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Monday Memories – The Work of a Councillor, Pt.1

1989 began with a by-election in Richmond, Yorkshire. This was to replace a Conservative who had resigned following his appointment as a vice-president of the European Union. Our former constituency chair person was chosen as the candidate for the new party and I joined many others campaigning hard for her election. There were eight other candidates, including a Liberal and one from the SDP, as well as Labour and Green.

Image shows a young William Hague -  one time leader of the British Conservative Party
William Hague. Image credit National Portrait Gallery London

The election was won by a young William Hague with 37% for the conservatives, the SDP candidate receiving 32% and ours 22%. A bitter disappointment that could have been avoided if the SDP leadership had accepted the decision to merge the two parties. The new party was now in debt and facing council elections and a European election.

It became obvious that the four Liberals on Humberside County Council would be unlikely to retain their seats at the May election. Were any of us to do so, we would have much reduced roles and it would be necessary for me to return to full-time employment. When the election came, only one of the four was re-elected, joined by two others. My vote reduced me to third place on the ballot for the Cleethorpes division I had represented for the preceding four years.

By then each of the other three had separated from their wives/partners, at least in part as a consequence of the heavy workload, mostly self-imposed. Only one of our number went on to achieve a modicum of success in politics – our leader. He moved to London where he quickly got elected to Camden Borough Council, a position he held on to for many years.

When I say the workload was self-imposed, it was the inevitable consequence of our insistence that we must play a full part in the work of the council. Four of us chose to attempt to undertake the same amount of work as that shared between 30+ members of each of the other parties.

There were recruitment panels, such as that already mentioned for head and deputy headships in Grimsby, but extending also to a new Assistant Chief Constable, a Manager for the Airport, and various other vacancies that occurred from time to time during the four years. There were disciplinary appeals panels organised as a final tribunal for staff members who contested a sanction imposed in response to unacceptable behaviour. There were several meetings each summer to dispense discretionary grants for third level education.

One of the more pleasant duties associated with membership of the Education Committee was school visits. In particular, there was a national award for the “best community school” given to the school that demonstrated active involvement between school and community. A small panel of councillors and education officials sifted through the various applications from our area, visited the ones whose initial presentation seemed most promising and selected the one that would be put forward to represent Humberside.

The winning school was located in a picturesque East Yorkshire village. The school was clearly at the heart of the community. The primary aged children were encouraged to participate in many activities beyond the traditional curriculum, with a section of the playground given over to the creation of a small farm with chickens and small animals.

I can’t recall now if that school won the National award, but I do remember attending the award ceremony at a prestigious London venue. Interestingly, I see that there is now an annual Community Education Award in the UK but, according to the website, it has been in existence only since 2011.

A young Paddy Ashdown in a Youtube Video

At that time the late Paddy Ashdown was Education Spokesman for the Liberal Party in Parliament. He invited each of us who were members of local government education committees to submit a report on the state of education in our areas. My report featured the importance of community within the ethos of Humberside Schools. Subsequently an organisation promoting community education asked permission to publish my report as an article in their magazine. A version also appeared in Liberal News.

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Monday Memories – Birth of the Liberal Democrats

I saw an advertisement for a job producing articles for a business magazine. The idea was that you contacted local businesses with a view to providing them with a feature in the magazine, funded by advertising from their suppliers and clients. I was quite familiar with a number of businesses I’d used as contractors whilst working for Courtaulds. Several were generous enough to accept my offer to write a feature. I certainly enjoyed talking to the business people and writing about their projects, but the selling of advertising was a task I hated – and it was commission on the income from advertising that was my only reward. Mostly people would fob you off – “he isn’t available/is in a meeting/will call you back tomorrow” (‘he’ never did!).

We were now living on just the attendance allowance I received for my council duties. I don’t know how councillors are remunerated now in the UK, or anywhere else for that matter. Back then we were paid for each four hour period, with a maximum of three such periods in a day. That maximum only ever happened on the four occasions each year when the full council met. Sessions that lasted more than four hours were quite frequent, especially in 1988 during the period when the re-organisation of Grimsby’s schools was in the implementation stage. This meant conducting a series of interviews of all the heads, deputy heads and some teachers who deemed themselves ready for headships, with a view to filling the leadership roles in all the new schools and the sixth form college.

Nevertheless, the daily allowance amounted to much less than I had been earning at Courtaulds. Freda suggested to me that we no longer needed such a large house. She went on to point out that there was a flat for sale above a shop across the road.

We obtained a valuation for our existing house and I was surprised to discover that its value had increased threefold in the nine years we had lived there. Although this was mostly accounted for by inflation – my Courtaulds salary had more than doubled in the shorter period up to my leaving – we had, over the years, put in a number of improvements, including all new kitchen units, fitted wardrobes and new double glazed windows at the front. We had, it transpired, sufficient equity in the house to enable us to purchase the flat outright, eliminating the mortgage from our outgoings.

After the Alliance failed to make the expected breakthrough in the 1987 General Election the bulk of the membership of both parties began campaigning for a merger between the Liberals and Social Democrats. A serious problem had emerged at the election when the two leaders had made statements that seemed to contradict each other in key policy areas. At each of the parties’ annual conferences in autumn 1987 there was overwhelming support for the move and this was later confirmed by ballots of members.

Image shows Dr David Owen, former leader of the UK Social Democratic Party (and former minister in the Labour government 1974-'79)
David Owen made it difficult for the Liberal Democrats to succeed in the period after their formation. Image from https://totalpolitics.com/articles/interview/conversation-david-owen

Nevertheless, David Owen and a few others were unable to support the new party and tried to keep the SDP going (called “The Continuing SDP”). And a group of Liberals from the radical wing of the party tried to keep a separate Liberal Party alive. All of this meant there was a collapse of support and funding for the new party.

I had been approved by the Liberal Party as a potential Parliamentary candidate and had begun applying to various constituencies seeking candidates, including our own. This involved meeting selection committees and then addressing full meetings of constituency members. So far none of these attempts had proven successful.

I had also joined an organisation called “The European Movement”. The local branch was chaired by the conservative MEP for Lincoln* but it was a cross party organisation for people who supported the ideals of the European Union. When I learned, through colleagues on the county council, that the new party was looking for someone to contest Humberside in the forthcoming European elections, I put my name forward. It was acknowledged on all sides that we hadn’t a whisker of a chance but it was deemed important that supporters have the opportunity to demonstrate their support by voting for the party in every election.

*Bill Newton Dunn defected to the Liberal Democrats in 2000. His son, Tom, is a well known journalist.

Monday Memories – Adventures in Retailing

With the election behind us, and the financial returns lodged with the Returning Officer, we took our week’s holiday in Jersey. Actually a week and a day, because the airport was fog-bound on our planned return date. Back in Cleethorpes our thoughts turned to ways of using my lump sum to produce income. Once again, opening a shop seemed like the sensible thing to do. And, this time we would plan properly.

Looking around at the existing shops in the area I noticed that there was not a quality glass and china shop. Yes, there was a housewares section within a department store in Grimsby, and a number of cheap souvenir shops on Cleethorpes sea front. But very few places where the discerning buyer could obtain a good quality dinner service or a set of vases or ornaments. In the library I found a Mintel report on that market sector and discovered that the size of the market was such that reaching just 10% would produce a satisfactory return. Margins were good. Next I contacted suppliers, most of whom proved to be eager to have a new outlet in the district.

Seeking a suitable premises, we found a unit in a recently converted building. Owned by a kitchen design outfit, the ground floor showroom had been partitioned into 4 retail units, the kitchen showroom confined to the upper floor. One unit had already been let to a hairdresser. We discussed the possibility of our taking one of the other units, pointing out that our proposed business would complement the kitchen designer’s showroom. He could supply our display units and we could display some of our wares in his showroom.

Image depicts china objects in glass display cases in a retail setting
Our dream that never materialised. Image from https://www.woburn-china.com/See-our-shop.html

He agreed and took that unit off the market. Time passed during which we heard nothing and then, with a strong sense of deja vu, we learned that his scheme to divide the ground floor and let it in units, intended to overcome his own financial difficulties, had failed in that endeavour and the whole building was now up for sale. It was unlikely that the new owner, when found, would accept us as tenants. The most likely use for the site was as a fast food outlet. In due course that is what it became.

We resumed our search for suitable premises. Just around the corner from us was a shop that had for many years been a dairy. Lately it was occupied by a young chef who made up gourmet ready meals which he sold from the shop, alongside cheeses, charcouterie and fine wines. He was looking for someone to take over the retail side of the business so that he could concentrate on production in an industrial unit he’d leased in Grimsby. He had won a potentially lucrative commercial catering contract but would continue to supply his gourmet ready meals to the shop and would introduce us to his suppliers. The proposition looked interesting. The up front investment was much less than the china shop. We would be taking on an already successful business. What could go wrong?

We took over the business in the autumn and turnover was steady. In the lead up to Christmas we were amazed by the demand for specialist cheeses and other luxury products. Christmas Eve was chaotic with both of us working frantically to keep up with the long line of customers queuing for service. We expected January to be a let down after that. What we had not anticipated was the original owner losing his catering contract and closing his Grimsby unit. Our leading line, our USP, disappeared over night. No more gourmet ready meals.

We found a supplier for such things as quiches and cooked smoked meats, but sales were slow. We were paying the bills from our own resources, not from the business’ income. We distributed leaflets around the district – something I was used to doing as part of my political endeavours – but it produced few results. I ran a series of small advertisements in the Grimsby Telegraph, extolling the virtues of different varieties of cheese.

We thought about relocating to a more central site – one with greater “footfall” – but rent and rates would be much higher. We would need to generate much more turn-over just to meet overheads. And that level of business, if achieved, would require us to hire an extra hand. It was an impossible situation. By the autumn of 1988 it was obvious we needed to close the business. But we would have to find another tenant or continue paying rent even though the business was closed.

A woman answered our advertisement. She was making and selling cakes from her own kitchen but needed larger premises. We still had the kitchen that the chef had originally used to produce his gourmet meals. It seemed ideal for her. She had some government funding under a scheme which paid a basic income to unemployed people wishing to start out as sole traders.

Image depicts a small refrigerated display cabinet, such as might be found in a butcher's shop or deli
A refrigerated display cabinet like the one that disappeared from our shop. Image found at http://www.nisbets.ie

She was only there for a few weeks before she fell behind with the rent. Then one of the refrigerated display cabinets disappeared, replaced by a newer one. I told her she couldn’t do that, that the unit was mine and that she must pay for it.

A few weeks later I had an appointment with my dentist in Grimsby. On the way there I spotted my refrigerated display unit for sale in the window of a refrigeration specialist. He had taken it in part-exchange for the different unit now in the shop. To be fair, he accepted my story and paid me for the unit. It was now up to him to chase the woman for his money.

Monday Memories – Another Election (or three)

Meanwhile, there was an election due in May of 1987 for Cleethorpes Borough Council, in all probability followed soon after by a Genereal Election. We had found a replacement for Gavin, a young man who gave up his job in financial services and bought a house in the constituency in order to work full time, unpaid, for the party.

Now that I was technically out of work, I agreed to work alongside him doing all we could to promote the Party’s message, finding and helping candidates for the Borough Council. Our constituency chair person, a lecturer at Leeds University, ran a series of training days at her home. A few days after I left my job a by-election was called for the port town of Immingham, which was a part of Cleethorpes Borough. We threw a good deal of hard work into that by-election, building a team around the candidate, and secured the seat.

For the first four months of 1987 we continued to work hard. As agent for about 40 candidates, including myself, it was my job to ensure that the rules about spending and publicity were properly adhered to. The spreadsheet programme proved very handy for the task, and the Word Processor (“Locoscript”) was good for producing leaflets on the Amstrad’s tiny 9pin dot matrix printer. We used it to produce masters which were then taken to an offset litho printing company to be reproduced.

The end result was that we increased our representation on the council, becoming the largest party. With support from the handful of Independent members we could have taken charge. The Independents, however, refused that support, allowing Conservative and Labour members combine to deny us the opportunity. They had all been in office for many years and, I suppose, were not prepared to have a bunch of new-comers with radical ideas break up their cosy arrangement.

I was now a member of two councils. Would there be a General Election? Given the success of Alliance candidates across the country, which matched similar results a year earlier, and several Parliamentary by-elections, I doubted it. I booked us a holiday for a week in Jersey to coincide with Freda’s birthday at the beginning of the second week in June. Margaret Thatcher had other ideas, however, and called the election for the Thursday of the following week. We postponed the holiday until afterwards and redoubled our efforts at promoting our candidate.

Two issues dominated the election locally and I had some degree of involvement with both. A few years before there had been a proposal that low level Nuclear Waste could be stored on a site belonging to the national power generation company, CEGB. There was a campaign against the proposal locally. I was one of several hundred people who took part in a protest march and demonstration.

Image shows a gas turbine power station at night.
Killingholme power station at night. The gas powered station opened in 1994 and was recently shut down. In the mid-1980s there was a plan to store nuclear waste on the site. Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killingholme_A_power_station

That scheme was quietly shelved but there were now rumours that the site might be used for the construction of a nuclear power station. On one of our trips to Germany I had taken a photograph of a nuclear power station we passed on the banks of the Rhine. Now, for one of two tabloid newspapers we produced during the election, I superimposed that photograph on one of the CEGB site. Remember, this was done with actual cut and paste – no photoshop or any of the other software we are used to today.

The other issue concerned education. Before I and my 3 Liberal colleagues were elected to the council, a plan had been devised by the council, and approved by the government’s Department of Education, to reorganise the school system in Hull. Liberals in Hull had opposed it, arguing that staff and parents had not been adequately consulted. We wanted to have the plan re-examined but were unable to do so because the DoE would not agree to re-open it. When plans to reorganise Grimsby and Ceethorpes schools were under consideration we determined that there would be full consultation and local views would be listened to.

The background to this was two fold. Across most of England at that time – and still today to the best of my knowledge – schools are in two phases, primary for 5 to 11 year olds, and secondary for 11 to 16 and 18 year olds. When Humberside was created, by the merger of several other councils, the arrangements in Hull and in Grimsby (though not in Cleethorpes) consisted of infants for 5 to 8 year olds, junior, or middle, for 9 to 13 year olds, and senior for 13 to 16 & 18 year olds. The plan in both cases was to close all these schools and replace them with new primary and secondary schools and a sixth form college.

The other problem this plan was intended to solve was the reduction in school age population as the 60s “baby boom” worked its way through the system. The authority was under pressure from the government to remove so called “surplus places” in order to make the system more efficient, reducing the cost per pupil of running the service.

Following the extensive consultation process (a source of many of the additional meetings I was having to attend) the draft plan had been published. The only controversial aspect was a proposal to close the smallest of the secondary schools in Cleethorpes Borough. We opposed this although, hitherto, both Labour and Conservatives on the council were in favour. Labour selected, as their candidate for the election, the Chairman of the council. He did not take long to state that Labour would now oppose the plan to close that school.

Not withstanding a hard fought campaign, the conservative candidate was re-elected with roughly the same majority as previously, our candidate coming second. This pattern was followed across the country and the Thatcher government was returned with a marginally reduced majority in Parliament.

Monday Memories – A New Direction

My boss, the Chief Engineer, was heavily invested in the waste burning project. My council workload was becoming a problem for him. He came to discuss the situation with me, saying he was finding that when he needed to discuss work with me I was not around. Could we come to an arrangement whereby my council business would be confined to specific days of the week? I should point out that, up to this point, the company had been extremely generous in allowing me time off with pay for these duties, subject to my returning the council attendance allowance to them.

A subsequent meeting with the Site Director resulted in the suggestion that a voluntary redundancy package could be put together should I wish to leave. For me the suggestion was welcome, provided the terms were right. It would enable me to embark on my preferred career as a writer and/or politician. When the terms were put to me, they were indeed generous. A tax free lump sum, roughly equivalent to two years salary. In addition, my qualifying service for my future pension would be increased from 18 to 20 years and the pension would be paid from age 60, not 65.

Coincidentally, the company’s pension had been a subject I had addressed in an article for the Senior Staff Association magazine a few years before. A number of the members were exercised about what seemed like inadequate communication between the executive and the membership. I and one of the Chemists from the R&D department in Coventry had, independently of each other, proposed that a members’ newsletter or magazine was needed. “Why don’t the pair of you get together and produce it?” was the challenging response, and we did.

There was a general feeling that Courtaulds’ staff pension scheme did not measure up to those offered by the civil service and other “blue chip” companies. I investigated and concluded that our scheme was – I think my words were – “disappointingly average,” backing that conclusion with data gleaned from various sources. You could call it my first piece of investigative journalism! The basic principle of all such schemes, based on rules established by the tax authorities because the contributions were tax exempt, was that the pension earned by the combined contributions of employer and employee, extending over 40 years, should not exceed 2/3 of your final salary.

More than 30 years later, now that I have been in receipt of a pension from the scheme for 17 years, I have to say I am grateful to have been a member whilst I was an employee.

To her credit Freda supported my decision to leave my safe, secure job. Ian was now well settled in his position as a student nurse, living in Lincoln and making new friends. It would not be easy living on the meagre attendance allowance and Freda’s salary from the Spastics’ Society, but the lump sum redundancy payment would yield some income if wisely invested and I hoped to be able to generate some additional income from writing.

I left Courtaulds shortly before my 45th birthday in November 1986. One of the first things I bought on the strength of my severance package was a Word Processor. Since the early 1980s I had had access to an Apple 2 desk top computer at work and, more recently, this had been replaced by a Hewlett Packard PC which was networked with new HP mainframe computers.

Image shows an early desk top computer with separate keyboard and small printer.
An Amstrad 512 kb word processor/computer like the one I purchased on leaving Courtaulds. Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amstrad_PCW

The Amstrad Word Processor came in two versions – the basic 256 kb machine with one built-in floppy disc drive and the larger 512 kb machine with two disc slots. I opted for the 512. The main advantage of this being that you did not have to keep swapping discs. To explain that properly, it is necessary to realise that neither 256 nor 512 kb of on-board memory allowed for any software to be permanently installed. You used one disc to load the software, then saved the files you created to a separate floppy disc. This was infinitely easier with two discs than with one.

I had become quite accomplished at using Lotus 123 spreadsheets for work so my colleagues purchased, as their leaving gift for me, a spreadsheet programme that would run on the Amstrad. Because of the limited on-board memory you had to create your spreadsheet from scratch, defining how many columns and lines you would need. A long way from the seemingly infinite number of columns, lines and sheets that can be utilised on present day spreadsheets!

Monday Memories – Juggling Responsibilities

The council had 8 main committees, so each of us 4 Liberals held two “spokesmanships”. In my case these were Education and Economic Development. Education was the largest committee, overseeing a service with the largest budget and the largest complement of staff. Membership included non-voting representatives from the teaching unions and from the Church, who were sponsors of many of the schools.

The committee was sub-divided into “Schools” and “Post Compulsory”. The Schools sub-committee dealt with everything to do with the many schools in the county; Post Compulsory dealt with everything else – FE Colleges, adult education, pre-school education. Membership of that sub-committee was delegated to one of the other three Liberals.

Economic Development included responsibility for Humberside Airport, the small regional airport in North Lincolnshire which was owned and operated by the County Council at that time. (It has since been privatised).

The council operated on a three month cycle. Each committee met once every three months; decisions made were ratified by a meeting of the full council, also four times a year. To begin with this did not seem too onerous: two committee meetings and one council meeting over a three month period – one meeting per month – should be easy enough to fit in. But that does not take account of the sub-committees or the airport committee. Still only 20 meetings per year. Soon it became clear that each committee or sub-committee had a number of working parties and consultative meetings, special sittings to deal with single major issues. Before long I was having to take a couple of days off work every week.

Meetings would sometimes be arranged at short notice. We had an agreement in place to allow for stand-ins but all four of us were in the same situation with more meetings than they could manage without adding a stand-in role. In any case, the stand-in would be unfamiliar with the issues to be discussed and would at least need a briefing which would take up additional amounts of time for both of us.

We could, and did, arrange such extra meetings so that they took place on a day when the members involved were in the meeting venue (usually County Hall in Beverley) for a pre-scheduled meeting, but that could mean that a morning became a full day. It was not unusual for me to spend an hour at work in the morning before setting off on the 45 minute drive to Beverley for a 10 am meeting then driving back during what should have been my lunch hour, eating a sandwich as I drove. Or the reverse – driving to Beverley during the lunch hour, eating a sandwich en-route. No wonder I began to have pains in my gut!

At work around this time, I was in charge of an interesting project to do with recycling. I have already mentioned that the company operated 4 coal fired boilers on the site. In the early 1980s the company entered a partnership with Grimsby Borough Council under which the council installed a waste separation plant on a site about a mile from ours. On our site a second waste filtering facility was installed and one of the boilers had its coal feed conveyor system modified to take combustible waste, sprinkled on top of the coal.

Image shows a large pile of used vehicle tyres.
A pile of scrap tyres. Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tire_recycling which indicates that within the EU today 95% are recycled for energy production

This was working reasonably well until it was decided to add chopped, worn vehicle tyres to the mix. These were supplied by a business based on a disused airfield several miles to the north. The problem that arose, and that I was asked to investigate, was that the pieces of rubber, being much larger than the crushed coal, tended to get caught up in the discharge chute at the bottom of the coal bunker. This was especially true when everything was wet, both materials being stored outside.

This was the only time I ever worked shifts. I did it throughout the month of January. The boiler house operatives had threatened to down tools because unblocking the chutes took up too much of their time. Adding me to the workforce was meant to provide the additional labour whilst allowing me to see the problem at first hand prior to devising a solution.

Shifts were worked 7am to 3pm, 3pm to 11pm, and 11pm to 7am, rotating 2 mornings, 2 afternoons, 2 nights so that you would, for example, begin the week on 7 to 3, have Wednesday morning off then work 3 to 11 on Thursday and Friday, have Saturday off then work 11pm to 7am through the rest of the weekend. A two day break would follow before the whole cycle recommenced on Wednesday. I only did it for a month and found it extremely disrupting. How people who worked it permanently coped I have no idea.

Through the month, rubber was only introduced to the mix whilst I was on duty. We tried different proportions of rubber to coal and reached the conclusion that burning rubber without coal was the best solution. However, the way that coal was delivered to the front of the boiler needed adapting in order to handle the rubber, together with a means of easily switching between the two. I worked with one of our draughtsmen to produce a design which we tested through several iterations over a number of months, eventually arriving at a solution that worked.

The emissions from our chimney were tested and found to be within legal limits for toxic pollutants, meaning the project could be declared a success.

Monday Memories – Finding a Middle Way

County Hall in Beverley. Now East Yorkshire, but, in the 1980s, the home of Humberside County Council. George Robinson [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

34 years on from my election to Humberside County Council, as one of four Liberals holding the balance of power, I cringe at my naivety. I recall being interviewed for the local TV. Asked what I hoped would be better about Humberside at the end of my four year term of office I struggled to come up with an answer and produced something pretty vague about giving people a bigger say in the decisions we took.

One certainty in politics is that everyone thinks they can do better than the current crop of politicians at all levels of government. That was certainly the belief I had on entering politics. It was not long before I came across a number of people who felt the same and found myself explaining that it is not as simple as it seems from what you read in the papers. Quite early on I invited a critic, someone who had written scathingly about the council in a letter to the Grimsby Telegraph, to accompany me on my next briefing session with the Director of Education so that he would have a better understanding of the kind of problems we had to grapple with. To his credit, that man wrote a second letter to the Grimsby Telegraph expressing his appreciation for what I had done.

We had access to the experience of Liberals on other councils where there was no party with an over all majority. These advised strongly that we should not seek alliances with either of the other two parties and this policy was endorsed nationally by the Liberal Party. We might be only 4 men, but together we represented about a quarter of all of the votes cast in the election; we had our own policy priorities, some of which were shared with Conservatives, some with Labour. We would need to consider each decision on its merits, not vote consistently with only one of the other parties.

This proved hard for the others to accept. They were used to a situation where the casting vote, if needed, was the Chairman’s – normally it would not be needed since each service committee would, like the council, have a majority of members from one party. For them this was a new and strange situation. We had to persuade the other parties that, for the next four years, committees would have equal numbers of Labour and Conservative members plus one Liberal; the committee’s chair person would not have a casting vote, the Liberal member would.

To begin with, Labour would not accept committee chairmanships on that basis, so we supported Conservative chairmen (they did not offer any women for these positions.) That lasted until the setting of the first annual budget early in 1986.

There is an endemic problem with the way local government is funded in the UK, one that is, if anything, worse now than it was in the 1980s. A mixture of government allocation and local property tax means that any reduction in the government allocation has to be met, either by a disproportionate amount raised locally, by cuts in services, or by charging for some services. Moreover, there are certain services the council has a statutory duty to provide and which cannot, therefore, be cut, which means that other services are particularly vulnerable to cuts and/or charges. Every such enforced decision – increasing taxes or charges, or cutting services – is bound to make the local politicians unpopular.

The education department, for example, was legally bound to provide education for children aged between 5 and 16 – and beyond for those able to benefit from continuing full time education. Adult education and provision for under 5s were therefore extremely vulnerable to any cuts in the education budget. Councillors on the political right were especially scornful of such provision. Still clinging to old fashioned notions about women’s roles, they believed that, should a mother choose to return to the workplace, she must pay for whatever provision was made for the care and education of her infants until they reached the statutory age for starting school. Likewise, adult education was regarded by the same individuals as a hobby activity which should not be tax-payer funded.

Similar arguments were used in the Social Services area with regard to the provision of home care services.

We were not prepared to support such policies and joined with Labour in voting down the budget proposed by the Conservatives, whereupon they resigned the chairmanships. Labour accepted the chairmanships (including one female) on our terms. That remained the position for the rest of the four year term.

Monday Memories – Election Success

There is nothing in ordinary life that I can compare to the excitement of an election day and its culmination in the tension that accompanies the counting of votes. The canvassing that takes place in the lead up to the election is far more about identifying your supporters than selling yourself and your policies. When election day arrives you use that information to make sure that all of those who have promised support actually turn up at the polling station. Of course, you cannot know for certain who they cast their vote for, but the fact that they have voted, having previously stated that vote would be for you, gives you reason to hope.

Posters, too, are a guide to the strength of support. Unlike in many other countries, in the UK candidates are not permitted to place posters on street furniture. They are only allowed on private property. Where a house is close to the footpath that means a window. Where there is a front garden it could be a stake in the ground. Either way, it is a positive indication that at least one person in the household supports the advertised candidate.

In the last few days of the campaign lists of supporters and their addresses and voter ID numbers are made – these days I am sure this is done on computers, in the 1980s it was still done using ball point pens and carbon paper.

Helpers are positioned at each polling station where they politely ask each voter for their polling number. This information is then returned to a central point, the “committee room”, where those of your supporters who have voted are crossed off the list. Other helpers are sent out to knock on the doors of supporters – or they are telephoned – to remind them of the importance of voting and to offer a lift to the polling station. This activity becomes more and more hectic as the time approaches for the polls to close. By that time you have some idea of how many of your claimed supporters have voted. And, probably, a fair idea of what percentage of the total that is. It is only at the count that the accuracy of your estimate will be revealed.

Image shows Cleethorpes Town Hall viewed from outside. A fairly typical Victorian brick building with stone embellishments
Cleethorpes Town Hall. Image copyrigt Google. Found at https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4036700/Engineer-24-person-UK-die-drug-clephedrone.html

The count for Cleethorpes elections traditionally took place in the Town Hall. This was true for County Council elections as well as Borough Council elections. Counts for the County were carried out in each of the constituent Boroughs and Districts. Our only information about what was happening in those other centres came from the local radio – there were no mobile phones with which to communicate with our colleagues across the county.

The counting procedure begins with the counting of total votes cast for each electoral division. The voting papers are then separated into piles for each candidate. In May 1985, in the division for which I was seeking election, the Town Clerk (Chief Executive Officer), in his capacity as returning officer overseeing the election, chose to count the votes of the sitting candidate first. That number amounted to rather less than 1/3 of the total votes cast.

I was immediately excited – I could not see how the other candidate had received more than 1/3 of the total, which would mean that I had. As the counting of the remaining papers continued I paced up and down the corridor outside the council chamber, hardly daring to believe that I was about to be declared the winner, but mentally rehearsing my acceptance speech anyway.

Image depicts partial text document showing election results
Extract from 1985 County Council election results in Humberside with 3 of the 4 Lib/SDP successes circled. Source: http://www.electionscentre.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Humberside-County.pdf

In due course the fact of my election was confirmed and announced. No other Liberal was as successful in Cleethorpes and, we quickly learned, the same was true in Grimsby. Later, listening to the radio as the final results were declared, we discovered 3 other Liberals had been elected, alongside 35 Conservatives and 36 Labour candidates. Liberals held the balance of power – effectively the casting vote – and thoughts immediately centred on how we could best use this power in the interests of the County.

I need now to provide an outline of the responsibilities of the different levels of local government in England at that time. Counties oversaw the education service, from kindergarten to third level and adult education; Social Services, notably children’s homes, nursing homes, family support and home caring – although there were private sector nursing homes there were also several council run homes. These were the two largest in terms of budget and number of employees.

Police and Fire Services, Economic Development, Libraries and Leisure, and major roads maintenance were also under the auspices of the County Council which covered a region with a population of about 850,000 and an area of 3,500 km²

District Councils were responsible for Housing, local parks and recreation, planning, local roads and footpath maintenance, refuse collection and disposal.

The County Council operated through seven committees, each responsible for a specific service, with oversight by an eighth committee, the Policy Committee, which consisted of the chairs of each of the service committees.

The first task for the Party group in the new council was to elect a leader who would conduct negotiations that might lead to the formation of a coalition. We chose John, the youngest of the four. He was the most experienced, having been elected to Hull City Council a couple of years before. Originally from Coventry, he had come to Hull to study and stayed, getting a job with the Hull Daily Mail.

Monday Memories – Twin Towns and Striking Miners

Cleethorpes was (indeed, it still is) twinned with Konigswinter in what was then West Germany. The Cleethorpes Liberal Party participated in a number of exchanges with members of the Konigswinter FDP. I recall once writing a speech in English, getting a young member of the FDP to translate it, and then delivering it in German, thanking our hosts for their hospitality. The speech was well enough received though I have doubts about how intelligible my accent made it.

We sometimes discussed the suitability of the match between the two communities. Cleethorpes is a traditional seaside resort and, at the time, was quite run down. Konigswinter is close to Bonn, at that time the capital of West Germany, so full of diplomats, civil servants and lawyers. Our group, made up of teachers and self-employed small traders, had, on the face of it, very little in common with the medical doctors, lawyers and civil servants that made up the German group. Nevertheless we got on very well, thanks, I suppose, to our shared political beliefs and commitment to European “Freundschaft”.

On one occasion I organised a coach shared with members of other groups with Konigswinter “twins” – sports clubs, music societies, amateur theatricals. This must have been for the tenth anniversary of the twinning which was celebrated on both sides. Apart from the events organised by our hosts, I booked a boat trip on the Rhine and Moselle which ended in a village where wine was being dispensed free of charge from a fountain in the square. I don’t think any who went on that trip was disappointed.

Image shows a group of police officers standing near the burning remnants of a vehicle used as a barricade outside a colliery
Police clear a burning barricade so a bus carrying return-to-work miners can enter Whittle Colliery. Photo Copyright PA, found at https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2571744/The-miners-strike-30-years-Amazing-photographs-industrial-dispute-tore-Britain-apart.html

Throughout 1984 the main preoccupation of politicians and the media, in the UK, was the miners’ strike and the stand-off between Margaret Thatcher’s government and the National Union of Mine Workers led by Arthur Scargill – a stand-off that frequently turned violent. At Courtaulds’ Grimsby site we had our own steam and power generating plant. There were 9 boilers, 4 coal fired and 5 oil fired. Thus, we were able to choose a fuel, or fuel combination, based around the fluctuations in price of these two. And, when the strike meant we were unable to obtain coal, we could run entirely on oil.

For the rest of the country there was increasing polarisation between those on the right who believed the government had a duty to stand up to what they saw as too much power in the hands of the Unions, and those on the left who saw the government’s action as an attack on the working classes. North East Lincolnshire did not experience this anger in quite the same way as those districts with a mining tradition. But it did impact us in two ways: coal was being imported through the port of Immingham, which was therefore picketed in an attempt to prevent this; and the police brought in from various parts of the country to “keep the peace” on picket lines throughout the Yorkshire coal field were provided with accommodation at a holiday camp on the outskirts of Cleethorpes.

None of this prevented us from campaigning to get Liberal Party candidates elected to Humberside County Council in May 1985. It just meant we had to face rather more abuse when canvassing in certain areas. Nor had some much older issues gone away, fox hunting being one and abortion another. David Steel had, as a very young MP, long before he became party leader, introduced into Parliament the private members’ bill that legalised abortion in England and Wales under certain very specific conditions. That was back in 1968. Sixteen years later it was still something we would occasionally come across when canvassing: “I could never vote Liberal after what David Steel did.” You just had to accept it and move on.

Some people still take a similar view of the Liberal Democrats after their participation in the coalition government from 2010 until 2015. In politics memories are often long when it comes to passionately held beliefs.

Monday Memories – Changes at Work

Meanwhile, Ian had taken “O” levels and was considering whether to attend college or continue his education in the school’s sixth form. I accompanied him at a meeting with a careers adviser at Grimsby College where we were told that universities give preference to students from school sixth forms over applicants from colleges of FE. Ian duly agreed to enter the school sixth form but it soon became clear that he was unhappy there. The school, too, were not best pleased by his evident lack of interest and they soon parted company.

The next couple of years were difficult for him and us, as he struggled to find a suitable future path as well as with fraught relationships with young women. To be honest it was Freda who did the “heavy lifting” as I was preoccupied with Liberal Party affairs. Eventually he saw advertised a selection day for nurses at a large Psychiatric hospital in Lincoln and decided to attend. On his return he said he thought he had done okay, even in the ‘practical’ session on the wards for elderly mentally infirm patients. He wasn’t sure if it was something he wanted to do should he be offered the chance.

In due course a letter arrived saying that he had been accepted; that the September intake, for which he had applied, was fully subscribed but that he could join the January intake. Meanwhile he could, if he wished, join the staff of the hospital as a nursing assistant. His decision to accept led indirectly to our decision, more than two decades later, to come to live in Ireland after my retirement.

Also around this time, a drop in demand for Courtelle dictated a decision by the Board to close South Factory. I feared redundancy but was reprieved by being offered a post as Development Engineer, attached to a group of young graduates who were working on a number of innovations aimed at increasing productivity and quality of the Courtelle product, and exploring new markets. My role was to turn their ideas into practical working solutions. They were based in Coventry but seconded to Grimsby for the implementation of the programme.

It ought to be obvious that, if 5% of everything you produce is sub-standard and has to be destroyed or, at best, sold at below cost, reducing that 5% to 3% or 2% represents a significant increase in over-all profitability. And, if the product can be enhanced, making it suitable for a high end use, it can be sold at a higher price. Those were the principals that we were applying. It probably seems archaic now, but some of the things we did involved introducing computerised control systems with software running on a Commodore Pet!

Image shows an early desktop computer circa 1980
A Commodore Pet desk top computer – image from Wikipedia

It was in conversations with some of the Coventry “boffins” that I first heard the phrase “fuzzy logic”. I still have only the vaguest notion of what it is but one of the IT experts on the team was convinced it was the “next big thing” in control theory. It seems she was right. According to Jacoby Carter of the National Biological Service’s National Wetlands Research Center in Lafayette, La., writing in The Scientific American,

“Fuzzy set theory has been used in commercial applications of expert systems and control devices for trains and elevators; it has also been combined with neural nets to control the manufacture of semiconductors. By incorporating fuzzy logic and fuzzy sets in production systems, significant improvements have been gained in many AI systems. This approach has been particularly successful with ambiguous data sets or when the rules are imperfectly known.”

Political activity continued to fill my waking hours outside of work, including working unpaid in the bar of the Cleethorpes Liberal Club and assisting with a redesign of the upstairs back room to turn it into a games room for younger members who were also encouraged to become involved in political campaigns. Nationally the Young Liberals had always been an important element within the Party. I persuaded Ian and his friends to put together a motion for submission to the annual party conference. At my prompting, they chose third world development as their theme. The motion was accepted by the conference committee and “composited” with several others. My first, and only, televised public speaking engagement was at the 1984 Liberal Party Conference where I spoke about the indebtedness of developing countries and the need for some level of debt forgiveness.