Over on the Liberal Democrat Expand site is an interesting account of Martin, a new Liberal Democrat member, comparing his experiences of joining the party and previously of joining Labour:
As a former Labour member in one of the safest of seats in the north of England, my experience of joining that Party at the age of 18 resembled more an obstacle course than joining a political movement. When I finally managed to make contact with the constituency secretary, I was told he had been deposed from that position because he was a member of the wrong Union. As a new member, I was viewed with suspicion from the outset, even getting to find out when local branch meetings took place took many months. Being allowed to become active, even at a local level, took considerably longer, as local government and parliamentary seats were handed down to relatives or members of the ‘right’ lodge of the controlling Trade Union.
However when it came to joining the Liberal Democrats:
The local Councillor contacted me early on, and encouraged me to get active. He talked through the issues the Local Party were taking on. I was warmly welcomed to local meetings. At a recent AGM I was asked if I wanted to be one of the branch officers –a minor position, but that isn’t the point. The point is that I felt welcome, I felt like the other people in the room wanted me to be involved.
In parallel with all of this, I was joining various Liberal Democrat social media networks. Two things struck me about this – the first was, again, that I was welcomed. The second was that where I disagreed with someone, I felt like I was having a respectful conversation with a fellow progressive, and not waiting for them to tell me to shut up because I was a Blairite / Tory (I’m neither, in case you wonder). I was also able to make a small contribution – phone calls from home – to the Witney and Richmond Park by-elections.
Although that’s not everyone’s experience, grassroots initiatives such as the excellent Lib Dem Newbies group combined with improvements at HQ have certainly improved matters in the last few years. There’s a wider lesson, too, in the combination of volunteer and staff effort involved in that.