4 August 2016

Could crowdfunding raise the Lib Dems from the ashes?


Last week, the former Lib Dem leader Lord Paddy Ashdown announced a new online political movement he was helping launch, called MoreUnited. Founded by a variety of former Lib Dem staffers and political celebs, MoreUnited wants to adopt the mentality of a tech startup, and is based around crowdfunding and online decision making. It aims to encourage a wide range of people to donate varying amounts, which will go to candidates who sign up to the movement’s principles and (yet to be decided) policies.

It is notable that funding and decision making have initially been the main focus of this burgeoning movement, which signed up over 20,000 supporters in its first few days. It is these two issues that the major political parties often get criticised for, as people assert that they are beholden to big money donors, while ordinary members are unable to influence party policy unless they fork out hundreds of pounds to go to their annual conference.

Digital micropayments and secure online voting without doubt offer huge opportunities for reform of political structures that major parties have to date failed to take advantage of. They are currently good at building up mailing lists of supporters to prompt them to take some action, or buying up online adverts. These are powerful and important tools but they are broadcasting, not the conversations that the social media age demands. Technology offers more possibilities than just the above, and the MoreUnited project does at least seem be trying to be a bit forward thinking on this front.

The movement is certainly an interesting idea, and I will always be encouraged by, and encouraging of, people using technology to give politics the kick up the backside it most certainly needs. There was though something about it that left me a little cold. I’m still not quite sure if it was the gratuitous use of the late Jo Cox’s now-famous maiden speech or the rejectionism of the result of a huge democratic exercise that bothered me the most.

It may be the rather unsubtle attempts to realign the centre-left that made me feel uncomfortable. MoreUnited’s platform clearly pushes for the kind of Lib-Labbery Paddy Ashdown has long championed. In recent weeks and months, there has been much talk about such a potential realignment from moderates despairing at the current state of politics.

Not surprisingly, such talk has gathered pace in the wake of the EU referendum, and as Jeremy Corbyn continues to steadfastly drag the Labour party further to the left and oblivion. Yes, the SNP may be dominant in Scotland, running the government north of the border and making a rather po-faced third party in Westminster, but a recent poll by ICM showed the dire situation the centre-left is really in nationwide. Combined, Labour and the Lib Dems were on 35 per cent. That same poll put the Conservatives and UKIP on a combined total of 56 per cent.

The Liberal Democrats and their lowly eight MPs may be an irrelevance in the House of Commons, but they are still a defiant and significant fighting force in the House of Lords and on the streets. The party rightly senses a political opportunity amongst despairing Remainers, angry at Corbyn’s anaemic referendum campaign efforts.

MoreUnited seems to be direct response to all these circumstances, and perhaps a Lib Dem attempt to cash in with people with whom their brand is still tarnished.

Despite my personal reservations, early numbers show that clearly people are interested in what MoreUnited has to offer, so should those of us in the centre and on the centre-right – liberals, libertarians and small-c conservatives alike, be concerned? Why don’t we take advantage of the same tools?

The collectivist approach that online movements deploy works better for those on the left, for obvious reasons. While there is nothing that prevents the centre-right collaborating in this way, it is just rather against the natural inclination to self determination and independent thought that such people tend to have.

While they can be very effective, online-only movements risk becoming a bit insular. You need look no further than Corbyn’s own Momentum footsoldiers, who often more resemble a cult than political activists, to see this. In particular there is a desire to attack the “mainstream media” from all quarters. Corbynites obsess over it, as evidenced by their rather bizarre “#WeAreHisMedia” twitterstorm. I’m not saying they are divorced from reality, but they seem to think  7pm on a Saturday is prime political campaigning time.

There is nothing yet to suggest that MoreUnited is anything as odd as this. Indeed it has been set up to counter the politics of the Corbynistas, as well as the more conspiracy minded Leavers. You can’t help but wonder though if this will be something productive, or just another left-wing digital echo chamber.

Charlotte Henry is a journalist and broadcaster covering technology, media, and politics.