I’m regularly finding myself spending time on a form of political matchmaking, trying to help would-be new Liberal Democrat activists find the best way to get involved in the party.
I’ve written before about how existing activists can best get newer people involved, but this process has also made me increasingly aware that there’s a set of tips about how to get involved that pretty much no-one ever tells would-be new activists. So this post is an attempt to put that right.
Do let me have your feedback on it; this post has and I hope will continue to evolve and improve over time, doing its own little bit in helping the party grow and win even more battles for liberalism. Even our party leaders have been new members at some point.
Whatever the level of contribution you’d like to aim for (or end up being persuaded to go for…), there’s stacks loads of fun, friendship and success awaiting. So here is the latest set of seven tips to help you get stuck in.
1. Local activism or not?
As its simplest, the Liberal Democrat party is an organisation geared to involving volunteers in local activism, such as canvassing, leafleting and standing for council. If one or more of those are your bag, then the party mostly knows how to deal with such offers of help, even if we don’t always apply that knowledge as well or consistently as we should.
But the further you get away from those sorts of things being your bag – be it interest in policy, interest in national politics or interest in how the party is run centrally – the harder the party finds it to work out what to do with a would-be new activist.
We definitely can make use of – and need to make even more use of – such offers, such as in the volunteer roles on policy working groups or on the Federal People Development Committee (FPDC).
It means the key first question for a would-be new activist is: do you want to get stuck in locally or not? If it’s the former, finding your local party contact details is the basic way in. If it’s the latter, then eyes open, it may take a bit of asking around to figure out the best thing to do.
2. Local party or party body?
Most of our organisation is based on geography, with local parties being the basic building block for activity. However, it may be that there’s a non-geographic side to your interest in the party, such as a particular interest in environmental issues or wanting to campaign with fellow students.
There is a range of party bodies that caters for these non-geographic interests. Take a look at them here.
3. You might have to make the first move
In a perfect world, any organisation would be falling over itself to follow up the merest sniff of someone new being willing to get involved. The Liberal Democrats are not quite like that…
Some of the reasons for that are the usual imperfections of an organisation. One often unstated reason is that there is a weird (weird to me, at least) incongruity in the personality types of those attracted to local activism. You might think that, say, wanting to be a local councillor, dealing with the public, is a role that attracts gregarious people. Often it does. Yet often it also attracts rather shy, introverted people. There is even one former Lib Dem MP whose local party activists were convinced mimed knocking on doors when out canvassing because they were so shy and didn’t want to talk to voters. (They were a great MP, even so.)
So if you’re wanting to get involved you may find you need to take a bit more of the initiative in saying hello and finding the right people to talk to. You’ll then usually get a warm welcome and a keen response, but sorry – we tend to leave the initiative a bit too much on you.
4. Write sensible emails
Most people active in the party feel they have too many emails to deal with. Even those with staff to help with emails feel that way (and their staff are often, e.g. Parliamentary staff, who are restricted on what correspondence they can help with).
Emailing Lib Dems about wanting to get involved in the party is therefore no different from emailing busy people in other walks of life and wanting a response. All the usual tips about how to email busy people apply, in particular:
- Be parsimonious in who you send the email to – the more people it goes to, the more everyone is likely to leave it to everyone else to reply with the result that you get no reply
- Be brief (no, asking a stranger to read 1,000 plus words out of the blue isn’t a good opening move)
- Be careful with your criticism (yes, you may well know how something could and should be better – but starting off telling people in an organisation you know little about how awful they all are is both likely to put people’s backs up and also may be based on your own misunderstanding)
- Be clear what you’d like to happen next
- Be sensibly patient (no, someone taking more than 24 hours to reply to you isn’t an awful insult)
That may all sound obvious but trust me, my inbox very much shows it isn’t.
5. Minimise the overhead of your good ideas
Most parts of the party most of the time are short of resource – both human (staff and voluntary) and financial. So if you’ve got a great idea or two on how things could or should be better, first really hone it down to whatever starting steps will minimise the amount of resource required.
Telling busy people with no more they should spend lots of cash on a brilliant idea is, no matter how brilliant, likely to end in frustration all around.
6. Join the new members community
The Lib Dem Newbies group has a great Facebook community. You’ll get a warm welcome!
7. Background research
If you’re the sort who wants to know a bit more about what you’re getting into, then this guide to Lib Dem beliefs may be useful (and helps explain why comments such as ‘we should all be sensible, centrist moderates’ don’t always go down well), along with this more general guide to the party. If the acronyms and jargon baffle, here’s a glossary for you.
And with that welcome, good luck and do get in touch.