When back in 2015 former Cambridge MP David Howarth and I wrote our pamphlet setting out a core votes strategy for the party, including a call for the creation of a registered supporter scheme, we were by no means the first to talk of such an idea.
Long-time readers of Liberator will recognise echoes of the late Simon Titley’s exhortations in what David and I argued. Likewise, the idea of local parties building up a network of helpers outside the ranks of official membership goes back decades. Indeed, when back in Charles Kennedy’s time I was closely involved in updating the party’s performance targets for would-be Parliamentary target seats, one of those was to have 500 members plus an additional 1,000 other local supporters, kept informed by at least six high-quality newsletters a year.
If a party-wide registered supporter scheme – i.e. one that is more than individual initiatives in a scattering of local parties – is an idea with old roots, it is also fair to say it is one that until recently it was a fringe idea in the party. That is why, for example, we ended up with an email list of around 200,000 built up by the federal party from people who supported the party’s national online campaigns, but without that list being – until very recently – used for anything other than HQ communications and without its key data available to people outside HQ either.
That’s why my focus in the recent debates over party reforms has been so much on supporting the creation of a proper registered supporters’ scheme, designed from day one to work for the whole party and to serve our full range of needs – fundraising, yes, but also more than just fundraising.
It’s gratifying to see how massively party opinion has shifted on this even just this year – from at best disinterest and not infrequently opposition through to now being the bit that such a big majority now says they support in Vince Cable’s reform package. So much so that the Federal Board agreed with the argument put by myself and others that we should get on with creating it as soon as practical, rather than hold off to resolve other parts of the package first.
(The next edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire will include the results of the survey I’ve been running on some aspects of this. You can still take part in it here.)
The scale of that change in party opinion – which I hope I’ve played a non-trivial role in bringing about – does though indicate how much there is still to get right. Some of the concerns that used to generate far more opposition to the idea of such a scheme were, even keen supporters of a registered supporter scheme should acknowledge, based on issues which we need to get right to make a success of it.
There are eight of these.
Branding the registered supporter scheme
“A registered supporter scheme” is a pretty dull, functional name. Whether or not we end up using this as the internal shorthand for what comes next, it needs to be branded with rather more pizzazz than that.
It’s about creating a grassroots movement that can mobilise liberals to stand up for our causes, to battle discrimination, to fight inequality and to harness the collective power of our individual voices to stand up to the forces of illiberalism that are circling in increasing strength.
For a scheme to serve the whole party, and to have the whole party invested in its success, there needs to be a significant degree of trust. For example, many different parts of the party – local parties, regional parties, party bodies, federal HQ and more – will want to be able to contact registered supporters.
Similarly, so registered supporters are treated well and respected, some measures to minimise the risk that they don’t receive seven badly designed communications from different parts of the party on the same day will be wise. Attempts to fix other similar issues in the past have shown how easy it is to descend from the idea that we’re one party which is strongest when we work together into different competing perspectives with people wanting to keep others away from “their” data.
Improving our diversity and inclusion
As I’ve written before, the evidence shows that party membership – across all parties – does not appeal equally to that party’s strongest supporters. Rather, party membership disproportionately attracts the richer, the more powerful and those who society already treats best. The problem with party membership is that it attracts most those who least need parties to listen to them.
It is because this is a problem across all parties that a major structural change – the creation of a new supporter scheme – is a much-needed opportunity to break this. But it will only have a decent chance of doing that if we explicitly have this aim in our view right from before it is launched.
The IT infrastructure
In theory, this should be relatively straightforward, as the party already has a secure and robust database for holding the records of hundreds of thousands of people and making them available appropriately across the party. But Salesforce is not perfect and there is a whole host of details that need to be got right to deal with existing issues and to cope with registered supporters.
The role of federal HQ
The federal party operation run out of Great George Street is at its best in concentrating on Westminster general elections. There is a strong gravitational pull that keeps on dragging the federal party away from worrying about other issues back to thinking about general elections.
This organisational gravity comes from a multitude of factors – including a deep-set culture, the way that the bulk of the federal party’s money comes in the run-up to general elections and the natural impact of headcount rising in the run-up to general elections with contracts containing clauses about the jobs ending afterwards.
It is good that we have a part of the party which so heavily concentrates on Westminster general elections. But a successful supporter scheme will be about much more than just the next general election.
One of the reasons I’m keen on a supporter scheme is that bringing together the different disparate existing schemes, adding something more powerful across the whole country and linking it up with that data on party membership too will make it easier to get training and other engagement activities for both members and supporters right. Not guaranteed, of course, but easier.
Here is one simple example. I’ve been pencilled in to do a training webcast on digital campaigning later this year, for example. If we had a supporter scheme, that could be advertised to them too. Some of the party’s best online proponents are not party members. It’s deeply unhelpful that our current ways of doing things so often cut them out from such activity.
The party strategy adopted at our spring federal conference in many ways teed up the supporter scheme creation with its talk of creating a liberal campaigning movement. But this is only one part of the strategy.
There’s an Escher-like culture in the party that often pops up where attempts to improve any one thing triggers complaints that something else is more important to do instead: policy is more important than messaging, which is more important than campaigning, which is more important than policy, which is more important than messaging… and round and round the demands not to act on something go, trapping the party so dreadfully often in stasis.
The escape route is to have collective buy-in to a strategy that means we’re able to act on more than one thing at a time, and to do so with a common overall route map. Yet there is still a very long way to go in getting from a motion passed in spring to a strategy that naturally becomes part of what people across the party are doing.
That includes communicating about it much better. My score for 2018 on helping improve things in the party is, I hope, pretty respectable (including helping to match-make the English Party and ALDC to put extra money to fund the largest ever Kickstart training programme ahead of the local government elections coming up next May).
But I score a big fat zero on getting communications about our strategy a natural part of what the federal party does. Don’t let that stop you, however, doing better in your own party activities: the strategy is one for all of us.
The rest of Vince Cable’s reform package
I have left to last the other elements of Vince Cable’s party reforms package because for me the big prize in the supporter scheme.
I am also rather ambivalent about the idea of non-MPs being able to stand for party leader. I struggle to think of a person and leadership contest when I would have voted for a non-MP. Yet in addition to being cautious about being one of those Londoners who airily dismisses the status and importance of those elected to things outside SW1, I’m also a liberal.
Banning something because I don’t do it would make New Labour look like amateurs when it comes to authoritarianism. Watch out those who dance on a Friday evening, people who like eating Brussels Sprouts or bungee jumpers. The Pack Ban Hammer would be coming to get you. So, whilst I might not want to have a non-MP as leader, why is that a reason to ban it from ever happening?
As for having registered supporters get a vote for party leadership, for this to work a whole set of questions need to be cleared out the way. Questions such as whether the party is capable of running a sufficiently accurate verification system to protect against fake sign-ups, for example. The best way to do that is to set up a scheme, get it running and learn from how it works in practice. Only then move to making a decision on the franchise for a leadership contest. That is why as I have seen the views come in during the consultations over the last few weeks, I have become even more strongly in favour of setting up the basic scheme quickly and also keen that we reflect the many concerns members have over these sorts of questions by seeing what works in practice first.
The need for speed
Eight further things then to get right. Which means plenty more work required on how we run ourselves as a party. Which also, therefore, means ending with a final plea. There are definitely better and worse times to concentrate on different elements of what we need to get right. But we also need a sense of urgency – liberalism is getting battered every day and we don’t have the luxury of waiting to step up our game.
Building a liberal movement is a key part of doing just that. It isn’t a distraction from doing what matters; it is a necessary part of achieving what we want to achieve.
Footnote: the all-member (non-)ballot
If you’re wondering what happened to the idea of an all-member consultative ballot, the rules the Federal Board was presented with for the conduct of such a ballot had numerous problems, including the idea that all party bodies would be banned from expressing a view during the contest and expenditure rules that were in effect unenforceable. Some of these could have been fixed but others came from a ruling by the chair of the Federal Appeals Panel and so are not fixable this side of a party conference.