In a previous post I said I wouldn’t be shy about my own opinions on where we can improve, and I want to start straight away with the thorny issue of ‘targeting’, because it is such an important one for us to address as a party (and as individuals). This post is with particular reference to Wales, obviously, and what has happened here in the recent election, but the same issue applies within that party across the UK. Now I fully understand the need to target our resources most in the places where we have a realistic chance of winning – there simply aren’t the resources (people, time and money) to ‘target’ everywhere, and we can’t afford to put too much effort into places where we have no chance at the expense of not putting enough effort into places we can win (especially in the period leading up to an election).
This applies equally to Westminster seats, Assembly constituency seats, and council wards. However, this election result in Wales highlights the problem we have with ‘over-targeting’, especially when it comes to having enough ‘background support’ in those non-targeted specific areas to enable us to gain or hold Regional seats. To put it another way, ‘where we work we (might) win’, but where we don’t work we completely disappear, and we can’t afford to be doing that, especially in the context of no longer having the media coverage that we once did (and let’s face it - we were never exactly the most prominent party in the media!). We can’t control the media, of course, but we can control our own ‘on the ground’ strategy.
What we have, I think, to get away from is the impression that ‘target’ means ‘we do all our work there’, whether that be locally or on a Wales-wide (or even UK-wide) basis. The result of such a concept is an inevitable downward spiral – the strongest places at best carry on being strongest, while the weaker places increasingly become black holes where we don’t exist (and everyone living there knows it, and isn’t going to vote for a party that isn’t there). In council ward terms, ‘strongest’ and ‘target’ may sometimes, as its worst, really mean little more than ‘has an individual activist living there and working it’ (although hopefully there’s some additional history of success, or potential for success, obviously) – the danger is that that activist might leave, move or die, and then that ward can easily become yet another little black hole. Even in constituency terms, even where there are stronger local parties those can become weaker over time (for one reason or another, but especially following an electoral defeat, and we have plenty of those to contend with at the moment), as all the other ones around them continue to be black holes. That path is a long slog to eventual doom for the party, as we end up with less and less targets, and more and more black holes where we have no current (or perhaps even historic) data, no activists, no activity, and no prospect of ever getting any (because we don’t exist to find, attract or encourage them – any potential prospects are unlikely to consider becoming active in a party that effectively doesn’t exist at all where they live, and the few self-starters that do aren’t going to be enough for us to rebuild, and aren’t going to stick around long if they are met with an attitude of virtually zero support).
So what’s the answer? Well, I think we have to increasingly consider ‘target’ of course meaning ‘where we put in most resources and work hardest’, but non-target NOT meaning ‘where we put no resources in and don’t work at all’. Yes, that does have to mean using our limited resources where we have no immediate prospect of winning so that we start to build up a long term investment in getting data, finding potential supporters, finding potential members and activists, and so on. That’s something I think we have to do as local parties, as individual activists, and within the broader party. We all have to consider that, as much as we need to work our own patch, we also have a duty to do a little something elsewhere from time to time – as well as (especially at election time) heading off to help a target area, it also has to mean those stronger target areas (especially outside of election times) doing a little something elsewhere to help the party build and spread its support too.
Sacrilege, I know, to suggest directing resources from probable ‘target’ areas into areas where we might never have much hope of winning, and where currently have no apparent or known support, but I think we need to do it. Targeting resources less ‘closely’, not more ‘closely’, in a sense, but only very slightly – certainly not abandoning the idea of ‘targeting’, but merely modifying the way we have been tending to apply it to that we are always ‘outward looking’ too. Building up that background of data and potential support in other areas might be a long and often fairly fruitless-seeming road, but it will work to benefit everyone in the long run. The more we do it, the more possibility we have of gaining Regional seats, of course. Beyond that, though, the more it allows us to identify people who will not only support us but come and help us out, and the more it allows us to better identify possible future target areas where there might be pockets of latent or potential support that we currently don’t really know exist (because they perhaps haven’t had a self-starting, self-supporting activist living in them for a while, if ever, and so we currently tend not to set foot in them at all).
What am I talking about doing to address that, then? Well, I’ll give a couple of examples. Firstly, in the wider Wales terms, where we have relatively strong constituencies we should not only direct people from elsewhere to help them out a bit at election time, but encourage them to go and help out in weaker areas at other times. Not giving up on working their own area, of course, but simply considering doing a few bits and pieces elsewhere to help other local parties grow. Not for hours on end, and not every week, and not at the exclusion of what they need to do themselves, but just to help build up a little data in what is currently a ‘black hole’ for the long term good of the party in general, and for their own best interests in perhaps finding someone who can pop back over the border onto their side and help out come election time. It helps everyone, even if there is no local activist initially able to come along and join them. Yes, I know all too well that it’s hard enough to find people willing to do what needs to be done in those stronger areas, but we can’t let that stop us from just doing that tiny extra bit each time to broaden our message.
There are a few practical details to work out in terms of Connect access to neighbouring constituencies and the like, but we can work those out as a party, I’m sure - the beauty of Connect (compared with a more locally-based system) is that one group can easily do work and enter data that another group can pick up and use. There are also ‘local issues’ issues, of course, but a little communication and coordination, along with some good generation of generic scripts to use anywhere (as an aside, I think we need to look at improving some of our general-use Connect scripts anyway), should mean that we can overcome that kind of thing without too much difficulty.
The same goes within local parties and constituencies. In one constituency locally, for example, we currently have 2 main ‘target’ wards that we have been working for a while (not enough, but that’s where we are with local resources, unfortunately, and I know we’re not alone in that in Wales) – what we have been discussing as a potential way forward is a 3 week rotation of canvassing sessions (with the people working both wards working together for greater safety and efficiency) - week 1 in ward 1, week 2 in ward 2, but week 3 in ‘A. N. Other’ ward within the constituency, moving from ward to ward each rotation. What that will mean is we are in each target ward once every 3 weeks (there are very limited resources locally, and people have lives to do this around, of course, but we’re talking about trying to do at least an hour or so each week), but we are also appearing occasionally in all of the other wards across the constituency too. That way people elsewhere will know we exist (word does get around, even if you only do a few streets each time), and we will be building up a little more data each time – by the end of a year, as well as covering our target wards well, we would have a little bit of data from a few streets in every ward. Not a big deal initially, but it all helps us identify possible future targets to work, and over the years can build us to a place where when it comes to a ‘bigger’ election we have a bit more of a spread of reasonably up-to-date data for targeting mailing, identifying extra target areas to re-canvass, and so on (as well as identifying potential new members, obviously). It’s a little thing, and it’s not going to win us extra seats overnight, but it all helps put us into a situation where we are (little by little) spreading our wings rather than retreating into our ‘fortress’ on the assumption that it’s the only place ‘winnable’ or where we have decent numbers of potential votes.
It also, of course, means that our opponents don’t have the luxury of so easily knowing where they don’t have to bother doing anything at all themselves to oppose us – it makes their ‘targeting’ strategy that little bit more difficult, which is always a good thing for us. This all applies equally to those who have won their own election – being a ‘councillor’ in one area means that you have to concentrate on that area and keep working that area, and that you shouldn’t try to be a ‘councillor’ for other places, but it doesn’t mean that you should entirely cease to be a ‘party activist’ doing some bits and pieces elsewhere to help out when you can. Getting a bit of data spread out across non-target areas also, of course, begins to give you a level of background ‘control data’, and that can be extremely useful when it comes to assessing how successful you are really being in the areas where you are working hard and running campaigns.
Then there are the ‘Action Days’ that various people and party organisations organise and attend and travel to from time to time. Yes, it’s fantastic to have an ‘Action Day’ in a generally targeted seat, but we also have to consider that said seat is always going to be one of the places where we have local activists, lots of data, lots of visible evidence of activity, and so on (relatively speaking – I’m not suggesting that they are brimming over with spare resources or anything, obviously). How about the party trying to help and encourage the organisation of some ‘Action Days’ in some ‘black holes’? Not a place we’re in immediate danger of winning, nor where we have lots of activists (perhaps even somewhere where there might not really be the resources to even organise an Action Day event for themselves), and so on, but a place where a single day of work in the right spot could probably make a huge percentage difference in the amount of current data that they have to work with (and having data means spreading the word, attracting people, identifying possible members, and so on).
The big danger of ‘thinking locally’ is that it can start to become ‘parochial’, and I fear that as a party we are teetering far too close to the brink of that for much of the time. I’m sure some of us are doing some of this some of the time anyway, but as a party organisation as a whole I think we are tending far too much to think about ‘looking after our own patch’ (or ‘the target’) and not thinking enough about the wider picture of background party support across the country – an attitude (perhaps subconscious, perhaps sometimes not) of ‘I’m working this bit and to hell with the rest – it’s not my problem’ (and even ‘you should go and help them in the target place, because you’ve got no hope, so there’s no point in bothering at all where you are’ – apart from anything else, that’s hardly an encouraging thing for people working hard to be told, even though they are almost certainly realistic about their own chances of sweeping success!). Indeed, I would suggest that the way we have sometimes organised ourselves and our targeting of resources as a party has unwittingly encouraged that attitude – the ‘Dragon’s Den’ and ‘Wheelhouse’ kind of approach, for example, of ‘prove you have the resources and potential to win before we’ll give you any help and resources’. I’m not criticising anybody for that at all – it’s quite understandable, and possibly a potentially effective approach for the short-term goal of winning seats (even though it hasn’t really succeeded in that recently), but we are now very firmly in a position where I think we have to think much harder about the long term future of the party, and trying collectively to better nurture, encourage and develop those other neglected areas instead of leaving them to fend for themselves (even if we’re never going to win constituency, or even council, seats there). If we continue down the road of only supporting those places who are best supporting themselves at the moment, we are thinking about the whole problem of overall support backwards, and slowly hammering nails in our own coffin as a ‘national party’ who can ever be more than a few scattered ‘Independents’ fighting under the same banner.
These issues also extend into the realms of local party and activist finances. I’m acutely aware, of course, of how financially limited we are going to be in the coming years both as the Welsh and UK parties. We need to use what money we have wisely, but that doesn’t mean always pushing it in the same direction – quite the opposite, in some ways. In human terms, in effect what we have all too often been doing is the equivalent of saying to an activist who wants to start delivering leaflets, and has come to us because they need help with design and can’t afford the printing, is that in order to get our help they have to show that they have already delivered a certain number of leaflets (even though we know that they haven’t, because they can’t design or afford them). That is neither encouraging to them, nor is it helpful to the party cause.
The kind of attitude has been happening in effect over local party membership, too – we have been rewarding success with extra money, which doesn’t seem like a bad thing in itself (and has been very successful). However, at the same time we have unconsciously also been effectively punishing those who need the most help, especially in the case of when they are really struggling. Local parties who drop below certain membership levels, where they have the least resources to go out and recruit new members, have what little payment from membership dues they are due stopped, and start getting threatening letters because ‘compliance’. That is wrong, extremely unhelpful, and we have to stop it.
To put it in terms that every Liberal should understand, we are treating those local parties with the hardest jobs and the least resources to improve their situations as the ‘undeserving poor’ – instead of helping them, we are ignoring them at best, and at worst actually punishing them. When local parties are struggling with membership and activity levels, instead of treating them like it is ‘their own fault’ (and it usually isn’t the fault of those dedicated few who are doing their best to keep the party alive in their area despite everything) we need to be giving them real, practical help. We need to be providing them with the opportunity they need in order to improve their situation. Yes, that means money, though a relatively tiny amount in ‘target seat’ terms goes a long way in a ‘black hole seat’ finances, but it also means helping them more practically. It’s not just about training them (though training is helpful and important) – no amount of training will create new activist resources and new members from nowhere. We need to be talking to their neighbours, especially those with much bigger resources, to get them to rally round and physically help out with some canvassing sessions and so on, and if not finding new members for them at least getting them some data that they can begin to use to find prospective future members to begin to work on. We talk often about ‘opportunity for all’ in society, but in our own party we all too often seem to abandon and punish those who need our help the most, and we have to do better. It is in the interests of the party as a whole, as well as being right to support that small band of dedicated individuals who are struggling in the face of the biggest disadvantages.
The issue of the wider, ‘non-target’, ‘background’ support level really matters for the long term future of the party, and we have to remember that the only way we can improve it is to get out there and knock doors – we can’t assume that anybody who might be interested in us is just going to come to us by any other path. We have to go out and find them, and that means spending a little time looking in the places where we haven’t really been looking very much at all in recent years (and that includes where there perhaps isn’t the realistic capacity in the local party to do it themselves on their own). It’s understandable why we have been doing what we have been doing the way we have been doing it, but we need to realise that we have to do things differently in the coming years if we are going to save ourselves from an ever increasing process of retreat and rear-guard action, and a gradual but terminal decline as a nationwide political ‘force’.
One final word on this, though I’m sure that most people in the party will be well aware of this particular issue. The issue of tunnel-visioned ‘over targeting’ and not stepping outside our ‘target’ applies to time as much, if not more so, than it applies to place. Having just had an election, it is no use at all anybody in our ranks thinking ‘well that’s it ‘til next year’. Doing a little and often through the year is far, far more effective in every way than just turning up for a few weeks at election time, no matter how much effort you put in then. We all put extra effort in then, and rightly so, but just as with the location targeting we can’t afford to ever allow ourselves to think about inevitably ‘targeting’ that period at all meaning that we don’t do anything the rest of the time. I know most of us in this party know that very well, but I think it’s still worth repeating, especially with reference to the subject of this post – there is something of a common element of becoming blinkered in looking at our necessary ‘targets’ of time and place, and not really seeing what still has to be happening beyond them.
I guess this might all sound a little like I'm knocking the party or being pessimistic about the future - far from it. I think that, despite a few setbacks, we have been doing quite a good job in some very difficult circumstances of late, and I'm sure that we can continue to build on that and create a very bright future for ourselves as a strong Liberal voice for Wales and the UK. I just think we need to start to realise where we haven't quite done what we need to do, and think about a few things in a slightly different way from the way we have been thinking about them in recent times, in order to do that as well as we can.