Monday, August 23, 2021

GUEST POST We need a new generation of Liberal Clubs

Matthew Pennell says the Lib Dems should put bricks and mortar before Facebook.

It was a day at school I’ll never forget: one of my Politics A Level classmates had a taboo revelation for us. 

It was Adam. You’d like Adam, he was nearly a foot taller than me but he was a gentle giant, soft round the edges in an otherwise waspish alpha male wannabe environment. Sharp intake of breath ... then he told us he’d joined the Young Conservatives. 

Mic drop - none of us were expecting that. Adam was a genuinely nice guy, it seemed absurd to my friends and I that he could do such a wicked thing. This was the 1980s. Thanks to the course we knew that not merely were there three million on the dole, but that there was a wider underclass of 10 million and that 90 years of income convergence up to 1980 had been wiped out by 10 years of Thatcherism.

In retrospect Adam’s choice to join the YCs makes a lot more sense. Dartford, our home town, was famous for being officially the most average town in Britain - hitting the mean in terms of socio-economic, age, race and religious demographics. 

It wasn’t average in terms of violence, though. All the towns along the Thames Estuary were very rough and ready during the 1980s. There was a police van parked in the middle of the town centre every Saturday night - a reassuring sight, but it was there for a reason.

Adam just wanted a quiet drink away from all the aggravation. Dartford’s Conservative Club is in the main drag, really straightforward to pop in and make an enquiry about signing up. 

There’s no Liberal Club. I was 17, I should have joined the newly formed Liberal Democrats at the same time, but I didn’t know how to. There was no simple pathway - I didn’t join until I was 41.

Social fabric - more than just a party

My politics teacher was at pains to stress that the Conservatives had a club in every constituency in mainland Britain. I guess this is a product of so much landed-gentry and corporate money being thrown at them for so long. As you can see from Figure 1, party membership used to be a huge part of British life.

Without regular face-to-face human contact, membership is precarious and volatile. Harvard Politics Professor Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone details how pressure groups have moved away from social experiences or a ‘chapter based’ membership model, to an impersonal experience. 

This led to millions joining Greenpeace in the US in the 1980s when the environment became a mainstream media issue, and millions leaving as quickly as they joined.

Unfortunately, with a similar membership model, not really by choice, the Lib Dems sees its numbers wax and wane - in 2019 we had 145,000 members and supporters. I’ve seen many announce they’ve quit the party since via online messages; in most cases they never actually met any other members because the had no local club to go to. 

Why now?

If you joined the Lib Dems after 2010 you won’t have had an easy time, we were on the back foot during the coalition years instead of celebrating our wins in government. 

I joined in 2015 because of a sudden sense that if I didn’t do something the party might disappear altogether. In 2021, however, I’m more confident about our long term future than I have been in over a decade - i.e. I can see a liberal party in some form surviving and thriving for decades to come. 

That being the case it’s no longer fanciful to have long term expansion plans that include boosting our physical presence because we’re not simply firefighting any more, we’re better than that. 

Where would the money come from? 

We spent a lot during the 2019 general election campaign, millions directed towards online ads. It’s clear that after a while we hit the law of marginal returns on this and ended up wasting a lot of our ad spend. This is money that could in the future be redirected towards bricks and mortar and away from Facebook (sorry, Nick Clegg).

This would not be a quick or easy process but it might be worth pursuing a specific fund to increase our club footprint, in the same way we have elections fighting funds. It would also be a way of elevating ourselves above the other small parties who are also reliant on pub and cafe meet-ups to get together.

You can read a longer version of this article on Matthew's blog returnoftheliberal and follow him on Twitter.


John of Louth said...

There are still quite a number of Liberal Clubs up and down the country, but all, as far as I am aware, have ceased to have any political connection. The many Conservative Clubs may be more of a drinking/socialising venue, but have retained that political link. Rather than the heavy capital investment involved in building new premises, might it be worth trying to rekindle the political connection in at least some of the existing Liberal Clubs?

nigel hunter said...

Yes, what I know about Liberal clubs (not a lot) is they are socially orientated.They can/do organise auctions etc for local party funds.It would indeed by worth trying to rekindle the political connection.We do not have that media coverage to show people what we are about,it could help.

Matt Pennell said...

Hello Gentlemen!

Thanks for your feedback - this is such a huge topic I could've written 3,000 to 5,000 words on it, but to borrow a phrase from Spinal Tap that would have 'selective appeal'. Just to clarify, I know it's a lot of money, but you don't have to build new buildings, just rent or buy property in town centres. Given that e-commerce has gone right up the value chain, people are happy to buy furniture, white goods, even brand new cars online retail property values have slumped. My town centres, Dartford & Gravesend, are littered with empty units, £ shops and charity shops. Many of the charity shops - you've never heard of them, if a tuppeny-halfpenny not-for-profit organisation can rent a unit long term, why can't we?

Forging stronger links with the Liberal clubs, that are not officially connected to the Lib Dems, is an interesting idea, I have no idea how they'd react if we wanted to use their space more, but I guess it can't hurt to ask!

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but no. Great idea, but totally impractical. Renting temporary premises might be easy, but getting them licenced would be a nightmare - unless we went back to the nineteenth century model of Temperance Liberal Clubs. Running clubs takes about 80 hours a week - impossible to do with volunteers, but the cost wouldn't justify a full-time employee. Look at the number of pubs that is closing at the moment - about one a week, I have been told. They are closing for a reason - only a declining section of the populace wants to socialise like that any more.

The idea of encouraging meetings of like-minded people is a good one, and is to be encouraged, but the drain of the fixed costs required to acquire and run dedicated premises is just too great. Why not consider Pizza Lunches, Pasta Evenings, pub drinks on a Thursday night, or something like that?

Matt Pennell said...

Hello Anon,

Like I said before I could've said so much more and those who object to the idea seem to have extrapolated out a lot, 2 + 2 = 5. I don't have constituency by constituency membership figs but I do know in Lib Dem hotspots like Bath & NES or Esher & Walton our membership exceeded 1,000 in 2019 - don't tell me you can't get the volunteers to staff a club in such places. I never said they had to be licensed, and you can, if you want, rent/buy a unit and have it open on Friday night/Sat/Sun only if you want.

The reason you don't just do events outside of your own facilities is so that you have visibility and ppl can walk in and enquire about joining/volunteering any time you're open. Jess Phillips talked about ppl queueing up outside her office in Yardley during the last election when they'd been spurred on by something particularly egregious said by a Tory minister. We just don't have that spontaneous reaction if we don't have a building to go to.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Matt, sorry for the delay in responding but I have been away. Thinking about it, the idea of a "pop-up Liberal Club" in unlicensed premises has some merit - even if it only operated one evening a week, or on a Saturday afternoon in a busy shopping precinct. I wonder how easy it might be to find premises on that basis. I might go and have a look.....