In writing last week about the need to stand as many Liberal Democrat candidates as possible in elections (short version: if we want a larger core vote of people who regularly support us, it’s counter-productive to force even the most loyal of loyal would-be supporters to vote for someone else by not having a Liberal Democrat candidate), I touched on one of the ideas in the pamphlet I wrote with David Howarth on rebuilding the party: building up a network of “Friends of the Liberal Democrats”.
It’s a spin-off from the old idea of party having a registered supporters scheme, but with two important variations. First, “registered supporters” sounds very formal – in other words, it’s got just the same implicit overtones that some people find off-putting about party membership. For those for whom joining isn’t what they want to do but longer-term loyalty is on offer, “friends of…” is a more relaxed sounding concept and one familiar from all sorts of other aspects of life.*
Second, it gets away from the formal hang-ups about exact rights and powers. (See the current Labour Party leadership election travails for the problem with seeing a wider network as being about who gets to vote in your internal party elections.)Even if the party hits our new goal of 100,000 members, which would be a massive achievement, there will still a huge gap between the size of the party’s membership and the size of a core vote the party needs to give it a sufficiently strong starting point in future contests.
As David and I wrote in the pamphlet of the idea of a ‘Friends of the Liberal Democrats’ network:
Already they exist in many informal ways with local parties including non-member helpers, donors and interested people on the mailing list for newsletters, on the invitation list for events and on the email list for financial appeals. Supporters are, in effect, registered now – just without telling them that they have been.
There is a risk that more formal registered supporters scheme may cannibalise membership, but conversely it could fill the big gap between likely membership and desired size of core vote. Moreover, outside politics it is quite normal to offer tiers of involvement, rather than expecting anyone interested in a bit more to make the big leap all the way to fully signed up formal membership. That is why local pilots should be carried out.
Why not give this a go in your local party too?
* Thanks to Nick Manners and Al Desmier for a coffee drinking session in which we came up with the name.