The email that could have been sent to Liberal Democrat members

It may be traditional for Doctor Who fans to like hiding behind a sofa but in the face of potentially controversial decisions, the right instinct is to get out in front of them and start communicating - rather than hiding behind the sofa and hoping no-one much will notice or discuss them.

It may be traditional for Doctor Who fans to hide behind a sofa, but in the face of potentially controversial decisions, the right instinct is to get out in front of the issue and start communicating – rather than hiding behind the sofa and hoping no-one much will notice or discuss them.

I’ve often commented about the problems with internal communication in the Liberal Democrats, so here is another practical example of what could be done. This time it’s how canny internal communications in good time (i.e. ahead of the issue) regarding the party’s expedited candidate selection process could have headed off many of the questions and concerns raised.

Subject: Important news about candidate selections

Dear Mark,

What odds a general election this year? No-one knows for sure, but it’s possible that Theresa May may call one in the next few months – and if she does, it’ll be a disaster for us if we are not prepared – because it’ll then be only a few weeks to polling day.

That’s why even though most of us would put the odds at well under 50%, the downside of being caught on the hop would be so damaging for us that the party is putting in place special measures to be ready. That includes drawing up general election manifesto, and you’ll be hearing more on how members can contribute to that shortly once our democratically elected Federal Policy Committee (FPC) has appointed a chair and group to oversee this.

It also means that party has agreed to put together a specially speeded-up temporary selection process for Westminster candidates.

The exact details of the process for Wales and Scotland are still being worked on, and members in those countries will hear more on that soon. But I know how information will start spreading so I wanted to be sure you got the full story quickly about what is going on and here for the moment is what has been agreed in England.

In our ‘top prospects’ we will essentially follow our usual Parliamentary by-election candidate selection process – this is a well-established quick process that has served us well in the past.

Two important thing to note about this speeded up system we’re using – as with selections for Parliamentary by-elections, members will get to come to a hustings to hear candidates and vote but due to the speeded up process postal votes will not be available and there is no appeals process over shortlisting.

Where there’s only one candidate, such as if a former Lib Dem MP wants to stand again and no-one else applies, we’re recommending that local parties still hold a members meeting so members can meet and question them even if there is not a vote to have between different people.

All the candidates on our approved list are being sent details of the list of ‘top prospects’, along with information on where seats have been designated for special rules under the diversity measures agreed at the party’s federal spring conference, such as if a seat is to be an all-disabled shortlist.

In our other seats, we’re also going to use an established process – this time the one we use to appoint candidates in any seats which have not yet selected just before a general election (sometimes called ‘parachuting’). Local party executives are consulted as part of this process, and again we strongly recommend to them that they both keep their local members informed and organising an all-members meeting for people to meet the person.

In there is no early general election then all these selections will be annulled in May 2017 and the usual full selection processes kicked off seats. That will also give a chance to any members who are not able to get on our approved candidate list in time for these selection to then go for selection too. (Of course if there has been a general election by then, we’ll have a selection process in the new Parliament too which will be open to new members.)

Finally, a little bit of discretion will be hugely appreciated by our candidates and would-be candidates. Candidates and local parties will be strongly encouraged to make the selection news public so that public campaigning can then happen – snap general election or not, a selected candidate can and should be a key member of the team helping our fightback continue over the summer.

However, some candidates may, for example, currently hold posts or jobs which will require them to resign after being selected as a candidate, so timing the release of news will need to be done sensitively and in full consultation with them. Please do not share the outcome of any selections in public (e.g. on social media) until after the local party and candidate have decided to release it.

Yours etc.

If you have followed debates around the candidate process, you’ll see from what I’ve written that it is possible to interweave positive answers to points of contention in a mass email. Especially if, as expert procedural eyes will notice, you tweak the process slightly* to keep all its overall purpose but make it work in a more participative way.

Possible, but it wasn’t done. Why not?

Why wasn’t this email sent?

I’ve often been critical about internal party communications over the years, and events of the last few weeks crystallise three consistent problems which underlie the somewhat random set of examples I’ve blogged about in public previously.

First, lack of clear and simple lines of responsibility. Who should my imaginary email have come from? Sal Brinton, Liberal Democrat President, might seem the obvious answer. But she isn’t in charge of the party’s candidate process nor is the committee, the Federal Executive, she chairs. (Sal has in fact been good at stepping into debates to help spread information and respond to queries.)

Responsibility on many key issues is split multiple ways and there’s no clear responsibility for internal communications across the party either. This all results in multiple dilutions of any sense of ‘we must communicate about this’. If there are too many people whose job it might be, then it often ends up being nobody’s job.

Second, for all the party’s genuine commitment to public involvement in the exercise of power in their communities and over their own lives, there is a widespread default view when it comes to internal communications that the more controversial an issue might be with members, the less members should be told about it.

Many Liberal Democrats are Doctor Who fans, and it’s almost as if the love of hiding behind the sofa for Doctor Who has been mis-transplanted into how to behave in the face of potential controversy. Don’t get out in front of the issue, get behind the sofa is the misplaced moto.

That’s the exact opposite of really believing in your fibres that involving members and treating members like adults is the liberal and democratic approach. Take a different example – the London campaign made a somewhat controversial decision ahead of the Mayor elections about what party description to use on the ballot paper. The response I got from multiple people involved in running the campaign about the lack of explanation to members about this was variations on, ‘we fear it’s going to be controversial so we don’t want to send anything to members’. As if members wouldn’t see what was happening when they got a ballot paper in their hands.

The answer to possible controversy is to get out ahead of the issue, not slip into monastic reticence.

Third, the idea of listening to what is concerning members and then communicating promptly to address them is just not a normal party of the daily or weekly working schedules of nearly any part of the party.

That’s why there is the irony that when I go asking for information, because I feel something hasn’t been communicated properly and should be covered in Liberal Democrat Newswire for example, I usually find both staff and volunteers very helpful and not unduly secretive.

Not all – there are some parts of the party where even under duress secrecy rules far too much – but nearly all, which is why those three points are the real problem rather than blaming any particular individual(s).

It’s a systematic failure of culture and processes.


* There also in addition more substantive changes I’d make to the process, such as to have the shortlisting criteria available in advance to all possible applicants, but that goes beyond the point of this post which is to demonstrate how much better the internal communications could have been for the system that was chosen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All comments and data you submit with them will be handled in line with the privacy and moderation policies.