Last January I wrote an open letter to the party’s then new Chief Executive Tim Gordon, setting out four priorities. One year on, how are things looking?
Here’s what I wrote (with introductory pleasantries skipped), with each of the four points followed by an update and a score. Read on to see how Tim has been doing…
Sorting the party’s message
There will be more people telling you that you need to sort out the party’s message than I’ve eaten chocolates in the last year.
They’re right that the party’s messaging needs sorting.
But you should ignore them. It shouldn’t be your job.
More than one of your predecessors tried to run the party’s messaging and the result was disaster.
Unless you are Chris Rennard, trying to run the party’s messaging and tell ministers, MPs, the Federal Policy Committee and the Campaigns Department what they should be saying will wreck your time in post, distract from what you could be achieving and end in failure just as it has done for others. More than once.
Perhaps after a few years in the job you will become a new Chris Rennard, but at the moment – sorry, Tim you’re no Chris.
What you can – and must – do is get the party’s ability to send a coordinated message sorted. Leave it to others to sort out what the message is, but make sure that whatever it is, the party is in a fit state to communicate it consistently, incessantly and effectively.
It isn’t just the absurd inconsistencies of different messages from ministers in the same conference pack that needs fixing. It is also the hugely wasteful duplication that goes on with at times every staff member – not only federally, but in constituencies too – apparently wanting to choose their own fonts, their own colour schemes and their own layouts. People work all sorts of silly hours, saying how busy they are – but promptly waste hours time after time coming up with their own versions of what should be said and what publications should look like.
Get to grips with this wasteful inconsistency and you will not only make the party’s communication efforts better, you will even save that most precious of resources in the process – staff time.
Verdict, one year on: Tim Gordon is doing well on this. He has rightly left the sorting out of the content of the message to others, whilst getting on with reforming the central party organisation so it can deliver a consistent message (see the write-up of the HQ reorganisation in Liberal Democrat Newswire). There is still a long way to go – you only need spend the shortest amount of time on the party website to see how frequently it is off-message, for example – but the progress has been good so far and not everything can be done in a year. 9/10.
As Stephen Tall has documented, the long-term trend of fund-raising by the party has been on an impressive upward path. The Liberal Democrats are now even consistently raising more from individual and corporation donations above the declarable thresholds than the Labour Party.
The loss of Short Money makes that growth pleasing, but insufficient. Quite simply, the party needs more money and you need to be central to that.
The party’s central fundraising has been most effective when Chief Executives have given direct personal attention to it – including the time to meet donors and would-be donors. Learn from what your predecessors got right and allocate your time accordingly.
Verdict, one year on: in that HQ reorganisation, Tim Gordon put himself in charge of the team responsible for bringing in more money. That is a good sign of his priorities. So far the fundraising figures are looking cautiously promising. The federal party’s core income doesn’t yet fully cover its basic running costs, so extra donor income is having to be used to fill that gap rather than all going to boosting the party’s election campaign coffers. Even so, compared to previous Parliamentary cycles the level of fundraising is good. 8/10.
Enlist supporters in the fight for liberalism
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. Although our ideology is one of empowering individuals, at a national level we treat members and supporters often as passive spectators, to be told (sometimes, intermittently) what the party is up to in their name rather than engaging them as active allies in the struggle for a liberal society.
Even when government ministers fret about individual public consultations that are being carried out, or think carefully about how to handle their results, we don’t ask members to take part in them (with the honourable exception of Willie Rennie).
What I wrote last December still stands:
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.
Verdict, one year on: Ahem. Let’s just say this hasn’t been an area of stunning success. A scattering of promising signs, such as the party’s experiments with Nationbuilder, yes. Overall though 2012 was more a year of missed opportunities than progress. 3/10.
Write an email, once a fortnight
I suspect you’ll write more than just the one. But once a fortnight you should make a few minutes in your diary to write an update for party activists. Also commit to reading all the replies you get, however briefly and however brutally you devolve replying to others.
Don’t stress about exactly who it goes to or how skimpy the content may be given the pressures of your schedule. Simply regularly communicating and reading the responses will work wonders for helping you understand what people in the party are thinking and for improving communications, building up the bank of good will that at some point you will need to pillage remorselessly.
Verdict, one year on: Tim Gordon doesn’t just do a fortnightly email, he does a weekly one. That’s good and it always contains a timely and useful summary of the party’s current key messages and views on topical issues. The downside is that is pretty much all it contains. It isn’t used as a way to regularly communicate a wider range of information about what is going on in the party, in the way that Chris Rennard’s emails used to. The recent start of a weekly email from Nick Clegg is a good compliment, but it too naturally is more about looking to the outside world rather than filling the gap those Rennard emails used to seek to tackle. More work to be done. 7/10
Overall score: 27/40, a good start with plenty more still to do.