Parties report rise in membership after Conservatives win general election

Summary More thoughts on the next five years – including training, development and support for those with desire and potential to stand for election

I mentioned to a friend earlier today that in Whitehall & Westminster, the traditional big offices of state are:

  • Prime Minister
  • Chancellor of the Exchequer
  • Foreign Secretary
  • Home Secretary

Boss, money, outside stuff, inside stuff. Looking back at the general election result, Labour had Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, Douglas Alexander and Yvette Cooper in those roles. I’ve mentioned to a number of people in times gone by that if a party is going to resemble ‘a government in waiting’ in the run up to the general election, the people in the shadow ministerial roles need to be extraordinarily talented individually, compensate for each others’ weaknesses and collectively look & feel like a competent team. Did that team of four have that? Did they have the dynamism, energy, competence and people-friendliness to inspire those outside the party? The fact that both Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander lost their constituency seats speaks volumes. If they cannot inspire their constituents to vote for them, how could they be expected to inspire the rest of the country? Similar applies to the Liberal Democrats – on the receiving end of a nationwide pounding. Their nominal ‘shadow quad’ of those roles (Scroll to the end here – Lib Dems, is the final row correct?) were Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander, Tim Farron and Lynne Featherstone. Alexander and Featherstone lost their seats.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats blown wide open – for new talent to step up

There are eight Liberal Democrat MPs left. (Should someone be sacked inside parties for these results?) Clegg’s resigned as leader, which means it’ll be one of seven men (including Tim Farron, Norman Lamb & Greg Mulholland) who will become party leader. Their party rules say the leader must be in the Commons. (Which means it won’t be a woman as the party has no women MPs left). The ejection of Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander also creates two huge voids within the Labour Party at the very top. I’ve found watching the Twitter chatter from both parties to be interesting – as well as the numbers of people joining/rejoining both parties.

“Was 2015 the general election no one wanted to win?”

From a political commentator’s viewpoint, perhaps – given the state of the economy, the world and public finances. But that’s easy to say if you’re not dependent on public services. For those dependent on public services, the prospect of even more public service cuts or job losses is quite frankly frightening. It’s all very well saying that Cameron will have a tough time keeping his Euro-sceptics in line, & that after 5 years of that an alternative centre-left party will come in & sort things out. It’s all very well saying that any other party would have struggled, leading to an even more harsher alternative in 2020, but in five years something that might have been thought of as extreme can then become the political norm. Think tuition fees. What will be the 2015-2020 policies brought in that cannot be reversed by any incoming government?

“So…why have thousands of people started joining/rejoining political parties?”

The Liberal Democrats are claiming over 3,000 since the election, The Greens over 400, and Labour claiming ‘thousands’. (None of these figures have been independently verified, so it’ll be interesting to see if the numbers hold true). I’m going to try and get a sense from the local parties in Cambridge over the next few weeks. My sense is a combination of fear and opportunity. Fear over what’s about to hit us over the next five years, and opportunity because with such a defeat and a clearout of long-standing senior politicians, now is a once-in-a-generation chance to make an impact on political parties from within.

“What will they do with all of these new members?”

The Green Party also faces similar issues regarding new members – as does the SNP & UKIP. One of the things that’s struck me attending local council meetings in Cambridge is how few members of the public who are members of political parties come along to take an active part in those meetings. Much is left to the sitting councillors, few of whom seem to have any desire to change systems & processes to make council meetings more appealing to the general public. While there is a time & a place for formality – especially given propriety & accountability, what we currently have seems to suck the life out of what could otherwise be interested & energised gatherings. Given the further looming cuts to local government, I simply cannot see how the existing models in & around Cambridge are sustainable. (The amount of administrative time spent on working out how to fill in a pothole or how to get cycle racks installed is unreal).

If anything, there’s no time like now to invite people to step forward as potential candidates for the local council elections in 2016. In my ward in recent years, all of the candidates bar myself & Simon Cooper had stood before, and the incumbent this year who was re-elected first became a councillor here when I was doing paper rounds in this ward in the early 1990s. (Phil Rodgers has the lowdown on Cambridge’s election results here).

“What would you like to see on the back of these membership surges?”

Some new faces, some new activists, and perhaps some longer-standing community activists putting themselves forward for elections (whether as party or independent candidates).

But that involves parties and civic society helping prepare and support people to stand.

I keep on saying that Democracy is not a spectator sport – so don’t expect to be spoon-fed. A number of politicians have mentioned to me how they have found the presence of me and Richard Taylor with camcorders filming as intimidating or off-putting. That was one of the reasons why I deliberately made things easy for the candidates with the interviews I did in the run up to the elections – & will continue to do afterwards. Essentially I ask ‘Daytime TV-style’ questions about their human experiences of being in local politics rather than on specific detailed policy issues. My aim is to get local politicians feeling comfortable in front of camera, and the viewer to be able to decide whether the politician being interviewed is ‘a nice enough person to have a conversation with themselves’.

Formal training matters too

After various hustings and public debates I attended, I spoke to a number of candidates and party activists advising them of who needed what training & coaching to improve their performances in the set piece debates. Poor public speaking had a direct impact on the footage I filmed because it meant that I had to edit the audio to artificially amplify some of the voices of the speakers. I could have simply left the footage as was, but chose not to because I felt it was important to ensure the viewer could hear what was said by whom, and not feel the desire to cut off before the following speaker. A number of people have said they found the video footage really useful, but I don’t know of anyone who changed the way they were going to vote as a result – yet! Nationwide, the organisation I recommend is the charity The Media Trust. As local parties there is nothing stopping you from hiring them to do workshops for your activists & potential candidates on:

  • media interview training
  • public speaking
  • social media
  • making short video clips
  • effective newsletters

The above isn’t about turning new members into clone-town politicians.

“What about activism outside of political parties?”

Because there’s a place for it, that’s for sure. A couple of long-standing Twitterfriends who have been longstanding non-party activists have commented that independent political organising had been put ‘on hold’ in the run up to the election. See @MediocreDave here. Given the experience of 2010 when Labour spent months deciding on a new leader & having an internal debate, the Coalition hit the ground running, brought in austerity, shaped the narrative/line of ‘Labour spent too much/all their fault’ which, supported by a sympathetic print media & an uncritical broadcast media meant that it stuck. By the time Ed Miliband had started to get things together, it was too late. We saw that when the Leeds’ audience for the leaders’ TV appearances tore Gordon Brown’s record to pieces in front of Ed Miliband without a response that seemed credible in the minds of the people asking the questions. Clegg and Cameron also struggled on that show to be fair. Campaigns I’ve seen gathering some steam via social media have included:

  • Keeping Britain in the EU – an acceptance that we’re going to have a referendum by 2017
  • Saving the Human Rights Act – given the Conservative policy of replacing it with a British Bill of Rights (and the recent appointment of Michael Gove as Justice Secretary)
  • Reforming the voting system on the back of millions of votes for the Greens & UKIP but only 2 seats to show for it
  • Protecting people with disabilities and wider anti-austerity demos.

I wouldn’t be surprised if something kicked off should tuition fees rise again either. It remains to be seen what, if any interfaces these and other campaigns have on established political parties.

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