The Liberal Democrat challenges for 2011: using members and supporters as a campaigning resource

Over the festive season I am running a series of posts on the main Liberal Democrat challenges for 2011. You can find all the posts as they appear here.

Looking back through the emails I have received from the party centrally since the formation of the coalition, very few have asked me to do anything. Some have asked for money, requested I come to conference or suggested I go and help in elections – but even those, whilst being good stuff, have been drawn from a very narrow conception of what members and supporters can do. When it comes to policy areas, campaigning disappears and it is nearly all top-down broadcast mode communication telling me what someone has done.

Those communications are important (as I’ve said before) but should be only part of a wider ambition. It is as if all a local councillor did was tell people what has happened after a planning committee has ruled, rather than telling them in advance what is going to happen and how they can influence it.

The party is not exactly short of opponents to overcome when it comes to implementing Liberal Democrat beliefs in government, yet we are not using the party’s grassroots strengths to help win those struggles.

The Conservative Party is, to take one example, split on civil liberties. Many key figures take a similar view to the Liberal Democrats, yet there are also many opponents of what a Liberal Democrat majority government would do. Public pressure has an important role to play in this, yet exhortations to write letters to local newspapers, online petitions, information about how to help key pressure groups – these are all absent from the party’s internal communications as if they only thing party members can be is passive outsiders to things their betters are off doing in meeting rooms in Whitehall.

It’s a remarkably non-Liberal Democrat approach (and the responsibility for this, in fairness, rests others than with those who actually pen the emails and ensure their dispatch). It runs counter to what Gordon Lishman rightly stressed about community politics – the move from “passive acceptance to positive participation”.

Embracing the campaigning power of members and supporters would not only boost the party’s impact on government, it would also give members and supporters ways of feeling involved, committed and motivated – and to see how Liberal Democrat presence and pressure can make a difference.

It is also the route by which a much stronger data culture can be built up in the party, valuing the accumulation and good use of data such as email address lists.

Understandably, Nick Clegg may be reluctant to walk out of a meeting with a Conservative Cabinet Minister and send out an email asking people to lobby that minister, but with more imagination there is much the party – and in particular via the President, not in government – can do to campaign rather than watch.

John Prescott is not every liberal’s first choice as a role model but the campaigning he did on banker bonuses whilst Labour was in government was a good example of how being in power does not have to kill grassroots campaigning for national objectives. There is much the Liberal Democrats can learn from this approach to politics, campaigning outside office to strengthen your ability to secure results in office.

By this time next year, there should be Liberal Democrat role models who can be pointed to instead of John Prescott.

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