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334 – Considering the beam
13 July 2009 (09:28:00)

The Liberal Democrats should scrap their centralised campaigns department in favour of a return to grassroots activity, says Bill le Breton

King James Version
Matthew 7
1: Judge not, that ye be not judged.
2: For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
3: And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
4: Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of
thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
5: Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of
thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

13.7% of 34% is a very small number. The local and European elections revealed abject performances by Conservatives (27.7%), Labour (15.7%) and Liberal Democrats (13.7%). That’s the fact. We stand convicted of being part of a system of deception. Verily, we need to cast out the beam out of our own eyes.

A few years ago, I received an email asking me whether I would speak at a seminar on marketing and politics as the Liberal Democrat in a panel from the three main parties. I said I’d contribute but only from the point of view that marketing with its foundation in deception (the hidden persuaders) is the enemy of the people, the bane of politics and should have no place in campaigning.

The invitation was not pressed, but I suspect that some more compliant Liberal Democrat was found to take my place because there are an awful lot of highly influential Liberal Democrats who adopt and advocate the practices of modern marketing.

The moment we begin to modify our actions, our beliefs, our campaigns to meet the perceived needs, preferences and prejudices of others we lose our integrity, we surrender the leadership that conviction offers in our communities, we join the deceivers, we seek to limit freedom.

I guess that the party’s high profile marketeers remain key advisers to the party’s leadership and that political marketing remains the principle ethos of the Campaigns Department.

In the Westminster Village, everyone huddles round the same opinion polls, marketing strategies, target audiences and policies. It is difficult to distinguish a Liberal Democrat from any other politician. The difference in manifestos, attitudes, accents, vocabulary, suits and even expense dodges are minimal. We look and sound no different. Our policies provide no distinction. Our relationship with the world outside that Village is the same. In essence it is this: you can’t fool all the people all the time but we agree that the winner is the one who can fool the most people, more of the time than the others. Game on.

Modern political practice seeks to deceive, deprive, abuse, control and subjugate. It is an attack on the liberty of the people.


Truth, candour, conviction, self expression, authenticity, a willingness to take a position based on belief and to campaign to enlist support for that position are routes to freedom. Knowledge, experience and energy in our community placed at the disposal of our neighbours in a way that would help them take and use their power for personal and common good is the way to increasing liberty. Exposing and combating the forces that seek to take power from people by deception, deprivation, abuse, control and subjugation are the tasks for Liberals.

Following the dismal European Election results in 1989, when I was acting general secretary of Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors, I called the staff of the Association together for a crisis meeting at which we agreed that what activists wanted to do was to campaign in their communities on the issues that mattered. I argued then as I do now that it is wrong to choose what those campaigns should be from ‘the centre’ but that we should provide campaigning material on every conceivable issue and to make these available to all.

To the Birchfield Centre we invited every campaigner we could identify in the party to a weekend to devise those campaigns. They came from every nation, from every region, from every type of community – even from the Whip’s Office! The resulting ten booklets, each containing diverse campaigning material, were published under the banner of the People First campaign.

They sold and were used by members of ALDC that summer. At the Brighton conference they completely sold out. I remember watching the mail increase at Hebden Bridge as the examples of their use began to be returned to the Association. The stream turned into a torrent as activists set to campaign. It was a huge turning point. The fulcrum was powered by the grassroots.

It is time to see if the party today is capable of doing something similar.

The key difference to the situation now was that we were not campaigning on the same issues in every place at the same time. The campaigns that struck a chord in whatever community would be used by the activists on the spot. Some might be used first, others later. The choice lay with the local activists. In fact, the choice lay with the communities in which those activists lived and breathed.

Nor were the issues obviously popular. The Environmental Pack was sizeable and used heavily, but the environment was still a Cinderella of an issue at that time. They were the ‘right’ issues because they were the issues that the individual campaigners believed in and had probably been campaigning away at in isolation.

Not for one minute did any of us involved in producing the material or mounting the campaign locally ask, “How will this go down with the electorate?” It was hundreds of individual acts of authenticity, of personal conviction, of connection with others in their community. It was joyously uncontrolled. It was great fun. It stimulated action for good, provided leadership for change and helped people take and use their power in their community.

As I write this, I realise that I am not simply advocating another festival of campaigning to be held spontaneously in the dormitories of the Birchfield Centre with the publication of scores of campaigning material for every conceivable issue on which a Liberal wishes to make a stand in their community. No, beyond that, I am advocating that the party leader and the Federal Executive seize the opportunity of Chris Rennard’s departure to disband the centralised, Westminster-based ‘Campaigns Department’.

Instead they should encourage and resource ALDC to take up its old mantle as the campaigning arm of the party. This would also free the ALDC of its perceived need to shadow the Local Government Association and the Improvement and Development Agency. Then, they should throw out the tired, if once useful, General Election Planning system and place in its stead an organisation that will react to the campaigning zeal and activity at the grassroots.

By doing this, they would be practicing good Liberal Democracy. We should be communicating and campaigning in our communities, and our national politicians should be reflecting and reinforcing the actions of local campaigners. I have tremendous faith in these activists, but I do not underestimate the erosion to individual, authentic and improvised campaigning that years of dependency on the Campaigns Department with its power over the flow of funds and target designation may have produced. Let a thousand flowers bloom – well, six hundred and something of them.

To those thinking that this is the time to reform the entire political system, what I suggest may seem a trivial bureaucratic change, but I believe it would begin to transform the party and our relationship with the people. It would turn us from being part of the system of deception and domination into a Liberal Party that exposes, campaigns and assists liberation. At the moment we are part of the problem. The first task is to reform ourselves.

People are rejecting professional politicians. This reaction catches all, including local politicians regardless of their merits. However, people do not reject their fellow citizen down the road who wants to do something about the state of that community; about the conditions of those who live there; about the opportunities that exist there for people to take and use power; who is energetic, inspirational, proficient; who involves and informs them and who is part of a wider movement of similar people in similar communities; and who has characteristically similar friends to call on for help and solidarity who happen to be in parliament. People will not reject a movement that is built on local action and a local record of action, which expresses similar values and mounts similar campaigns, which seeks to represent their communities at Westminster.

I hope I see a little clearer now; surely it remains the old saw: “Campaign and they shall come.”

Bill le Breton is a former chair and president of ALDC and was its acting general secretary at the time of the 1989 European Elections at which the new party’s support dropped to 5%

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