8 things we must get right next for a Liberal Democrat registered supporter scheme

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.

Lib Dem conference votes to create a registered supporters scheme

Liberal Democrats members in York today voted heavily in favour of creating a new registered supporters scheme for the party. more

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.

Mutual trust

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.

Party strategy

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.

11 responses to “8 things we must get right next for a Liberal Democrat registered supporter scheme”

  1. You say that the IT infrastructure is in place, I would dispute that. The so-called membership database is not a membership database. It is not fit for purpose. Things that should be simple, like telling a local party that a member had moved out of their area, are impossible. You wouldn’t believe the nonsense that Al Ghaff came out with when I made that fairly straightforward request.

  2. “… 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.

    [The scheme] will only have a decent chance of doing that if we explicitly have this aim in our view right from before it is launched.”

    If we are specifically targetting those whom the country treats least well, we would need to target these locally and the danger (though also the opportunity) is that we will have a long list of supporters who would not have the time or financial ability to become activists, which must presumably be one of the goals of the scheme (supporter>member>activist)?

    You are right that we should target these people, but not at the expense of targetting those who have time to help (who may already help) and those who are not connected to a local party (requiring therefore a National campaign). Inclusivity, but not at the expense of pragmatism.

  3. I do not accept that there is evidence of a change in opinion amongst members about a registered supporters scheme. I objected to the way the idea was being sold. To me the idea of having a list of people who support the party, and are willing to be kept in touch, is not a new one. I accept there are problems with handling personal data, and think more thought should be given to the ways of meeting these problems. Since there is nothing to argue about, I now see no point in arguing.
    However the registered supporters scheme is, it seems, not a scheme but a slogan. I am sure that it has nothing to do with the present problems of the party. It seems that a notion of a planning process which starts with what needs to be improved, with evidence, and the ideas of members and others on where we have succeeded and not succeeded seems alien to many making decisions in our party.
    A good starting point would be to actually ask members what we should be doing, rather than telling them about imaginary solutions to undefined problems.

    • Tom: the process you call for is what we went through for producing the party’s strategy in the spring. That included a widespread consultation in the party, including two online surveys and sessions at two consecutive federal conferences as well as events on other occasions too. The idea of prioritising creating a movement came out of that – based exactly on what members said we should be doing, and seeing it as a way of addressing the problems members identified with the current state of our politics and our party.

  4. Totally agree with Toby Price. The least well-off and enfranchised don’t join ANY clubs or societies, let alone parties. For them becoming a supporter would feel exactly similar. They’re battling hour by hour money worries, rent arrears, job uncertainty and low pay, health and family challenges. Because of their circumstances they’re not obvious joiners. Our lack of understanding of and immersion in this says a lot. How many party members are on means-tested benefits, in social housing, or have a minor criminal record? It’s admirable to aim to overcome this, but it needs so much more than a nebulous scheme.

    • Sooby: I agree it definitely won’t be easy. My own reaction to something that’s necessary and difficult is therefore to say ‘let’s get on with working out how to do this best’ – and to avoid the risk otherwise of people saying it’ll be difficult and therefore not even trying.

  5. Sorry Mark but you are just showing how little you know about how the link between local parties and the federal party actually works with the simplicity of these points.
    The GDPR structure of our organisation does not allow local parties to have the email addresses of people who have signed up to federal parties.
    Salesforce does not just have issues, it is fundamentally unfit for purpose, which is why we are not using it to record data about members and have no intention to use it to record registered supporters, but instead use connect.
    And the technology is not easy to fix- believe me I’ve been trying. Even getting scope agreement that takes into account the way local parties use the systems is impossible. Mainly due to a complete lack of understanding of the resources needed to fix this .
    There are more people in the leaders office than the membership Team. We cannot build a movement without resources.

    • Hi Mary: through the FFRC (Federal Finances and Resources Committee), I’ve been very closely involved in the party’s GDPR structure, as it’s something the committee had to sign off. The structure we agreed is one that makes it legally permissible to share data within the party as we’ve gone for one legal structure all under the same data protection registration. Indeed, it requires us to share data effectively as a member of the public can contact us and, say, tell us not to phone them again and that information needs to get shared all round the party. Similarly, if someone gives us their phone number using the party’s standard wording, then that’s wording deliberately written to enbable the data’s use by different parts of the party. There’s definitely work still need to get the party’s data systems working as efficiently and effectively as we’d like, but given just how much work people like myself put into ensuring we have a GDPR structure which ensures that data can be shared, I hope you don’t mind me emphasising that this was done. It took a huge amount of hard work to get the right legal policies in place, but it was done, phew.

      Regarding where registered supporters data will be stored, using Salesforce to do is what’s in the paperwork that has come to federal committees, and funding to do more work on Salesforce to cater for this is part of what’s in the federal budget that is currently working its way through the system. I don’t know if there’s a case of cross-wires here – and certainly happy to talk further to clarify.

  6. Mark,
    I do believe the supporters’ scheme is a good idea, and though possibly difficult, absolutely worth trying. My point is on your topic of diversity and inclusion, and our party attracting mainly the more powerful and well provided for. All parties and club-type arrangements have this feature, it’s not just about fees, it’s about headspace, time, freedom from deep, practical anxieties. My guess, plus what we know, is the even most Labour members and Momentum members are middle-class, to coin a phrase. To reach beyond we need captivating leadership, fresh messages and airtime. Oh, and PR!

  7. My main concern with a supporter scheme is that it would be open to abuse by mischievous or malicious actors. It might be possible to require prospective supporters to be endorsed by actual members, for example on the basis of face-to-face contact, though this could easily lead to unreasonable demands on members’ time. Overall though, short of there being an independent and impartial national political registration agency (which would also be part of a solution to the challenges of funding politics), I don’t see how it would be possible to exclude interference by unaccountable, illiberal and anti-democratic forces.

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