The tyranny of geography

A few weeks ago I wrote a long post setting out the core reason the Lib Dems had lost so many seats at the General Election. I wound up concluding the problem was:

…we became too defined by the local to operate effectively as a party of national government. Our spines stiffened too much when we heard people say that the only things that would survive a nuclear war were cockroaches and Lib Dem focus deliverers. We were too interested in the details of local government. And we too often spoke to the electorate not as liberals but as locals.

My proposed solution was that:

…in order to succeed we need to get better at mobilising voters around identities other than locality.

I was thinking about how the party relates to the electorate. But an interesting post by Mark Pack suggests the same could be said of how it interacts with its membership.

He observes that in the business world there’s been a shift away from supplying products through local branches. Think of how Amazon et al have battered Bricks and Mortar retailers. Yet there’s been much little change in the political world that he jokingly speculates that parties are perhaps taking Woolworths as their role model.

Some local connection clearly is…useful – as we saw by its absence in 2010 when a huge Facebook community grew up in the wake of Cleggmania but translated into very little extra vote-winning activity in marginal seats.

But is “some ” really “to such a great extent as to justify the dominance of geographically based local parties”? For example, new members of the party get welcomed by the central party – and welcomed increasingly well with the ramping up of membership cards, welcome packs, introductory events and initial phone calls over the last few years. Yet the only other element is to put them in touch with their local party even though we know that the quality of local parties when it comes to welcoming new people and getting them more active is not only highly variable but also often not up to scratch at all.

Imagine a world instead where the habits of geographic organisation didn’t grip minds quite so tightly and there was a dual structure: the local geographic party and a national (regional?) electronic social community with new people welcomed into both – and the latter picking up more of the work for people living in areas with weaker parties or for people who simply aren’t that rooted in the place they are temporarily living.

It’s instructive to see what happens if you don’t have a postal address to give the party. I moved out of a house in Oxford I was renting with friends back in July. I now live in another shared house but this one is in Hanoi. The corruption and inefficiency of the Vietnamese postal service means that the only way for the party to send me a physical letter would be to put an activist on a plane and have them deliver it themselves. This state of affairs seems to discombobulate membership services. A lot of processes are predicated on the fact things can be posted to you and that you can be assigned to a local party. However, in my case they can’t be and there isn’t one. So they’ve responded by pretending I still live in Oxford. I recently got an email telling me that my leadership ballot was going to be sent to my Oxford address, even though by this point they’d been told three times (twice by me and once by Royal Mail) that I’d moved!

Irritating members living overseas is not a big problem: we are few in number and assuming we don’t have the potential to be large donors there’s not much we can actually do to help. It’s more of a worry that a lot of volunteer energy is expended on sustaining local parties that don’t do a great deal. Producing accounts, holding executive meetings and the like takes time but only indirectly contributes towards campaigning. In many (perhaps most) local parties this kind of internal bureaucracy becomes an exercise in allowing people to feel they are being useful rather in actually achieving anything.

I suspect that our present local branch-centric model is too ingrained to be changed quickly. So I wonder if as an interim measure, the party could waste less of its activists time by merging local parties.There’s surely no good reason that a group of five local parties that each have a membership of 20 or 30 people each have to find someone to dragoon into being their treasurer and producing set of accounts that mostly only show that they are neither raising nor spending much money. I gather this has already been done in some cities. I would suggest extending this by setting a minimum size for local parties and requiring any constituencies that fall below it to merge with a neighbour.

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