem members will apply for tickets to be in the audience at a TV election debate – and will actively direct the most difficult questions to the LibDem speaker! It’s a very astute observation.
    We are an awkward bunch, intrinsically more suspicious/demanding with each other than we often are with our opponents. I love my fellow LibDems – I really do – but just once in a while I do wish we’d give ourselves a break.

  • Michael Bukola 19th May '20 - 4:46pm

    I have sympathy for your article Callum as it highlights the pressure placed upon those who are given the privilege of being “paid-staff”. A special responsibility which is possibly wrongly, placed on such people within the party, largely due to that scant resource that is money. This is a historical problem based on the fact that the Party has no pay-master like Big Business or the Trade Unions and relies on its members to finance its affairs. Everybody, members, volunteers and staffers alike, are the backbone of our Party and should be respected as such. There can be no place for bullying, harassment and victimisation and should be called out. The political environment is often a frenetic one, with colleagues running round doing 10 things at once, particularly during an election! As you know, most of the Party membership are not paid by the Party and often take pride in ‘paying-in’ and not ‘taking out’ of the Party. Being under “friendly-fire” is a party-trait which marks us out from our political opponents and what often makes our candidates twice as good as either of theirs. Those values you speak of, should not just govern our conduct to each other but also illustrate a ‘blueprint for life’ itself. In my now 17th year in the organisation, I have always believed a culture of nepotism to be rife within our party and if your “face does not fit”, you will go nowhere within the organisation. As a person of colour, it is debilitating when you can often find no one of colour in a paid role within the Party unless they are elected. I still live in hope that our party will reflect what it espouses.

  • Peter Martin 19th May '20 - 5:30pm

    “Why do we insist on making each other the enemy?”

    If the Lib Dems have any aspirations to be a mainstream party this could be something you’ll have to get used to.

    The different wings of the Labour Party dislike each other more than the Tories! I can say that with some experience! And I’d say it’s probably the same in the Tory Party wrt Labour!

  • Richard Underhill 19th May '20 - 6:13pm

    “We all joined the same party because we believe in the same core values.”
    Do we? During the Liberal-SDP Alliance we had a choice of two parties with overlapping values. Some people were leaving the Labour Party because of its many faults.
    As David Steel said we were avoiding “the two ugly sisters” of Conservative and Labour Parties and liking the Alliance because two parties were working together, which needs to happen more often.
    Comparisons are SNP and Plaid.

  • Can I suggest that Party HQ detail a small number of staff or volunteers to look after the non-target seats during a General Election. This would mean hopefully that we receive information and advice tailored to our circumstances and feel we are part of the national campaign. Without such help we tend to do our own thing and this might or might not mirror the national effort on target seats. My region at least does not have the resources apart from informing us where to help.

  • suzanne fletcher 20th May '20 - 11:37am

    just to add that instead of spending so much time on keyboards having a go at those within the party, more time is spent on promoting what is good ( and if nothing at all is good why be a member) in whatever way they can. Writing articles and letters for published media on relevant issue where we have a stand / view / policy. Does not have to be mainstream biggies, just whatever your interests are. If not up to writing something of your own, at least share social media posts from individuals / AO and SAOs / Parliamentarians etc so they are seen by the wider party, and importantly other contacts you might have. In summary, don’t whinge ( and that includes me) , but DO.

  • First thing to say is that, obviously, it is not good that people think we are over critical of one another. Having said that, anyone who has had the (dubious) pleasure of belonging to another political party will attest to the fact the when it comes to infighting we are complete beginners when compared to Labour or the Tories. The Labour Party has levels of toxicity that we can hardly imagine (see the Guardian, 13/4/20) while the Tories have effectively expelled their moderate wing.
    Due to our dysfunctional electoral system all the main parties are unstable coalitions which contain people with contrasting visions. Tension is inevitable and if one finds oneself on the wrong end of criticism it is best to assume that the other party is acting not out of any malice, but out of a passionate desire to build a better party and a better country. We must expect vigorous examination of our ideas and the way we promote them. I can’t help thinking of that old political expression about “heat” and “kitchens”.
    “Small groups doing all the work” are indeed part of a dangerous cycle, but the answer is to ensure that the load is spread in the first place. I think the report deals with that point when it suggests that as a party we tend to ask “those that we know, rather than those who can”.

  • suzanne fletcher 20th May '20 - 2:54pm

    @chris corey – yes you are right about the other parties. When I was on the council we used to say that the town hall carpet was heavily patterned so as not to show the blood spilled by the Labour lot. We used to call “reselection time” in February “tin hat” time so we didn’t get hit by flying missiles.
    However I am reading the 2019 election review today and there is a strong message about stopping being so introspective.
    choose a cause you care about as a Lib Dem, go to their twitter account or FB page, and share or retweet, for starters.

  • Phil Beesley 20th May '20 - 3:22pm

    I have to start at the end, CJL: “We all have a duty to call out inappropriate behaviour, no matter who it is coming from or who it is being directed at.”

    That’s right.

    CJL: “We also spend so much time arguing with each other.”

    I can spend ages arguing about ideas with friends. And most of us learn to resign the argument eventually. Or to resume after a break.

    It is the people who have to win that you worry about.

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