As I mentioned yesterday, there’s one simple example of why sorting out the party’s future isn’t simply about leadership or overall popularity: the combination of Charles Kennedy, polling ratings up to treble the party’s current level and the Iraq war didn’t result in a boost in the party’s membership.
As a result, the party missed out on the chance of having more strong local constituency organisations that could exploit the tide flowing in favour of the party at various times to turn them into a greater number of MPs, Lib Dem controlled councils and elected members of devolved bodies.
If the party wants an organisation fit for the future, it needs to give some dedicated attention to just that issue.
On a positive note, the recent changes to the way the party’s membership finances work have been very successful. Giving local parties a much clearer and larger financial incentive to recruit and renew members has resulted in that happening on a larger scale, contributing massively to the now three consecutive quarters of growth in membership – and a growth that has continued ever through and after the European elections.
So here are five organisational things the party should now focus on.
First, the Leadership Programme has had a welcome impact on recruiting and training a new and much more diverse generation of candidates. But candidates only get elected in tandem with great organisers and there are far too few new stars coming through. Most (though not all – there are some fabulous exceptions!) of the best election results have been secured by people who learnt their trade literally in the last century.
We need more new talent coming through – and a similar Organiser Programme to nurture the most talented newcomers.
Second, there is much that is great about the party’s Connect database and much that is promising about the Nationbuilder and Salesforce systems that are now running alongside it. But they need a year of sweating the details to make them easier to use, better integrated and more reliable. Park any grand plans for new features and sweat the details instead.
Third, when done well digital and ‘traditional’ campaigning is as tightly integrated as vowels and consonants are to a writer. Each supplements the other, but too often both locally and nationally they are different. We still, for example, have ‘artwork templates’ as a separate breed of publications from fully integrated campaign packs. Much tighter integration between digital and traditional campaigning is needed.
Fourth, the party needs to do much more to communicate internally the logic of its messaging. Too often during the European election campaign, for example, we saw a good idea turned into a bad message but well-intentioned but misguided over-enthusiasm. As Steve van Riel points out, the proliferation of party voices via social media and the speed of commentating means that top down message control is no longer possible.
Any successful party needs thousands of enthusiastic voices – and they need to understand the underlying logic of their party’s message and be well supplied with examples and explanations, rather than being expected to wait for the latest ex cathedra pronunciation of an exact form of words to be used ad nauseam.
Fifth, the party’s next President should be one who really concentrates on getting the party’s organisation in shape. Both Tim Farron and before him Simon Hughes did some good work on this, but in the end their legacies do not match up their elevated rhetoric of reinvigorating community politics or doubling the party’s membership.
The next President should promise less but deliver more – and if a candidate for President isn’t promising a credible organisational programme, we shouldn’t vote them into office.
Even doing all of these brilliantly will not magically transform the party. But failing to do them will mean that no matter how popular the party, we will fail to turn that into the maximum number of seats and votes.