The issue of Brexit has hugely energised our Party but we have not converted enough of that energy into the political campaigning that will lead to power locally and nationally
All three of the main political Parties seem to be having trouble with membership issues at present for different reasons.
Labour have a huge issue with racism in the form of anti-Semitism. That is only part of the problem. Many of its new members do not share the same views as the old members. Their solution is to chuck out the old members.
The Tories have a big issue with the number of members who are absolutely offensive about Muslims, although I suspect this also include Buddhists and Sikhs as well. They also have entryism with ex UKIP members entering the Party. I saw recently that 10% of all former UKIP councillors are now Tory Councillors.
In both these Parties factionalism means that two wings of a Party spend more time fighting each other than espousing the views of the Party as a whole. This is inevitable in Parties which are led from London by small elites and have weak Leaders.
My own Party does not have either of these problems. We have little factionalism and are happily united behind a Leader of gravity that we respect. But our membership is just not big enough and not active enough. Our membership nationally is way over twice what is what in 2012 and in Liverpool is at its highest since the Lib Dems were formed more than 25 years ago.
A problem common to all of us is that not enough of the members, new and old, are really active. I was speaking to a Labour MP who told me that out of about 300 new members he would be surprised if more than about 6 were active in any meaningful sense. Many of the new members joined under the £3 rule. But he did lament that more turned up to meetings than were prepared to turn up on the street, and furthermore were undermining and ignoring the experience of long-term members.
In Liverpool we have made massive progress in converting new members to activism without too much friction. Two thirds of our Liverpool Executive were not Party members before the 2015 General Election. We listen to them with respect because they do have new ideas and new enthusiasm both in terms of policy and in terms of ideas about campaigning. Our problem is converting them into candidates and hard activists. This is for two reasons:
- There is a bullying culture inside Liverpool Council which starts inside the Labour Group and largely affects them but moves beyond the Group into the Council. In the view of many, including me, meetings of full council are a disgraceful bully-fest.
- Politics is just plain hard work. Now I am sure that in some parts of the Country people get elected easily, don’t do anything for 4 years and then pop up to be re-elected. But for Lib Dems it just is not like that. It’s not like that for most of the councillors in any Party in Liverpool. Yes, we have a few councillors who are bone idle but most commit to hours and hours of work a week both inside and outside the council whilst being subjected to abuse by keyboard warriors in the social media and contributors to phone in programmes.
I have just written a note to our candidates telling them what I expect of them as candidates for a target ward. I won’t go into detail here for obvious reasons but it is a lot of work and for part of the time involves leaving their loved ones behand and just getting on with the work. All this at the same time as earning a living.
Once elected its even worse. You do get an allowance for being a councillor so some are able to negotiate flexible hours and have bosses who actually value having a councillor and their experience in house. Most do not. They have to add on council work to employment and family. I do not believe that you can be a good councillor on a large council with some many problems to deal with without being on the job for the equivalent of two days a week. You knock on doors; write leaflets; deliver them; e-mail; take up cases; attend community meetings; attend Party meetings and attend Council meetings. A lot of this is fun and we have a great sense of camaraderie and joint commitment but it is hard work.
There are those in my Party who seem to be suggesting two solutions to our membership problems which are laughable.
Firstly, to have a Leader from outside Parliament. There are three reasons why this won’t work. One as we can see with the Greens having a Leader or co-leader who is outside Parliament means that they are ignored. Two they are out of the groove of things. They simply are not there and exercising the way to day centre of our national democracy which is required. Three it makes an assumption about the quality of our Parliamentary Leadership that I am not prepared to make. I can happily vote for people like Jo Swinson and Ed Davey in the absolute confidence that they are liberals and will make great Leaders.
Secondly, to create a new class of party supporter who will have equal rights to vote for candidates at all levels as members. I have no problem in the either of a supporters’ group. In my own ward none members do more for us and donate more money than many of our inactive but fee-paying members. Sometimes, though, they do not want to join and we can respect that. The idea, however, that without making any commitment to delivering our Party to power locally or nationally you can vote for the people who will do the types of work I indicate above is an insult to those who do the work.
Of course, things would be a lot better if we did not have the centralisation of power that we have in England at present. 84% of the UK population is solely dependent on Westminster for legislation which necessarily centralises power and media attention. Lib Dems alone have policies to rectify this.
So, what do I suggest for my Party?
- Build up the role of the Party President. I have always believed that the President should not be a Parliamentarian and should be in London enough to oversee the Party and have a feel for what is going on but spending most of their time out with the troops throughout the UK.
- Establish a supporters’ group who would be kept informed nationally and locally about policy making so that they can contribute ideas to policy; join campaigns and join us socially.
- Create policy in a much more inclusive way and then disseminate it in such a way that people can get involved with campaigns that mean something to them and give them support with their own campaigns.
- Have more fun!! We do serious stuff but we should not always take ourselves too seriously. Two years ago, I was being inundated with invitations to Lib Dem pints or tea parties. There don’t seem to have been many for ages.
These ideas and more (yes, I do have more) are things that we need to seriously discuss. I’d be happy to come and discuss them with you and your members if I could. I can also do ‘Dad dancing’ at discos! Don’t hesitate to contact me to argue the toss or support my outrageous contentions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Of course if my words of wisdom have inspired you to join us and get involved you can do so at http://www.libdems.org.uk!