Much has been said since 2015 of how the party needs to modernise, and the start-up analogy is one that gets thrown about quite often. This normally focuses on the idealised Facebook idea of start-ups – a technology-driven organisation that is nimble, grows quickly, and soon comes to dominate an area or industry. You can see why this would appeal to those of us who lived through the 2015 election.

What this idea misses is that successful start-ups (remember that the majority fail), like any other organisation, are driven to success through their culture and practices. I think the main ones we need to learn from are:

  1. Having a clear vision: Apple focuses on thinking differently and challenged the status quo in technology and the music industry (for those of you under 25, we had to buy music on things called CDs before we’d even listened to all the tracks); Uber wanted to make transport more accessible through technology and explore different ways of working; and Bumble wanted women to have a safer dating app where unsolicited pics weren’t the norm. All of these companies have a clear vision and a culture that drives towards that ideal. We finally have a document that sets out a vision for a liberal country (read this here), so what’s the vision for the party? For me it can only be that we are working to win a general election and govern alone. Otherwise why be in a political party instead of a pressure group?

  2. Psychological safety: Google spent millions on a project to understand why certain teams were high performing. Their work developed the concept of psychological safety (read more about this here) where team members have a safe space created – they are supported to take risks; people speak for broadly equal amounts of time and ideas are given equal weight. Leaders ensure these norms are reinforced, rather than always dominating themselves. As an easy example, think about your local party Executive meetings. If one or two people dominate the conversation, are they being challenged and other people invited to speak so that everyone is heard? Are there occasions where ideas are closed down without discussion or debate? Challenging this behaviour can be difficult, yet it’s essential for a healthy, high-performing team.

  3. Contact and communication: Many people have spoken about how the Liberal Democrats need to be more nimble and make faster decisions. What this misses is there’s a certain behaviour that underpins this. Start-ups – when they are true, at the beginning of their lives start-ups – tend to involve a very small number of people who eat, sleep and breath the work they are doing 24/7. The time commitment is not something that’s realistic for us, but the idea of being in almost constant contact and communicating often and clearly between the group driving most of your activity, is. During the General Election we utilised Slack in Tower Hamlets to co-ordinate our activities. It allowed smaller teams to break off and work on conversations, and meant we could collaborate and work around our other commitments, like the jobs that pay our rent/mortgages and bills! There are plenty of tools to enable this, what makes it work is a sense of urgency between the people working together. Staring down the tunnel of Brexit, with only 12 MPs and a local Government base in need of rebuilding, I’d like to think the need for urgency is clear.

  4. Transparency: This doesn’t mean that the world and his wife is involved in every decision made. Many businesses succeed only by making sure that they avoid “decision making by committee” syndrome. What you do need, is clarity and transparency around who is making decisions when and why those are the people taking the lead. This is difficult to do, and not something we’ve completely cracked in Tower Hamlets yet. A good example is Federal Conference Committee, who started publishing on Lib Dem Voice and other party forums the discussions they have in meetings about which motions get selected for conference, and their reasons for rejecting others. As members we may not like or agree with the conclusion they come to, but it’s no longer shrouded in mystery as it was when I first joined the party.

  5. Healthy arguing not unhealthy conflict: Disagreements will happen and that is ok. What isn’t ok is for disagreements to turn to poisonous grudges that undermine the vision and goals of what you’re doing. Sometimes, we all need to accept that we lost the argument this time; remember the bigger picture of what we’re trying to do; and just crack on. We’re currently having a healthy discussion in Tower Hamlets about what our overall message and strapline should be for the 2018 local elections. We debate because all want the best outcome – the one that’s going to get as many of us elected as possible. Beware of falling into “I’m going to disagree with this because X said it”.

  6. The long-term survivors make diversity a priority: If you’re only talking to a mirror, you’ll only create something your reflection wants – and it’s unlikely to cater for the vast majority of people. This doesn’t mean being tokenistic and expecting minority groups to fit into structures that were made for a particular group. It means root and branch reform of everything we do and how we do it. Pinterest is working hard to make sure it has structures and a culture that welcome people from all groups and enable people to succeed. They monitor and publicise what they’re doing, and flex when it’s not working. Here are some examples of what you can try:
    1. Run a “Be A Councillor” event for diverse groups – In East London we worked together across Tower Hamlets, Newham, Barking & Dagenham to run an event aimed at women encouraging them to stand for Council.
    2. Be flexible – one of the Executive Members in Tower Hamlets has two young children, so isn’t able to attend Exec meetings in person. Rather than letting this rule her out of taking part, we video call her into meetings (Skype and Google Hangout are good for this). As well as being able to take part in meetings, she’s been able to be a really active and valuable member of the team.
    3. Ask why – if you don’t have women or people from diverse groups in the room or at the event ask why, and come up with a list of things you can do to get them there next time. For example, when promoting events like our AGM in Tower Hamlets, we try to concentrate on phoning female members and members from other diverse groups. Whilst we don’t have all the information to make this 100% accurate, we give it a shot.

Start-ups look fun, exciting, and easy – from a distance. As a party we can definitely learn from their nimbleness and flexibility, but we should concentrate on looking at what drives these good features in successful start-ups and replicate those.


Elaine Bagshaw is the Parliamentary Candidate for Poplar and Limehouse, and a candidate for Lansbury in Tower Hamlets in local elections in 2018. Elaine is also a member of the party’s Federal Board. Find her on Facebook and Twitter. You can also support the Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrats with a donation here.


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