MORE THAN A PHONE BANK
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Well, here we are with all these new members and our shiny new Tim. The first leader since Paddy with a genuine party campaigning background. And the first since Charles from the left of centre – ideally placed to adjust our thrust on this new Tory government. Already a government loaded with banana skins, not only unleashing all the right-wing stuff we stopped them doing and worse but also behaving, in a reckless flush of post-electoral euphoria, as if they have a majority of 92 not 12.
And last but not least the Labour opposition, punchdrunk by its election failure and internally in a much worse state than us, all its attention now focused on a summer-long leadership scrap between three duds and Jeremy Corbyn. The unspeakable chasing the unelectable.
Add to all this the first hints from council by-elections that – in places where we remain strong and fight strong campaigns – votes are not quite as hard to come by. Surely the fight-back has started? Surely the only way now is up? Well, if you’re stuck in a ditch, sooner or later someone might pull you out. Except, of course, you might get buried for good by a dolloping from a passing shit-spreader.
Anyway the Coalition is past history. It really does feel like a liberation. It doesn’t make up for the loss of 48 MPs, all but one of our MEPs, most of our MSPs and all those thousands of council seats and dozens of councils we once ran, not to mention well over 300 lost deposits (more than the Liberal Party lost in 1950 when the threshold was 12.5%). Yet the weight of the Coalition is off our backs and this seems to be the most important reason for the astonishing rise in morale in our ranks since 8tMay. And so in high levels of the party there are plenty of people who think that all we need to do is take a deep breath, pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down, and start all over again. Just keep on going and slowly but surely it will all come good again. Business as usual. After all, have we not got the best campaigning system invented which elected President Obama twice and which we call Connect? Did we not invent seat targeting under first past the post? Have we not led the way in grassroots campaigning? Well, yes, yes and yes. Perhaps. But most organisations thinking about what to do next and how to do it also look at ‘outcomes’. If the existing systems and people have flopped you ask what needs changing. And however you look at it, we’ve been stuffed. When you’ve been stuffed, you don’t do business as usual.
We are told it’s not business as usual because we are back to the ‘status quo ante coalitiem’. We always knew that the Coalition would do this to us, didn’t we? And anyway it’s really all the fault of everyone being worried about that frightening woman Sturgeon controlling the hapless weirdo Ed Miliband who can’t even walk down the steps without falling over. Isn’t it? Not our fault at all. So now this is over, business as usual will work again, won’t it? Believe this if you will, and rest content with a gentle increase in the number of Liberal Democrat councillors, three or four more MEPs, and even (if we are very lucky) a by-election win in one of our much reduced number of winnable Westminster seats. And with another huge targeting effort next time perhaps a Commons party in the 20s. Such a re-girding of loins would not be dishonourable and it has started. The House of Lords party is by historical standards enormous – as I write we have 101 members with (ludicrously) more on their way. Before the election members were drilled to phone people up all over the country and there was a challenge for ‘1,000 peers visits’. Now more is demanded – we are to set off and stir up the party in the country and there’s more phoning to be done. No-one asks whether any of it was any use. No-one asks how many decades it will take to do another 1970 to 2010.
What’s been done recently has not worked. What we had in the days before email, social media and the rest of the internet was a fairly decentralised party with local groups campaigning on the ground, building up their campaigning activities and their presence on local Councils. At one stage we had majority administrations on no fewer than 55 (it’s now half a dozen). Originally a lot of the push came from the Radical Bulletin group then the Association of Liberal Councillors (with the central party HQ – the Liberal Party Organisation playing no more than a supporting role) but as the scale of the activities grew much of the work of spreading best practice etc devolved to regional and city groups. In the Liberator 372 Gordon Lishman described this as the second (campaigning) phase of the party during the 60 years since Jo Grimond became leader, the first being mainly policy development.
Gordon’s third phase, that of intensive targeting to win Westminster seats, was often on the back of the local progress that had been made. It was accompanied by a considerable centralisation of the country-wide M 7 operation as party HQ, by now based at Cowley Street, intensified the HQ control of finance and what happened in target seats, notably under Chris Rennard as chief agent and then head of the organisation. This achieved a quite dramatic increase in the number of MPs from the 20 in 1992 to 46 in 1997 and 62 in 2005, with a slight relapse to 57 in 2010. This phase also saw a significant shift of emphasis from campaigning to electioneering. The party still said it was campaigning but at best it was a very narrow aspect of campaigning – that of seeking and identifying and getting out votes. Roger Hayes’ superb article in Liberator 372 set out the difference, something that swathes of people in high places don’t understand.
Roger also declared so rightly that our politics must be fun, and fun comes from campaigning, not sitting at a telephone for hours on end talking to people you know nothing about who live in places you know nothing about, reading from arid scripts out of a sense of duty. Who ever has fun in call centres? ALDC changed significantly and became largely an election fighting resource (which it did well) dropping the campaigning side for both councillors and activists. For the recent general election an ad hoc body called the Wheelhouse took control and stepped up the intensity of targeting of about 70 held seats and possible gains. The central control of these seats was strengthened as were their efforts to get activists everywhere else to move the focus of their electioneering to their nearest target. Those who could or would not do this just got a rising tide of requests for money, ever more desperate, culminating in some getting three or four a day in the last week of the election. The inevitable result of all this is that in hundreds of constituencies campaigning atrophied, party workers had nothing to do, and hundreds more council seats went down the pan. Of course in some places such as Pendle local parties and activists ignored this nonsense and worked hard to hold on to their council base as best they could. But the outcome is that our party is effectively derelict in more places than for 35 years and the task of rebuilding is much harder. And on its own terms the operation was a flop.
This third phase over the past 20 years has also coincided with the enormous rise of the internet in all its forms which we have rightly sought to use. But in what ways? The main party website is conventional and boring. It’s at best a news and policy platform, not a campaigns site. Lots of local party websites are the same (padded out with stuff from the national party). The party’s idea of social media is to send people pathetic slogans to try to flood Twitter. Neither conversation nor campaigns, just propaganda. The daily and weekly emails (when not asking for money) are all one-way top-down ‘this is the party line’ sort of stuff. (Does anyone ever get a reply to a comment they send back to HQ?) There are some useful Liberal sites on Facebook which are as they should be, like the old ALC stuff in a very different age and a different medium – topdown, bottom-up, side-to-side sharing. But the main Liberal Democrat discussion site (Liberal Democrat Voice) is little better than the party stuff: tightly controlled by a small group of people who use it to promote their own (often fairly right wing) views, and apart from regurgitating stuff from the national press and some obvious stuff like the leadership election, it’s full of obscure and obsessive policy articles from people whose activism does not seem to go much beyond their keyboard. Certainly it’s far from being a campaigning site. If you persist with views the controllers don’t like you get censored, and if you then privately tell them what you think about them you get banned. (I declare an interest – I’ve been banned!)
So there is here a great need and a great danger. There is a need for at least a partial clear-out of the people who have got us into this position – the change of leader is of course a good start. That includes some of the paid staff. There is a greater need for a thorough overhaul of the generally dysfunctional party structures, including those bodies which ought to be leading the drive for campaigning. The policymaking processes via the Federal Policy Committee and working groups/policy papers are a useless waste of resources.
The Federal Executive is by all accounts as ineffective as ever. The English Party is a waste of everything. ALDC is stuck in a groove, clicking the ticks as it goes through the same routines year after year when surely it should be leading the thrill of the campaigning chase. The great danger is that the powers-that-be in the party ‘machine’ will rush to ‘reform’ the structure by undermining even further the rather depauperate systems of involvement and internal democracy when we should be encouraging a thousand flowers to bloom. There are top people already saying: “If only the party had done what we told them to do…” when the truth is that the party whose inactions they bemoan has, as a result of their actions, withered on the vine. The new members can be a lifeline but only if they are encouraged to come forward with their talents and interests, and if they can become active by which I mean rather more than as automatons in a virtual phone bank.
Tony Greaves is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords
Original Article: http://liberatormagazine.org.uk/en/document/liberator-373-more-than-a-phone-bank-by-tony-greaves#document