I can’t be the only (ex) Liberal Democrat Constituency Organiser that sees huge parallels between the experience of Mary Portas in her BBC programme ‘Mary Queen of Charity Shops’ and trying to organise a political party.
I’ve always liked business programmes – Dragon’s Den, The Apprentice, Tough at the Top etc etc – as I find the world of business fascinating. I watched Mary Queen of Charity Shops after warming to Mary Portas on The Apprentice and wanting to find out more. But the longer I watched the programme, the more her experience of trying to transform a Save the Children shop in Orpington hit home with my experience of working as a Lib Dem Constituency Organiser. Things such as:
- Having to work and keep on board people who have been volunteering for years and years. They are keen and enthusiastic, but many have simply go used to things being the way they are. The number of times I have heard “but it’s different round here” or “it’s worked fine like this for the last 50 years”. At those times you want to shake them and say “yes, but you’ve also been losing for the last 50 years as well.”
- The difference made by an ambitious and enthusiastic leader. Whilst Mary Portas didn’t always keep everyone happy and on board (and sometimes you do have to lose people), her clear vision, persistence and ability to get the able and talented people in the shop to change their ways and help with things they have never done before was what made a difference. In the Lib Dems that person needs to be the candidate or MP, and the best successful example is the MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale Tim Farron who took Westmorland & Lonsdale (a seat where we had lost by 4,500 votes in 1997), from a nearly win to a seat we now hold and where the other week had the highest Lib Dem vote anywhere in the country in a European Elections. Most of that is down to the leadership and energy of Tim Farron.
- People being slightly wary and feeling pushed out by new people coming in and getting involved. Most of the art college students in Mary Queen of Charity Shops were made to feel fairly welcome, but they were seen by some as trying to usurp the older staff.
- People not liking to see us spending money on salaries and doing things professionally because they worry that it is wasting money from donors. I agree that you have to be careful not to waste money and the Lib Dems are continually strapped for cash which actually stops us doing more. But without professional staff we just don’t have the expertise and drive to make a real difference in individual constituencies. If we then pay these people poorly they simply don’t stay working for the party for long. The Liberal Democrats have very few career opportunities for paid staff as there simply aren’t the better paid jobs or new interesting roles to move in to. As a result we eventually lose many of the most capable people.
- Putting up with scruffy and untidy premises because that’s the way it is in a charity shop/political party office.
Mary Portas was far from perfect and I must admit I would get irritated by her frequent use of jargon and her over the top and ever so slightly patronising (“Come here and give me a cuddle”) personality. But she showed that even slow to change environments staffed by volunteers can move forward. What she also showed was how we often put up with rubbish because it’s the way we have always done it and we put up with awkward and in some cases, (although not in this programme), downright rude people, just because they are volunteers.
The Liberal Democrats do try and change these sorts of mindsets in its training, but unfortunately far few people get this training, many people still people don’t value the judgement of the party’s paid staff, we don’t have enough leaders who have the time or ability to energise local parties and sometimes the downsides of working for the party end up demoralising and dragging down the keen people. I am sure though that this also cannot be unique to the Liberal Democrats and so is something that everyone in politics has to change.