On Monday night I attended the first #LibDemPint social for new Liberal Democrat members in London in Walkers, a bar on Whitehall.
The first thing that struck me about the event was the professionalism – people were welcomed by smartly-dressed people with clipboards. I joked to one of the organisers Josh Lachkovic that I could resign my membership now as there was nothing left for me to do!
Less of a wake more of a celebration
Peter Sigrist one of the organisers introduced the speakers in an atmosphere I can best describe as euphoric – not perhaps what any of us were expecting after the drubbing Liberal Democrats received at the polls a couple of weeks ago.
So when we heard someone ‘a gatecrasher’ had arrived in the form of Nick Clegg this just added to the excitement that was already building in the room. I was delighted to see my friend Elaine Bagshaw, Liberal Democrat mayoral candidate in the speaker line up alongside more established names such as Tom Brake MP, Caroline Pidgeon, Tim Farron.
Don’t underestimate our new members – they know more than you think
It was thrilling for me to meet so many new members in one place. As a party member of 10 years I felt like a veteran! I was keen to find out from all the new members I met what had prompted them to join. For me one of the most revealing things was hearing that many, if not most of those I talked had been Liberal Democrat supporters for years before deciding to join. They did not suddenly wake up one morning and decide they would become a Liberal Democrat.
This made me even more confident that there are lots of people out there who share our values but who are not yet party members. We must connect with those people and fast.
However, I also spoke to several people who admitted to having not voted Liberal Democrat at this election for various reasons. Maybe they lived in a seat Lib Dems were not in contention. Maybe they were angry at the Coalition. Either way, when they heard Nick Clegg’s resignation speech many of them thought ‘my god I’ve got to do something!
Nick Clegg’s resignation speech clearly had a massive impact on many of the new members I talked to. One talked about forcing his housemates to sit round and watch it with him and then telling them they must join the Liberal Democrats.
I spoke to a lot of people – most in fact – who said they had not been members of political parties before. I found this fascinating and I was interested in what they wanted out of party membership. The answer is different things. Several people asked me how they could get involved in events and campaigning – others influencing policy.
I and many like me have lived and breathed political parties for years. We are anoraks! We need to remember that many of our new members are not and we must not make our activities exclusive or cliquey. So what if you haven’t canvassed before and have never used Connect? All of of us were new once.
Something else I noticed which was really exciting was the varied backgrounds and wide experience our new members are bringing to the party. I spoke to someone who campaigns for electoral reform, another expert in Irish and European politics, communications professionals, musicians.
This made me think – we must not approach our new members with the view that ‘these people are new therefore they know nothing and we will have to teach them how to be Liberal Democrats and do things in a Liberal Democrat way.’
Before we start telling people (even in a well-intentioned way) what they should and shouldn’t do we must ask them what they think and find out what we can learn from them.
We have a huge opportunity here to grow and develop as a party by taking on board the skills and attributes of all our new members and of course doing more to involve our existing ones.
Other things I noticed – it may of been the venue and the timing of the event but there were fewer women there than I would have liked.
I had so many interesting chats with people. I urged them to if they could to attend our party conference in the autumn and to continue to challenge us a party. We have so much to learn from our new members before they ‘go native’ so to speak.
I said that if there were things that they expected to find in a political party – to ask for it! Based on the feedback I was getting no-one I spoke to looked like they would be backward in coming forward in calling for change, quite the reverse.This was music to my ears!
A historic night
Quite apart from the excitement of seeing so many new members from across London it was a memorable night for so many reasons: Nick Clegg attending – clearly interested in not only meeting the new members but also securing his legacy and place in Liberal Democrat history. Tim Farron, potentially next leader of the Liberal Democrats also in attendance and keenly meeting his electorate.
I really enjoyed myself and I left feeling very positive – excited even – about the next chapter in our party’s history. We are entering a period of renewal and we must make the most of it as a party.
Future events have already been set up in London and others are planned around the country. I am confident based on the conversations I had with people at the event on Monday night that these members are going to make a big impact on our party not just now but well into the future.