An excellent Lib Dem training day

Yesterday I headed west out of London to take part in the latest Western Counties training day, this one looking ahead to the 2019 local elections, which offer the party a huge opportunity.

I took the risk of trusting to my phone to tell me how to get from the station to the school being used via what looked a rather odd route. I’m very glad I did, as it meant I got a walk along a canal, a saunter around a field and a tour of little back paths on the way. Oh, and that moment when I walked up a steep hill in the wrong direction? That was because I wanted to see the view and was quite deliberate. Honest.

More substantively, these training days – it’s the third they’ve invited me to take part in since the start of last year – and a good example of the mindset that isn’t yet quite widespread enough of thinking “what is best for us to do?” rather than “how do we make what we’ve always done a bit better?”.

Incremental improvements definitely have their place (and hey, I’m the sort of person who tries to improve the party by moving commas). The risk also with such a focus is that you are stuck in a familiar, habitual cul-de-sac – tweaking a bit what you’ve always done rather than seeing the opportunity for something very different.

(One reason I think for this institutional conservatism is the complexity of the party’s structures which makes hunkering down just to think about your own little bit attractive. Another I’d speculate is that for a long time ‘let’s do things very differently’ was frequently code for ‘the party leadership wants to take powers away from members’. That created amongst many activists who are radical when it comes to up public policy an instinctive conservatism when it comes to how the party operates – change is suspicious and new things that don’t work are to be criticised and stopped, rather than learnt from and tried again in a different form.)

As I wrote when reviewing the excellent Black Box Thinking:

In his book Seyd makes a good point about the much hyped marginal gains approach. It only works if your basic approach is right, as otherwise it leads up a cul-de-sac where no number of marginal gains can get you to the performance you want. It is like climbing a low hill and topping out well before you reach a mountain top height.

In particular, one thing the Western Counties days do is to start from a messaging rather than an organisational perspective. There were lots of practical case studies about how we’ve won at local and Parliamentary levels through the day – including the amazing local election record of Cheltenham Liberal Democrats. All of those featured large amounts of printed literature – but the starting point for the day wasn’t ‘how and why to deliver more leaflets’ rather it was ‘here’s our latest research on who might vote Lib Dem and how to appeal to them’.

Added to that is the imaginative electoral analysis that’s done and provided to local teams, looking at the latent Liberal Democrat leanings of wards – highlighting those ‘safe’ wards where our support may be more brittle than expected and also those ‘no hope’ wards where a serious campaign may realise a rather better result than expected.

Worry about the message, proceed to evidence and then look at case studies we can learn from: an excellent approach.


If you’re from another region and would like to know more about how these days were organised and what was on the agenda, just let me know and I’ll happily put you in touch with those who organised them in the Western Counties.

3 responses to “An excellent Lib Dem training day”

  1. Of course, those trying to encourage the party to work differently, if they don’t want to be perceived as leadership attempting to hollow out the party’s democratic structures, could score an easy victory by not branding a flagship initiative with the name of a former leader with, shall we say, baggage in that area.

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