I’m fortunate to live in an area with a strong Liberal Democrat presence so (although I’ve not had a lot of time), I can have the satisfaction of helping some splendid county council candidates with a serious chance of getting (re-)elected.
But for many thousands of party members this isn’t possible. They live in areas where we have little or no chance of retaining or winning seats this time around, still less of having a major say in the council chamber. And this year more members than ever won’t even have the opportunity to cast a vote for a Liberal Democrat candidate. All credit to our candidates and activists battling away against the odds. Even being a paper candidate, getting the nomination papers signed in an unhopeful ward, flies a little flag for liberalism (and for democratic politics in general). But this can’t be very satisfying in itself.
Partly this encapsulates a general feature of British politics: as the Electoral Reform Society’s Rotten Boroughs campaign shows (and Strange Thoughts provides a case study). ERS’s policy solution – extending STV for local government from Scotland to England and Wales – is clearly sensible, but it doesn’t answer the immediate question for the Liberal Democrats.
Connect offers only a limited response: one can help with telephone canvassing anywhere. But this doesn’t provide the satisfaction of participating in the life of the community where one lives (and I suspect is really appealing only to fairly experienced campaigners). There are some very good national party groups/campaigns (such as Liberal Democrats Against Secret Courts), but again these offer something different to engaging in a local project.
If party membership doesn’t offer a tangible way to participate in the local community, and the national leadership is relentlessly disappointing, then what is a liberal to do? Perhaps the answer is not to centre local party activity on elections. (Of course this isn’t anything new: as Bernard Greaves and Gordon Lishman put it in The Theory and Practice of Community Politics, ‘If elections and the holding of elected office become the sole or even the major part of our politics we will have become corrupted by the very system of government and administration that community politics sets out to challenge.’)
There are dangers here, though. I’m not advocating encroaching on the non-party-political nature of civil society groups. I’ve seen Labour and the Greens and leftist sects try to hijack local organisations, and it isn’t pretty. The Liberal Democrats I’ve known have been scrupulous in avoiding this, but that re-opens the question of why a liberal should be involved in the party at all, rather than an active local civil society group.
Another danger is the limitation of ‘Save our X’ campaigns. These might be worthwhile in particular circumstances, but ultimately are purely reactive, part of the politics of anger rather than the politics of cheerfulness. (Although sometimes they can generate more positive projects, as with Suffolk libraries).
What a local Liberal Democrat non-electoral project might look like would depend on individual circumstances. A fairly common but very modest example is having a party presence at a Pride event. Another possibility: there are plenty of party members who are school governors. It would certainly be undesirable to make parent governor elections party political, but perhaps Liberal Democrat governors in given city or constituency might meet a couple of times a year (with any other interested party member, including school pupils!) to think about their tasks in liberal terms? Something beyond a ‘pizza and politics’ event on schools, which also entailed practical action. I’d certainly be interested in going along to something like that. But then I suppose then I should I try to organise it myself…