As a bird and dragonfly watcher, I’m familiar with distribution maps of declining species. Some recede like the tide going out, disappearing from the more far-flung areas till the species makes a stand in its heartland, where it will die out or survive or revive. Other once widespread species hold on in various widely-distributed strongholds, but disappear from the areas in between till the distribution map becomes extremely patchy and each surviving population is isolated. Without human intervention or new immigration, this almost inevitably leads to extinction.
The first situation resembles the decline of the Liberal Party from the 1930s to the early 1950s. The second resembles the decline of the Liberal Democrats in the 21st century.
Like many Liberal Democrat Expand supporters, I’ve been worried for some time about the increasing number of local seats not fought, about local parties struggling on the brink while efforts go into the nearest parliamentary target seat and about the spreading of areas where there is virtually no activity. These trends started when we were still making gains at Westminster. I should stress that I’m not talking about efforts to convert quite strong seats or wards into very strong ones, a decent second into winning. That continued quite successfully until after 2010; but what was lacking was a progression from weak to middling to quite strong.
During the last Parliament, I accepted that the next general election would be extremely tough (I underestimated how tough) and that this meant a ruthless Parliamentary target strategy. I hoped as soon as that election was over, the Party would reassess its priorities and give a far higher priority to rescuing or reviving weak areas. Soon after a general election, well before the next, was obviously the right time for this.
As far as I’m aware it hasn’t happened. Instead we’ve been rescued by a surge of new members, many prepared to be activists, flooding in after the general election, continuing since and surging again after the EU referendum. Local parties like mine which might have been heading for extinction are instead growing stronger. But I don’t think that’s happened everywhere. To engage new members needs skill and commitment. The default attitude of stumbling on in familiar courses with familiar people until they die is far too common and demotivates keen newcomers.
At Federal and state party level, targeting could be reviewed and redefined. But most of the action needs to be planned much more locally. Someone at HQ sending a questionnaire out is unlikely to get a good picture of where local parties need help – and a clear picture of that is what we need if we’re to avoid struggling local parties going under and dead areas remaining dead.
So shouldn’t something like that be organised at regional or county/city level? As far as I can see, from experience in Essex and East of England, regions spend most of their time debating policy, organising training for whoever turns up and overseeing things like parliamentary candidate selection. County co-ordinating committees concentrate almost entirely on making arrangements for the next county council (or, just, PCC elections) things like the EU referendum and again, widely-available training. All good stuff. But I suggest they should be taking stock of areas (however defined) where Liberal Democrat activity is minimal or threatened. When they’ve got the picture, they could think about what help such areas might need and try to provide it, perhaps with help from higher levels.
The exercise would vary a lot from region to region. In the East of England and the South, the moribund areas would be few and small, generally less than a parliamentary constituency, and the weak local parties would be fewer than in the North or London.
At county or even at regional level there’d be knowledge already about weak or endangered areas, but some perceptions could be wrong or vague. So I think a simple questionnaire would be helpful. That would allow a local party Chair, hopefully after discussion with the Exec, to point out that a number of keen new members had recently come through and were being encouraged – or that a local party that looked middling strong from a distance was endangered by the ageing and declining health of six of the nine key activists. Fairly local officers receiving the questionnaires would have some chance of spotting fantasy or deception.
In the questionnaire? Numbers of members active at different levels from people travelling to by-elections to canvass, through to jumble sale helpers and Focus deliverers; likely state of local party or branch in five years (are new members coming in and are most of the key people likely to be still there); target, development, weak and dead areas such as wards; level and extent of Focus delivery; local campaigns (NOT elections) executed; a couple of other things and a comments space. Most would be done electronically, of course. Local party officers generally know some of their regional or county equivalents and this wouldn’t be taken the way HQ exercises are.
What sort of help could be mobilised? Twinning with a strong local party; help from paid or honorary regional officers in devising a development strategy; targeted training; big efforts to shift some activists to help where one or two people were trying to get activity going in a dead area.
The idea needs a lot more thinking through, but what about this for a start?
Originally posted 23 August 2016.
Simon Banks is the Chair of North East Essex Liberal Democrats.