Arriving in unassuming brown envelopes on doormats around the country at the moment is an unusual posted mailing from Liberal Democrat HQ in Great George Street to all party members. Unusual both for being a posted all-member mailing (there aren’t many of those these days) and even more unusual for not being a financial appeal. There is a donation slip, but it doesn’t get a mention in the covering letter from Paddy Ashdown save for a single sentence buried mid-letter and a brief back page reference in the mailing’s other piece of content, a 16-page “Election Strategy Briefing”.
That’s because the mailing is an attempt to give party members a much greater sense of involvement in the general election strategy and campaign than in the past. Given the comments I’ve made before about how too often the party treats its members as passive spectators rather than active participants, this is a very welcome departure from the past.
The contents of the booklet are pretty good – not containing much information that will be new to hardcore activists but containing plenty of explanations about what the party is doing and why. Pitching the explanations at this level is the right choice as even party members involved enough in the party to come to an event at which I’m speaking often don’t (yet) know the sorts of things about how the party operates that is often assumed.
It’s a good start but still just a start.
What will really show that the party is serious about involving its members and not just mouthing platitudes about copying Barack Obama is Nick Clegg’s speech at party conference.
Previous party leader speeches – not just from Clegg but from a succession of leaders – have never had more than the briefest of sections that treat members as active participants in a common fight for liberalism. Even a soundbite encouraging people to join or volunteer has been all but unthinkable in such speeches. I still remember how stony the reactions were when I worked in party HQ and tried to get a reference to joining the party online into any leader’s speech. The idea that a soundbite on TV might usefully include an appeal to get involved and give the web address to do so was repeatedly frostily received. Talking about being like Obama never transformed into taking the practical steps to put recruiting and valuing volunteers right at the centre of the party and the party leader’s operation.
Glasgow will see how far the party has really changed in that respect.
P.S. HQ staff have commented on how expensive an all-members mailing is. Whilst I’m sure they’re doing this in an appropriate way, it’s hard to avoid drawing a connection with the deeply-flawed drafting of the OMOV proposals down for debate at Glasgow. The expense of this mailing highlights how problematic the OMOV amendments, with their requirement to regularly post items out to party members, really are. See my post on the subject for the details.