Why after a year of #libdempint, I won’t be renewing my membership
On May 18th last year, myself and a few friends hosted the inaugural #libdempint. What began as a pint for five people turned into an event of 200 with Nick Clegg as a surprise guest speaker.
The evening was inspiring. People from different walks of life came together on a warm, May evening to discuss politics. People who had never been politically involved before, came prepared with ideas. Armed with excitement.
Enthusiasm and optimism pumped through all of us.
The BBC were there. The FT were there. The Times were there. For a few hours, it felt like we were on the cusp of a better world — and that pub felt like the centre of it.
A year later, that enthusiasm and optimism has died.
I’ve been mulling over what I think went wrong for months now, and it’s broadly come down to two things.
1) The party has gone in the wrong direction
I never voted for Tim Farron. As someone who is on the libertarian side of the party (and there are a few of us), I knew I never would like everything he did. But the outcome has been so much worse than I expected.
We have become a party that complains and doesn’t offer alternatives. A party of protest and anger. A party that is depressingly lightweight.
I’ve agreed with the Lib Dems on drugs and migrants in the past twelve months, but little else.
We have no genuine philosophy, but instead pick and choose stances on things as and when issues arise. For anyone who has seen the inner workings of a political party, this shouldn’t surprise you. Power is more important than ideology, and compromise is the price of entrance.
We had the opportunity to do this differently. The 200 people I met last May did not join a party to compromise beliefs or feel indifferent to meek ideas. It may go some way in explaining why we don’t ever see those newbies anymore.
I truly believe that the majority of this country are liberal — on both economic and social ideas. We could have been the party that made a five year land grab to become their de facto party.
But we haven’t. I couldn’t even tell you what we have become a party of. Except it hasn’t made a dent in our positions in the polls.
Tim Farron led his campaign on us — the members, the grassroots.
It was a brilliant campaigning tactic and certainly one which won him the leadership. But it won’t ever win us elections.
The views of the grassroots are inherently views of people obsessive about politics. People who spend their evenings and weekends knocking on doors for another local council byelection. People who spend their lives with political friends at political events. People who are inherently unlike the public.
Focusing a strategy around that group of people will win support of its members, but that’s where it ends. We needed leadership and we’ve not found it.
At least that’s how it feels as a newbie, which leads us on to our second point.
2) The treatment of new members
Despite the grassroots love-in. Despite the rallying calls that “we decide our own manifesto — us, the members!” Despite the open arms, the party wants one thing from its new members.
The party wants new members to knock on doors and deliver leaflets.
They don’t want a party of new ideas or new strategies. They don’t want alternative views or radical ideology. They want people who get in line and they want people they can get something from. And they want a mouthpiece and free promotion.
Every time at #libdempint, we get asked to push or promote someone’s agenda. Despite their open arms, it has felt like the establishment has tried to mould us into what they want. And when we pushed back, it tried to work out how we could help them get the attendees out knocking on doors. The Party don’t see new people, they see door knockers.
Throughout the course of #libdempint, people have brought up the idea of fundraising. “Fundraising,” I once exclaimed, “so we could make this an even bigger event?” No, they said — of course I should have realised — fundraising for the party.
Parties — especially the Lib Dems — complain about lack of money. But money is not the only necessary thing. Norman Lamb spoke about the idea of running the Lib Dems like a startup.
As a group of people who have worked in or with startups, the #libdempint organisers welcomed that idea with open arms. The past twelve months has been like watching a soon to be extinct brand in the dusk before its final defeat. The record store before the arrival of Napster. The concert hall before the record. The black cab industry before Uber.
Do you know what disruptive companies do? They provide a service that improves the lives of their customers so much that it seems implausible that the old thing ever worked.
The Lib Dems are now archaic. Their policy positions, their campaigning, their strategy consigned to an older time.
No other party is doing better on the campaigning front, it should be said. No party is acting like a startup. No party is acting differently or with big ideas.
But for a short period of time, it sure felt like we could be.
It felt like we might be a party that would do what was right.
It felt like we might be able to find whatever it was that brought together 200 people on one day in May and scale it. Because if we could find that, we would be on the road to victory.
But whatever it was, it sure wasn’t this and we’ve lost it now.
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Disclaimer: there have been a few people involved in #libdempint since the start, and this by no means attempts to speak for them — only myself.
In fact, I would love to hear what the other organisers have made of their first year. Over to you guys…