Normal activity is not returning any time soon for any political party

Although there are some cautious signs of hope in the recent coronavirus statistics (continuing the trend I previously wrote about), it’s a crisis that isn’t going to be over any time soon.

As the government’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty put it today:

This disease is not going to be eradicated, it is not going to disappear.

We have to accept that we are working with a disease that we are going to be with globally for the foreseeable future…

If people are hoping it’s going to suddenly move from where we are now in lockdown suddenly into everything’s gone, that is a wholly unrealistic expectation.

We are going to have to do a lot of things for really quite a long period of time, the question is what is the best package.

For the Liberal Democrat specifically, it’s important to let that really sink in when we consider how to operate.

It’s quite plausible that canvassing and leafleting for next May’s elections will be massively curtailed. Indeed, if there is a second spike in the winter, it may never really get going at all.

Will you join the Lib Dem coronavirus phone calling drive?

When I stood for election as party president last year, I spoke a lot about the importance of our grassroots efforts. With coronavirus, what counts as appropriate activity is very different from normal times. more

Or when will the next traditional-style local party AGMs take place? With attendance at such events skewed towards those in higher-risk groups, it may not be possible to hold such events offline safely and in ways that involve all our members for the several years it could take to get a vaccine.

Likewise, it’s not only that this autumn’s plans for a traditional offline conference have been put on hold. It’s more likely than not that conferences into next year or even beyond will get disrupted. It’s certainly possible my term as party President will come and go without there ever being a speech from a conference podium from me.

There are some silver linings in all this, such as how the move towards normalising video conference calls may result in a much more inclusive party. It’s easier to get involved if you don’t have to leave home, and possibly travel for several hours, to meetings. That could be good for the geographic diversity of national committees. It could be good for the demographic diversity of party bodies at all levels if it is easier for parent and others with caring responsibility to come to meetings when they involve just switching on your webcam.

As Chris Whitty said today, the chances of a vaccine or drugs to treat the symptoms of coronavirus in “the next calendar year” are “incredibly small”.

Normality will not return any time soon. We are only a few weeks into something that will last at the very least months, and quite likely years.

We all in the party need to adjust to that.

We don’t need to just cancel one or two things for a bit longer. We need to fundamentally change how we operate.


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3 responses to “Normal activity is not returning any time soon for any political party”

  1. I think you make a good point. However, one thing we mustn’t cancel is a UK leadership election. A ship without a Captain will only continue to drift in circles. It’s not complicated really. Nor would it be hard to conduct a quick and fair election electronically. WE NEED TO MOVE WITH THE TIMES.

  2. Is videoconferencing more inclusive? Very few members are unable to leave their homes, even with the aid of friends, relatives or partners. Local parties can arrange lifts and make sure premises are accessible – ideally, not only to wheelchairs, but to public transport. Plenty of our members can’t handle videoconferencing. Others don’t have – maybe can’t afford – the technology. Those last will be concentrated in lower income groups and social classes.

    We tend to the optimistic assumption that if there’s a problem with (a), changing to (b) will sort it. The supporters’ scheme was supposed to overcome biases in our membership to higher socio-economic groups, but the figures in Essex show the local parties with the highest supporter to member ratios are in the most prosperous places.

    That does not change the fact that traditional meetings are out for the time being, though it may be that infection rates – and/or death rates – drop to a level at which meetings are seen as an acceptable risk, especially with some measures like handwashing and face masks.

    • The plus sides of video conferences for inclusivity are:
      (a) Geography – e.g. to help tackle the London-centric nature of party meetings that involve MPs and staff (both of whom are predominantly in London so that drags meetings towards being in London and therefore less accessible the further away you are from it).
      (b) Ability to be elsewhere at the same time – if you have caring responsibilities (e.g. young children), it’s much easier to take part in meetings where you can both be ‘at’ the meeting and also near those who care for.
      (c) Burden of getting to meetings – it’s much easier to travel to your laptop than to a meeting venue, a particularly important point for – e.g. – physical mobility issues but also a cost issue too.
      Six months ago, I think a lot of members (probably a big majority, even) would have agreed that ‘plenty of our members can’t handle videoconferencing’. But I keep on doing events with local parties where it’s clear their own experiences have radically changed in the last few weeks, and there is regular participation via video calls of members who would view themselves as being very IT non-native. Not everyone is online, and that’s still an important factor to consider, but the overall balance is changing rapidly – as shown by the huge increase outside the party in the volume of video calls taking place. There’s a big social change happening, and we shouldn’t close our eyes to it.

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