I am a new member of the Liberal Democrats, I joined a few months before the referendum when I realised that Labour were paying lip service to Europe and were effectively dead as a progressive force. My experience as a new member has been instructive to me – and extremely refreshing – to get such a warm welcome, whether that be at a local level, through various online fora etc., or from the national Party. I believe this is a huge strength of the Party, and an important (and easily overlooked) plank of a 650 seat strategy.
As a former Labour member in one of the safest of seats in the north of England, my experience of joining that Party at the age of 18 resembled more an obstacle course than joining a political movement. When I finally managed to make contact with the constituency secretary, I was told he had been deposed from that position because he was a member of the wrong Union. As a new member, I was viewed with suspicion from the outset, even getting to find out when local branch meetings took place took many months. Being allowed to become active, even at a local level, took considerably longer, as local government and parliamentary seats were handed down to relatives or members of the ‘right’ lodge of the controlling Trade Union.
Fast forward to 2016, to my experience of joining the Liberal Democrats in a different but similarly ‘safe’ Labour parliamentary seat in the north of England. The local Councillor contacted me early on, and encouraged me to get active. He talked through the issues the Local Party were taking on. I was warmly welcomed to local meetings. At a recent AGM I was asked if I wanted to be one of the branch officers –a minor position, but that isn’t the point. The point is that I felt welcome, I felt like the other people in the room wanted me to be involved.
In parallel with all of this, I was joining various Liberal Democrat social media networks. Two things struck me about this – the first was, again, that I was welcomed. The second was that where I disagreed with someone, I felt like I was having a respectful conversation with a fellow progressive, and not waiting for them to tell me to shut up because I was a Blairite / Tory (I’m neither, in case you wonder). I was also able to make a small contribution – phone calls from home – to the Witney and Richmond Park by-elections.
I know for certain that there are many people, in other parties and in none, that currently feel politically homeless. I also know, based on my own experience, that if they knew how welcoming and optimistic a process joining the Liberal Democrats is, that many would do so. I would hazard a guess that that may well be particularly true in pocket Boroughs like those that exist throughout the north of England. I also believe that many local communities are just as fed up with being taken for granted. Converting members into activists, and activists into candidates, is something that I truly believe we can do throughout the country – building a virtuous circle where we are able to represent liberal and progressive voices in every seat in the land.
Formerly a member of the Labour Party, Martin joined the Liberal Democrats in 2016, shortly before the referendum, after a period of political inactivity. Martin is active in his local branch – Northern Durham, where he is vice-chair. Martin’s political interests are Europe, wider foreign policy, housing, and social justice. Martin is on twitter @martinwalker721