What Charities Can Learn from the Lib Dem’s European Elections Success

Spoiler alert: you can’t please everyone so stop trying.

Ab Brightman
7 min readJun 3, 2019

British politics is a heartbreaking, fascinating and fluid force right now. Last month’s European elections dealt a meteoric swing to the Liberal Democrats; a party which was being talked about as down-and-out only a couple of weeks beforehand but has since topped a Westminster poll.

There are pertinent lessons from what’s playing out here for charities in cutting through and managing the seeming unpredictability I know we feel in our own work.

Whatever your political viewpoints, I believe that we can always learn from successes — just like my 2015 post Lessons Learnt from the Danish Election Campaign. I’m going to solely comment on the Lib Dems’ success and methods here as I have far more insight into their practices than other parties, but would love to learn from an analysis of any others.

You Can’t Please Everyone So Stop Trying

Stop Brexit, the Lib Dems’ campaign slogan, is a message designed to tell nearly 50% of voters that they are not the party for them. Yet by being bold enough to say no in the the clearest way possible they are able to say yes to other half of the country that they have a realistic potential of getting votes from, and we can see that they have been able to reap the rewards whilst other parties who have attempted to make their appeal far far broader and thus sacrificed clarity have suffered because it resonated with far fewer people.

It’s fairly common for me to work with great charities who want want their target audience to be everyone. Sometimes this is out of a belief that their cause or service is of such importance, but often it comes more from a place of fear — that narrowing down will mean missing out. However the Lib Dems’ strategy was not only a triumph of messaging, but also one of prioritising resources, both time and money, which is a familiar challenge to us.

The more ruthlessly pragmatic you can be about focussing on who you’re talking to (both in the messaging you use but also how you reach people) the more likely it is that they’ll find it resonate with them and that you’ll be able to have had enough contact points with them to build trust and engagement, rather than a random scattergun approach.

London Lib Dems with the special edition ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ manifesto.

Make Strategic Thinking Everyone’s Playground

I’ve often found that in both small and much larger charities the staff and volunteers who aren’t part of the Senior Management Team (or whatever structure there is) are rarely in the loop about the longer term strategic aims and tactics of the organisation. There’s a culture of ‘work your way up’ to get to be the person eventually in the loop; and if you’re happy not to pursue those senior management jobs then that’s just the trade off that you’ve chosen.

The result of this is that it completely ring-fences the whole practice of strategic thinking, as well as information and perspectives, from the majority of the people involved in our organisations.

Like any skill, you get better at strategic thinking (aka the really useful process of thinking things through to predict and shape their outcomes) the more that you practice and reflect on it. The Liberal Democrats, through a combination of deliberate facilitation and an extremely wilful membership, have a culture of active encouragement around strategic thinking (as several other parties and activist movements do too). Tactics and observations are proposed and reflected on fervently during events, and online together. These can range from the most local strategies to the recently captivating ones over the changing landscape of voter values, member recruitment and the best anti-Brexit moves to make. These are ideas are then kept in mind by all involved and energetically tested and changed out in the field.

This is an incredible way to source new ideas from people who understand what you’re fully trying to achieve but can bring different useful perspectives — and it also ensures that the future leaders of the organisations have that strategic skillset practiced from the start. The Liberal Democrat culture is a complete playground for any age. By the time I was 18 in the party I had fed into far more strategic conversations (both being right and completely wrong and learning from it!) than at several charities I worked for since.

As the charity sector we have nothing to gain from our existing staff and volunteer structures keeping those doing the community service delivery or comms putting their insights gathered into the bigger picture direction because they know exactly what it is, and having the opportunity to practice and analysing predictions. In the longer term I am sure this will help all levels and functions of our organisations to make better decisions.

Be Consistent to Lead Opinion

The Lib Dems have always been strongly pro-EU, campaigned hard for remain and have been calling for a stop to Brexit and chance for a second referendum (now known as ‘people’s vote’) since basically the day after the referendum.

Back at the time though a handful of others had also had this idea there wasn’t much of an appetite for it outside the party and it failed to win hearts and minds during the random 2017 General Election either. However, eventually the idea did start to permeate the public and political consciousness up to the point where it is now discussed as a realistic possibility for the coming months.

Probably if you asked a majority of Lib Dems what their current priority was most would say stop Brexit rather than have a future Liberal Democrat government. No doubt that their consistent messaging on this did help with eventual vote gain in this election — but more importantly the consistency has helped to drive opinion and pressure towards their desired outcome. Once those with the same value systems as you start to turn their support to your cause, other people and bigger competitors will start to see your ripple effect they will want to take over or be a part of your momentum.

It’s an important question to ask ourselves; do we most want the credit or most want the thing to happen?

In the charity sector we can be susceptible to ‘mission drift’ where we stop delivering or talking about the thing we originally wanted, or fragment that message by trying to do too much. Neither of these outcomes are taking place as a strategic pivot, but as part of our exhausting quest for funding.

It can be easy in the short-term to follow the promise of a grant or our perception of public appetite down all kinds of rabbit holes. Yet in doing so we can sacrifice momentum (for the change or service we most wanted in the long-term, and the eventual support and respect we may get from this influence) for a feeling of motion sickness instead. If we are always chasing then we cannot be leading, simple as that.

From March 2014 — myself and colleague Ed Sanderson with a huge Lib Dems IN Europe sign. The referendum hadn’t even been called yet but the consistent message was clear.

And Finally… The Outcome is Not the Outcome

The last time the Lib Dems topped the national poll was was 2010 in the peak of Cleggmania. By the day of the election however, they had dropped back to their usual polling place of third, and lost 5 seats in the House of Commons yet ended up in Government. We all remember what happened over the next years, yet here they are again, driving forward their own rise, but also could well come fourth if there was a general election tomorrow. I think that by and large as a result of the rollercoaster rides their party history has always been, the Lib Dems are good at remembering whatever the outcome of today is no guarantee of an outcome for tomorrow… because more than likely a twist is waiting in the wings.

I think this acceptance to buckle up for the ride that making progress is can be both a comfort and a fire of motivation for us in the charity sector. We must never sit still and grow complacent when things are going well in our causes and organisations because we can so easily miss a beat and stumble, as we appear to have watched the previously two main parties perhaps doing. Yet also to trust that even when things are are going badly, perhaps so badly that our organisations are shut down, that in the years to come those staff can go on to live fulfilling new careers and others may resonate with your cause and reignite it after your absence. The outcome is never the outcome.

There is so much more which could be said about party tactics and what polling and voting patterns reveal about our society.

I am passionate about advancing our sector using best practice from others, so I am always up for a discussion or to send through some more recommend reading — just get in touch.

Or if you enjoyed this, check out my reflections about what we can learn from political campaigns in Denmark too.