Tag Archives: chandila fernando

The Fernandos expose a wider failure

This has become an incoherent babble but I was determined to finish it. My apologies.

The defection yesterday of the Fernando siblings, on one level, is quite easy to laugh off. If Chamali and Chandila are “senior” party members on the basis that they have failed to get elected to any prominent position within the party (to be fair, Chamali did get elected to the FPC, but resigned almost instantly), then I must be one of the most senior party members out there. Been a member for five minutes? Not elected to anything? Well, on that basis David Cameron wants to hear from you too!

The Fernandos activities over the past couple of years have been a breathtaking example of ambition blinding individuals to harsh reality. One got a sense that Chamali was really angry at not getting selected as the mayoral candidate and wouldn’t brook the quite reasonable argument that a man who has helped run a London-wide authority (in his case, the police) was better qualified. A similar arrogance ran through Chandila’s presidential candidacy like a stick of rock. The sense of entitlement was palpable; one almost got the impression one had intruded onto the set of some dynastic soap opera.

Once the laughter dies down however, the party needs to wake up to some home truths. Specifically, we really are failing get BAME candidates selected in winnable seats. In terms of gender balance, we are actually making good progress. Of our 25 most marginal seats, 10 selected candidates are women. Of the top ten, 4 are women. If you exclude Tory marginals on the basis that we are unlikely to take them, 6 out of 13 selected candidates are women. Clearly we could still make improvements in this area, and incumbancy will always dent our progress, but it could be a lot worse. However, none of them are from an ethnic minority (quite happy to stand corrected here).

And it isn’t just the Fernandos that are defecting. Obviously there was Saj Karim in 2007, but earlier this year there was Norsheen Bhatti. I tend to be pretty dismissive of Saj as he threw his toys out of his pram despite coming second in a list of candidates in a PR election. We could have won that second seat; he simply wasn’t prepared to take that chance which was pretty shoddy. Norsheen is different. Unlike the Fernandos, Norsheen had done her graft. I first knew her back in 1998 when she was on the LDYS Equal Opportunities Committee with me. She had fought two thankless elections, as the candidate for Battersea in 2005 and Brent East in 2001. Yes, Brent East. My understanding is (again, happy to be corrected) she was out of the country when Paul Daisley died in 2003. It must have been pretty galling for her to see us go on to win that by-election.

What concerns me is less the specifics of each individual defection and resignation but the trend (with apologies to Antony Hook, who seems to think we should only ever look at this problem at an atomic level). We don’t appear to have made any meaningful progress in terms of getting ethnic minority candidates in place. The vibes I have felt coming from the Ethnic Minority Lib Dems in recent years have been a growing sense of despair and frustration. Sometimes this has been aimed at the wrong targets (if targeted at all) and lacked a proper analysis, but it is no less worrying.

There seem to be two main problems here: one is simply a question of priorities while the other is more intractable. The first one is that we have serially failed to implement anything even vaguely resembling a coherent strategy in terms of encouraging, developing and supporting candidates from under-represented groups. The model we have successfully used for women in recent years, whilst under-funded, has delivered results. For the most part, it could be reapplied to encourage ethnic minority candidates or disabled candidates. It was broadly agreed that this would happen when Navnit Dholakia was president back in 2003, but as soon as Simon Hughes took over that agenda was scrapped while Simon spent years pursuing his own preferred solution of imposing ethnic-minority shortlists and quotas in urban ghettoes. Under Clegg, we have seen the development of this Diversity Engagement Group, which is welcome, but it has taken us a breathtakingly long time to get that far. Meanwhile, Clegg’s promise of a “leaders’ academy” still seems to be lost in the ether. Maybe, post-election, we will see more progress made on this, but that certainly did not happen after 2005.

The second, harder problem is how we do politics. Simply put, there are very few jobs out there that are tougher and less thankless than being a Lib Dem target seat candidate. That is true whether you are black or white, male or female. The male target seat candidates of my acquaintance are all pretty much working at it full time at largely their own expense and have been for a couple of years now. I have to be honest and admit that I don’t personally know any female target seat candidates – I do however know several former female target seat candidates, for the most part because of what a dreadful job it is.

Frankly, we shouldn’t treat people like this. It’s horrible. But to be honest, it is hard to see how we can afford not to treat people like this. We don’t have money to pay them a stipend or give them more support (let alone things like childcare) and if we reallocated funds from elsewhere, we would be forced to fight fewer seats (this applies to investing more in training and development as well, although you can at least make the argument that better trained candidates tend to be better fundraisers, etc.).

The flipside of this approach is that it predetermines specific kinds of candidates. By putting so much emphasis on local campaigning, we have helped fuel this obsession with parochialism. These days, if you can’t actually trace five generations of your family all being born in the constituency, you get labelled a carpetbagger (I exaggerate slightly). The Lib Dems did more than most to encourage this culture, but all the parties play this game these days. Clearly such an emphasis is bad news for candidates whose parents or grandparents are immigrants (furthermore, it is no coincidence that this emphasis on the “local” has gone hand-in-hand with the greatest period of centralisation in British history, but I’ve written about that before).

Finally, another factor tied up with this emphasis on the ground war is the unfortunate tendency to play ethnic minority communities like mindless cattle. This is one aspect of local politics where the bad habits were established by Labour rather than the Lib Dems but it has become ubiquitous nonetheless. All too often, political parties treat BME communities as an homogenous group. It has to be said that there are plenty of people within those communities who, for reasons of their own, are all too happy to play along. So it is that ‘elders’ and (usually self-appointed) ‘community leaders’ like to act as middlemen (and it does tend to be men), negotiating votes in return for favours. The result invariably leads to greater racial tensions and segregation. And out of the system arise a number of politicians from ethnic minority backgrounds who are used to playing this game and all too often have a totally unrealistic idea about how politics is played elsewhere. Alongside all this comes entryism (the practice of flooding local parties with members who don’t necessarily even know they’re joining and all too often don’t share the parties values with the aim of stitching up candidate selections). It leads us with curiosities such as Irfan Ahmed and is… quaint views about women ending up in the party (I like to think that Irfan can be saved from his illiberal views as he matures; the vast majority of them are founded in ignorance and I have to admit to having some stupid ideas of my own when I was 17. But he doesn’t half push it).

I’m not saying that all politicians from an ethnic minority background come with this sort of baggage or attitude. Far from it. A lot of people, particularly second and third generationers can’t stand this sort of culture. But all too often parties, and the Lib Dems in particular, tend to indulge this sort of ghetto politics rather than side with those individuals who are fighting for a better sort of participation and engagement. Ultimately the problem is that we don’t merely fail to train and support enough BAME candidates; we end up recruiting the wrong ones.

The solution to all this, and in part some of the problems raised by Charlotte Gore a couple of weeks ago, is much less emphasis on “ground war” campaigning in favour of the “air war.” The party needs to identify a stronger public identity and a clearer vision. This will become doubly crucial if we ever gain electoral reform for Westminster.

That however is glib and somehow I doubt anyone reading this will think that is a particularly new thing to say. Nor will it get away from the fact that the Tories have now adopted many of the party’s ground war techniques wholesale, thus making it crucual for us to be able to fight like with like. We are stuck in a tussle that we can’t afford to break free from. And yet the tussle itself is causing the party to become hollowed out, alienates our supporter base and discourages some of our brightest prospective MPs from even considering becoming a candidate. However bad these problems might be for the Tories and Labour, they are that much worse for a party in third place with no safe seats and much lower funding.

It seems to me that we face two unenviable choices: transform our strategic approach and risk destroying ourselves in the process, or carry on as we have been – at best making grindingly slow progress and at worst ending up going in reverse in the process. I happen to think that in the long term the former is more desirable. The prize is not merely a better politics but a system that doesn’t end up excluding so many people from becoming target seat candidates. Incrementalism has had its day and we need to move on. But it will take a brave leader (and future chief executive) to begin the process. Either way, there is simply no excuse for not sorting out a better training and support system for BAME candidates as a high priority.

EXCLUSIVE: Chamali Fernando quits the Lib Dems

I was woken this morning by texts asking if I’d heard that Chamali Fernando – putative candidate for London mayor and sister of party president candidate Chandila Fernando – has resigned the party. It transpires that his is apparently true. No word as to why, but I understand it happened before the vote on tuition fees last night (where she presumably would have supported abandoning the party’s policy to scrap fees).

It’s all go today, innit?

Has “Joker” Lembit been “stopped”?

So claims the Shropshire Star (hat tip: Jonathan Calder):

Sources say Mr Opik has secured the support of only six of the Liberal Democrat MPs – less than a tenth of the total… One insider described Mr Opik as ‘a joker’.

That latter word for some reason makes me think of a 70s song which had a brief 80s revival. How’s this for weirdly appropriate lyrics:

Some people call me the space cowboy, yeah
Some call me the gangster of love
Some people call me maurice
Cause I speak of the pompitous of love

People talk about me, baby
Say Im doin you wrong, doin you wrong

Well, dont you worry baby
Dont worry
Cause Im right here, right here, right here, right here at home

Cause Im a picker [technically an Opik…]
Im a grinner
Im a lover

And Im a sinner
I play my music in the sun

The rest is here.

On a slightly more serious note, one of the things that appears to have blown Lembit’s thunder is Chandila Fernando’s candidacy. People are at least talking about Chandila (not just me). Lembit’s appeal for Primary Colors, sorry “primary colours” has failed to set tongues wagging while Chandila’s more explicit talk about rebranding has provoked much more discussion.

Now, I’ve called Chandila’s candidacy a “cunning stunt” before and I still do, but I’ve never claimed it wasn’t effective. I wonder about unintended consequences though. Superficially at least, with Liberal Vision hailing Lembit as the most liberal Lib Dem MP, it does appear that they would prefer it for Lembit to beat Ros. If that is the case then Chandila’s exercise has essentially backfired.

But if they do feel that way, they are being unfair to Ros. The one candidate who has proven they know a thing or two about branding and positioning in this campaign is Ros Scott, and she’s shown actions speak louder than words.

Chandila Fernando’s website

At the risk of being accused of picking on Chandila Fernando, I do have a couple of comments now that shiny version of his website has finally been published.

1) Now it has been launched, what is the point of the holding page? If it at least had a sign up form that would be something. As it stands it just makes the content another click away. Does no-one worry about bounce rates these days?

2) When will the UK English version be made available? I’m sure proposes to “decentralize” and “modernize” will go down well with an American audience but over here we call them spelling mistakes.

3) Why is it that whenever you point your mouse on the Libby Bird, it flies away? That isn’t just gimmicky, it’s annoying.

4) For all this talk about the party having a confusing brand, which brand will Fernando finally settle on? On the front page alone we have “Modernize, Streamline, Decentralize” and “The Troubleshooter: the activist, on your side, to turn it around.” Click on “About Chandila” and we get three more adjectives “Energy, Leadership, Enthusiasm.” Click on “Manifesto” and it becomes “The Fresh Face, New Ideas, Serious.” These are all very nice words, but how does this amount to a candidate that really knows what he’s talking about when it comes to branding?

5) If you’re going to launch a website days late, you ought to make sure everything is ready. Having an empty “Events” page and “coming soon” on the “Get Involved” page is pretty dire.

I know I’m open to the accusation of being mean here but if you are really trying to sell yourself on your professionalism, you really do need to get your ducks in a row.

Whisper it, it’s unfashionable, but political parties still need members

Chandila Fernando, to his credit, is at least campaigning for some radical ideas in his campaign for Lib Dem President. He wants the Lib Dems to “become the first mainstream political party to move away from the tired concept of card-carrying membership” replacing it with “a system of registered supporters.”

Fernando’s website has currently been replaced by a holding page (is it me or does that big beaming face scream “over-exposed”?) so we cannot penetrate the words of wisdom within. However Mark Littlewood, in his role as Head Fernando Cheerleader, expanded this idea on Lib Dem Voice as follows:

1. Anyone can become a member of the party (which I’d probably retitle “registered supporter”) if they are on the electoral register in the UK and sign some form of statement saying they are a supporter of the Liberal Democrats.

2. This data would be centrally collated – although obviously shared with local parties – on a database package that could be deployed for campaigning and fundraising purposes.

3. Once the system had been successfully implemented, which may take some months (at least!), the party’s constitution should be reviewed in order to attempt to enfranchise these supporters into the party’s decision-making process. This might start with consultation and then go on to “open primaries” for PPC selection and even lead ultimately to mass enfranchisement for a party leadership election.

4. A whole range of issues would need to addressed (length of tenure on supporter list before you get a vote, preventing mass last minute non-LD sign-ups to infiltrate the party, provision for those under the age of 18) etc. These are very serious issues – but are essentially technical and administrative points.

5. The explicit aim of such an exercise would be wider participation and involvement, not “demutualisation” or converting the party into a company controlled an oligarchy.

6. The President of the party wouldn’t, of course, have the authority to impose such a system, but he or she could set a direction of travel. He/she should accept that a traditional party membership model is becoming an anachronism. When Charles was elected, there were 82,000 members. When Ming was elected, there were 72,000 members. When Nick was elected, there were 67,000 members. I suspect the total may have slipped further since then (we’ll see when the Presidential vote is tallied). (These totals contrast with 101,00 Liberal members and 58,000 SDP members at the time of merger – or at least those were the totals for ballot papers issued in 1987 and 1988)

It’s easy to dismiss radical ideas out of hand, but it is certainly worth exploring this idea in at least some detail. It certainly is true that party membership (across all parties) is in serious decline and if the current trend continues at some point the Lib Dems will simply cease to be a viable operation. But is a registered supporter system the answer?

I have to declare an interest at this point. I work for Unlock Democracy, which was created last year when the New Politics Network and Charter 88 merged. Charter 88, up until a couple of years ago, did not have members but instead had a database of “signatories” who agreed with the organisation’s founding charter – of which I was/am one. New Politics Network meanwhile specialised for a while in the funding of political parties and published several publications on the topic, most notably these two. For a couple of years this was my main focus at work. Combined with my experience of the party at all levels, I feel I’m fairly well qualified to interrogate this idea.

The first thing to note is that the idea of political parties having registered supporters rather than members is not new. Indeed I think I’m right in saying the US Democrats had registered supporters before any UK party had members. Party membership as we understand it did not exist until the 20th century. At first Labour didn’t bother with members at all and was wholly owned by trade unions and socialist societies. The Conservatives only adopted a centralised membership system under Hague in the late 1990s. The 1950s is generally regarded as the height of party membership but those members had few rights – party membership was as much a social thing as anything else. It is only really the 1970s, with the advent of one-member-one-vote in the Liberal Party, that what we currently understand as party membership emerged.

The registered supporter system in the US emerged out of the system of caucuses and primaries they tend to use to select candidates. There are as many types of registered supporter system in the USA as there are US States. The one thing however that US States do have in common however is that the two-party system is dominant. Independent and third party politicians are a rare exception. Registered supporter systems tend to work better in two-party systems with good reason: two-party systems for all their flaws are relatively immune from entryism.

This is a crucial point when considering how a registered supporter system would work in the UK. With low participation rates, entryism is already rife in the UK. If anyone on the electoral system could ‘join’ at effectively no cost, anyone could run a mass recruitment campaign with a view to stitching up a candidate selection, regardless of whether they agreed with the party’s values or not. Now, that could arguably lead to us having candidates that better reflected the communities they stood in and superficially that is a good thing. But it would mean the party would effectively be a franchise open to anyone to take over. And however problematic this might be in a system where all parties operated in the same way, it would be much worse for a party that voluntarily chose to do this on its own.

It is interesting to note the Conservative experience with primary selections. The party has not rolled primaries out to all Associations as a matter of course, but has been quite scrupulous in picking and choosing which constituencies to hold them in. Participation rates tend to vary but I haven’t heard of any area which had significantly more participants than they would have had if voting had been restricted to members. No Parliamentary candidate has been elected with a four figure tally of votes as far as I’m aware and even the high profile Mayoral selection was a damp squib.

So the closest example of a registered supporter system we’ve so far seen in the UK has been far from a runaway success. But that will be of no surprise to people who closely observe US politics. Presidential primaries gain all the attention, but the level of participation for congressional candidates is approximate to the Tory experience.

Don’t believe me? Have a look at these results, bearing in mind that each House Representative has about ten times as many constituents as each MP. This is not an exercise in mass political participation by any stretch of the imagination. Yes, presidential primaries are a different story. Speaking personally, I think the idea of using primaries to elect party leaders – our closest equivalent to a presidential candidate – has a lot going for it (and before anyone claims Fernando has inspired me, I first mused about this in January). But that is a very different type of election and fundamentally much easier to control.

Is party membership in terminal decline? Certainly there has been a negative trend but it is statistical nonsense to infer that this is irreversible. There has been some talk about how the Conservatives’ membership has continued to decline despite Cameron’s popularity and how this contrasts with Labour’s fortunes ten years before. A sign of the times? Perhaps, or perhaps a more prosaic answer would be to point out that Labour’s increase in membership in the mid-90s went hand in hand with a massive recruitment drive during that period. For an eighteen month period, the Labour Party had a recruitment form in the Guardian (and often on the front page). It was a key strategic objective of theirs, very much comparable to Obama’s 50-state drive happening today, and judging by the busloads of supporters that would drive past me while I delivered my knocking up leaflets in Oldham East and Saddleworth in 1997, it was a strategy that paid off. But it was also a very costly and ultimately unsustainable strategy; no party could do it in the long term.

The Lib Dems can neither afford a recruitment campaign of that scale nor would it be as effective, but fundamentally if you want to reverse a decline in membership you need a recruitment strategy. We lack one at the moment because, frankly, we haven’t really needed one. If you can deliver growth in seats and votes without more members, why spend money recruiting? As time goes on however, that calculation will change as we run out of activists. Arguably, we have already reached the point where serious action needs to be taken.

We also have to consider momentum. Barack Obama has done a fantastic job at creating momentum, but will he have the same easy time of it in four years time? Is what he’s doing sustainable? What happens once the circus has moved on? Members are certainly harder to recruit than supporters, but they are also less likely to drift away during the tough times.

For an example of this, consider Charter 88’s experience. Charter 88 is one of the most successful pressure groups in history. Creating a database of 50,000 “signatories” in just two years, it embarked on a campaign strategy which delivered significant democratic reform in 1997. Having read the organisation’s 1990 business plan, it is remarkable how even back then it more or less sketched out the Cook-Maclennan agreement seven years later.

Charter’s success was borne of its ability to create a sense of momentum. For nine long years it stormed along like a snowball on steroids. In the 1992 general election it held around 100 public meetings; in 1997 it held around 200 (I helped organise the one in Manchester Gorton). Local groups sprang up all around the country. It was really an exciting organisation to be a part of.

And then it all came to a shuddering halt, almost overnight. By the 2001 general election it was a shadow of its former self and continued to decline after that, only really starting to recover a couple of years ago. There are a large number of factors behind this (if you want to know more, Charter 88 – 20 years of Unlocking Democracy will be in the bookshops in time for Christmas), but one of them, I personally have no doubt, was the fact that its supporter base was essentially shallow. Signatories did not own the organisation and it was all too easy to drift away. And once some people drifted away, it became even easier for others to follow suit. The positive feedback which fuelled the campaign for so many years went into reverse.

Fernando is keen on branding so he should consider the different messages sent out by the terms “registered supporter,” “signatory” and “member”. The latter implies that the individual has a personal stake in the organisation in question; the former terms are passive by comparison. Of course we would want our registered supporters to get involved, but would they? I’m highly sceptical.

The other thing to consider is fundraising. I think I am correct in saying that Charter never once sent a mailing to every single one of its signatories (which peaked at around 80,000). Rather, you would receive newsletters and information for a while but would only continue to do so if you gave regularly to the organisation. This is a sensible strategy; there is no point in endlessly mailing people who you hear absolutely nothing back from. No organisation could afford to throw money into a black hole in that way. Any political party serious about campaigning which was based on a registered supporter system would have to operate in the same way; the cost of keeping hundreds of thousands of people in touch otherwise would simply bankrupt it. Fernando talks about using the internet but significant numbers of people don’t have access to it and direct mail remains a more effective means of communication in any case. How would he hold an “all supporter” election for 300,000 people, most of whom contributed nothing financially? Via teh intenets (excuse me while I stifle a laugh)?

Indeed, I’m convinced that if Charter had looked to consolidate itself in 1997 and become a membership organisation (which it ended up doing nine years later), it would have gained some measure of stability. Having members gives you a core supporter base which you can see you through the tough times as well as the good ones. It gives you a sustainable base on which to conduct internal democracy. There is certainly a downside – members of political parties are by definition less representative of the wider population – but in terms of cost-benefit it is the neatest compromise.

None of this is to say that the party should not have a supporters database and should not seek to engage with them. I have no clear idea how the party centrally currently engages with supporters but judging by what it sends members it is almost certainly lacking. Supporters should be carefully nurtured – from them we can develop donors, activists and – yes – new members. We should take every opportunity to get further involved in the party. We should offer to take them there in baby steps. We should offer local parties incentives to send the central party leads in the form of a cut of every penny they end up giving. But while nurturing supporters should be at the heart of any recruitment strategy, this is very different from treating support as equivalent to membership.

To conclude then, what Fernando is proposing is not new – indeed takes us closer to a Victorian style of party politics. In its pure form it is simply not sustainable. It would be susceptable to entryism. We could not afford to service hundreds of thousands of new “members” without getting income from them. It would not significantly increase participation.

And crucially, supporters are not stakeholders. If we were to devalue membership in this way, it would be naive in the extreme to assume that our members would not devalue their own membership accordingly. Just as we would expect more “registered supporters” to get involved during the good times, we would expect a sharper decline in the bad times. Yes, we have seen membership drop alarmingly during the past decade, but things would have been so much worse if we had adopted the Fernando plan ten years previously. Thank goodness he has no chance of winning.

Lembit versus Lembit

Lembit OpikLembit is making a great deal out of the fact that he has more Facebook supporters than Ros Scott, which is fair enough. I’ve never bought into this idea that this election is a shoe-in for Ros Scott. He can also claim a mini-coup in the fact that Mark Littlewood has abandoned ship and is backing Lembit over and above his Liberal Vision colleague Chandila Fernando.

One thing that confuses me about the Lembit Facebook strategy though is how come he has two, apparently official Facebook groups? One has 516 members, the other features an official video. It’s almost as if they launched an official Facebook group but it was less successful than a disparate group of supporters who had managed to get more people to sign up in the same amount of time, so they abanoned ship. With the website change as well, it certainly does seem as if there has been a mini-coup d’etat within Team Opik. But if you have to save your candidate from himself, is he really worth saving?

Hmmmm… maybe I should start Where’s Chandi…

At 4.54pm today, I got an email from Chris Rennard – which presumably went out to all members – promoting the websites of the three candidates for Lib Dem Federal President. Chandila Fernando’s website currently is short and to the point.

Screenshot for chandila.comFor goodness’ sake. It isn’t like the last leadership election where all the candidates were going from a standing start. These eejits have had two years to prepare their campaigns. Is it really to much to expect them to get the basics right, since they are all so keen on prevaricating on the need for the party to be more professional?

UPDATE: Fernando’s website is now live. It looks remarkably similar to the Liberal Vision website. Wonder why.