Tag Archives: liberal youth

The Lib Dems don’t need a blogging strategy. They need a Lembit strategy

Alex Singleton has written a wonderfully charmless little attack post on about the state of Lib Dem blogosphere (it is always nice to find an article like this has been written by someone I have already dismissed as an idiot).

Leaving aside the usual crap about the Lib Dems not standing for anything (bizarrely, he seems to think that Cameron’s Conservatives are a good example of a consistent party – clearly he has never read ConHome – in particular he clearly hasn’t read this article about the Tory’s own internet fail), one can marvel at the sheer ignorance about the subject matter in question. Describing Lib Dem Voice and Lib Dem Blogs as “rivals” is simply gigglesome. It is as if he has never come across the idea of an aggregator before (let alone the fact that Ryan Cullen is in fact the sinister puppetmaster pulling the strings behind the scenes of both websites). He cites Guido Fawkes for attacking Labour’s blog activities, yet seems to fundamentally misunderstand Paul’s real complaint. As I understand it (and I did speak to him on the topic last week), the Guido analysis is that any blogging strategy is fundamentally a waste of time because it will only reach out to the usual suspects.

I broadly agree with that, which is why I’ve never really gone in for this whole puffing about the party via my blog thing. This blog is a way for me to develop my thoughts, to mouth off and to relieve tension (a bit like wanking). Engaging in a dialogue with similarly interested individuals is a plus. Proselytising isn’t even on the radar.

There are good examples of blogging to the unconverted, but you won’t find them at the “top” of the blogosphere but rather in the long tail. Take Mary Reid for example. A great community blog with crossover appeal between political hacks and Kingston upon Thames residents. Mary’s blog works in that way because Mary gets that engagement is about more than blogging – she’s one of the party’s (indeed the UK’s) leading e-mancipators. But you won’t see her at the top of the Wikio rankings or the Total Politics league table any time soon – to do that she would have to make compromises, talking to the political hardcore at the expense of local residents. That would lead her to disengage and ultimately be self-defeating. But Alex Singleton would of course approve.

Generally speaking it is fascinating how journalists consistently fail to “get” the internet, even at its most basic. A couple of weeks ago, a PR Week journalist by the name of David Singleton (coincidence?) reported that the Lib Dems are going to hold a “bloggers’ summit” at Cowley Street on 28 March. Not so – the party is holding a coders’ summit, a far more productive exercise. And of course, there is this incessant and persistant attack on Twitter – which sounds remarkably similar in tone to the incessant and persistant attack by the mainstream media on blogging before every journo and his/her dog started blogging. The phenomenon of mainstream journalists confusing the medium for the message is one of the great mysteries of the age (perhaps it is something Charlie Brooker should investigate on his new Newswipe series).

Are the Lib Dems getting everything right with their internet strategy? Of course not. I would suggest the following:

  • The party doesn’t send out anything like enough emails and the emails it does send tend to be a bit haphazzard. I’m a bit of a social bookmarking evangelist myself, but even I would question the point in encouraging everyone on our email list to help promote the latest Nick Clegg video via Digg. By all means put Digg buttons everywhere, but every second you spend explaining it to the general public is a second you should be communicating the party’s vision and policies.
  • Every party campaign and initiative should be focussed around collecting email addresses (legally of course). Never mind Digg, we should be letting individuals forward information about our campaigns to their address books in a way that is now old hat on sites such as Avaaz.
  • With the Liberal Youth currently mid-nervous breakdown, it is time for the party to make a strategic decision about how it intends to communicate with young people. For years now, it has tended to be left for the youth wing to organise. That was fine when they were the innovators (launching scraptuitionfees.com for instance), but they’ve been bungling it for years now. Following on from Alix Mortimer’s seminal piece last week, it is probably time a group of 20-30 somethings got together and had a serious chat about an alternative that isn’t modelled around a quaint 19th century private members club but rather is a serious attempt to create a liberal grassroots movement that is has strong ties to, but ultimately independent of, the Lib Dems.

Finally, if there is to be a Lib Dem blogging strategy, then the thing it should be focussed around is building up our existing personalities’ web presence. At the start of this year, I avowed a wish to see Lembit Opik start blogging. I’m serious. Lembit’s claim that turning up on light entertainment programmes (catch him tonight on Ant and Dec) helps him reach out to people the rest of the party doesn’t reach is a perfectly sound argument but is poorly executed. Imagine what a plus it would be if he gave people who had seen him on these programmes a place to go; a website which bridged his particular obsession with celebrity and politics? Sadly, he is so steeped in denial that he will no doubt assume this constructive criticism is yet another “pernicious” attack on him.

To a degree, the same could be said about Vince, although his particular brand of personality lends itself better to helping to promote the party. But if you think the party’s success is dependent on having yet another blog to feed the obsessives, you are so wrong you ought to begin a career as a Telegraph journalist.

Liberal Youth launches

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.