Sunday, 15 May 2016

Addressing the 'Targeting' Problem



Following on from my previous post about the issues we Lib Dems have inadvertently created for ourselves through previous targeting strategies, I wanted to throw in a few suggestions about practical things we could be looking at as a party (as opposed to local strategies that our local parties can employ to improve things, though we need to look at the specifics of them too). I think it's important to reiterate that this isn't about criticising the past, or indeed about 'having a whinge' post-election when it hasn't gone well for us (and in Wales it clearly hasn't, though I think the issue is a more general one that doesn't stop at our border, despite some apparent relative success in recent council elections - we need to be careful that such success isn't 'masking the truth' about where we really are). Indeed, I certainly don't claim any great wisdom of foresight that would have meant that I would have done anything differently - I think we can probably all now identify things that haven't worked out quite as we hoped or anticipated over the past couple of years in particular, but hindsight is obviously always 20/20.

Paddy's hat moment has to give us pause for thought about where we have been going wrong as a party, and it's clear that it has done. Having another set of important elections in Wales in particular has obviously, and probably rightly, been something of a distraction from that process. All of us, though, really have to start thinking about where we can do things better 'on the ground', and at all levels within the party - we can't just fall back on the easy excuse of blaming the former leadership of the party for their mistakes, and pretending that everything else is just tickety-boo. It isn't. The General Election result has not only been a significant blow in itself in all kinds of ways, but its effect robs us of the public exposure we used to try to rely on in those areas where we weren't getting to people directly.

The reason I brought up Lord Ashdown's millinery consumption habits specifically is an issue I think we need to be more aware of - the effect of polling and poll results on the perception of the electorate. The big mistake I think he made, and indeed I think we all made, was to assume too much about the lack of direct relevance of broader polling because of local factors and seat targeting. Obviously our 'national' polling is lower than our polling in particular seats we are targeting, as it is going to be for all parties, but we shouldn't therefore assume that the broader picture is meaningless - people do see and hear poll results, and it does have an effect on how they view the party. It has an effect on the way the media are reporting the party - if we are 'down in the polls', the questioning becomes all about 'but you're dead in the water, aren't you?', and that kind of constant questioning, inference and assertion from all sides isn't going to help to persuade the electorate that we are a realistic prospect worth them giving their vote to (even if they are in a 'target seat' and getting lots of stuff directly from us - don't underestimate the power of the 'well they would say that wouldn't they' factor). No amount of clever Lib Dem bar charting will actually overcome a strong feeling fostered through media bombardment, and everything said by everyone else, that we are a 'spent force' (especially when, through technology and social media, people increasingly discuss such issues personally across constituency boundaries, and with others who might not be in 'targets' and might not be getting our leaflets at all).

So, having again emphasised the importance of building up our previously less targeted (and worse) areas, how do we begin to address that? Well before going any further I should again say that I fully recognise the financial issues that the party now has, and indeed the staffing issues, and so on. I know this isn't going to be easy, but I think we still have to try to begin the process of doing what we can by identifying some practical steps we can take (and then, perhaps, trying to raise funds specifically for individual parts of the 'project').

The first thing we need to do is identify where the problem areas are. In Wales we've just lost a bunch of deposits, but that's not necessarily the whole picture of which local parties need our help most. I think party membership is quite a good factor to use as a guide - not only are the smallest local parties the ones with the least resources and least activists, but because of the relative lack of local activity (and the implications of that for recruitment) I suspect they are also very likely to be the ones with the most ageing groups and the least percentage of members who are actually 'active' in the sense of being able to go our delivering, door knocking, and so on. Of course, some former local branches have combined due to falling membership in the past, and cover more than one constituency - that makes it even harder for them. So, without specifying a particular number (or indeed ever revealing it, since there may be implications that lead people to think that shedding, or not growing, membership would be advantageous to their local party, which would be a very bad thing indeed!), I think one important factor to look at is the number of local party members per constituency covered (it might not be the only factor, but it's a good place to start). I think we could broadly define local parties as 'low activity', 'medium activity' and 'high activity', with obviously the first of those being the one most in need of help from outside to begin to build them up. Again, this is about giving local parties practical help to allow them the opportunity to improve things over time, not about punishing them as 'the undeserving poor', or about 'taking them over from on high', or even about 'solving all their problems for them'. It's about the good Liberal principle of 'opportunity'.

Those practical things we should do, then (a few examples - I'm sure others can come up with some more):

1. 'Out' leaflets. This might seem an odd place to start, but I think this could be a really useful thing in several ways. We could 'centrally' (in Wales - other places could do so 'nationally' or 'regionally') get printed some good quality 'out' (by which I obviously mean 'called to see you today' things given whether a door is answered or not) leaflets. These are really important items for getting the message across that a door has been knocked (rather than a leaflet delivered) that not everybody, especially in our 'Lower Activity' places necessarily uses all of the time. A big reason for that is simply one of resources - they may not have easy access to printing facilities, or the money for printing good quality leaflets (or any leaflets, for that matter!), or local leaflet design resources (and that's not always just a matter of 'training'), or in Wales there may even be the issue of translation (not having a Welsh speaker to do it, but knowing that people will react badly to English-only literature in some places). They might be fully aware of the usefulness of such things, but just not be in a position to have them - that may in itself be a discouragement for them to go out door knocking rather than just delivering, since they may feel that it's not having the impact that it could.

Also, one of the issues we have as a party is that we have tended to lose the essence of 'core beliefs' in our policy messaging - we know about this issue - we know that people don't know what we really 'stand for'. This is partly an inevitable result of 'electioneering' (I don't mean that in a negative way - I just mean fighting elections) over policy, but having a 'standard' 'out' leaflet that is intended to be non-localised and non-time (or election) specific is an opportunity to begin to address that gradually at the local level, form the ground up. What I am saying is that we should have a standard Welsh party 'Your local Liberal Democrats called to see you today' leaflet, with pictures of  (and perhaps quotes from) Mark Williams (now the Welsh Lib Dem leader, of course, as well as being our sole MP), Tim Farron and Kirsty Williams (our only remaining AM, and also currently the most recognisable Lib Dem face in Wales). In that leaflet we should talk about 'ideology' rather than 'policy' - not in a dull, purist, off-putting way, but simply talking about the basics of what the party stands for (Rights and Equality, Opportunity, Localism, etc. - starting with 'The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard...' ) rather than setting out how we are currently proposing to achieve it through specific policies. Remember, non-time specific - there's a reason for that. It needs to be something that can be used next year as well as next week.

We order in a bulk load of decent quality printed leaflets, with a 'bulk buy' option for our 'High Activity' seats, and after initial distribution we keep a stock centrally (and once the stock runs out, we can review the design for any tweaking needed, and buy more in). Since the elected representatives of our current held seats for Westminster and Cardiff would be included anyway, there shouldn't be a need for them to be 'localised' further, although they will probably want to use something different at election times, which is fine - they should have the resources to print or buy something else for that. We should try to imprint these leaflets so that other local parties can still use them at election time if they need to. Having defined our levels of local party, we treat them slightly differently to help the most challenged of them. 'High Activity' seats can buy as many of them as they are likely to want/need in directly (they will need the most anyway, because they do the most door knocking). 'Medium activity' seats get the first 1,000 free, and then buy further supplies from the central store (at cost). The 'Low Activity' seats get 1,000 free, and once they have used them apply to the central store for another 1,000 - the central party supplying them free to those local parties that have the least ability to buy in their own, in order to invest in them keeping their activity levels increasing.

Of course, every local party can 'localise' their own version quite easily, in effect - by simply handing over an additional leaflet, Focus or insert along with it. That can be done at different levels by different levels of local party - a 'High Activity' party might have a whole A3 Focus to go with it, whereas a smaller party might include something like a black and white, one-sided, quarter page insert of a local activist, or potential future councillor, or some local party contact details, or a particular current local campaign - the kind of thing that could be produced at little cost (or expertise) at home on a home printer. It would be a rubbish thing to deliver on its own, clearly, but tucked in to a glossy party 'out' leaflet it would work perfectly well.

The reasoning behind this idea is fairly simple - obviously I am aware that this has a cost, but it is a cost that local parties don't have the resources to meet and the central (Welsh in Wales) party can more easily provide and source, because it has some fundraising opportunities at this kind of level that the 'Low Activity' local parties really don't (either by going to specific larger donors and saying 'we need £xxx for this, or by wider 'crowdsourcing'). The costs of it overall, in the grand scheme of what we do as a party, is actually relatively small, but the potential benefits are quite large. By giving these 'Low Activity' groups good quality literature to use when door knocking (and these aren't leaflets that can be just delivered, of course) we encourage them to do more door knocking and data collection to help themselves. We have occasionally done similar things in buying in a load of printed leaflets on specific issues and giving some to everyone for free, but if we direct that into encouraging and assisting with 'contacts' then that starts to encourage activity (especially outside of election periods, which is important). It also allows the party to keep in a small stock of 'out' leaflets that can be used anywhere, which could be really useful when it comes to organising Action Days centrally in low activity places - we're not then reliant on local parties producing suitable literature to use when they may not have the ability.

2. Phone Numbers (and VPBs). Many of these 'Low Activity' parties will these days be using Connect (and if they aren't, that's something else we really need to look at helping with and encouraging centrally!), and obviously one of the best ways to help them 'from afar' with building up a base level of data across their area, and especially if they have council by-elections and the like, is to set up Virtual Phone Banks for other volunteers elsewhere to call (a massive advantage of the system). At the moment, though, they may only have a few phone numbers in the system, mostly of people they already know (with perhaps a few gathered from central petitions and the like). Larger and more 'target' places will have bought in phone numbers in bulk, but there is no way that many smaller parties will have the resources to do that. It's a massively useful investment in allowing them to expand their knowledge and ultimately their membership and activity levels, but they simply can't afford it. We need to help with that - we need to find the money and buy them in for them so that they can use them. It's one of the biggest things the party could do to give them practical help.

I know that the party doesn't have deep pockets to just go and reach into for such a project, of course, but again it is something that they could try to raise specific money to do. They can do that in a way that the local parties themselves are unlikely to be able to do - they just don't have the local donors to do it. We often hear in training sessions (quite rightly) that it's a good thing to go to potential donors with a 'shopping list' of specific things they can donate for, and a long term investment in the overall health of Liberalism and the party through something like this seems to me something we could possibly use in that way. It needs to be a wider 'investment project' that people can be persuaded to contribute towards specifically. Obviously that is likely to take time, and isn't going to happen all at once, but every batch of phone numbers we can fund for those parties who have virtually none gives them a whole new avenue to use (and gives us a whole new avenue to use to help them from outside).

Of course, there are obviously implications of training, setting up virtual phone banks, and so on - those are the easy things to fix, relatively speaking. There's also the issue of organising some kind of central, ongoing 'out of election period' VPB that volunteers from busier areas can be encouraged to spend a few minutes helping out their colleagues with. Actually I think that could be quite successful if it's kept alive with reminders - there are people who will help out with 'remote canvassing' for specific by-elections, and I suspect some would be more than willing to do a little of this kind of thing when they have a bit of free time - of course, it also encourages people (including in 'Low activity' parties) into a habit of regular phone canvassing, and that all helps when it comes to election time, and directing that effort towards 'target seats' (remember, I'm not talking at all about not targeting winnable seats, just about helping other places too, especially outside election periods - building up activity and activists in other places could really help our target seats in the long run too).

4. Action Days. As I mentioned in my previous post, the local parties with the lowest activity will really struggle to organise Action Days in all kinds of ways - providing literature (see point 1 above!), contacting willing participants, organising lists, 'leading' the canvass sessions, and so on. We need to start a program of Action Days to kick-start local campaigning in areas where it isn't happening, or is barely happening. There is, I think, no better way to help and encourage people to start knocking more doors on their own (as a local party), especially out of election periods (which is really important), than coming along with a group that includes some experienced and knowledgeable campaigners that they can learn from, work alongside, and really get a proper feel of what they need to do and how they need to do it. Remember, these are often the people least likely to be willing and able to come to training sessions, but training sessions are no substitute for real experience anyway. Methods have changed a great deal over the years, I suspect, but I also suspect (and my suspicion has been confirmed by comments from someone who recently worked with such a party) that some of these 'Low Activity' parties have become isolated from that, and are simply not carrying out their doorstep canvassing in the most effective way. Again we have to be clear that that isn't their fault, and they should be helped to improve in such practical ways, not simply ignored, or blamed, or told to change from afar. 

5. Regular Two-Way Contact. Following on from that previous point about canvassing approaches, part of the problem that we have is local parties that have become isolated and disconnected from the party as a whole, and from its central core. Localism is a great thing, but parochialism is very, very dangerous. We need to address this, and it won't happen by expecting them or telling them to just sort it out themselves - they won't - that's the point of where we are. We have to see it from their point of view - years and years of no help and being told to 'get on with it' that can easily become resented as 'management by cattle-prod' and/or 'not relevant to local situations' ('that's not how we do it here'). Of course we need to recognise the need to adapt things to local factors, and take the lead from those on the ground in that (to an extent - sometimes we might need to be a little more firm at first, until they realise that we really are on their side and trying to help them do the best they can), but the level of isolation that has developed has got to the point that anything coming from the wider party 'machine' (either 'Cardiff' or 'London') can often be rejected out of hand. The communication is all too often 'one way' - an email from HQ that goes pretty much straight into the 'Deleted Items' folder. Much of that rejection isn't entirely irrational and without justification, of course, because we have tended too much to consider what we are doing in terms of 'targets' and 'High activity' areas, and inadvertently assume that everyone else should just somehow catch up, so to speak (which they haven't and won't). We have to recognise that issue and begin to deal with it better and on a more consistent basis, and part of that is regular personal contact so that both 'sides' can actually begin to rebuild a level of understanding for each others' issues and difficulties.

There are several ways we can do this - a formal 'mentoring' scheme (Note: My spell-checker tried to change 'mentoring' to 'tormenting' - hopefully we can do the former rather than the latter!), having an experienced campaigner (and/or possibly CCC/NEC member) from outside turn up as a regular 'guest' to local party meetings, and so on - the point is that the communication has to be regular, friendly, helpful and mutual, rather than being 'from above'. We have to listen to what such parties are saying about their difficulties, not simply dictate to them how they can address them without helping them or hearing them. I know this issue hasn't developed in any kind of deliberate way from either 'side', and that people do have a willingness to communicate (and have tried in various ways to do so), but we need to understand that it is something we need to learn to deal with in a different way from what we have been doing, because with the best will in the world it hasn't worked. Again, I want to stress that I'm not trying to attribute 'blame' of any kind - I understand both that both 'sides' have had their own issues and difficulties to deal with - the point is that we all need to try to develop a better level of understanding for each other within different parts of the party.

6. Money. Obviously as tricky as it is obvious! 'Low Activity' local parties have no money to do things, and so can't do the things that they would need to in order to get more money. We have to turn that around somehow, to at least some extent, so that they can start on the road to become more financially able to look after themselves (and so that, for example, having to find election deposits for the several constituencies that they might cover doesn't simply mean local party bankruptcy or hoping that one of their local pensioners isn't too hard up this month to pay it for them - as a party we shouldn't be treating our members like that). Now obviously the obvious problem is that the wider party is also skint - I do fully understand that. The costs of doing it, though, compared with what we have to do as a party as a whole are relatively small. To put it in perspective, the cost of one glossy leaflet being printed for hand delivered by the volunteers of a high activity party could mean a few years of financial stability, with enhanced ability to do things (so that at the end of that few years they will be in a better place, with more members contributing), for a Low activity party. Again, this is something that the wider party has a far better opportunity to achieve as a fundraising project than those smaller parties will be able to do by themselves. Again, it is an 'investment project' in the long term future of the party - I'm not suggesting that the wider party takes on responsibility for ongoing fundraising efforts for those who don't do it for themselves, but simply that an initial boost is given to the funds of struggling smaller local parties to give them the realistic opportunity (alongside other measures) to improve their situation in the longer term. I do know that that isn't as simple as it sounds, and I am aware of the financial situation the party as a whole is likely to be in - that doesn't mean we shouldn't identify it as something that would be very useful and important to try to do when we can, though.

None of this is about suddenly winning seats we've never won before. That's not going to happen. It's about recognising that we are on a slow decline in many areas, with our 'Low Activity' areas gradually increasing and our ability to target even council wards gradually decreasing. It's only going to get worse if we do nothing to address it. It's not about solving that problem overnight, either. It is just about gradually turning that slow but steady decline into a slow but steady growth - not something that will win us lots of council seats next year, or lots of seats in parliament in a few years time, but just building a slow, steady, spreading movement in the right direction to improve the overall health of the party, and level of support for the party, over the years. Obviously it will take many years before seats with almost no activity will get to the point of having a good spread of canvass data across their area, an increasing local membership, and an increasing level of activity to the point where they can be mounting any kind of serious challenge to increase council seats and so on, but if we don't start addressing that long term need we will simply continue to watch the party as a whole go steadily downhill. That's not going to help us win seats even in those areas where we can and do mount a serious challenge - if we don't address the problem, we're going to ultimately end up with fewer and fewer of those, and with each having less and less of a realistic chance of success.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

My All Time Top 20 Albums



OK - a break from the politics. I've recently had occasion on a forum to list my Top 10 albums, in order. I should say at the outset that this is always something I have a 'love/hate relationship with - I always enjoy doing such things, but struggle to decide what should go in, and in what order. There were so many great 'nearly made it' albums that I thought I'd expand it and post it here as a Top 20. So here goes (counting down from 20 to 1):

20. TesseracT - Altered State
19. Gryphon - Red Queen to Gryphon Three
18. Avenged Sevenfold - Nightmare
17. Rush - Caress of Steel
16. Gong - You
15. Nightwish - Imaginaerum
14. Ayreon - The Human Equation
13. Candlemass - Nightfall
12. Megadeth - Rust in Peace
11. Iron Maiden - The Number of the Beast
10. Anthrax - Among the Living
 9. Machine Head - The Blackening
 8. Blue Oyster Cult - Secret Treaties
 7. Slipknot - Vol 3: The Subliminal Verses
 6. Marillion - Fugazi
 5. Monuments - The Amanuensis
 4. Metallica - Master of Puppets
 3. Born of Osiris - The Discovery
 2. Black Sabbath - Sabotage
 1. Between The Buried And Me - Colors

So there you have it - I make no apologies if it all changes next week!

 There's a Spotify playlist here of one track from each album:

https://open.spotify.com/user/towardsthesoundofgunfire/playlist/7IjSaANcRZwtHsBz30VPna



Saturday, 7 May 2016

The Strategy of 'Targeting'.





In a previous post I said I wouldn’t be shy about my own opinions on where we can improve, and I want to start straight away with the thorny issue of ‘targeting’, because it is such an important one for us to address as a party (and as individuals). This post is with particular reference to Wales, obviously, and what has happened here in the recent election, but the same issue applies within that party across the UK. Now I fully understand the need to target our resources most in the places where we have a realistic chance of winning – there simply aren’t the resources (people, time and money) to ‘target’ everywhere, and we can’t afford to put too much effort into places where we have no chance at the expense of not putting enough effort into places we can win (especially in the period leading up to an election).

This applies equally to Westminster seats, Assembly constituency seats, and council wards. However, this election result in Wales highlights the problem we have with ‘over-targeting’, especially when it comes to having enough ‘background support’ in those non-targeted specific areas to enable us to gain or hold Regional seats. To put it another way, ‘where we work we (might) win’, but where we don’t work we completely disappear, and we can’t afford to be doing that, especially in the context of no longer having the media coverage that we once did (and let’s face it - we were never exactly the most prominent party in the media!). We can’t control the media, of course, but we can control our own ‘on the ground’ strategy.

What we have, I think, to get away from is the impression that ‘target’ means ‘we do all our work there’, whether that be locally or on a Wales-wide (or even UK-wide) basis. The result of such a concept is an inevitable downward spiral – the strongest places at best carry on being strongest, while the weaker places increasingly become black holes where we don’t exist (and everyone living there knows it, and isn’t going to vote for a party that isn’t there). In council ward terms, ‘strongest’ and ‘target’ may sometimes, as its worst, really mean little more than ‘has an individual activist living there and working it’ (although hopefully there’s some additional history of success, or potential for success, obviously) – the danger is that that activist might leave, move or die, and then that ward can easily become yet another little black hole. Even in constituency terms, even where there are stronger local parties those can become weaker over time (for one reason or another, but especially following an electoral defeat, and we have plenty of those to contend with at the moment), as all the other ones around them continue to be black holes. That path is a long slog to eventual doom for the party, as we end up with less and less targets, and more and more black holes where we have no current (or perhaps even historic) data, no activists, no activity, and no prospect of ever getting any (because we don’t exist to find, attract or encourage them – any potential prospects are unlikely to consider becoming active in a party that effectively doesn’t exist at all where they live, and the few self-starters that do aren’t going to be enough for us to rebuild, and aren’t going to stick around long if they are met with an attitude of virtually zero support).

So what’s the answer? Well, I think we have to increasingly consider ‘target’ of course meaning ‘where we put in most resources and work hardest’, but non-target NOT meaning ‘where we put no resources in and don’t work at all’. Yes, that does have to mean using our limited resources where we have no immediate prospect of winning so that we start to build up a long term investment in getting data, finding potential supporters, finding potential members and activists, and so on. That’s something I think we have to do as local parties, as individual activists, and within the broader party. We all have to consider that, as much as we need to work our own patch, we also have a duty to do a little something elsewhere from time to time – as well as (especially at election time) heading off to help a target area, it also has to mean those stronger target areas (especially outside of election times) doing a little something elsewhere to help the party build and spread its support too.

Sacrilege, I know, to suggest directing resources from probable ‘target’ areas into areas where we might never have much hope of winning, and where currently have no apparent or known support, but I think we need to do it. Targeting resources less ‘closely’, not more ‘closely’, in a sense, but only very slightly – certainly not abandoning the idea of ‘targeting’, but merely modifying the way we have been tending to apply it to that we are always ‘outward looking’ too. Building up that background of data and potential support in other areas might be a long and often fairly fruitless-seeming road, but it will work to benefit everyone in the long run. The more we do it, the more possibility we have of gaining Regional seats, of course. Beyond that, though, the more it allows us to identify people who will not only support us but come and help us out, and the more it allows us to better identify possible future target areas where there might be pockets of latent or potential support that we currently don’t really know exist (because they perhaps haven’t had a self-starting, self-supporting activist living in them for a while, if ever, and so we currently tend not to set foot in them at all).

What am I talking about doing to address that, then? Well, I’ll give a couple of examples. Firstly, in the wider Wales terms, where we have relatively strong constituencies we should not only direct people from elsewhere to help them out a bit at election time, but encourage them to go and help out in weaker areas at other times. Not giving up on working their own area, of course, but simply considering doing a few bits and pieces elsewhere to help other local parties grow. Not for hours on end, and not every week, and not at the exclusion of what they need to do themselves, but just to help build up a little data in what is currently a ‘black hole’ for the long term good of the party in general, and for their own best interests in perhaps finding someone who can pop back over the border onto their side and help out come election time. It helps everyone, even if there is no local activist initially able to come along and join them. Yes, I know all too well that it’s hard enough to find people willing to do what needs to be done in those stronger areas, but we can’t let that stop us from just doing that tiny extra bit each time to broaden our message.

There are a few practical details to work out in terms of Connect access to neighbouring constituencies and the like, but we can work those out as a party, I’m sure - the beauty of Connect (compared with a more locally-based system) is that one group can easily do work and enter data that another group can pick up and use. There are also ‘local issues’ issues, of course, but a little communication and coordination, along with some good generation of generic scripts to use anywhere (as an aside, I think we need to look at improving some of our general-use Connect scripts anyway), should mean that we can overcome that kind of thing without too much difficulty.

The same goes within local parties and constituencies. In one constituency locally, for example,  we currently have 2 main ‘target’ wards that we have been working for a while (not enough, but that’s where we are with local resources, unfortunately, and I know we’re not alone in that in Wales)  – what we have been discussing as a potential way forward is a 3 week rotation of canvassing sessions (with the people working both wards working together for greater safety and efficiency) - week 1 in ward 1, week 2 in ward 2, but week 3 in ‘A. N. Other’ ward within the constituency, moving from ward to ward each rotation. What that will mean is we are in each target ward once every 3 weeks (there are very limited resources locally, and people have lives to do this around, of course, but we’re talking about trying to do at least an hour or so each week), but we are also appearing occasionally in all of the other wards across the constituency too. That way people elsewhere will know we exist (word does get around, even if you only do a few streets each time), and we will be building up a little more data each time – by the end of a year, as well as covering our target wards well, we would have a little bit of data from a few streets in every ward. Not a big deal initially, but it all helps us identify possible future targets to work, and over the years can build us to a place where when it comes to a ‘bigger’ election we have a bit more of a spread of reasonably up-to-date data for targeting mailing, identifying extra target areas to re-canvass, and so on (as well as identifying potential new members, obviously). It’s a little thing, and it’s not going to win us extra seats overnight, but it all helps put us into a situation where we are (little by little) spreading our wings rather than retreating into our ‘fortress’ on the assumption that it’s the only place ‘winnable’ or where we have decent numbers of potential votes.

It also, of course, means that our opponents don’t have the luxury of so easily knowing where they don’t have to bother doing anything at all themselves to oppose us – it makes their ‘targeting’ strategy that little bit more difficult, which is always a good thing for us. This all applies equally to those who have won their own election – being a ‘councillor’ in one area means that you have to concentrate on that area and keep working that area, and that you shouldn’t try to be a ‘councillor’ for other places, but it doesn’t mean that you should entirely cease to be a ‘party activist’ doing some bits and pieces elsewhere to help out when you can. Getting a bit of data spread out across non-target areas also, of course, begins to give you a level of background ‘control data’, and that can be extremely useful when it comes to assessing how successful you are really being in the areas where you are working hard and running campaigns.

Then there are the ‘Action Days’ that various people and party organisations organise and attend and travel to from time to time. Yes, it’s fantastic to have an ‘Action Day’ in a generally targeted seat, but we also have to consider that said seat is always going to be one of the places where we have local activists, lots of data, lots of visible evidence of activity, and so on (relatively speaking – I’m not suggesting that they are brimming over with spare resources or anything, obviously). How about the party trying to help and encourage the organisation of some ‘Action Days’ in some ‘black holes’? Not a place we’re in immediate danger of winning, nor where we have lots of activists (perhaps even somewhere where there might not really be the resources to even organise an Action Day event for themselves), and so on, but a place where a single day of work in the right spot could probably make a huge percentage difference in the amount of current data that they have to work with (and having data means spreading the word, attracting people, identifying possible members, and so on).

The big danger of ‘thinking locally’ is that it can start to become ‘parochial’, and I fear that as a party we are teetering far too close to the brink of that for much of the time. I’m sure some of us are doing some of this some of the time anyway, but as a party organisation as a whole I think we are tending far too much to think about ‘looking after our own patch’ (or ‘the target’) and not thinking enough about the wider picture of background party support across the country – an attitude (perhaps subconscious, perhaps sometimes not) of ‘I’m working this bit and to hell with the rest – it’s not my problem’ (and even ‘you should go and help them in the target place, because you’ve got no hope, so there’s no point in bothering at all where you are’ – apart from anything else, that’s hardly an encouraging thing for people working hard to be told, even though they are almost certainly realistic about their own chances of sweeping success!). Indeed, I would suggest that the way we have sometimes organised ourselves and our targeting of resources as a party has unwittingly encouraged that attitude – the ‘Dragon’s Den’ and ‘Wheelhouse’ kind of approach, for example,  of ‘prove you have the resources and potential to win before we’ll give you any help and resources’. I’m not criticising anybody for that at all – it’s quite understandable, and possibly a potentially effective approach for the short-term goal of winning seats (even though it hasn’t really succeeded in that recently), but we are now very firmly in a position where I think we have to think much harder about the long term future of the party, and trying collectively to better nurture, encourage and develop those other neglected areas instead of leaving them to fend for themselves (even if we’re never going to win constituency, or even council, seats there). If we continue down the road of only supporting those places who are best supporting themselves at the moment, we are thinking about the whole problem of overall support backwards, and slowly hammering nails in our own coffin as a ‘national party’ who can ever be more than a few scattered ‘Independents’ fighting under the same banner.

These issues also extend into the realms of local party and activist finances. I’m acutely aware, of course, of how financially limited we are going to be in the coming years both as the Welsh and UK parties. We need to use what money we have wisely, but that doesn’t mean always pushing it in the same direction – quite the opposite, in some ways. In human terms, in effect what we have all too often been doing is the equivalent of saying to an activist who wants to start delivering leaflets, and has come to us because they need help with design and can’t afford the printing, is that in order to get our help they have to show that they have already delivered a certain number of leaflets (even though we know that they haven’t, because they can’t design or afford them). That is neither encouraging to them, nor is it helpful to the party cause.

The kind of attitude has been happening in effect over local party membership, too – we have been rewarding success with extra money, which doesn’t seem like a bad thing in itself (and has been very successful). However, at the same time we have unconsciously also been effectively punishing those who need the most help, especially in the case of when they are really struggling. Local parties who drop below certain membership levels, where they have the least resources to go out and recruit new members, have what little payment from membership dues they are due stopped, and start getting threatening letters because ‘compliance’. That is wrong, extremely unhelpful, and we have to stop it.

To put it in terms that every Liberal should understand, we are treating those local parties with the hardest jobs and the least resources to improve their situations as the ‘undeserving poor’ – instead of helping them, we are ignoring them at best, and at worst actually punishing them. When local parties are struggling with membership and activity levels, instead of treating them like it is ‘their own fault’ (and it usually isn’t the fault of those dedicated few who are doing their best to keep the party alive in their area despite everything) we need to be giving them real, practical help. We need to be providing them with the opportunity they need in order to improve their situation. Yes, that means money, though a relatively tiny amount in ‘target seat’ terms goes a long way in a ‘black hole seat’ finances, but it also means helping them more practically. It’s not just about training them (though training is helpful and important) – no amount of training will create new activist resources and new members from nowhere. We need to be talking to their neighbours, especially those with much bigger resources, to get them to rally round and physically help out with some canvassing sessions and so on, and if not finding new members for them at least getting them some data that they can begin to use to find prospective future members to begin to work on. We talk often about ‘opportunity for all’ in society, but in our own party we all too often seem to abandon and punish those who need our help the most, and we have to do better. It is in the interests of the party as a whole, as well as being right to support that small band of dedicated individuals who are struggling in the face of the biggest disadvantages.

The issue of the wider, ‘non-target’, ‘background’ support level really matters for the long term future of the party, and we have to remember that the only way we can improve it is to get out there and knock doors – we can’t assume that anybody who might be interested in us is just going to come to us by any other path. We have to go out and find them, and that means spending a little time looking in the places where we haven’t really been looking very much at all in recent years (and that includes where there perhaps isn’t the realistic capacity in the local party to do it themselves on their own). It’s understandable why we have been doing what we have been doing the way we have been doing it, but we need to realise that we have to do things differently in the coming years if we are going to save ourselves from an ever increasing process of retreat and rear-guard action, and a gradual but terminal decline as a nationwide political ‘force’.

One final word on this, though I’m sure that most people in the party will be well aware of this particular issue. The issue of tunnel-visioned ‘over targeting’ and not stepping outside our ‘target’ applies to time as much, if not more so, than it applies to place. Having just had an election, it is no use at all anybody in our ranks thinking ‘well that’s it ‘til next year’. Doing a little and often through the year is far, far more effective in every way than just turning up for a few weeks at election time, no matter how much effort you put in then. We all put extra effort in then, and rightly so, but just as with the location targeting we can’t afford to ever allow ourselves to think about inevitably ‘targeting’ that period at all meaning that we don’t do anything the rest of the time. I know most of us in this party know that very well, but I think it’s still worth repeating, especially with reference to the subject of this post – there is something of a common element of becoming blinkered in looking at our necessary ‘targets’ of time and place, and not really seeing what still has to be happening beyond them.

I guess this might all sound a little like I'm knocking the party or being pessimistic about the future - far from it. I think that, despite a few setbacks, we have been doing quite a good job in some very difficult circumstances of late, and I'm sure that we can continue to build on that and create a very bright future for ourselves as a strong Liberal voice for Wales and the UK. I just think we need to start to realise where we haven't quite done what we need to do, and think about a few things in a slightly different way from the way we have been thinking about them in recent times, in order to do that as well as we can.

An Election Tragedy for Wales






For what should be fairly obvious reasons of being busy and having my attention firmly fixed elsewhere, I've not posted here for a little while, but I wanted now to post my reflections on what has happened in the recent election in Wales.

I’ve stayed quiet for a day or two before saying anything, just to allow the dust to settle in my own dusty data banks. What has happened in Wales is, I believe, nothing short of a tragedy for the people of Wales, and to the Assembly – to lose the dedicated public service of Aled Roberts, Eluned Parrott, Peter Black and William Powell is a blow that many will only grow to appreciate in time. Some of them I know better than others, and have seen in action more often personally, but as well as their excellent work in holding governments to account and getting things done in the Assembly itself, I know how much unseen work they (and their dedicated staff) have been doing over the years to serve the people they represent. The often invisible stuff that doesn’t get the glory and doesn’t make the headlines, but has directly made many, many individual lives better – the really important work of being an elected member. No group of people has worked harder to serve the people, and no group in politics understands better what such service should be about, and in that context the double tragedy for Wales of having them effectively replaced by a rag-tag bunch of failed and disgraced hardline Tories can’t be overstated.

In that context too, the people of Brecon and Radnorshire could not have a better representative than Kirsty Williams, and it is heartening to see that so many of them appreciate that. I’m saddened by her decision to step down from the leadership of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, though I do understand it. She has led the party superbly through such a period of difficulties that were mostly well beyond her control, and her personal dedication, hard work and genuine passion to make things better for people should be an inspiration and example for anyone who seeks to represent people anywhere.

I would also like to pay personal tribute to the many candidates and volunteers (and indeed the all-too-small group of paid staff who all give far, far more time and effort to the cause than they are actually paid for, most of whom will now sadly and unjustly have lost their jobs) who have worked so hard across Wales over the recent weeks, months and years – those who have given up their time, energy, and indeed money, to try to make Wales a better place. Without trying to name every one of the long list of candidates, I must particularly mention Helen Ceri Clarke who stood in my own constituency of Aberavon, and who would have been a fine addition to the Assembly, no matter how unlikely an outcome that might always have seemed in such a place.

There is sadly much public misunderstanding about how ‘politics’ really works at the local level, but we know the reality, at least in our party, is a very long way from the oft-mentioned  ‘party machine’, ‘wealthy elite’, and so on. It is about ordinary people - passionate and dedicated individuals, putting their own lives on hold on a regular basis to do their best to make their own small contribution to making the world a better and more Liberal place by pounding pavements, knocking doors, delivering leaflets, and so on. I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets frustrated seeing and hearing comments like ‘well nobody knocked on my door – don’t they want my vote?’ – we’d love to knock every door and speak to every person, but unfortunately in the modern world there just aren’t enough people prepared to give up their time to such a perpetually thankless (in public terms) task to allow us to do that in many places. I know we will keep trying, though, whatever hill we are faced with climbing.

I must welcome, of course, the gains and consolidations for Liberal Democrats in England and Scotland. It is so sad, though, that a nation with such a great Liberal history of tolerance and decency has been the exception this time, and has fallen foul of the politics of intolerance, division, isolationism and knee-jerk-reactionism. It is not only a tough time for my party, but more importantly a very, very sad day for my nation.

As for the party itself, there will be a little time now to rake over the coals of what went wrong, and discuss campaign tactics, and long term strategic planning, and so on. Of course we have made mistakes, and we must recognise them and try to put them right, but in doing so we must keep our eye firmly fixed on what this thing called ‘politics’ is all about. Now is certainly not a time to turn in on ourselves or turn on each other. It’s not about ‘winning’, and it’s not about ‘power’, and it’s not about ‘glory’. While we may disagree over the coming months about where we have gone wrong and how best to move forward (I have my own opinions on that, and will not by shy of expressing them in due course), we must all keep in mind what we are doing this for – it is about making Wales and the wider world a better, fairer, more tolerant, more equal and more Liberal place, and it’s about working to serve the people, not ourselves. Only the Liberal Democrats can do that, because only the Liberal Democrats are trying to do that – we must keep that firmly fixed in our minds, and re-dedicate ourselves to that goal.

This is, of course, not the end of the great Welsh Liberal tradition, nor even the beginning of the end – as long as we keep working together towards our ultimate goal, it will merely be the end of the beginning of a new chapter in that great history.