I have spent the last three years running an events company I co-founded. In the day I work on business development; and in the evening I’m actually running events. Most of the time I am too busy, or at least feel too busy, to get involved with the local Liberal Democrats or campaigning.
The week leading up to the EU Referendum was the first time I got a chance to go out and get involved with the LibDems. Quelle surprise, the uncertainty of referendums and elections is bad for events, so I had plenty of free time. And I was so glad I did get involved when I got the chance. I spent an afternoon leafleting in my local area, and then spent polling day in Essex to get out the vote.
This week I was able to go to my local party (Tower Hamlets) meeting. Austin Rathe, the former head of Members and Supporters at LibDem HQ, came along and opened the meeting with the importance of growing membership and getting those members involved. He reflected on the need to share the workload, and to expand the team outwards. The temptation to keep a close, small team should be resisted. An extra two people on the team can mean an extra hundred leaflets delivered or doors knocked.
Not everyone who joins the Liberal Democrats will have the inclination, or more relevant to this post, the time to campaign vigorously. So what can be done to get and keep those members engaged and doing what they can? There is always something that can be done.
A great place to start is through having an active social media presence. More than just a page for your branch, you should set up a Facebook group so your members can talk to each other. Long before I had the chance to actually do anything, I was busy in LibDem Facebook groups debating and talking to people at 1AM in the morning. That made me feel connected and engaged with the party, more so than I otherwise would have been.
Anecdotally, polls seem to be a great way to get engagement from people who might otherwise not engage at all. In the early stages, making people feel like their voice is heard without requiring too much effort is a good enough place to start.
I’ll confess that I get nervous before I show up to a new place to meet new people, especially if those places are somewhere like LibDem HQ! Knowing someone in advance, even if it’s just through a couple of messages on Facebook, can go some way to removing some of this anxiety, making people more likely to show up in the first place! Someone on the door to greet arrivals can help quickly solidify these friendships, and hopefully making people coming back more likely.
Once that engagement has started to build, people will want to feel like they have some responsibilities – like they are actually contributing. Sometimes you’ll need to remind your members that debating online isn’t enough, because unless we talk to voters and get them to vote for us, we’re not going to achieve anything! Your time-poor members might not be on the door-step after work or every Saturday afternoon, but there is still plenty they can do to help. A poster in the window, or encouraging them to talk to their neighbours or colleagues in passing about LibDem key issues is something almost everyone can do.
There are other, more physical things, members can do at awkward times as well. Stuffing envelopes, printing maps, or reviewing literature, for example – these tasks are important but not always urgent. Someone can work on these things when they get in from work, or (in my case) in the morning before I head to work! Similarly, once they’ve been trained up, members can make phone calls from home when suits them (and within reasonable time windows for who they might be calling).
You’re probably not going to have a total newbie take over your social events planning or fundraising activities. But once you’ve gotten to know people suitably, this is definitely the sort of thing people can do who might not have a lot of time otherwise. Having this as a potential role for new members – giving them a sense that they can really help out – can go a long way to keeping them engaged. I work in events, so I know that an email to a potential venue can be sent at any time of night, as can scoping out different activities.
A sense of responsibility is important because you need to make sure members feel like being engaged is worth their time. This means worth their time for the sake of the party, and for themselves. Your busy members will have competing priorities – their career, the rest of their social life. They have to want to get involved and to feel like the cost for them doing so isn’t disproportionate.
What does every hour of campaigning or other tasks really deliver? Results aren’t always apparent, and you won’t be able to give the perfect answer. But something is better than nothing. What skills are your members going to learn? Can you offer them training opportunities that will be relevant to their futures? What skills of theirs already exist that you can work with and build on?
Flexibility is really important and social media can go along way towards this. I cannot praise the scheduling tool, Doodle, enough. Give people a bunch of options for what dates work for them and work around that. There are, of course, ceilings to how useful this might be. Using a Doodle for a local party with a thousand members is quite a different beast to using a Doodle for a smaller group of active members! The key thing isn’t what tool you use, but making sure that the local party is flexible for its members. Not everybody works 9-5 in an office, and we need to be conscious to that.
Maybe you’ll need to run multiple socials. Socials won’t change the world or get out your vote but can do a lot to build your team. Who can say no to pizza and politics?! Keeping your events accessible and culturally sensitive is important also. Remember, not everyone drinks! This should influence your choice of venue and description.
Politics is about people. The more you build on those interpersonal bonds, the more your party and your members will get out of it all. People don’t want to let down people they care about; and people usually want to go and see their friends. If engaging with voters is just the activity you do with your friends, then that’s a great by-product for the LibDems!
The ideas I’ve listed above have been really basic and we’d love to hear from you.
What has worked for your local party? What made you engage with your local party?
Originally posted 8 July 2016.