This article was first written for the Liberal Democrat Voice website http://www.libdemvoice.org/opinon-dont-confuse-declining-membership-with-a-decline-in-interest-in-politics-36432.html
A couple of months ago I was thinking about going to the Glasgow conference. I’d never been before. ‘You’ll enjoy it’ said some fellow local party members, “and you can be a voting rep too if you decide soon.”
My wife spotted the chance of a weekend away from the children.
‘Can I come?’
‘Well I was hoping you’d come but you’ll have to join the party’
So we both decided to go at the last minute, with her joining the party the week before. With a little complication on getting her security cleared we went for three days until we’d exhausted the goodwill of babysitting grandparents.
First impressions were not great. We had no idea what to do, where to pick up our passes, what was on the agenda or where to go. Important looking people milled past with clipboards and the place was like a rabbit warren, endless corridors looping round on themselves. However we made it into the main conference room eventually and sat down for our first debate.
What struck us first was the sheer quality of the debate. I found myself being convinced of the benefits of policies I would have been staunchly against and then flipping back to my original position when the next speaker would talk. Keeping the higher rate tax rate at 45p was one of those debates, where an amendment to increase the rate to 50p was defeated by 4 votes. ‘Should have joined earlier’ said my wife, who went as a non-voting member.
What brought me to write this post however is the change in wife’s political persuasion since the conference. She is now a committed Liberal Democrat. Without any prompting from me when friends were round last week and the conversation got vaguely political, she passionately arguing Liberal Democrat policies, even defending Nick on tuition fees.
This got me thinking if the liberal baptism of my wife could be achieved nationally if we could get more people to attend events like this. Some ideas:
- More emphasis on regional conferences. I imagine the biggest impediment to attending conference is the travel and babysitting.
- Shorter, 1 day weekend themed ‘summits’ around specific policy areas, such as family issues, youth unemployment.
- Encourage non-members who have an interest in the policy area to attend. For example invite Mumsnet users to attend the family conference or youth groups for the youth unemployment summit.
- Combine this with an ‘e-affiliation’ where people can become associate members of the party for free.
It’s important we don’t confuse declining membership of all parties with a decline in interest in politics. People are passionate about politics but not all of politics, just what matters to them. My wife was deeply interested in the ‘porn filter’ debate, but snored through a fringe meeting on UK growth policy. We need to engage with people on the things that matter to them and maybe get some more liberal baptisms in the process.