7 tips on how to get involved in the Liberal Democrats

Anton Georgiou pointing at a Lib Dem poster

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.

You can also keep up with news about the party with my WhatsApp group and email lists.

And with that welcome, good luck and do get in touch.

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11 responses to “7 tips on how to get involved in the Liberal Democrats”

  1. This is one of those articles which I wish I had read twenty years as ago as it speaks directly to my experience in the party. I have been a party member since 1986 (not including a brief flirtation with Blairism in the late nineties). I have never had much of a taste for local politics and the imperatives of potholes and the like. Consequently my relationship with the party has been pretty frustrating. It follows that I agree with point one completely. Point two is tough if you’re not particularly extrovert, it’s tough walking up to virtual strangers and telling them you’re going to take over the party. Point three, well, I think I can write an email without winding someone up and point four doesn’t really help if you have been a member 30 years. Or should I reign and rejoin, then I can be a newbie ?

  2. My experience with the official policy working groups has been quite negative. Even when I applied because I have relevant expertise I have only been selected once (on the Pensions Working Group that reported to Conference in 2004); in the other cases all that came back was an email saying “we had many applicants and you were not selected”. This doesn’t encourage me to apply again. The whole process for selecting members for policy working groups seems to be very opaque.

    At the same time, policy development outside the FPC’s planned policy papers is left unaddressed. Individuals with particular interests can submit policy motions backed by a local Party, SAO, or 10 or more members, which the FPC considers and may select some for debate, but the motions not selected disappear into the void where only the FPC and the proposers know they ever existed; there is a tendency for Party Members to reinvent the wheel as a result. Take one issue, Basic Income, this has come up repeatedly on Lib Dem Voice over the last few years as a desirable Party policy, but each time a new person brings it up they are starting at zero with no awareness of what other Party members have already done so that they can build on the progress already made.

    Having made a couple of negative points, I will now make a positive suggestion: HQ needs more volunteers. The staff redundancies will make it harder for the paid staff to provide the level of service that they have done in the past and the only way to fill the gap is through party members volunteering. Over the last 10 years I have been a volunteer in Membership and more recently in Candidates and Diversity. These were straighforward administrative roles that freed up the paid staff to deal with more complex issues. For anyone who doesn’t balk at the idea of phoning up members and asking them for money there is also Fund-raising. Other areas might require more specialised talents; someone with a background in journalism might be useful in the Press Office, for example.

    • I like the idea of volunteers for other things, it often reads like that is largely a London thing. A thing you do by being present somewhere – the current situation (& general efficiency) point to volunteering (& policy development) being as distributed as practical.
      And that’s not easy. Too many local parties have no ” suitable or permanent office space to gather in”. There’s a need to keep data secure.
      Ultimately, with policy, some people really need to actually know and research stuff, it’s not enough to have a bright idea a lob it out there nevertheless we do need to gather those in. Are there effective ways to channel and progress a wide range of policies from a very wide range of people, ideally avoiding reinventing the wheel?

  3. The basic point, that new people are individuals and have different interests, should be very obvious, but of course, any busy organisation – be it a hospital, a supermarket or a local political party – easily forgets it. Recognised good practice in volunteer management includes finding out from new volunteers what they want to do and later, checking if they’re happy with what they’re doing or want to move on to a new level or withdraw from something. Maybe small and weak local parties – if they have that crucial grain of ambition – are better at doing this with the volunteers they desperately need than strong ones that have all established positions filled by well-known activists.

    Although I’ve never been much involved in policy formulation, I agree involving people with particular interests and knowledge is not something we do well. Your Liberal Britain was supposed to address this, but hasn’t come up with much of substance.

    A qualification to Chris Cory’s comment: local politics can be about much subtler issues than potholes (the future of libraries, community policing, natural environment versus economic development, how to consult people fairly) and while the party needs experts and ideas people who aren’t turned into leaflet drudges, at higher levels in the party not having some background in humble activism and not understanding what makes the Focus activists tick is a big disadvantage.

  4. Mark, I agree with the previous comments about policy making and follow up. In the SE we are trying to get policy group of different Local Parties working effectively together and as we are all very busy people we can’t afford to spend time researching where to find answers to questions like.. “has there been a motion on Supporting Parents” for example. Also what were the outcomes if any? Where and how can we find the initial process of motions, apart from the ten good and true members support etc … and the follow up of policy suggestions/ outcomes easily? We need to be showing some positive outcomes for our members hard work otherwise we rightly lose them. Currently we are assembling a list of major issues via the BBC politics for 2019 as a resource, and Local Party reviews and will sift through these to find those most of us have in common and those which will give us most positive response and feedback from our new and existing voters. Any advice would be welcome in this piece of research. Thanks

    • This sounds like an excellent bit of local cooperation and innovation – hope it goes well. The policy team at HQ (policy@libdems.org.uk) are a good place to contact to get more details on what is published where.

  5. So how do I get involved with national early years policy? Where do I start? Can anyone point me in the right direction?

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