Opinion: Nation’s campaigners kickstarted

ALDC Kickstart: Councillor @alexfoster in a feedback session with his local team

Yesterday saw the conclusion of ALDC’s annual training event Kickstart, designed for councillors and campaigners who are defending and targetting council seats at next year’s local elections.

Next year is a special year indeed, because in all probability the General Election will happen on the same day as local elections. Whilst this is nothing new, the councils that are facing election this time are not the councils that usually combine with a general election. Indeed, it’s likely to be the first time since 1979 that London Boroughs have held their elections at the same time as a General Election. We still don’t know for sure the two elections will be on the same day, but we do know for definite that there must be both local elections and a general election next year. For a list of councils facing election, see Keith Edkin’s Local Elections Trailer 2010.

In many ways I shouldn’t have been there as our council, in common with all but six East Midlands local authorities, doesn’t have local elections next year. But we had a tougher time in 2007 than we expected, faced with a local Labour party that had finally learned to campaign, and we know that that next time we do face elections we’re going to have an uphill battle. So we thought we’d take the opportunity to take a team to learn and hone their skills with 18 months to practice before we’ll need them for real.

We took large team, with a mix of elected and non-elected campaigners, and an even greater mix of history with the party, from over twenty years to barely two. And for over half the team, this was their first experience of a national-level Lib Dem event of any kind. During the weekend, several of them told me that they had been dreading the weekend as a completely new and scary experience, but by the end of the three days, all of us were, without exception, impressed by the training we’d received and how welcome we’d all been made to feel.

That training was a mix of formal, classroom learning with experienced tutors from around the country who have been at the sharp edge of Liberal Democrat campaigns; and private, group-specific mentoring with one person who was able to give very detailed feedback about the plans we already had, and areas where we might consider changing what we needed to do. And around all those were ample coffee and meal breaks that got us all talking to Lib Dems from other parts of the country. Those informal networking opportunities are almost as valuable as the planned training. I had a very interesting time talking to an Oldham councillor about their “Pothole Mole” scheme

The training happened in bunches of five, with over 20 individual sessions running. And for us, one of the best bits was sending the team to the four corners of the hotel to undertake very different sessions – and then bringing them all back again afterwards to compare notes and make plans for how we can use what we learned in our own wards. We’ve come home with a very long list of good ideas that should really help how we work.

Amongst those training sessions were two top notch e-campaigning seminars led by very familiar faces: m’colleagues Mark Pack and Helen Duffett had beetled up the motorway to brief dozens of eager e-wannabes (photo here!). And that included me, because for all the time I spend on the internet, I have still never sent a campaign email to member of the public. I am now much better briefed on that, and any day soon my new skills will be unleashed.

After two days of seminars the weekend culminated in a full plenary session bringing together nearly 200 attendees in one room for a final set of rousing contributions. We firstly heard from several different delegates who fed back what they had learned, and just what they’d be doing when they got back to their constituencies. Two contributions particularly stick in my mind: firstly the team from Woking, who have some good successes to trumpet, including an amazing set of recent recruitment stats from a lively character who, when he wasn’t doorknocking was cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats. And secondly, new PPC Daisy Cooper, who was selected only weeks ago and is facing a battle with John Gummer. Daisy really struck me as “one to watch” – she will go far I am sure.

After presentations from delegates, the weekend wound up with two closing speeches, the first from the party’s Campaigns Director Hilary Stephenson, with a healthy dose of realism about the Sisyphean tasks ahead of us – but also a clear message: we can win, but it will only happen with hard work and good planning. After Hilary, her Hazel Grove colleague Andrew Stunnell MP closed the conference with a speech that combined good advice with good humour and sent us all away buzzing.

The proof of the pudding will of course be in the eating next year. ALDC’s tracking data shows that ALDC members are much more likely to win elections than non-members – and that Kickstart attendees still more likely than that. My team is already considering who we’ll send to next year’s event, and there is no question in our mind we got value for our money. If you’re a Lib Dem councillor – or you want to become one – join ALDC today, and I look forward to seeing you at Kickstart 2010!