Liberal Youth launches

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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.

18 thoughts on “Liberal Youth launches

  1. A very good analysis, and agree with a lot of it. Concerned though by the bit about the elitist snobs a couple of years ago who thought that you had to go to the right parties. Assume this refers to myself, erm, Luke Croydon, and maybe Jade? Not surely the other people who were involved alongside us, as they’re still heavily involved.

    If so i really think there’s been a disconnect between what was being done and what you saw. For a start, i haven’t beeen to a party, let alone a ‘right’ one in at least 8 years now, of any kind.

    But yes, we may have seemed to have contempt for party activists, but only those that wanted to use LDYS as a leaflet delivery network, and didn’t seem to want to find out what members were interested in doing when they joined, before making the most of that. We ran a members survey to start that work, learned that most people felt the same way, then unexpectedly went bankrupt. Very dull.

    What we did want to see though was the sort of youth organisation that was fun, cool and lots of people wanted to get involved in, rather than just focusing on delivery and obedience to a constitution. Precisely the sort of thing that happened at the launch in Brick Lane in fact.

    Apols if you weren’t thinking of those times, just seems odd to think that somehow what was going on a couple of years ago is in any way different from what’s being realised now. If anything, the new organisation seems far more scornful of the focus delivery/party activist mentality than we ever were, and is just building on what we started to try to do with the organisation. Make it something the members said they wanted, and work with, rather than ‘radically’ against, the main party.

    I dunno, we did genuinely mean well you know, and what we started is now being realised. Still work to be done, but given a london centric event has just had a higher turnout than any LDYS conference for years (we got sub 40 attendance at one point, only the party activists came), then i think we did the right thing.

    As for wallowing in self regard, since certainly my time being involved, and i suspect for others too, we’ve just moved on and done other things. It doesn’t seem right to stay heavily interested in a youth organisation once you’re no longer young.

  2. “It is also my perception that this view mellows – considerably – among women over 25 when [they] suddenly realise that the egalitarian, post-feminist vision of society they bought into is a crock.”


  3. Sheesh… Mr. Grumpy… and I’d still say you’ve mellowed with age…

    I few minor corrections… – Liberal Future wasn’t a youth organisation. LDYPN became Connect 18 months ago and is alive, well, and organising fun and informative events… including one in co-operation with the GBTF. YEM is also alive and campaigning…

    Personally I really like what I see with LY, the campaigns are accessible, punchy, and media freindly. The events are fun and inclusive, and we’re seeing many members become staff, candidates, and organisers. Some even write blogs. Hooray!

    Let go James… ‘the kids are doing alright’…

  4. Firstly, it was an open invitation. Sorry if we missed out a few people, it wasn’t intentional.

    Largely agree with many things. As to Cambridge/Oxford, I believe there are more Bristol students on the executive than either of those two, Birmingham is also a very active branch. Oxford and Cambridge branches tend to be more insular, although I did hear from someone from Cambridge today.

    Regarding Activate, we should have had one this year already but there was a miscommunication with trainers regarding dates and times that meant the dates we’d originally planned couldn’t be used. I’m certainly in favour of re-trying 😉

    I also agree with Gez, however. He doesn’t go to parties.

  5. James, good to see the role of ‘critical friend’ passed to a younger generation 🙂

    It has to be said that LDYS always did best when it had a good, well-organised branch structure. With the biggest (and, indeed, the only) party group on Reading University campus, and I have to say a group way bigger than when you and I were involved, we reckon here that we’re doing our bit.

    It has to be said that active student branches were probably easier when students had more time to be active and less time spent offsetting their debts. Organising a movement is hard work. That’s why the Westminster Day-type events were always well worth doing, as well as the kind of events like Tuesday. (Sorry I wasn’t there, was busy campaigning)

    But also the branches need to have connection with the centre. I’m not sure that LDYS conferences in recent years, which seem pretty similar to those I organised and turned up to, are the best attraction. Talking to members, not just male ones, is a good start to find out what people want, and how to make it more representative.

    I reckon I came close towards both Andy’s and your nemeses………. In truth both are needed, as well as people being interested and engaged in the whole of party politics, for Liberal youth (and Liberal Youth) to make the maximum impact.

  6. Actually, if I might tentatively add a number 7 (like anyone has any choice in the matter) it would be: sort yer website out. It’s not saying “vibrant future of liberalism” to me at the moment, more “psychedelic spider mice from mars with no font discrimination” 😉

  7. Gez: I’m not responding to what you’ve written about your time in LDYS as it involves people who might not appreciate being brought into the conversation. Consider the matter dropped.

    But on the matter of making the organisation more social rather than campaign oriented? It’s the biggest single quandary a political youth wing has and they are doomed to always get the balance wrong to some degree. If the organisation isn’t “fun” no one will get involved. But if the organisation isn’t campaigning (and that doesn’t mean campaigning for the party necessarily – much of the campaigning we did in the late nineties was focused on campaigning within the party) then there is no point to it.

    Alix: I have to admit I did think of you when I typed that (not that I was referring to you – you weren’t in LDYS). We’re just going to have to agree to disagree here. The bottom line is though that female participation has dropped in LDYS to a staggering degree over the last decade and that can’t be healthy.

    Andy: Okay, I have to admit you hit a raw nerve. My two years as LDYS Communications Officer was both the best and worst time of my life. Low pay (below minimum wage if you consider I regularly clocked 60-70 hour weeks and didn’t take TOIL), zero on the job training, even less appreciation (spending the last nine months of my job awaiting a disciplinary hearing on trumped up charges because the then-President couldn’t be arsed to carry out his responsibilities was not fun), and after all that I’m being labelled as a poster child for what was wrong with the organisation. I’ll happily admit to making mistakes but it was a tough gig and I think I just about kept the ball rolling.

    And who am I getting this shit from? Someone who, at the time that I was actively involved in LDYS, was spending his time doing the hokey-kokey within the Conservative Party and thus, frankly, has absolutely no idea or firsthand experience about what he is talking about. You never set foot in a conference I organised – fact. I know we have our disagreements but that was a low blow, even by your standards.

    I tried my hand at snarkiness and failed miserably, so perhaps a simple “fuck you” will suffice?

  8. Just on a point of information, we didn’t find our selves short of material at P & P day and recruited twice the members we did last year. Regarding my views on the rest of the points raised here you will have to wait till the release of my memoirs on my time in Lib Dem youth politics entitled ‘My family and other animals’.

  9. “We’re just going to have to agree to disagree here.”

    Well, no, because, you’re quite right. That was “Bah, damn, you’re quite right.” Steady on, old bean. 🙂

  10. James if you look down you’ll find thats a pair of grumpy pants you are wearing 🙂

    Whoever the new chair is I suggest go for a drink/food with a few people tell em your ideas and see what they think. Never did me any harm, in fact I even made some pretty good friends out of it. James and Andy included, tho I’ve always thought it would be so much more fun if I armed you both with some sort of weaponary before you starting arguing.

  11. The sound of heavy breathing. A nasal “standing orders are suspended” rings out. Awaking, we trudge back to the church hall, to wash in cold water while the snow falls gently outside. At night I dream of getting a bacon sandwich on the train home.

    My first LDYS conference was like a duller, more austere version of James Joyce’s schooldays. I do hope no future members have a similar experience.

  12. James you ninny, your ‘raw nerve’ has led you to conflate a great deal more than is there from a 2 line reference to my experience of being a member and officer of LDY in the early 1990s. Not dissimilar from the experience Paul Evans describes. We were an odd bunch and quite inward-looking.

    The newly relaunched organisation strikes me as engaging, fun and outward-looking. Whether or not that contrasts or compares favourably with any year of LDYS is not something I can comment on. All I can say is I’ve had many positive experiences engaging with the people involved, as I hope have you.

  13. Ali: I’m not sure how I can be expected to “let go” while stalking the Liberal Youth chair to have lunch with me. I’m hardly inaccessible if they want to come to me.

    Paul: I’m sorry that was your first experience. I would say that some of the conferences in recent years sound far worse than anything we ever had during my time. The reason, for example, we introduced a rule that constitutional amendments would have to go through two consecutive conferences was to discourage people from submitting constitutional amendments (some people seemed – and continue – to consider it their personal role in life to submit vast swathes of amendments every six months). We did, I admit, never envisage anyone would be mad enough to try and hold two conferences over a single weekend in order to get around that rule.

    But ultimately, ALL conferences are bad first experiences because generally conferences of youth organisations are awful, cliquey, factional, petty things. I’m not aware of a single exception to that rule. My first LDYS conference – which involved Phil Jones (now Taylor – who you may have seen embroiled in the Peter Hain funding row) trying to win the election for Chair just so he could defect to the Labour Party in as high profile and as damaging a way to the party as possible – was particularly fraught. My experience then, and since, is that the “trendies” were just as guilty of making the event an unwelcoming place as those unhip souls who thought that working to agreed sets of rules and taking things seriously was important.

    I can guarantee that Liberal Youth will continue to have tiresome debates at its conferences – that’s youth politics for you. The trick is not to keep trying to reform them (although I still think you only need one a year – you can have another weekend for doing other things – and a recognition of the limits of the organisation’s ability to do policy would be nice) but to provide better jumping on points. That was the thinking behind Activate, the Involve “open days” we set up and Westminster Day (to a lesser extent). It was the thinking behind the Liberal Youth launch on Tuesday.

    Andy: say what you like about me, but please stop trying to perpetuate this lie that I am criticising Liberal Youth or the launch event on Tuesday. I’m not. I don’t see what is wrong with highlighting what has gone wrong in the past and urging them not to repeat those mistakes. Just because my analysis differs from yours it doesn’t make it any less valid.

  14. I was never much involved in LDYS when the right age so my perspective is that of someone who is now active in other parts of the party. From that vantage point I definitely agree that it needs to move on from the last few years, and I think James’ six points in his original post would be an excellent action plan for Liberales Jugend, sorry Liberal Youth, for the next phase (I’m not quite sure about the Samba Band…).

  15. James

    Really excellent to discover your blog.

    I was on the LDYS executive with you back in 1998. My memory of you is of some one who was very hard working and always available to talk to, though several of our colleagues did not really seem to do much at all. For such a small organisation there seemed to be an awful lot of backbiting.

    Why exactly has the youth organisation relaunched? Is it just a change of name?


  16. Hi Lee – good to hear from you. In terms of why exactly Liberal Youth relaunched, I’m the wrong person to ask. There was however a general sense that the organisation was drifting, one particular financial crisis in particular, and there has always been a contingent that hated the LDYS name (I have to admit to not being too fond of it myself).

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