Since last July, I’ve been Co-Finance Officer of Liberal Youth. It’s something I’ve enjoyed and found stimulating. It’s also something which, as I’ve got to know the organisation a little better, rather thought provoking. This post is a distillation of some very general thoughts about the organisation and the nature of youth politics which have been percolating in my head for a while now. I am writing in a personal capacity, and none of it breaks the collective responsibility I have to my colleagues on the Liberal Youth Executive. I hope, however, it provokes a little controversy and a bit of introspection about where we go from here.
In imitation of Buzzfeed, it is a listicle. Sadly, there are no gifs.
1) Exec-Membership relations will never be close
Liberal Youth membership is scattered widely across the British Isles, from Cornwall to the Highlands and Islands. This, combined with the number of members, means that the executive will find it impossible to ‘listen’ and ‘speak’ to very many members at all except in the most ephemeral way. Of course, communications can be better or worse, and you should always try, but they will never be close. This is especially true if Liberal Youth members are not engaged where they live or study.
We know as liberals that it’s difficult to relate to distant power – and unlike socialists or conservatives, we accept it. Ultimately, Liberal Youth is what goes on in the branches or it is very little at all. Starting a couple of years ago, there has been a glacial but nevertheless real shift of power away from the centre towards the nations and regions – this is particularly true now that LY England is really getting off the ground. The 2014 budget gives £1,350 (just over 10% of its discretionary spending) directly to the nations, and eventually it’ll hopefully be rather more. Federal LY still has important core functions of training, policymaking, federal campaigns, international events, and so on that it needs to fulfil. But devolution of power downwards is definitely a step forward.
2) We’re not big enough to have critical mass
The problem, following on from point one, is that most young Lib Dems are isolated. We are a small party, and so we’re pretty stretched out. Many LY members live in dormant local parties. Even in areas where we’re active, it’s often difficult, because young people just aren’t that interested in politics, meaning that we’re surrounded by the older, and often the geriatric. In Southport, we have a group of four or five younger people – if you define young as ‘under 35’. This is not exactly a branch, especially as one of them is away pretty permanently at university (me). We need more branches, but unless our membership grows dramatically, a large number of members will continue to be left behind in the foreseeable future.
The Internet is probably partly the answer. The Chatbox, founded by the previous Exec, has 470 members, of whom perhaps fifty are regularly commenting. It’s a place for argument, introspection, and photos of Jeremy Browne in tight trousers. I have often chuckled at people insisting that the Exec isn’t listening to their concerns, when four or five federal officers have just spent a couple of hours arguing with them. This is certainly better than ten years ago when the most immediate expression of grievances was a string of e-mails. Moving beyond simply being a forum for ideas, however, a Campaigns and Policy Network which shifts policy-making powers away from conferences might, if organised properly, be part of the answer. The important thing is that people can construct their own communities which are no longer constructed along geographical lines, even if they’re not as substantial as a university society.
3) There’s nothing wrong with being a careerist
Controversial. But I honestly don’t care why someone does a job as long as they do it well – it could be the stepping stone to become an MP, but ambition is a good spur to get things done. Liberal Youth is also more representative than the battalions of researchers and SPADs which might otherwise make up our future leaders – this is something that was impressed on me at Winter Conference, where two people talked from experience about life in care. We might still be too male, too pale, and too middle-class, but I suspect that we’re better than the alternative. Furthermore, all the training we do, especially Activate, is supposed on the fact that we will become activists – and the activist is often just the pupal stage of the politician. We should be pushing young people to be candidates at every level, if they’re good enough.
I might add that there’s more than one kind of careerism. How many people have taken up a party office at least partly because it might look good on their CV? I did, and I’m not sorry – I’ve enjoyed the challenge so far, and my nobler instincts that also led me to stand have also been satisfied by the work I’ve done. But I suspect that I’m not the kind of person that people are thinking of when denouncing ‘careerists’.
4) We don’t really know what the youth wing is for
Is Liberal Youth a spur to radical action, a social club, a purveyor of campaigners, a form of mutual support, a think-tank for youth-related policy, an incubator of future MPs and councillors, or a dating society? There is no right or wrong answer to that question, but there are often tensions between these different purposes. Was the Gold Guard the best thing in years, or a taming of our radical instincts to make us campaign fodder? Is a spirit of bonhomie an important part of our nature as a youth organisation, or alienating and cliquey to incomers? How do we integrate policy and campaigning, and how far do we dare stray from the national party line? This is probably an insoluble problem, but acknowledging these tensions is crucial to understanding and hopefully softening internal debates. I propose some sort of serious, round-table discussion about this at the next conference, but this is a conversation that needs to occur beyond an hour-long session in a church hall.
5) Different execs have different strengths – and that’s a good thing
Different Chairs have different priorities, and different strengths, and manage their executives in different ways. Without going into detail, Sarah’s style as Chair is different to that of Sam and Kavya, who were in turn different to Tom Wood. I think they’ve each been good Chairs who have advanced the organisation. Not every Chair and every Exec is as good as each other of course (otherwise elections would be pointless). But once you accept that faultless candidates who can do All The Things perfectly at all time just don’t exist, you realise that different is not necessarily bad. Liberal Youth evolves and changes as an organisation – as a result, it needs different leadership at different times.
Some of this is serendipity – if you have an unfair quotient of lazy or incompetent or troublemaking committee members, the leadership style and what the organisation does will change. It’s also pretty difficult for voters to see how a Chair and her officers will run things even without any of this. But elections should be occasions for probing what exactly a candidate’s priorities are, what their record suggests about them, what they think about themselves and their colleagues, and so on. A real choice between a Communicator against a Nuts-and-Bolts Doer, or a Policy Wonk versus a Seasoned Campaigner, or even a simple old Left-Right ding-dong so long as policy is a live issue, would at least give members a degree of choice beyond bland platitudes that they will do a thousand things well at once. Candidates, embrace your strengths and build a vision, and perhaps, at least inwardly, acknowledge your weaknesses.