Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 2 February 2014

5 things I learned as an activist for a political party

I left the Lib Dems last year after having been a member and activist for just over 5 years. I learned a lot during that time and I think much of it would apply to other parties too.

Such as

1) It costs money

And I don't just means the party membership fees. There are raffles, fund raising events, dinners etc. all of which seek to raise funds for the local party. My local party did not have many active members so the burden for all of this fell disproportionately on those of us who were active. I know there was one member in particular, a stalwart of the party who donated significant amounts of their own money to help keep things going.

But there's more. I stood as a candidate in a council by-election in 2010 and that cost money too in petrol travelling back and forth all over the ward over several weeks as well as on other unexpected things such as buying special chemical hand warmers to stop my hands from seizing up knocking on so many doors!

I'm not saying it cost a huge amount of money but I have a decent job and my own car. For those without those advantages I imagine it would be even harder.

And what's really irritating about this is that...

2) Lots of people seem to think everyone involved in politics is doing it for the money

In the aforementioned by-election one of the things I heard time and again on the doorstep was that politicians are all on the make. As this was being directed at me as a "representative of politics" I felt duty-bound to rebut this claim. I'm not sure how successful it was because as I was trying to get elected to the borough council there seemed to be a residual suspicion that it was in order to get the money. It certainly was not why I was doing it. For a start I knew I had virtually no chance of winning as this is a safe Tory area. But what it did was make me sympathise very much with those activists, especially for the smaller parties who slog their guts out for years and in some cases decades with very little prospect of winning seats. I did it for a relatively short period and it increased my respect for all activists.

3) It's like being a part of a large extended family

Going to party conference (and I think I ended up going to about 7 of them in total in my 5 years) was a very nice experience. There are lots of friendly faces and you know that if you strike up a conversation with someone in a fringe meeting or around the venue you are likely (although not guaranteed!) to share some core political values. As time went on and I got to know more and more people in the party there would come a point when simply wandering around for 5 minutes I would bump into people I knew and often go for a drink or a bite to eat in a completely impromptu way.

Having spent the first 34 years of my life as not a member of any party this was a new and welcome experience. It is the thing I am probably going to miss the most now I am no longer a member.

4) It's pretty damn hard to get on the approved candidate's list for parliament

So having been obsessed with politics since I was about 16 years old and having fairly quickly established myself as a successful political blogger (winning the Best New Lib Dem Blog of the Year in September 2009) I perhaps somewhat arrogantly thought I had what it took to get on the approved list and have a tilt at being a candidate for parliament somewhere (unwinnable) in 2010.

So I applied to go for the half day assessment at Cowley Street and dutifully toddled along expecting that my many years of watching BBC Question Time and reading political opinion pieces would stand me in very good stead.

I could not really have been more wrong.

To be fair to myself I was pretty good at the media task but given I was being asked to respond to the previous week's pre-budget statement by Alistair Darling and I had actually been on Sky News two days before doing exactly that it would have been pretty surprising if I had not been good at it. Of course media skills are an important part of what a candidate needs to be able to do but frankly much more important, certainly in getting elected are the other tasks that I was set such as an "in tray exercise" where you have to decide how to respond to a number of different scenarios as a candidate or a group exercise where I had to role-play within a team (involving some of the other candidates) as if I was on a council committee. Not to mention the "policy and values in action" exam where I had to interpret party policy through the prism of my experience and explain how I would put it into action.

I was pretty bad at these tasks but particularly in the in-tray exercise. I had a very long debriefing with the chap who oversaw the whole process after I failed to get onto the approved list and it was clear that most of my answers were simply plain wrong. In my (partial) defence I had never been in a council meeting or had to deal with any of the scenarios as a candidate so I simply applied my world experience from running my own company etc. It's pretty clear there are a specific set of skills that have to be learned.

And on a final personal note it was also clear to me that...

5) It is very unlikely I would ever have achieved elected office in any capacity

For a couple of reasons.

Firstly I am interested in national politics. When I stood in the by-election I did enjoy talking to people when I was canvassing but only really when it strayed into national issues which as a council candidate I probably should have been steering away from to talk about speed-bumps and dog mess. Which frankly do not really float my boat. And in order to make any headway in getting to a position where I could have had a shot at anything at a national level I'd have had to spend years doing the local stuff, trying to get elected and learning the ropes of everything I had got so wrong during the candidate vetting session.

Secondly I simply do not have the patience to spend thousands of hours of my time doing all of that work over years and years. I have a huge amount of respect for the people who can and do do this but I am now certain I am not one of them. I have a wife, a job, business interests, friends and family (spread all over the country) and various hobbies. There is just not space personally for me to do all of the things that would have been necessary to make headway in the world of elected politics.

As I said in my piece when I left the Lib Dems I am still passionately interested in politics but I have other priorities in my life at the moment and am happy outside of a party. That may change in the future and I may join the fray again some day but it is very likely to be a smaller party or campaigning group and my focus would be on the issues that matter most to me.

I learned a lot in my 5 and bit years as a Lib Dem and for anyone interested in politics I would definitely advise them to join a party and see how you get on. You may well find it suits you better than I ultimately did.


Jim said...

I'm firmly of the belief that anyone who wishes to attain elected office (or indeed any position of authority) should automatically be barred from achieving their objective.

Greg Webb said...

Jim - with all due respect that's an incredibly juvenile, shallow response to an honest and well-reasoned article explaining why politicians have to be highly motivated, hard-working and clearly aren't in it for the money.

A question in return. As you seem to wish that all who want to help organise things be banned, who would you propose instead organises our communities' necessary functions?

Jim said...

Politicians don't wish to 'organise' things, they want to be in a position of power and TELL people want to do. The ones that make it to the top of the tree are mostly borderline mental cases. You'd have to be to want to spend the years and years of clambering up the greasy pole of politics just for the chance to have your fingers on the levers of power. Any sane person would just say 'F*ck this for a game of soldiers, I've got better things to do with my life.'

While there may be a few genuine people who enter politics, possibly more back in the old days when politics was not a career for 20 somethings, but a post career 'giving something back to society' thing, they are never getting to the top. That will be reserved for the conniving, lying, cheating bast*rd borderline personality disorder types who we see on our TVs every night.

I have no idea what is better than what we have, but what we have is sh*t. Lots of people agree with me, because the biggest party at any election is the None of the Above Party.

Kelly-Marie Blundell said...

Hi Mark,
That's an incredibly insightful piece (inciteful?!)
I completely agree about the extended family thing - it feels like the mothership is welcoming you home!
On point 5, I do think there are the opportunities to be involved in so many different areas within a political party, it does seem rather dismissive to say 'I couldn't be a politician, so I wont do it'. I know that's not your reason for leaving LDs, but I just wanted to point it out. I do believe it's teamwork, something that comes hard when I'm used to fighting my own battles!