Following on from my previous post about the issues we Lib Dems have inadvertently created for ourselves through previous targeting strategies, I wanted to throw in a few suggestions about practical things we could be looking at as a party (as opposed to local strategies that our local parties can employ to improve things, though we need to look at the specifics of them too). I think it's important to reiterate that this isn't about criticising the past, or indeed about 'having a whinge' post-election when it hasn't gone well for us (and in Wales it clearly hasn't, though I think the issue is a more general one that doesn't stop at our border, despite some apparent relative success in recent council elections - we need to be careful that such success isn't 'masking the truth' about where we really are). Indeed, I certainly don't claim any great wisdom of foresight that would have meant that I would have done anything differently - I think we can probably all now identify things that haven't worked out quite as we hoped or anticipated over the past couple of years in particular, but hindsight is obviously always 20/20.
Paddy's hat moment has to give us pause for thought about where we have been going wrong as a party, and it's clear that it has done. Having another set of important elections in Wales in particular has obviously, and probably rightly, been something of a distraction from that process. All of us, though, really have to start thinking about where we can do things better 'on the ground', and at all levels within the party - we can't just fall back on the easy excuse of blaming the former leadership of the party for their mistakes, and pretending that everything else is just tickety-boo. It isn't. The General Election result has not only been a significant blow in itself in all kinds of ways, but its effect robs us of the public exposure we used to try to rely on in those areas where we weren't getting to people directly.
The reason I brought up Lord Ashdown's millinery consumption habits specifically is an issue I think we need to be more aware of - the effect of polling and poll results on the perception of the electorate. The big mistake I think he made, and indeed I think we all made, was to assume too much about the lack of direct relevance of broader polling because of local factors and seat targeting. Obviously our 'national' polling is lower than our polling in particular seats we are targeting, as it is going to be for all parties, but we shouldn't therefore assume that the broader picture is meaningless - people do see and hear poll results, and it does have an effect on how they view the party. It has an effect on the way the media are reporting the party - if we are 'down in the polls', the questioning becomes all about 'but you're dead in the water, aren't you?', and that kind of constant questioning, inference and assertion from all sides isn't going to help to persuade the electorate that we are a realistic prospect worth them giving their vote to (even if they are in a 'target seat' and getting lots of stuff directly from us - don't underestimate the power of the 'well they would say that wouldn't they' factor). No amount of clever Lib Dem bar charting will actually overcome a strong feeling fostered through media bombardment, and everything said by everyone else, that we are a 'spent force' (especially when, through technology and social media, people increasingly discuss such issues personally across constituency boundaries, and with others who might not be in 'targets' and might not be getting our leaflets at all).
So, having again emphasised the importance of building up our previously less targeted (and worse) areas, how do we begin to address that? Well before going any further I should again say that I fully recognise the financial issues that the party now has, and indeed the staffing issues, and so on. I know this isn't going to be easy, but I think we still have to try to begin the process of doing what we can by identifying some practical steps we can take (and then, perhaps, trying to raise funds specifically for individual parts of the 'project').
The first thing we need to do is identify where the problem areas are. In Wales we've just lost a bunch of deposits, but that's not necessarily the whole picture of which local parties need our help most. I think party membership is quite a good factor to use as a guide - not only are the smallest local parties the ones with the least resources and least activists, but because of the relative lack of local activity (and the implications of that for recruitment) I suspect they are also very likely to be the ones with the most ageing groups and the least percentage of members who are actually 'active' in the sense of being able to go our delivering, door knocking, and so on. Of course, some former local branches have combined due to falling membership in the past, and cover more than one constituency - that makes it even harder for them. So, without specifying a particular number (or indeed ever revealing it, since there may be implications that lead people to think that shedding, or not growing, membership would be advantageous to their local party, which would be a very bad thing indeed!), I think one important factor to look at is the number of local party members per constituency covered (it might not be the only factor, but it's a good place to start). I think we could broadly define local parties as 'low activity', 'medium activity' and 'high activity', with obviously the first of those being the one most in need of help from outside to begin to build them up. Again, this is about giving local parties practical help to allow them the opportunity to improve things over time, not about punishing them as 'the undeserving poor', or about 'taking them over from on high', or even about 'solving all their problems for them'. It's about the good Liberal principle of 'opportunity'.
Those practical things we should do, then (a few examples - I'm sure others can come up with some more):
1. 'Out' leaflets. This might seem an odd place to start, but I think this could be a really useful thing in several ways. We could 'centrally' (in Wales - other places could do so 'nationally' or 'regionally') get printed some good quality 'out' (by which I obviously mean 'called to see you today' things given whether a door is answered or not) leaflets. These are really important items for getting the message across that a door has been knocked (rather than a leaflet delivered) that not everybody, especially in our 'Lower Activity' places necessarily uses all of the time. A big reason for that is simply one of resources - they may not have easy access to printing facilities, or the money for printing good quality leaflets (or any leaflets, for that matter!), or local leaflet design resources (and that's not always just a matter of 'training'), or in Wales there may even be the issue of translation (not having a Welsh speaker to do it, but knowing that people will react badly to English-only literature in some places). They might be fully aware of the usefulness of such things, but just not be in a position to have them - that may in itself be a discouragement for them to go out door knocking rather than just delivering, since they may feel that it's not having the impact that it could.
Also, one of the issues we have as a party is that we have tended to lose the essence of 'core beliefs' in our policy messaging - we know about this issue - we know that people don't know what we really 'stand for'. This is partly an inevitable result of 'electioneering' (I don't mean that in a negative way - I just mean fighting elections) over policy, but having a 'standard' 'out' leaflet that is intended to be non-localised and non-time (or election) specific is an opportunity to begin to address that gradually at the local level, form the ground up. What I am saying is that we should have a standard Welsh party 'Your local Liberal Democrats called to see you today' leaflet, with pictures of (and perhaps quotes from) Mark Williams (now the Welsh Lib Dem leader, of course, as well as being our sole MP), Tim Farron and Kirsty Williams (our only remaining AM, and also currently the most recognisable Lib Dem face in Wales). In that leaflet we should talk about 'ideology' rather than 'policy' - not in a dull, purist, off-putting way, but simply talking about the basics of what the party stands for (Rights and Equality, Opportunity, Localism, etc. - starting with 'The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard...' ) rather than setting out how we are currently proposing to achieve it through specific policies. Remember, non-time specific - there's a reason for that. It needs to be something that can be used next year as well as next week.
We order in a bulk load of decent quality printed leaflets, with a 'bulk buy' option for our 'High Activity' seats, and after initial distribution we keep a stock centrally (and once the stock runs out, we can review the design for any tweaking needed, and buy more in). Since the elected representatives of our current held seats for Westminster and Cardiff would be included anyway, there shouldn't be a need for them to be 'localised' further, although they will probably want to use something different at election times, which is fine - they should have the resources to print or buy something else for that. We should try to imprint these leaflets so that other local parties can still use them at election time if they need to. Having defined our levels of local party, we treat them slightly differently to help the most challenged of them. 'High Activity' seats can buy as many of them as they are likely to want/need in directly (they will need the most anyway, because they do the most door knocking). 'Medium activity' seats get the first 1,000 free, and then buy further supplies from the central store (at cost). The 'Low Activity' seats get 1,000 free, and once they have used them apply to the central store for another 1,000 - the central party supplying them free to those local parties that have the least ability to buy in their own, in order to invest in them keeping their activity levels increasing.
Of course, every local party can 'localise' their own version quite easily, in effect - by simply handing over an additional leaflet, Focus or insert along with it. That can be done at different levels by different levels of local party - a 'High Activity' party might have a whole A3 Focus to go with it, whereas a smaller party might include something like a black and white, one-sided, quarter page insert of a local activist, or potential future councillor, or some local party contact details, or a particular current local campaign - the kind of thing that could be produced at little cost (or expertise) at home on a home printer. It would be a rubbish thing to deliver on its own, clearly, but tucked in to a glossy party 'out' leaflet it would work perfectly well.
The reasoning behind this idea is fairly simple - obviously I am aware that this has a cost, but it is a cost that local parties don't have the resources to meet and the central (Welsh in Wales) party can more easily provide and source, because it has some fundraising opportunities at this kind of level that the 'Low Activity' local parties really don't (either by going to specific larger donors and saying 'we need £xxx for this, or by wider 'crowdsourcing'). The costs of it overall, in the grand scheme of what we do as a party, is actually relatively small, but the potential benefits are quite large. By giving these 'Low Activity' groups good quality literature to use when door knocking (and these aren't leaflets that can be just delivered, of course) we encourage them to do more door knocking and data collection to help themselves. We have occasionally done similar things in buying in a load of printed leaflets on specific issues and giving some to everyone for free, but if we direct that into encouraging and assisting with 'contacts' then that starts to encourage activity (especially outside of election periods, which is important). It also allows the party to keep in a small stock of 'out' leaflets that can be used anywhere, which could be really useful when it comes to organising Action Days centrally in low activity places - we're not then reliant on local parties producing suitable literature to use when they may not have the ability.
2. Phone Numbers (and VPBs). Many of these 'Low Activity' parties will these days be using Connect (and if they aren't, that's something else we really need to look at helping with and encouraging centrally!), and obviously one of the best ways to help them 'from afar' with building up a base level of data across their area, and especially if they have council by-elections and the like, is to set up Virtual Phone Banks for other volunteers elsewhere to call (a massive advantage of the system). At the moment, though, they may only have a few phone numbers in the system, mostly of people they already know (with perhaps a few gathered from central petitions and the like). Larger and more 'target' places will have bought in phone numbers in bulk, but there is no way that many smaller parties will have the resources to do that. It's a massively useful investment in allowing them to expand their knowledge and ultimately their membership and activity levels, but they simply can't afford it. We need to help with that - we need to find the money and buy them in for them so that they can use them. It's one of the biggest things the party could do to give them practical help.
I know that the party doesn't have deep pockets to just go and reach into for such a project, of course, but again it is something that they could try to raise specific money to do. They can do that in a way that the local parties themselves are unlikely to be able to do - they just don't have the local donors to do it. We often hear in training sessions (quite rightly) that it's a good thing to go to potential donors with a 'shopping list' of specific things they can donate for, and a long term investment in the overall health of Liberalism and the party through something like this seems to me something we could possibly use in that way. It needs to be a wider 'investment project' that people can be persuaded to contribute towards specifically. Obviously that is likely to take time, and isn't going to happen all at once, but every batch of phone numbers we can fund for those parties who have virtually none gives them a whole new avenue to use (and gives us a whole new avenue to use to help them from outside).
Of course, there are obviously implications of training, setting up virtual phone banks, and so on - those are the easy things to fix, relatively speaking. There's also the issue of organising some kind of central, ongoing 'out of election period' VPB that volunteers from busier areas can be encouraged to spend a few minutes helping out their colleagues with. Actually I think that could be quite successful if it's kept alive with reminders - there are people who will help out with 'remote canvassing' for specific by-elections, and I suspect some would be more than willing to do a little of this kind of thing when they have a bit of free time - of course, it also encourages people (including in 'Low activity' parties) into a habit of regular phone canvassing, and that all helps when it comes to election time, and directing that effort towards 'target seats' (remember, I'm not talking at all about not targeting winnable seats, just about helping other places too, especially outside election periods - building up activity and activists in other places could really help our target seats in the long run too).
4. Action Days. As I mentioned in my previous post, the local parties with the lowest activity will really struggle to organise Action Days in all kinds of ways - providing literature (see point 1 above!), contacting willing participants, organising lists, 'leading' the canvass sessions, and so on. We need to start a program of Action Days to kick-start local campaigning in areas where it isn't happening, or is barely happening. There is, I think, no better way to help and encourage people to start knocking more doors on their own (as a local party), especially out of election periods (which is really important), than coming along with a group that includes some experienced and knowledgeable campaigners that they can learn from, work alongside, and really get a proper feel of what they need to do and how they need to do it. Remember, these are often the people least likely to be willing and able to come to training sessions, but training sessions are no substitute for real experience anyway. Methods have changed a great deal over the years, I suspect, but I also suspect (and my suspicion has been confirmed by comments from someone who recently worked with such a party) that some of these 'Low Activity' parties have become isolated from that, and are simply not carrying out their doorstep canvassing in the most effective way. Again we have to be clear that that isn't their fault, and they should be helped to improve in such practical ways, not simply ignored, or blamed, or told to change from afar.
5. Regular Two-Way Contact. Following on from that previous point about canvassing approaches, part of the problem that we have is local parties that have become isolated and disconnected from the party as a whole, and from its central core. Localism is a great thing, but parochialism is very, very dangerous. We need to address this, and it won't happen by expecting them or telling them to just sort it out themselves - they won't - that's the point of where we are. We have to see it from their point of view - years and years of no help and being told to 'get on with it' that can easily become resented as 'management by cattle-prod' and/or 'not relevant to local situations' ('that's not how we do it here'). Of course we need to recognise the need to adapt things to local factors, and take the lead from those on the ground in that (to an extent - sometimes we might need to be a little more firm at first, until they realise that we really are on their side and trying to help them do the best they can), but the level of isolation that has developed has got to the point that anything coming from the wider party 'machine' (either 'Cardiff' or 'London') can often be rejected out of hand. The communication is all too often 'one way' - an email from HQ that goes pretty much straight into the 'Deleted Items' folder. Much of that rejection isn't entirely irrational and without justification, of course, because we have tended too much to consider what we are doing in terms of 'targets' and 'High activity' areas, and inadvertently assume that everyone else should just somehow catch up, so to speak (which they haven't and won't). We have to recognise that issue and begin to deal with it better and on a more consistent basis, and part of that is regular personal contact so that both 'sides' can actually begin to rebuild a level of understanding for each others' issues and difficulties.
There are several ways we can do this - a formal 'mentoring' scheme (Note: My spell-checker tried to change 'mentoring' to 'tormenting' - hopefully we can do the former rather than the latter!), having an experienced campaigner (and/or possibly CCC/NEC member) from outside turn up as a regular 'guest' to local party meetings, and so on - the point is that the communication has to be regular, friendly, helpful and mutual, rather than being 'from above'. We have to listen to what such parties are saying about their difficulties, not simply dictate to them how they can address them without helping them or hearing them. I know this issue hasn't developed in any kind of deliberate way from either 'side', and that people do have a willingness to communicate (and have tried in various ways to do so), but we need to understand that it is something we need to learn to deal with in a different way from what we have been doing, because with the best will in the world it hasn't worked. Again, I want to stress that I'm not trying to attribute 'blame' of any kind - I understand both that both 'sides' have had their own issues and difficulties to deal with - the point is that we all need to try to develop a better level of understanding for each other within different parts of the party.
6. Money. Obviously as tricky as it is obvious! 'Low Activity' local parties have no money to do things, and so can't do the things that they would need to in order to get more money. We have to turn that around somehow, to at least some extent, so that they can start on the road to become more financially able to look after themselves (and so that, for example, having to find election deposits for the several constituencies that they might cover doesn't simply mean local party bankruptcy or hoping that one of their local pensioners isn't too hard up this month to pay it for them - as a party we shouldn't be treating our members like that). Now obviously the obvious problem is that the wider party is also skint - I do fully understand that. The costs of doing it, though, compared with what we have to do as a party as a whole are relatively small. To put it in perspective, the cost of one glossy leaflet being printed for hand delivered by the volunteers of a high activity party could mean a few years of financial stability, with enhanced ability to do things (so that at the end of that few years they will be in a better place, with more members contributing), for a Low activity party. Again, this is something that the wider party has a far better opportunity to achieve as a fundraising project than those smaller parties will be able to do by themselves. Again, it is an 'investment project' in the long term future of the party - I'm not suggesting that the wider party takes on responsibility for ongoing fundraising efforts for those who don't do it for themselves, but simply that an initial boost is given to the funds of struggling smaller local parties to give them the realistic opportunity (alongside other measures) to improve their situation in the longer term. I do know that that isn't as simple as it sounds, and I am aware of the financial situation the party as a whole is likely to be in - that doesn't mean we shouldn't identify it as something that would be very useful and important to try to do when we can, though.
None of this is about suddenly winning seats we've never won before. That's not going to happen. It's about recognising that we are on a slow decline in many areas, with our 'Low Activity' areas gradually increasing and our ability to target even council wards gradually decreasing. It's only going to get worse if we do nothing to address it. It's not about solving that problem overnight, either. It is just about gradually turning that slow but steady decline into a slow but steady growth - not something that will win us lots of council seats next year, or lots of seats in parliament in a few years time, but just building a slow, steady, spreading movement in the right direction to improve the overall health of the party, and level of support for the party, over the years. Obviously it will take many years before seats with almost no activity will get to the point of having a good spread of canvass data across their area, an increasing local membership, and an increasing level of activity to the point where they can be mounting any kind of serious challenge to increase council seats and so on, but if we don't start addressing that long term need we will simply continue to watch the party as a whole go steadily downhill. That's not going to help us win seats even in those areas where we can and do mount a serious challenge - if we don't address the problem, we're going to ultimately end up with fewer and fewer of those, and with each having less and less of a realistic chance of success.