Back when I wrote How to rebuild the Liberal Democrats, the sort-of sequel to the original core votes pamphlet which attempted to set out in detail what a core votes approach means for the party’s organisation, I highlighted why the party should move to making its key tools and resources all available free at the point of use to party members:
We must make it easier for people to get started as campaigners. People should have quick and direct access to the tools and support they need rather than being faced with a steep learning and financial curve. There is more than enough for newcomers – whether new members or old members trying to get things going (again) in an area – without the party’s way of doing things adding in extra burdens.
A genuine commitment to easy access would make for a radically different approach to party organisation.
Our key database (Connect)? That is locked away behind not only monthly charges but what’s more monthly charges you have to get a bureaucracy – even if it is a nice friendly local party executive, that is still a bureaucracy – to agree to meet. Great election winning templates for local campaigns? Pony up and pay your ALDC membership subscriptions first please. Access to great training? That’ll be a conference registration fee first please.
If you are in the know you can shimmy round many of the obstacles. Know who to ring to get to come to do a free training session. Know who to email to be sent some leaflet designs you can reuse. That all cloaks in a comfortable disguise what is missing, what is hard and what is costly in the way the party is set up when it comes to getting activity going from scratch or a low base – the sort of low base that is the current base in huge parts of the country. And what is mystifying, unknown and costly when you are a new member – which nearly half the party’s members are – rather than one with years of accumulated knowledge.
That needs to be fixed, and it can be fixed. It needs a focus on making things simple and free.
At the time, the idea that a range of key campaign services and tools should all be free for any member to access generate the sort of Sir Humphrey responses of ‘lovely idea, minister, but…’ followed by no action.
However, the (very welcome) big changes to data protection rules coming as a result of GDPR have given this move a major impetus from a different direction. It’s much easier for everyone in the party to comply with GDPR if everyone is using the same core set of tools. And so with that legal imperative rather a lot of those previous objections have fallen away and the party has started making major moves to the sort of revolution in grassroots campaigning support the party so much needs and which is part of the party’s new strategy.
Which is why the recent news from party HQ about changes to how Salesforce (the party’s membership system) and Connect (the party’s electoral database) are much more than the slightly dull administrative move the Lib Dem Voice headline (“Changes to payment for Connect and Salesforce”) might make you think of.
Put simply, instead of asking local parties to pay for these services – resulting in administrative costs, volunteer time is taken up and many not paying and so missing out on key services – the party is instead moving to covering the costs centrally and providing access across the whole party, free at the point of use. (In England and Wales so far, with details being worked on to bring Scotland into this scheme too.)
These are only the first step. They’re the (relatively) easiest for which to make this change. Other tools – such as website and email platforms – are more complicated by, for example, the diversity of current suppliers people use.
Which is why it’s important to make sure that it is only the first step.
Looking back at what I wrote above, the training and templates are most likely to be a good many steps down the road as there’s a fair amount of complexity in those issues too, but you get to the end of a long road by taking step after step and keeping going.
Along the way, other tools such as for running local party accounts and helping party bodies run their own admin will make sense to include.
However far we do get with this, simply membership and electoral databases are a big step forward, making it much easier for more people in more place to get started with campaigning – and then to spend their time on campaigning, not administration.
Free at the point of use increases take-up; increased take-up benefits the party overall, our volunteers and the causes we fight far.