Monday, March 03, 2008


Happy Birthday, Liberal Democrats!

The Liberal Democrats are twenty years old today. Back then, I was an enthusiastic then-Alliance supporter, still at school, and I sent off an application to join the new party as soon as I found out where to send it. Since then there have been plenty of ups and downs, but whenever there’s a panic about the latest opinion poll I yawn and remember the party’s first couple of years: 4% in the polls; our shiny new Leader the fourth most popular; near-bankruptcy; at 6%, a very distant fourth in the Euro-elections; no-one knowing what our name was (including us)… So when we’re rising closer to 20% in the polls today and people grumble progress is too slow, of course I’d like us to be soaring – but I remember what collapse was like, and this ain’t it.

I’ll admit it’s a relief that – with one major exception – Nick’s had a hugely better start to his Leadership than Paddy did (at times it felt like every millimetre of progress was from Paddy dragging our rating up with his teeth). And it’s disturbing to realise I’ve now been a member for more than half my life, though it’s often felt like the Liberal Democrats have been more than half my life at any one time! Still, I’ve never regretted joining, I still believe we can change the world, and there’s only been one day in the last twenty years when I’ve felt like resigning.

Oh, and I’ve managed to get quite a few of the issues that got me motivated twenty years ago written into party policy and three separate General Election Manifestos, so that’s not bad, is it? Like many Liberal Democrats, I didn’t grow up in a family of members (though I did sign my Dad up and get him to take over my Focus round when I went off to uni), I didn’t grow up wealthy, and I grew up two hundred miles from London – but in our party, you don’t have to tick boxes to get along. You don’t need to be the ‘right’ class, you don’t need to know people, and you don’t need to toe the line.

The first time I ever met Paddy Ashdown, I had an argument with him. And when I was first elected to the Federal Policy Committee, I was aged 21, and ten years younger than anyone else on there – and I’m pretty sure I’d never have been elected if I hadn’t been forthright about my views, rocked the boat and then said ‘Give me a chance to change things’ rather than sitting in the corner and whingeing. I’m also pretty sure that, back then, I had more determination than talent, but I think I’ve shown a bit of talent since. Either way, I’m still happy to be in a party where determination, talent and a desire to make a difference count more than an old boys’ network.

I’m still passionately interested in issues, but I find them more interesting to write about at length than writing about me. So rather than start my memoirs, I’ll finish with two important ways I’ve got involved. I’m middle-aged now, but in my late teens and twenties there was one bit of the party that was absolutely invaluable.

The Liberal Democrat Youth and Students

The Liberal Democrat Youth and Students (which went through their own rather less traumatic merger while I was involved) were brilliant for me. Sometimes we were a great success, sometimes we cocked it up completely, but for me LDYS was an essential training ground, giving me the chance to learn how to campaign, meet lots of other young Liberals and argue with them, and enough opportunities to speak that I turned from a stammerer terrified of speechmaking to the gobby person you can’t shut up. They appear to be in the throes of yet another name change at the moment; good luck to them. And to fellow middle-aged Lib Dems – I know that LDYS has always been strapped for cash, and they are particularly today. So if you ever feel like making a donation, they really are one of the best places in the party for getting people off the ground, as well as for getting the rest of the party to be a bit less boring.

Blogging and the Bloggers’ Interviews

The other way to get involved that I’d encourage is, of course, blogging. It’s easy to start off, and, er, not all that difficult to keep going – though I’ve not always blogged every hour on the hour, this is my three hundredth post. And of course blogging is something else where talent and determination pay off: there’s no approved list of bloggers, and no secret cabal decides who reads you. If you want more people to read you, rather than whingeing you just have to get better (or make up more outrageous headlines!).

If you’re a Lib Dem with a blog, or if you’re willing to share your experiences with the readers of Lib Dem Voice, you also have the chance to interview some of the party’s leading MPs from time to time. Last year, the people short-listed for the Liberal Democrat Blogger of the Year Award were invited to interview Ming. I was one of them, and so was our elephant Millennium. Since then, at Millennium’s behest, my beloved Richard has done a huge amount of work organising more interviews (more time and effort than you might think!), and he and the rest of us also decided to get more people involved than the half a dozen of us the judges chose last year. So look out for invites like the one to interview Ed Davey last week; each time, there’ll be a mix of some of the original ‘panel’ so there’s some consistency, and new people – including YOU, if you get in fast enough – on a first-come, first-served basis from the Lib Dem Voice open appeals.

Obviously I think Richard’s fantastic anyway, but really, this is a fantastic example of bottom-up, do-it-yourself Liberal Democracy in action. He doesn’t hold any special posts in the Lib Dems, but is just an ordinary member who’s decided to do something, and it just wouldn’t happen without him organising it all and pestering MPs’ diary secretaries for dates. Though now there have been a few of these interviews, more of the MPs themselves are looking quite keen! And if you aren’t fast enough to volunteer for the ones Richard organises, why not organise an interview with a top Lib Dem yourself? Ask yourself – how many MPs turn down free publicity? Either way, I think they've worked really well so far, both in terms of giving our MPs the time to get their ideas across in more than just a soundbite and in pressing them harder when a soundbite would have let them off the hook (see, for example, an interview with Nick Clegg last year where he was generally very impressive but I didn’t think he was up to scratch on my question because there was little behind the soundbite).

And if you have a better idea of how to get these interviews working, go to Lib Dem Voice right now and make a positive contribution. You can see what was getting me rather combative last night and argue with me there, too.

The message of twenty years of the Liberal Democrats is that sitting with your arms folded and whingeing that somebody else should do something gets you nowhere, but that if you positively get involved, we can all achieve more.

Since I started writing this earlier this morning, that Chris Rennard’s put up a piece on Lib Dem Voice, too. He’s both an inspiration and a bit terrifying in terms of how the party can become your life, isn’t he?

Update: Hywel Morgan makes some particularly good points about the political as well as the strategic reasons for the party’s survival under Chris’ post. He also brings back memories when he mentions the “5% days”. I remember in the post-Newbury, pre-Mr Blair 1990s opinion poll high point of the party, when we were flush with optimism and with rising membership (at one point just topping 100,000), I’d just made a hardcore Liberalism speech of some sort at a Conference that many members thought was a bit too exciting… But a regional chair I liked came up to me, slapped me on the back and told me that next time we were in the doldrums and all those new members had gone off to another party, I’d still be with him in the “five-percenters”. I think he’d be right, but fortunately I can’t see us back at 5% any time soon.

I saw a Daily Torygraph front page the other day, incidentally, that made me wonder whether journalists are actually interested in communication at all. The lead story was about a poll, though I forget on what, something along the lines of “50% Say…” Except that it didn’t use “%”. It was “pc”. Let me get this straight… “%” means “percent”. While “pc” means personal computer, police constable, politically correct, postcard, Privy Councillor… What idiot decides that it would be more comprehensible to use two letters with a multitude of meanings than a symbol with one?

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Two things about this post make me depressed. The first is that you think that you're middle-aged. The second is that in order to make a difference in politics, you're basically saying that one has to give one's money to a bunch of people you don't quite agree with and spend twenty years fighting with them and then you might get to interview some politicians.

No wonder people get disillusioned.
I found the post completely the opposite of depressing - I think you may be reading what you wish into it.

The Party's made steady progress since it's formation - we're not (all) Marxists expecting a quick revolution and Bob's your uncle, we can all welcome the new Utopia. The distance we've come in twenty years is phenomenal - where I live I'm aiming at trying take the parliamentary seat over a ten year period. Parliamentary democracy in the UK was designed for two parties and not with dramatic change in mind - given those two things the Lib Dems have every reason to be optimistic and delighted with what we've achieved.

p.s. the comments policy of requiring a Google/Blogger account to post is damned annoying.
Thanks for both of those – I’m more of a glass half-full person, Jennie! Surely unless you’re the monied scion of a media dynasty, you have to find a way of working with other people to get your ideas across? As I agree with the vast majority of Lib Dem policy, and wholeheartedly with the party’s philosophy of Liberalism, it wasn’t a great stretch to join and, as I said, I was enthusiastic as well as argumentative. And the point is that you can change things if you try; I did long before today! And there happens to be a debate going on about bloggers’ interviews today, which is why I mentioned them.

On the comments, Steve: it’s a tricky one. I don’t like comment moderation, because I think it’s used by people either to stop dissent or craftily to hold it back until people have stopped reading. But I don’t like spam, either, and got tired of automatic messages about gambling, sex and exciting commercial opportunities. I’ve found saying people had to have an identity cut those down hugely! Besides, much as I prefer a comment from someone who’s not anonymous, it only takes a couple of minutes to set up an account, and you can call yourself whatever you like, so it’s only as intrusive as you choose.
'And it’s disturbing to realise I’ve now been a member for more than half my life,'

Scary isn't it!!

These youngsetrs certainly don't know what a real dip is like ;-)

One of the good things about being in the party for so long is that you get to meet a whole load of very interesting and diverse people, and see how they get along over the years.

Some of them are also decent chaps (or chapesses) like your good self.
Oh yes, finding a way of working with and engaging with other people is very necessary if you want to make a difference. Unfortunately when it comes to the choice of paying for my daughter's school dinners or buying a subscription to a political party, I know which one I'm going to choose.

It's something I've been discussing a lot with Mat recently; I honestly think that the reason more men are active and get higher in party politics (and business, for that matter) is to do with the way we prioritise things. Women prefer much safer bets. The amount of time and effort and money I would have to put in to getting ANYWHERE in politics, I feel could be spent more profitably on my child. It's POSSIBLE that I could go far. But it's also possible that I could pay my subs and then spend twenty years beating my head agin the brick wall of my local party. That risk doesn't look like a good investment to me.

* shrug *

Anyway, I meant to make a much more cheery comment for my first comment on your blog, so I apologise.

I'm just in a boo today, I think.
Awwhh, thank you, Neil!

And thank you, Jennie. I take your point, and I know I'm feeling rather crabby today (see the next post up!), which is why I wanted to start it with a jolly, positive post ;-)

I didn't write it earlier, but of course one of the lovely things about LDYS is that it gives you a chance to get involved in the party that bypasses the "beating my head agin the brick wall of my local party".

Are you sure you've not posted comments here before, btw? I thought you had...
I'm too old for LDYS, even if I was a party member. Although I'm definitely not middle aged :P

(also, seems you and I are in similar boats if the extract of email that Mat just read out is to be believed. *hugs*)
Well I'm days late for the bubbly, but thanks for the reminisce Alex.

I also joined the "new" party (many people who've known me for a long time don't realise) after voting Alliance in '87 aged 18, and yes, how painfully crabby feeling that it was "20 years ago today" (Sgt Pepper anybody?) I remember Epping Forest, Kensington, Eastbourne, Christchurch and a number of other key By-elections. But stances such as on Bosnia and on the Hong Kong passports were key headline issues on which we could not be ignored that provided a backbone to such fleeting publicity coups.

I'd love to know (privately if you wish) which day made you want to leave the Party... to see if my guesses may be close. The closest I got was when Ashdown formed the Cabinet Committee with Bliar soon after his 169 majority. I'd seen his wish to "not" have his bum on the seat of a Labour Government car coming since the Chard speech. But of course, that's all ancient history now.
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