Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Liberal Youth - time to stop fighting, time to start doing?

I wrote this article early on in the campaign and, following some actually quite justified criticism, withdrew it from circulation pending the end of the election. I did say that I would put it up again afterwards, although in hindsight, it probably deserves a revisit...

One of the quirks about being a kindly Returning Officer is that people talk to you. Sometimes, and I emphasise only sometimes, you wish that they would stop, but most of the time, you get to learn an awful lot about a person and the organisation they're involved in. In the case of Liberal Youth, this hasn't always been impressive. I'll start with the good stuff...

They have a good administrator. Paul Pettinger has been a pleasure to work with. He has a pretty good idea as to what he should be doing, is able to manage it to a degree, and is patience itself.

The activists are fizzing with enthusiasm and ideas. That is exactly how it should be and, whilst I don't necessarily agree with Lembit's suggestion to them that they should be radical and on the cutting edge, there is no reason why they shouldn't be exploring new ways of doing things, new ideas for policy and asking the questions that most of us would like to see asked but haven't quite got the nerve to.

My concerns start with achievement, I suppose. Liberal Youth and its predecessors have, in recent years, been weak here, or at least, perceived to be weak, which amounts to pretty much the same thing. Their freshers campaigns have been sub-optimal, reliant on hard graft by Paul in the office, under-funded and occasionally late. For example, in my years on the Regional Executive in London, requests for financial support were frequently late (if they turned up at all), poorly supported in terms of planning and worse still in terms of reported outcome.

Campaigning has appeared fragmented and the disconnect from the campaigns run by the Party nationally has been glaring. If Liberal Youth is to run its own campaigns, might it not be better to link them to a salient campaign run by the Party? Better still, might talking to the Policy Unit, or the parliamentarians, or Campaigns Department help in terms of materials, press or strategy? If it is going to campaign 'independently', it needs to link up with other parts of the Party, to build up a mutual support network.

For me, the most disappointing aspect is the lack of unity. It has been put to me that an organisation that is doing little is most vulnerable to infighting, and I have to say that it has been a recurring theme of my time as Liberal Youth Returning Officer that most of the conversations I have been part of revolve around who isn't getting on with whom. How does such distraction help in the building of a better organisation?

Another problem is one of continuity. This has always bedevilled the students - a maximum of four years is likely to do that - and now that the new organisation is predominantly student-led due to the comparative difficulty of organising individuals spread thinly across an area, it seems to have infected Liberal Youth.

A much better transition process is the key. Unless you are changing the entire Executive, and even in Liberal Youth, that is unlikely, you should have some continuity. Proper record keeping, and better information publishing, allows an incoming Executive to pick up and go with comparative ease.

Lastly, Liberal Youth has, in the past, been weak on the use of the Internet. ironic, really, when you consider how keen they are on Facebook and blogging. The website needs more content, more frequently but most importantly, it needs relevance. In the autumn, when Ros and I were attending their conference, we arrived on the campus of the University of Surrey to discover that we had no more information that that. If we hadn't run into John Dixon, we might never have found them.

Details of their conference, its venue, the agenda and some contact details would seem to be an obvious thing to put on the website, as well as news of those candidates standing for election. With an Executive the size of Liberal Youth's, it shouldn't be difficult to get the work done without placing further burdens on the sole staff member. Using the website as a core campaigning tool would enable it to be linked to other readership groups within the Party, build goodwill and, possibly, attract funding from other sources.

I have no personal interest in who might be able to achieve this, especially as the things that I am proposing are the basics of running an organisation, i.e. what do you need to do, who are you doing it for and how are you going to deliver it? Once the elections are over, I may well suggest some ideas that help the winners. It's up to them to listen, should they choose to do so...

UPDATE - 20:50: I am advised that there is a separate website for Liberal Youth conferences...


Costigan Quist said...

I know next to nothing about the current Liberal Youth and was last involved with LDYS in 19mumblemumble so can do no more than make general points.

In my experience, one of the dangers of having a paid administrator is that the exec members think all they need to do is to come up with large numbers of good ideas and hand them over the administrator to make it happen.

If Liberal Youth is anything like other organisations I've been involved with, it probably has a number of challenges:

- the Executive don't know each other well and, being geographically separated, might go through the whole year not knowing each other very well.

- Liberal Youth is an organisation in search of something to do. Having to figure out what you want to achieve each year puts another barrier to actually achieving anything at all. At least local parties have a clear, well defined objective: to win elections.

- It's incredibly easy for people to get upset. There may be a perception (real or otherwise) that someone isn't pulling their weight, or rumours spreading. The geographic spread and lack of clear objectives all add to the chance of this.

Again from my experience, I would suggest a few things that can be done to get things moving smoothly.

1. Set an expectation that being on the Exec is a doing role, not just deciding what the organiser should do.

2. The new Executive should get together in person as soon as possible after the election, both to socialise and to agree some clear objectives for the year (not too many, keep it SMART).

3. The Executive should all keep in touch via whatever method is preferred, but make sure it's inclusive and doesn't favour cliques.

4. The Chair must personally keep in touch with all Exec members, preferably with regular phone calls but email is OK as long as things are going well.

5. When you're trying to achieve something, make sure it's broken down to tasks, that every task is assigned to an individual, that tasks have deadlines and that people accept they'll be hassled and abused by the Chair if their tasks aren't getting done.

All obvious enough in theory but I speak with the experience of having not done these when I should have and seen the lack of results.

sscrltt said...

There is a Conference website which has been advertised on facebook:

Hywel said...

I'm not for one minute suggesting that everything was perfect "back in my day" but I reckon 1-5 all happened then on at least some level.

It is in my view a very bad thing that the idea of the Exec meeting for a planning/strategy weekend soon after election no longer seems to happen as that helps build constructive relationships and plans.

Really, really going back in time when I was on the (the seperate) Youth wing exec it didn't so I never felt particularly involved (and I'm to blame for that as I could have got my act together to find out what was going on!).

But really - an organisation which is having its 2009 elections and still has "news" on the website of the 2008 election candidates (not even results) needs to just start getting the fundamentals right.

Is there a wider issue that whilst in the past ULS/LDYS etc was seen as a route to getting "established" within the party now, given the number of paid jobs there are that is the route of choice that people take?

Alasdair W said...

Some good points there. I hope the publication of 'the Libertine', that I'm involved with, will bring some more accountability, and allow our possitive messages to reach our members.
I totally understand where you're coming from. There have been many problems, especially with communication. Many young members haven't been tagged as Liberal Youth, therefore last year I missed out on voting in elections, and nearly missed Autumn Conference.

Chris Ward said...


Whilst your observations would have been true at Guildford, they are not so here. The same disunity can be found in most political parties, including (sometimes, particularly in the past) our own parliamentary party.

Our conference in Warwick had the highest attendance in years. The conference committee, which I now chair, has within a month organised a cracking conference, constructed and maintained a dedicated conference website which is marked for further development, and we have ensured that people now have over 8 months notice till the next conference unlike the 1 month they got previously.

There's no point moaning about the disunity of the past if you are not there to see the progression in the present.

Mark Valladares said...


I am delighted that the conference has gone well, and that there is better notice given to members.

However, as you can see from earlier comments, as well as those made elsewhere, one successful conference only proves that it can be done, not that it will continue to be done. Unfortunately, Liberal Youth and its predecessors have a long and noble tradition of lapsing back into disorganisation, so I'll wait a little before I declare that I am convinced.

On the subject of unity, as Liberal Youth's Returning Officer, I perhaps have a different perspective - let's just say that my e-mail and mobile have been busier than I expected... Now this is not a criticism of any individual or group of individuals, but the reports of personal attacks have reached me from a variety of sources. If, after the elections, the Executive work together, if not in harmony, then as a team, again I will be more convinced.

And finally, I'm not moaning. I want Liberal Youth to succeed and, as a former Secretary General, Secretary, International Officer, Treasurer and President of the Young Liberals and Young Liberal Democrats, I have some background experience of what I write. At 44 though, I find it hard to believe that I'll be attending many more Liberal Youth conferences...

Chris Ward said...


I agree with your point, but I'm sure that the returning officers for the leadership election and for the recent presidential elections will tell you all sorts of stories of candidates trying their best to get the other disqualified or even putting dirty tricks forward. I'm sure I don't need to remind you of the "Calamity Clegg" document. It certainly isn't just confined to the youth element.

I think we can definitely agree on the sentiment that the one thing that does us damage more than anything else is internal bickering. However, as somebody who runs a committee which I feel is pretty autonomous from any potential executive bitching (I have no interest in the affairs of the executive as long as it doesn't affect us, which it rarely does), I think it is possible to work around what I would call an inevitable level of enthusiastic sniping in an organisation where youthful political passion can sometimes get a bit heated and personal.

You are correct. Time will only tell. However, the idea that we are fatally divisive is a sensationalised over-statement. The divisions will happen, elections will get heated, but to the average conference-goer (whilst there is perhaps an identifiable clique issue within the organisation) I doubt the perspective they had of the relations between election candidates is in-line with the perspective you have as somebody who formally deals with all the disputes.

Oh, and apologies for the "moaning" comment, I was simply being angrily divisive. ;)

Mark Valladares said...


Good to see that we are of like mind in many ways. Besides, I know exactly what you're trying to do as Chair of the Conference Committee...

One thing though, I didn't actually suggest that the organisation is fatally divisive. If I thought it was, there wouldn't be much point in being its Returning Officer. Besides, with the membership churn that Liberal Youth inevitably has, someone else will cone along to take up the baton.

I wish Liberal Youth well. If successful, it will be a source of new ideas, strategies and future leaders. What could be bad about that?

James Shaddock said...

The seperate Confence website will be absorbed by the new website in the long term

Chris Ward said...

I have every faith that the new website will be finished *at some point*. But past experiences will mean that we will continue designing and adding content to the conference website autonomously until this is the case.

Mark Valladares said...

James and Chris,

Thank you for this, and I'm now much more up to date with what all of you are doing. I'll be looking forward in a follow-up piece, which I think may be more positive...

Richard Huzzey said...

This is a fantastic article, but what strikes me - as someone involved in local branches/parties and other AOs but never Liberal Youth or LDYS - is that a lot of your advice should be identical to other parts of the party too (and to non-party pressure groups, such as No2ID). Schism seems to be emerge alongside a lack of focus, success and achievement, as much or more often than it emerges as the result of complacency and success.

I mention No2ID, because I was also impressed at how a bunch of UKIP, Tory, Labour, Green and Lib Dem activists - and those of no partisan colour - worked together amicably on concrete local action. It is ironic, when our common opposition to ID cards and the database state obscured massive ideological gulfs. But the group held together effectively because we were focused on achievements that met our common goal and didn't attach a particular stance on Iraq, European federalism or immigration (over which we have contrary opinions) to it.

Making a political party do this is ironically harder than a single-issue pressure group. It is hard to focus on your common partisan alignment and whitewash your ideological differences (even if they are inevitably very minor compared to the gulfs in a pressure group!). Your advice has made me think in a new way about how the challenges of parties - and agreeing on common goals, which do not focus on divisions but unity - are the same but more acute than pressure groups.

LiberAll said...

It's a rather gross irony that many people made such vociferous complaints about this blog post before the election, yet seemed to use it as an instruction manual for the rest of it. I hope your points are noted and that the new exec (who are, I believe, a great bunch) get on with making Liberal Youth as good as it can be. :)