Building the Lib Dem political party: how to gain local activists and increase support

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.

Improving your local party through better use of members: developing a motivating feedback system

What communication have you had from your local party in the last year? A newsletter? Requests for funding? Requests to help out with a campaign? Emails about local party information? Emails about AGM/Conference? Have you ever been asked for formal feedback about the local party? Our Party President informs us that the key to any win in an election is a thriving local party with members and volunteers doing the hard work on the ground. Yet there are simple ways a local party can motivate members to create this that are not being used.

In ‘Why Vote Liberal Democrat’ in 2010 Danny Alexander wrote “Collaboration is right at the heart of everything Liberal Democrats believe in”. While it seems a focus for national politics is seems strangely absent from local parties unless you are already actively involved in the local party. However, collaboration takes work to form the collaborative relationship and it is from that relationship that the benefits are born.

Members can be seen as being made up of 3 types:

  1. Active members – people who are engaged in the activities of the local party
  2. Potential active members – people who would like to be involved but have not made the step to being active members yet
  3. Armchair members – people who do not want to be involved in the activities of the local party and are happy just to support the party through membership or in some other small way

There are many reasons why some who want to be involved are not involved but the trick for the party is to find out who they are and form a more personal relationship with them and find how to use their skills/talents/expertise in a way which will engage them in the local party. Currently there is no mechanism for the local party to know this information unless someone comes forward and says so. When I joined I got an email saying ‘if you want to deliver leaflets let me know’ and this was all I got until I went to the AGM and even then people did not find out what I wanted to do in the party or what I could do.

Successful companies all over the world have tried to get the most out of their customers through some form of feedback system. However, some have also used a feedback system from the staff to improve how they run the companies. Equally, a simple feedback system could reap rewards for the local party is worded right which will identify

  1. Potential active members
  2. Potential skills in the member base
  3. Potential expertise in the member base

The solution focused approach could offer a set of questions to find these if sent out to members (email/letter/newsletter) and could start the beginning of a more personal relationship between people not yet active and the local party:

  1. Every member has different skills and we are interested to know what these are. What 3 things would you say you have particular skills at?
  2. On a scale of 0 – 10, where 10 is the highest, how involved do you currently feel with your local party?
  3. On the same scale, where would you like to be on this scale at this present time?
  4. On the same scale, where would you like to be in the future?
  5. What could the local party do to help you move to where you would like to be, now and in the future? (simple and specific answers will work the best)
  6. What 3 things do you think the local party has done well at in the last year?
  7. What 3 things do you think the local party should improve on in the next year?
  8. What do you think you would like to do for the local party, if anything, in the next year that you haven’t this year?
  9. Is there anything we have forgotten to ask?

Answers to these may give you some useful contacts, leads and improve your local party.

Labour have ceded community activism to the Tories, the Lib Dems are now at risk of ceding our ideals

The debate about public services is beginning to cut across party, political, and philosophical lines. There are those who argue that the state should continue to provide public services, those who argue that the private sector can better provide them and those who say that there should be a mix. All of these arguments are alive and well in the Lib Dem Party. However, there is a growing voice for a different way as some believe that we are not utilizing all the skills and abilities this country has to offer through any of these methods.

For anyone who hasn’t been reading this site just search the ‘In Praise Of’ posts as it charts a different path to not only public services but to government. Peter Mandelson has recently come out in favour of this new approach

We will have to find more of our solutions from within the communities that make our society

He goes on to say that he thinks the Big Society is therefore a good idea as it seeks to find solutions from the citizens. For all his ills he was a successful political strategist for the New Labour Party and it has not gone unnoticed that he is supporting the Big Society. Over on the Telegraph Blog they have tried to spot how this new debate is crossing the Labour Party

Mandelson’s endorsement of it is, of course, a veiled criticism of Ed Miliband who has foolishly ceded this territory to the David Cameron. His brother would have made no such mistake. Raising an army of citizen activists was a central plank of David Miliband’s campaign and, had he won the leadership, he would have disputed Cameron’s claim to this Big Idea

And they seem to struggle with the idea than left-right politics really is not a useful tool for understanding post-modern, post-bureaucratic politics.

The willingness of the Labour left to allow the Coalition to identify itself with community activism is quite staggeringly naive. Every time a leftwing comedian or Guardian columnist ridicules the Big Society, I marvel at their complicity in what is, in essence, the theft of one of their core principles.

The Lib Dems are in a better place than either Labour or the Tories to form our own identity in this new debate as this is what ‘reinventing the state’ is all about. It may be unfortunate that we are not getting the credit for some of the positive aspects of reform but this is because people do not associate us with our core ideals: Collaboration and cooperation, devolved power and localism. This is what Liberals joined the party for but not necessarily why people voted for us.

The only debate people hear about of this new way of public service is through the Big Society. This is our failure. Our failure not to have this essential message the central theme of our existence. This is our debate and while Labour may have ceded community activism to the Tories, we cannot cede devolved power and localism, collaboration and cooperation with citizens. If we do, why would someone vote for the Lib Dems now we are no longer a party of protest?

What is Collaborative Governance?

The Policy Consensus Initiative highlights some useful texts in collaborative governance such as the Practical Guide to Collaborative Governance & Training Manual. They have a useful outline of collaborative governance which is worth repeating:

What is Collaborative Governance?

Leaders engaging with all sectors—public, private, non-profit, citizens, and others—to develop effective, lasting solutions to public problems that go beyond what any sector could achieve on its own.

What results does it produce?

The best public solutions come from people working together on issues. Collaborative governance takes as its starting point the idea that working together creates more lasting, effective solutions.

  • Lasting—Solutions developed through collaborative governance won’t simply be undone in the next year or legislative session.
  • Effective—The collaborative governance approach ensures that the realities of the situation are considered and discussed; decisions are not made in a vacuum.
  • More buy-in—From the outset, all with a stake are involved in authentic ways; all have a role in the final agreement.

Why is it needed?

  • Accelerating change
  • Overlapping institutions and jurisdictions
  • Increasing complexity
  • A need to integrate policies and resources

How is this different from “government?”

“Governance” is the process by which public ends and means are identified, agreed upon, and pursued. This is different than “government,” which relates to the specific jurisdiction in which authority is exercised. “Governance” is a broader term and encompasses both formal and informal systems of relationships and networks for decision making and problem solving.

What does it take?

Collaborative governance requires three elements:

  1. Sponsor- an agency, foundation, civic organization, public-private coalition, etc. to initiate and provide support
  2. Convener/Leader- a governor, legislator, local official, respected civic leader, etc. with power to bring diverse people together to work on common problems
  3. Neutral Forum- an impartial organization or venue, etc. to provide and ensure skilled process managament

How does it work?

The System integrates the principles and network to assure an effective collaborative governance process:

  • Sponsors identify and raise an issue
  • Assessment is made on the feasibility for collaboration and who needs to be involved
  • Leader(s) convene all needed participants
  • Participants adopt this framework for addressing the issue
  • Conveners and participants frame (or reframe) the issue for deliberation
  • Neutral forum/facilitator designs and conducts a process to negotiate interests and integrate resources
  • Written agreement establishes accountability
  • Sponsors identify and raise an issue or opportunity that calls for a collaborative response

This collaborative governance system can work anywhere as long as several key principles are adhered to: transparency; equity and inclusiveness; effectiveness and efficiency; responsiveness; accountability; forum neutrality; and consensus-based decision making.

In Praise of Patient Opinion: A way to collaborative health services

Patient Opinion is a site for anyone to register their stories and experiences about the NHS which are then sent to the relevant person/department. The idea is that patients and carers know what the service was like and for them to come up with ideas about how it could be better. Patient Opinion was founded by Paul Hodgkin, a GP who wanted to find a way to make the wisdom of patients available to the NHS. The story of its development can be read here.

The site has examples of how this has brought about change to services which can be seen here

The service has since looked at how to involve politicians and are now offering a free email alerting service to all Westminster MPs, so they can be automatically alerted to what their constituents are saying about local health services and post a response if they want.

This is another good example of involving citizens (and service users/owners) in the development of health services however is not the only site which seeks to achieve these aims. More sites can be seen here. The move to involve citizens in public services is gaining pace although there is little in the mainstream about these services, they are there when looked for. The challenge and end game is to be able to co-create services, government and citizens, which this site does not do. This is where we need some political leadership.

In Praise of MyPolice: A way to collaboration in police services

Moving to collaborative services is ongoing and many would say an inevitability. Creating collaboration and partnership between citizens and government agencies is not however the easiest thing to do. It is important therefore to recognize when and where this is taking place so that we are able to learn from it.

MyPolice is an idea which has been developed with the help of the Social Innovation Camp which aims to bring ideas, people and digital tools together to build web-based solutions to social problems.

MyPolice allows people to log in and register a comment, ideas and feedback about the local area and policing. They say

MyPolice is an online feedback tool that enables the public and the police to have a conversation.  It fosters constructive, collaborative communication between people and the Police forces which serve them.  MyPolice helps communities identify weaknesses and opportunities in Police services.

In providing analysis and data for the Police to act on, MyPolice challenges policy decisions that are made and ensuring that service users have an active part in changing the Police for the better. You can give your opinion at a time when you feel strongly about an encounter with the Police and feel that the service offered by the Police could be improved. It’s the place where you can see how your thoughts translate directly into action.

For someone who believes that public services need to change and that the involvement of citizens in the services they essentially own is essential, then this is an excellent example of a simple tool which will enable greater service user involvement.

Recently an article was written about MyPolice for the Political Innovation site which you can read here.

In Praise of Citizens’ Contracts: A way to collaborative governance

Having written about moving to collaborative governance and the new movement in public service/administration, I have been looking at how this could be achieved. The RSA has a Citizen Power programme which has come up with some good ideas in how to achieve this. Part of their programme advocates for a Citizen’s Contract.

The Citizen’s Contract aims to be a symbolic and formal agreement holding public services, community and third sector organisations and citizens all to account for improving the civic health and outcomes in their area.

The Citizen’s Contract consists of strong citizen rights and responsibilities. Where the Citizen rights include the rights to:

  • influence so people have more power over local and national decision-making
  • community ownership so local people have an economic stake in the future of where they live
  • resourcefulness so people have the networks of support they need to be independent
  • transparency of public information so people can hold public authorities more effectively to account
  • resillience so individuals and communities can overcome personal and local challenges
  • creative individual and collective self-expression

And the citizen responsibilities would be to:

  • commit a certain proportion of their time to community and voluntary work
  • participate in public decision-making
  • support the most vulnerable in society
  • protect the environment
  • cultivate civic health and well-being
  • and be more independent

The Citizen’s Contract is based on the innovative thinking being developed around rights and responsibilities in public services. The benefits of a place-based Citizen’s Contract are that they have the potential to improve levels of citizen participation in community life and local public service performance.

There is a need to move power from government to the people for a number of reasons that Lib Dem supporters will be well aware of. However, it is the specifics which now need to be outlined in how to achieve this and what the benefit will be. Citizen Contracts are a step in the right direction and are being tried in Peterborough. We should praise this initiative and see it as a step to the future of collaborative governance, collaborative public services and strong local communities.

In Praise of PledgeBanking: A way to engage citizens in improving their communities

PledgeBanking is something designed to help people get things done. It is based on the premise that a lot of good things don’t happen because there aren’t enough organised people to do them. So PledgeBanking allows people to set up pledges and then encourages other people to sign up to them. A pledge is a statement of the form ‘I will do something, if a certain number of people will help me do it’. The creator of the pledge then publicises their pledge and encourages people to sign up. Examples have been such things as

‘I will start recycling if 100 people in my town will do the same’; ‘I will organise my child’s school play if 3 other parents will help’; ‘I will build a useful website if 1000 people promise to contribute to it’

You can start a pledge for almost anything you like (as long as it is not illegal) and see if you can get others to commit to it. Tony Blair started a pledge himself, to become patron of a community sports club if 100 notable figures will do the same, which succeeded.

I have written about the ongoing movement in public services, local government and public administration towards a collaborative model where citizens and government are partners in service development and delivery. There is no one specific way to achieve this but PledgeBanking is another example of how this is ongoing. Engaging citizens in local decision making, service development and delivery as well as additional civic action to improve the area they live in.

Visit the website at

Local Lib Dems move closer to collaboration

I have been charting a new movement in politics. One of collaboration and partnership between government and citizen. Some of these projects are the other side of the world, some are large scale projects, but a look on today’s LibDemBlogs sees a couple which caught my eye.

Fraser Macpherson attended a Community Spirit meeting and the Cambridge Ward Lib Dems have a meeting with the police in a ‘Have Your Say‘ session. Both good examples of attempts at opening up public services and governance.

This movement needs good local leadership. It needs local politicians who will take power from Whitehall, show them a way to improve the system, give them reason to devolve more power down to local leaders to collaborate with citizens. It is good to see some Lib Dems taking a lead.


Further Evidence of a Need to Change the Status Quo in Public Administration

The New Synthesis project

is an international partnership of institutions and individuals who are dedicated to advancing the study and practice of public administration. While they hail from different countries, different political systems and different historical, economic and cultural contexts, all share the view that public administration as a practice and discipline is not yet aligned with the challenges of serving the public good in the 21st century.

Through their research they have found that to form more effective governance requires an engaged citizenship which will benefit citizens, stakeholders, and public servants alike.

They have been looking at an Integrated Service Delivery, which is a collaboration between citizen, other social players (such as the third sector) and government and its agencies to improve services for individual citizens. They believe that community engagement activity is key which can take the form of partnerships, consultations and contracts. They believe that corporations can support community engagement through administrative structures and processes and through training opportunities and learning tools.

The movement in public management towards Integrated Public Governance and the anticipated increase in the delivery of government services by private and third sector organizations point to the need for collaborative community engagement.


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