Dear New Member,
It’s been exhilarating to meet you and so many of your friends and fellows at meetings over the past few months.
After years of talking to small numbers of Liberal Democrat members in the corners of pubs or the living rooms of houses, packed meetings of interested and well-informed people warm the soul. Some of the questions thrown at me display levels of expertise on specific policies well above what I’ve acquired; the only answer I could offer to the new member who asked what I thought we could learn from the Finnish school system was, “You tell me”. I was invited to a meeting for new members in Yorkshire, some months ago, to talk about our party’s approach to foreign policy, to discover from the first three people I met that each of them had years of experience of working in countries that I had never visited.
The party organization is struggling with its limited resources to make good use of the expertise which many new recruits have brought us. Some are already serving on policy working groups, some helpfully advising different parliamentary spokesmen, others are feeding in to shaping policies at regional level. I look forward to meeting more new members at the Spring conference in York, including in the consultation sessions on Friday which provide the easiest opportunities for members to feed in ideas.
Many of your friends and fellow enthusiasts have piled in to Witney and Richmond, and some also to Sleaford, Copeland and Stoke – and found election campaigning a wonderful collective activity. But can I say to you what I’ve said to the several university professors who have come to talk to me about helping the party they have just joined? “Get out there and walk the streets, outside active election campaigns. Deliver leaflets, and knock on doors. You will learn a huge amount about the state of British politics and society; and it starts to make a difference to people who feel cut off from politics and political elites and will respond to activists who take an interest in their own concerns.”
Political alienation – voters who feel that politics is a circus that performs in Westminster, unrelated to life as experienced on a housing estate in Bradford or a suburb in Solihull – is one of the deepest problems our democracy faces. Labour’s current troubles flow partly from taking its voters for granted, parachuting parliamentary candidates in from London and abandoning canvassing and other local contacts. All politics is local; get in there, talk to local people – and listen to them, too, try to work with them on local problems, and you begin to reconnect them to wider political life. Besides, you learn a lot from the exchange. Involvement in political activity takes you to parts of your community, and country, that you might otherwise never discover.
One of my greatest memories from canvassing is from a morning in Hull, the year after the Iraq war. A journalist friend from Washington had asked to come out with me, to gather English reactions to invading Iraq. At the first door we knocked on, the householder started off on the problem of illegal parking on grass verges. 90 seconds later, via Council taxes and the Labour government, he had reached Iraq, and gave us his opinion that Blair had made a disastrous mistake. Opinions often come out in a flood, a mixture of responses to the latest news, prejudice, hopes, fears, and local wisdom, with personal experiences woven in. In pitching the message of liberalism to the British electorate, we need to listen to where voters are coming from, and find ways to match our principles to their concerns.
Social media and telephone canvassing have begun to transform political campaigning – I hope you’ve tried telephone canvassing too. But the sense of immediate contact that comes from the leaflet dropped through the door, and the canvasser standing there asking what you think, remains vital. And it’s great exercise!
(Ed: The photo was taken in 2006 – but who is it? Answers in the comments, please)
* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.