Enthusiasm abounds for Gavin Webb’s initiative to start a new libertarian party here in the UK. So far it is just a mailing list sign up, a register of interested parties, but social media is buzzing with the inevitable and exciting question of the name.
A name must work hard for any new enterprise, but is the least important part of the overall plan. Also it is largely a consequence of the rest of the plan, since it must communicate the plan to the public. That plan is the subject of much less discussion.
If your plan is to provide a vehicle for individual uncoordinated cat-like candidates who want to run as “independent libertarians”, if that is all you want, then you should call the party “independent libertarians” and stop reading this article, but consider one thing before you go. Your ambition is made harder by your previous relationship with secretive cabals that cannot keep their noses clean. You will face questions and will have to spend time dealing with them. How are you going to manage to do that if you only exist on paper? If there is no manned office no phone line and no full time book keeper or admin staff to ensure things are in fact run properly?
Incidentally, this plan exceeds the level of ambition of Wirral First, who do not seek to influence the wording on the ballot, and it is worth taking a look at the way Bob and Josie already raised concerns on the Wirral First blog. Ken and Malcolm seemed to have handled that proportionately and with subtlety, but how long will the peace last in an election environment, and can a minimalist party sustain the processes and beaurocracy required to protect against the regrettably real risks of malfeasance?
The reason it cannot do that is simple. You can’t keep extra resources on hand just in case, when the only value your whole organisation is adding is the occasional bit of paperwork once or twice a year for candidates. In commercial terms, the product you are selling is less valuable than your minimum running costs, oh, and the market is tiny.
The value you add could be any goal that enough people want to achieve. You might target national elections and leverage subsidised postage to reach voters with the ideas. A longer term strategy might be to target council elections to gain experience and a record in power, and research specific policy changes that can be applied at the local level. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding local politics disinteresting but that is a reasonable way to proceed. Personally I saw the priority as getting the message out about national policy issues and challenging the regulation, surveillance, Keynesianism, taxes, prohibition and puritanism imposed by Westminster and Brussels. This means simply a strong brand, a media team, and a decent presence in national elections. The old LPUK was just too small to maintain a media team and seriously tackle elections, and I always wished for it to get bigger.
Whatever the strategy, you need an infrastructure to support the credibility of everything else you do, and to support a decent bit of anything you will need to add more value than registering the name.
I am handily reminded of this post which I originally left who-remembers-where several months ago. I assume I’m quoting myself accurately:
The party can build credibility by professionalising itself, which means obtaining a core operational team of paid staff. These people would work full time for the party as co ordinators. They would ensure quality in the communications, project manage the IT and other work that needs doing, handle mail and campaign materials, ensure that campaigns and activism happens, do the books and get them online, as well as being on hand to respond rapidly to the news agenda by calling on the right activists and alert them to what needs doing.
We’re a bunch of amateurs- literally unpaid volunteers messing about and feeling our way through the process- we need to recognise that and supplement ourselves by buying in support we need, Aren’t we supposed to like markets ?
Of course, the fact that the bulk of the party have other jobs in the real world is a strength, so I suggest the NCC and the leadership are not full time roles and are probably not paid, with the exception of the Treasurer.
I added the emphasis to “do the books…” so that it doesn’t get lost among the long list of other value adding activities that these two staff would perform. Let’s drill into those others a bit more:
Professionalising – setting up the processes and procedures that protect the campaigning activities from the consequences of amateur errors. With the deepest respect for Chris and the other NCC members of the last party, making media appearances unprepared and failing to reconcile the accounts are consequences of not having the time to dedicate to politics on top of a real-world job.
Co-ordinating – listening to what members and activists want, getting to know them and bringing them together in groups with the right skills to make the agreed strategy happen.
Ensure quality in communications – producing content, moderating blogs and social media, preparing leaflets and media statements, and being on hand with enough spare capacity that moderation and editing don’t become a creativity crushing bottleneck for volunteers. Also, ensuring that they or someone else is able to prepare properly for media appearences and to seek out more appearences.
Handling mail and materials – “where exactly is that 20ft long banner with the party logo on it? Does Dick have it?”. Also getting stuff printed cost effectively and ensuring it looks great all takes time. Handling correspondence likewise, and membership queries require care and consistency.
Campaigns – party staff would not stand for election, at least that is not the purpose of hiring them. Their role is to facilitate and remove impediments like Scrum Masters for candidates. They would find or act as election agents, chase nomination papers, and make sure that at election time we have candidates and they know what to do. Of course, they could also stand if they have the time. Hopefully they will not have the time.
Activism – exactly the same but for all the people involved who aren’t candiates. Get members together and ensure they have what they need to make an impact on the public. This part happens at or between elections.
Bookkeeping – one employee would act as tresurer, the other would have plenty else to do but 1-4 times a year would act as a second pair of eyes on the accounts. The NCC would also need to take a more active role and someone would need to co-sign cheques, or at least monitor bank statements.
Respond rapidly to the news agenda – lpuk.org had this issue and this blog experiences exactly the same thing: if your volunteers all have real-world jobs (and it is a strength that they do) then who is going to be able to drop everything to write 500 words on the benefits to society of Fracking, or the evils of the war on drugs just because events have driven them unexpectedly into the news? The old party missed dozens of opportunities to react positively to the news agenda and promote libertarian ideas.
So, if none of that sounds useful then that’s fine, whether it is useful depends on the choice of strategy which must be a consensual decision. If it does sound useful – purposefully, for your strategy, not for your ego – then it is time to start finding members in serious numbers. The list above is the sales pitch for the idea of having paid staff, the price of even part time staff could easily hit £40,000 a year (remember those taxes!) and to have a chance of funding that we would need to find a couple of thousand people willing to pledge a decent membership fee to an unproven organisation. Then we’ll need to double the membership target to take into account the problem of collecting on pledges.
If you opt for a minimal strategy I suggest you set out your plan and stick to that plan in a tightly controlled way. People will naturally look to the new party and expect it to do something and do it better than before. They will expect to be able to see it do better in public and for it to be transparent for members. There will be an initial period of enthusiasm and the temptation will be to raise the game to meet your new-found ambition that is, to slip accidentally into doing the kinds of thing I talk about above but without staff to support it. That has been tried and didn’t work, we put all our trust in the hands of one person because we could not afford the time to do it get involved in governance issues, and then though incompetence or malintent the govenor let us down. Don’t slip unconsciously into enacting the same business plan, set your strategy, find your volunteers and stick rigidly within the limitations of your particular plan.
The other way to slip into repeating the same failed plan is to hope to start off on the back of enthusiasm. Sorry, but have you seen how many people in the Rose and Crown had their enthusisam for party politics burnt out of them in 2011? Even if you find fresh energy now it will need to sustain new problems and new crises.
“Staff” means “support”, like the wooden stick of the same name. “Amateur” means doing it unpaid, but it also means doing it for the love of it. Can your love for it really match the usefullness and sustainability of paid support? Don’t risk falling out of love with a brand new party, do it on a serious basis from the beginning.
* the photo is from AgileCamp and is by Luca Mascaro. Agile is a management method for small self-organising teams of very smart people.