From: Cllr Paul Hodgkinson,
To: Mark Pack
We hope this finds you well and safe. Here is our joint submission to you on the Liberal Democrat’s long-term strategy.
Why a joint submission?
Paul has been a Liberal Democrat member since 1992 and serves as party leader on Gloucestershire County Council in a Conservative-facing constituency. Tom on the other hand, defected to the Liberal Democrats in early 2019, and is a first time prospective Sheffield City Council candidate in South Yorkshire – a Labour-facing constituency. Our experiences are wide ranging, yet we have come to agree on the following points as being essential to the party’s long-term strategy and survival.
But before the party is able to develop this strategy, it first needs to elect a leader and within the next six months. The coronavirus crisis has unexpectedly created a fallow period for us all. We must use this opportunity to better engage with the membership, who, although resilient, have taken a significant battering in recent months. Since the election, party members have had a chance to reflect and regroup. A leadership race would boost grassroots morale and is ultimately, a prerequisite for the successful implementation of any long-term strategy.
Our suggestions are divided into external and internal matters:
The new Liberal Democrat message – whatever we choose – must be positive, upbeat and inclusive of the whole country. ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ may have cut through, but it was a reaction to an offer made by other parties. Without a positive purpose, the Liberal Democrats will only continue to follow a narrative preset by Labour and the Conservatives. Should we continue to trail their areas of focus, we have no hope of shaping a distinct role of our own. We all warm to energy and optimism, so let’s seize the agenda with a more positive message of our own.
Last year’s general election results show Labour retreated to London and the larger cities. The Liberal Democrats cannot afford to follow suit. Our strength and resilience comes from the diversity in our support. In practice, this means prioritising digital campaigning resources for rural constituencies and better targeting rural communities with bold policies on housing, transport, agriculture and digital connectivity. In many areas of the country, we are the only opposition to the Conservatives. Now is not the time to narrow our pitch. We must lead as the party for the union of the United Kingdom and organise our electoral targeting accordingly.
The Liberal Democrats ought to continue its pragmatic approach when engaging with other parties. With a base of eleven seats and a Conservative majority of eighty, we believe, with the resources at hand, our party should seriously target thirty parliamentary seats at the next election.
To do this, the Lib Dems must adopt an ambitious and distinctive long-term goal for the country. We are not a single-issue party, but we are most effective when the messaging and energy of all elements of our organisation orientate toward reaching a specific outcome. This links back to our earlier point on the need to shape a distinct role of our own.
The Lib Dems must also adopt an ambitious long-term goal for itself too – something beyond Westminster. We could, for example, aim to overtake Labour by measure of elected councillors, win contests for directly elected mayors, or exceed 200,000 party members as part of a large scale recruitment drive. The next general election may not take place until 2024. A set goal of this kind could collectively challenge and motivate our volunteers, regardless of any further alterations to the election-cycle.
At present, the Liberal Democrats have no centralised system to record the skills of its membership. Not all members want to or are able to engage with large social gatherings and may like to contribute in some other way. Our membership includes graphic designers, legal experts, accountants, editors, businesspeople etc…and we must be prepared to ask for their expertise, record responses and request their skills when needed. If planned successfully, this could lower costs for central and local parties and improve member engagement.
To improve the diversity of our candidates, the party must offer stronger financial support to those candidates in need. Travel, accommodation, conference passes, child care and leave from work are expensive, and not all party members can cover the costs on their own. The costs of being a parliamentary candidate often act as a barrier for carers, parents and younger people, thus limiting the pool of potential parliamentarians. The potential income generated from a drive to expand the party membership, coupled with a better utilization of its skills could help, in part, fund this new source of financial assistance.
As coronavirus is set to disrupt political activity for at least the next eighteen months, we must be prepared to organise substitutes for traditional physical conferences. Once lockdown restrictions are over, this could include the leader and/or spokespeople taking part in high profile (possibly virtual) ‘town hall’ debates across the regions and nations of the United Kingdom.
We also propose the party slim down the number of committees and reduce any overlapping responsibilities. At present, the size and scope of many internal committees causes confusion and poor communication.
Our younger members are essential to the party’s growth and future success. We must continue to include all our younger members at every level of party activity – from branch to Federal Board. Whilst Young Liberals membership is automatically assigned to all party members under twenty-six, many want to use their skills beyond this student organisation and even stand for office in their own right. It is important they are encouraged to do so.
We offer these suggestions as activists ambitious for our party and in the spirit of goodwill.
Cllr Paul Hodgkinson – Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Gloucestershire County Council (Member – Cotswolds)
Tom Parkin – Prospective Sheffield City Council Candidate (Member – Sheffield)