29 April 2011 2 Comments
Anyone following the party will be familiar with the history that the Liberals were the opposition party to the Conservatives and brought in reforms which we are all proud of now. The fall of the Liberal Party was as much due to its own mistakes as that of the rise of the Labour Party but there is much to learn from the Labour Party’s rise in the early 20th Century which the Liberal Democrats can emulate. It is one of collaboration, loose associations and local activism.
This is a chart of the vote share of the political parties in the UK showing the demise of the Liberal Party and the rise of the Labour Party. The Labour Party’s origins lie in the late 19th century when it became apparent that there was a need for a new political party to represent the interests and needs of the urban proletariat, a demographic which had increased in number. Some members of the trade union movement became interested in moving into the political field and several small socialist groups formed wanting to link to political policies e.g. Independent Labour Party, Fabian Society, Social Democratic Federation and the Scottish Labour Party.
The Labour movement grew not through growing the political party from the inside, by gaining more members and co-opting movements into the political party, but from the outside, gaining people/organisations prepared to support the broad ideas but keeping their own identity. This loose association eventually turned into a formal political party.
The movement had its core supporters but it grew support through collaborating with movements with similar aims. The co-operative movement provided its own resources to the Co-operative Party which gave its support to the Labour Party. Today the Co-operative Party is the 4th largest political party in parliament.
However, the real power in the growth of the Labour Party was the growth in Labour’s local activist base and organisation. With the support of many different movements, organisations, and groups it grew wide public support. Labour clubs became a social hub and almost an institution for many communities. The Labour movement, and therefore the party, were relevant to the public.
It was not just about ideas which inspired people. It was not just policies which people thought would benefit the country or themselves. It was the relationship people had with people in these different organisations/groups which made it relevant. The relationship grew into a relationship with the family and the area. This is what I call relationship based politics.
The importance of relationship based politics can be seen everywhere. Where there is a relationship with the public stronger the support (see here or here). And recently this was shown in the post ‘so what’s it really like on the doorsteps’
It’s quite touching to knock on a door and have someone tell you that the first stranger to knock on her door when she moved into the estate years ago was your fellow councillor and she’s never forgotten it. The fact that he took time to knock on doors, and take round a leaflet with useful phone numbers on it, means that she’s voted for him ever since.
So there are many lessons in building a successful political party but the most important one which the Lib Dems have known for a long time is that of local activism. But it does not necessarily mean it has to be in the party’s name. Collaboration and loose associations with other organisations can increase your local activist base and agreements with them can result in increased membership eventually. But essentially it is about forming relationships with voters and making the party relevant in today’s society. Small, simple steps go a long way to achieving this.