If Liberal Democrats are going to build a Liberal Britain we need to elect Liberal Democrats at all levels across the country. This sounds obvious, but it hasn’t happened yet. The place to start is by actively engaging the thousands of people who, to quote Tim Farron, “stopped crying into their coffees and did something”. These are the people who have joined the Liberal Democrats in their droves since May 2015.
As one of the team behind LibDem Newbies UK I’ve got to know this group of LibDems pretty well. In this piece I’ve sketched out some of the things I’ve learned about engaging Newbies during the Snap Election, which I think will help Lib Dems to grow.
Treat new members as individuals.
There are many reasons why people sign up to become Liberal Democrats. The most important question you can ask any new member is ‘why did you join?’. Do not assume the first thing they want to do is deliver 200 focuses on that rural delivery route. Your role is to facilitate them reaching their full potential. So you need to find out what drives that person.
At the start of the 2017 General Election campaign Stephen Williams said ‘remember members are volunteers, NOT conscripts!’ The next Sarah Olney or Layla Moran may be in your midst! Future MPs, councillors or policy makers may not even know what they want to be when they arrive in the party: they may simply say ‘I’d like to try campaigning.’
Understanding today’s new members will help us develop future-focused policy and elect tomorrow’s councillors and MPs.
Flying the flag in black holes.
Some of our most energetic new members are based not in LibDem target seats, but Labour and Tory strongholds. New members that campaign in these seats should be cherished. They hold the key to our future success. They’re often people who are prepared to dig in and do the leg work.
In the General Election we had a number of Newbies standing as parliamentary candidates and I was impressed by the verve and tenacity they showed, often with very few resources. To grow we need plenty of people willing to be parliamentary candidates, and we should be seeking out the views of first timers to see how we can improve.
In the Western Counties, where I was Director of new member mobilisation, we only had a small number of target seats in the Election. It’s a large, predominantly rural region, and many seats are not within easy travelling distance of Bath and Cheltenham. Many Newbies did travel to help, but not all were able to. New members that kept home fires burning during the election are now gearing up to gain seats in district council elections. These are the places we need to win in future. New members in these seats are also putting themselves forward to be party officers and will be the ‘senior LibDems’ of tomorrow.
You get out what you put in.
People regularly say to me ‘I’ve got all these new members but I don’t know what to do with them. I’ve never even seen them!’ . We cannot expect new members to materialise at action days and polling days after one email. I phoned hundreds of members in the run up to Polling Day to encourage them to get involved – in some cases that was all it took to get them along to an event or canvassing. I noticed that when new members did participate they were often the most enthusiastic people in any canvass team – this had a massively positive effect on existing members.
In Cheltenham we ran several very successful Action Days aimed at engaging new members where we offered campaign training (and threw in a few Facebook Lives & selfies with LibDem celebs – thanks Lynne Featherstone!). Alex Hegenbarth (himself part of the 2015 intake) was pivotal in the success of these events.
If you can get new members to host and organise they are more likely to understand what other new members are looking for. Although we may not have regained Cheltenham last time a number of the new members we activated went on to be the mainstay of that campaign and I’m sure will a huge part of us winning that seat back shortly.
Above all my experience of engaging new members in the election reminds me of the importance of connecting people to the future success of our party. The thinking behind LibDem Newbies on Facebook is to make everyone feel part of something, a movement, a community: wherever they are based. If every local party was able to do this with their own members I have every confidence we will grow our party even further.
Daisy Benson is CoFounder of LibDem Newbies and was Director of New Member Mobilisation for the Western Counties Liberal Democrats in the 2017 General Election. You can follow her on Twitter at @_DaisyBenson.