York Lib Dems deny ‘buying’ members, by subsidising membership costs, to ensure they become the largest student group in the country.
Money paid to the Liberal Democrats to subsidise their membership costs could lead to an unprecedented increase in their national standing at a student group. Elaine Bagshaw, Chair of Liberal Youth, said that the group could “get anything they wanted to vote for” at the twice-annual Liberal Youth conference if they all attended.
Offering free membership at Freshers’ Fayre radically increased the number of people who joined the society by a factor of ten. Madeleine Kirk is the Lib Dem candidate for the new constituency of York Outer, which contains the University and almost all of the students at York. A press release from her office boasted that “the York University branch is now the biggest Lib Dem student in the country after 115 new party members were recruited in just one day.”
Previous years have seen roughly 10 members overall. “It was not done with the intention of giving a [national] boost [to York]”, said Kirk, “but it was totally a local initiative. It certainly wasn’t bribery.”
Councillor Tom Holvey, who was on the Lib Dem stall at Freshers’ Fayre, said however that it would help boost York’s profile nationally with the Lib Dems. “It will definitely give York more kudos”, he said.
The money used came from individual donations from the local party, including councillors and local members. The total amount pledged would have covered the cost of 150 members of the party. Even though Kirk herself did not pledge money, she was aware of the deal and fully supported the donations. All the money pledged has been paid, with the excess “going into the kitty in case we wanted to do something like this again.”
Julian Sturdy, Conservative candidate for York Outer, said that the motives for local party involvement involvement were clear. “We have a general election round the corner and, being realistic, they were probably doing it for election purposes. If they’re not breaking any rules, then it’s up to them.”
“Essentially the groups are campus political organisations, and I believe that they should not be influenced by Parliamentary candidates or other outside organisations. I’m really a side role to the campus Conservatives: As a Parliamentary candidate, I shouldn’t be seeking to take over. But”, he added, “if she [Kirk] did give money, then it’s entirely up to her what she wants to do.”
The agreement to donate the money was reached between Craig Martin, Lib Dem chair at the university, and a number of local councillors last summer over an end-of-term BBQ.
Martin calls the money ‘sponsorship’, saying “we have never had enough members. I was always having to treble numbers when telling people how many we had, just to make us look like a worthwhile party. We decided to try this.”
“It is the best thing in the world for me to come into a society that was about to die and completely turn it around.”