You are free to do as we tell you

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Simon Titley’s got a lot of attention for the Liberator blog by posting the party’s latest ‘message script’ email. Obviously, as a mere councillor, I’m not important enough to have received that email – indeed, I seem to be missing a lot of emails from the party at present, which makes me wonder who I’ve offended – but it’s the sort of email that’s so swamped in marketing speak that I’d have likely just laughed at it and archived. Sentences like “This broadcast is the first full external use of our new Party message script – the product of Ryan Coetzee’s research into what works with our electoral market and also an extensive consultation with many Party stakeholders” sound more like an attempt to win a game of buzzword bingo than real human communication. As Simon says:

What we have here is an object lesson in how politics has been hollowed out and reduced to a matter of managerialism and public relations. It seems no-one at the top of the party has any intellectual grasp of the gravity of the situation. The global economy is in deep crisis and the problem cannot be reduced to facile slogans about “the mess left by Labour”.

It’s also worth noting Simon’s previous post on grassroots campaigning as well, because the link between them shows one of the problems we face as a party. The leadership have missed a simple point about the nature of the party: people don’t join the Liberal Democrats to be told how to think.

That’s not unique to this version of the party leadership, and there have been many times over the years when the leadership have been reduced to wringing their hands as the members assert their right to control the party. However, this isn’t the first attempt to impose central messaging upon members in the last couple of years, and it comes at a time when the leadership are continuing to ignore the membership. It’s the action of a leadership that sees the membership as little more than drones who should do as they’re told. People might join Labour or the Tories because they enjoy being told what to think and do, but that’s not what I believe the Liberal Democrats are about. (And anyone sending out that email to hundreds of party members and not expecting it to leak really doesn’t understand the party).

So no, my New Year’s resolution is not going to be “On Message, In Volume, Over Time” but to keep fighting for a party that’s open and democratic, run by the membership and fighting for liberalism, not one that’s just a hollow vehicle for marketing speak that battles for a vapid conception of the ‘centre ground’.

6 thoughts on “You are free to do as we tell you”

  1. Hi Nick, I must respectfully disagree with a lot of what you’ve said there.

    Yes, we Liberals don’t like to be ‘told’ what to think, but I don’t think that email does that at all. Agreeing an effective message for our party at this time and encouraging local campaigners to broadcast it is not the same thing at all as ‘telling us what to think’. It is just what an effective political party does.

    One of the big problems we’ve had up until this point is that we haven’t been clear about what our message is, and if we had any messaging at all it wasn’t being produced by people who understood how we campaign.

    And the other article by Simon Titley you link to misses the point even more badly. Yes, the Obama campaign employed hundreds of local organisers, but they didn’t organise ‘grassroots campaigning’ in the sense that Simon suggests or you and I understand it. They were employed and directed by the Obama campaign to organise tightly controlled activity such as voter registration drives and early voting campaigns, to recruit and manage large teams of volunteers who equally worked to carefully controlled targets, and delivered a centrally developed message to key target groups (so called micro-targeting).

    In other words what our party now appears to be doing, under the auspices of the excellent Ryan Coetzee who actually is a grassroots campaigner himself, is much more in line with how Obama’s campaign worked than we have been up until now.

    And if there is one person I would compare Ryan Coetzee to it is Chris Rennard, in fact several leading Lib Dem campaigners went down to SA to help and advise Ryan and his team during their period of growth.

    Personally I don’t see any contradiction between being “On Message, In Volume, Over Time” in our public campaigning and at the same time having “a party that’s open and democratic, run by the membership and fighting for liberalism.” We need both.

    PS I do agree with you that we’re not fighting for ‘centrism’.

  2. An interesting perspective Nick but I would propose that people join a political precisely to be told how to think. Free thinkers like me look at the bigger picture without political bias. It is like standing on the top of a mountain and laughing out loud at what you see below. Please tell me why the running of Colchester’s affairs has anything to do with national politics. I will be very interested in your reply.

  3. Agree with Neil Fawcett.

    We’re definitely eccentric free-thinkers and join the Lib Dems in a sense to exert those values. But we need to be honest with ourselves, how much of this is really just a collective moan because we feel we aren’t getting policy into government – but when you look at what conference passes this can be completely contradictory – for instance great motion on housing passed then opposition to planning reform passed.

    We both need to work together and either leadership or membership getting offended and throwing rocks at each other does the party no good whatsoever.

  4. Jess – as I said on FB, I’ll try and respond to that in proper depth in a post soon.

    Neil, Louise – The problem for me is that this isn’t a one-off, but a continuing example of missives coming out from the centre that completely fail to engage with the members as adults. (See a lot of the posts in Jennie Rigg’s top ten of the year, for instance) There’s been a consistent issue throughout this year with the leadership not listening to the membership and being told that the content of that email should be “the basis for every communication we make” is not the right approach, I feel.

    Working together is important, but it needs both sides to be willing to do it – and quite frankly, the attitude I hear from the leadership is that working together means doing what we’re told, not them compromising on anything.

    Edit: Also, see this post by Jon Worth which is very interesting on the difference in the way we work in politics and real life.

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