Liberal Youth rose last night from the ashes of LDYS and by all accounts it was a great success. Andy Mayer has singled out myself and Alex Wilcock as pre-eminent examples of all that was wrong with the previous regime. Fair enough – I never claimed to be a hip young thing even when I could be described as young. If that’s how I’m fondly remembered, that probably explains why, despite being LDYS’ longest serving sabbatical officer, I wasn’t invited to their relaunch. Not sure my record of success at creating vibrant youth organisations is any worse than Andy’s – a former organiser of Liberal Future (dead), the Young Professionals Network (buried) and the Young European Movement (comatose) – though.
Anyway, for what it’s worth, here are my six bits of advice to the new organisation:
1) Stop looking frickin’ gift horses in the mouth. Last week was People and Politics Day Europe, an event the format of which I will happily admit to having lifted largely wholesale from LDYS’ old Westminster Days (they weren’t using it any more and youth engagement is too important to get territorial about). 1,800 young people. 25 organisations exhibited there and were kept busy.
UKIP turned up at the crack of dawn. Conservative Future turned up soon afterwards. Young Labour turned up late, but had organised a lunchtime event which they plugged mercilessly. And LDYS/Liberal Youth? A solitary member of staff turned up just before the rush with minimal material.
I’m not blaming the staff member – clearly they had plenty to be getting on with. I do wonder though what this says about the organisations’ priorities. One of the reasons LDYS continued to organise Westminster – past the point at which it could barely justify it due to rising costs in my opinion – was that it was a great recruitment opportunity.
2) Break out of the Oxbridge ghetto. It may be a misperception, but it has appeared that in recent years LDYS has been dominated by students from the Big Two universities. Back in the Bad Old Days we struggled to get Oxford and Cambridge students involved at all (with honourable exceptions) and I think it is a sign of the party’s growing success that this transformed beyond recognition in the early noughties. I do think the pendulum has possibly swung too far however – in particular Cambridge seems to have been running the show for some time.
Of course one of the simplest ways to deal with this is to go along with (1), above.
3) Be concerned about gender balance. One thing that most certainly is not a misperception is that LDYS has become increasingly male-dominated in recent years. For a long time LDYS had a good mix of male and female executive members at the top. In 96/97 we actually had more women on the exec than men. Yet in recent years this has changed. Just 4 out of the 18 current LDYS exec members are women. If Liberal Youth wants to look vibrant and hip, this looks like a crucial place to start to me.
Why did it all go wrong? I have a theory which is that it all started when we scrapped the Women’s Officer and Women’s Committee in 1999. This was at the behest of the vast majority of the women members themselves and I’m not saying that they should be brought back but I do wonder if, on a subliminal level, it sent out the signal that the organisation wasn’t just for boys.
Sometimes, it must be said, young women are their own worst enemies here. It was certainly true in the 90s and I think it is broadly true still that few 25s consider themselves to be feminist and have an allergic reaction to anything they perceive as being affirmative action. It is also my perception that this view mellows – considerably – among women over 25 when say suddenly realise that the egalitarian, post-feminist vision of society they bought into is a crock. It’s one of the things the Campaign for Gender Balance has struggled with for years (ironic, given that it was explicitly formed to fend off calls for all-women shortlists). It isn’t easy to talk about “women’s issues” to women who would rather punch you in the face than talk about “women’s issues”.
Nevertheless, at a time when the pay gap is as wide as ever, and with the right to abortion under threat, I’m sure there are numerous campaigns Liberal Youth could adopt that would broadcast that it is woman friendly in a subtle way.
4) Bring back Activate! Activate! – the residential training weekend for new members inaugurated in 1998 by then LDYS Vice President Nikki Thomson – was the single most successful and satisfying thing that I was involved with in my time in LDYS. It created real activists, both for the youth wing and the wider party, who stayed the test of time. It ensured LDYS renewed itself instead of the annual exec elections being a stitch up between the various factions’ and their mates. It even got the party an MP in the form of Jo Swinson. It was a simple formula (attempts at creating a stage two event tended to fail) and a great success. By now, LDYS should be holding 2-3 Activates every year, not none at all.
5) Start a samba band. I’ve always argued for this and no-one has ever taken me seriously. But an official Liberal Youth Samba Band would quickly make the organisation one of the most popular fixtures at any mass demonstration, as well as being fun for the participants themselves.
6) Don’t try too hard to be hip. In my opinion this is where LDYS went wrong a couple of years ago when it was dominated by a bunch of rather elitist snobs who thought you should only be allowed to join if you went to the right parties and who despised party activism and activists. Thankfully, those days are gone and the worst proponents of this have left the party to wallow in their own self-regard.
It’s great to be a young and vibrant organisation, but even the best youth organisations are prone to cliques. Political youth organisations also, whisper it, depend on serious-minded, non-conformist and desperately unfashionable souls who are prepared to do the donkey work. Create too strong an impression that you are not welcome if you look “wrong” or are a bit awkward or inarticulate, and you are guaranteed to struggle no matter how much Andy Mayer assures you otherwise.