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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The pattern of local elections in that part of the country at that time was as follows: in Grimsby one third of the councillors stood down in each of three successive years, in Cleethorpes the whole council was re-elected every four years as was the whole of the county council. Cleethorpes elections took place midway between county elections, which occurred on the year without a Grimsby council election. In case that’s difficult to follow: County Council elections took place in 1981, 1985 and 1989. Cleethorpes Borough Council elections in 1983 and 1987, Grimsby Borough Council elections occurred in 1982, 1983 and 1984, then again in 1986, 1987 and 1988. All local elections throughout the UK were, and still are, held on the first Thursday of May.
Thus I, and other aspiring Cleethorpes politicians, were able to learn and practice campaigning skills by assisting at Grimsby Borough Council elections in 1982. We also travelled to places where Parliamentary by-elections were being held. Several of these occurred in the months following my having joined the Liberal Party.
The first such election in which I went to assist was in November 1981 in Crosby, Liverpool, where Shirley Williams, a former Labour minister who had lost her seat in the 1979 general election, was standing for the Social Democrats. A month earlier the Liberals had taken a seat from the Tories in Croydon. I recall seeing Ms Williams waving to passers by from the back of a truck and being surprised by her small physical stature which in no way matched her charisma or her intellect.
Glasgow was a bit too far to travel but the third success for the Liberal/SDP Alliance came in March 1982 when another former Labour Party minister, Roy Jenkins, won in the Hillhead constituency. I did travel to Birmingham Northfield, in October of 1982, and Darlington in March of 1983, although our candidates there failed to take those seats, both of which were won by Labour. I was not impressed by the style of the SDP candidate at Darlington, who I thought employed too much “razz-a-matazz” and not enough grass roots campaigning.
Perhaps this was the first sign, for me, of a difference between Liberal and SDP methods. The latter, I suppose, being based on Labour Party traditional campaign techniques. Liberals, by contrast, had introduced something they called “Community Politics”, basically, being active in the community, seeking out issues and leading campaigns to persuade those in power to address them. In that way, individuals acquired a reputation which enabled them to garner votes when they stood for election to the local council.
All this by-election activity, as well as helping get Liberals and SDP candidates into Parliament, also provided us with experience in campaigning in readiness for the Cleethorpes Borough Council election in May of 1983. By then we had selected a Liberal candidate to contest the Parliamentary seat. Originally from Nottingham, Gavin had worked in Grimsby as an operations manager with Ross Foods, one of several frozen food companies with facilities in Grimsby that process fish from Grimsby port and vegetables from the farms of Lincolnshire and neighbouring counties. During that time he had served a period as a Liberal councillor on Grimsby Borough Council.
Because of this background he was the favourite of the Cleethorpes Liberal Party “hierachy” who head hunted him from his new post as an aide to the Chairman of Imperial Group at their London Head Office. Imperial, a company with investments in tobacco and brewing as well as food processing, had taken over Ross Foods some years before. Gavin was, at the time, engaged in investigating the person, or organisation, behind a series of recent significant share purchases which the Imperial board believed signalled an intention to launch a take-over bid. From the autumn of 1982 he returned to Cleethorpes on most weekends to help us with our campaigning.
There was a great deal of speculation that a General Election would be called soon after the fourth anniversary of the Conservative landslide of 1979, to take advantage of the boost in support for the government following the successful Falklands military campaign. Sure enough, a few days after the Council elections in May, the election was called for early June. I was given the role of aide to the candidate and agent, the latter being the same lady that I had button-holed at the pubic meeting a couple of years before, in February 1981. Meanwhile I was one of the candidates fielded for the council election. Once again, I did not secure a seat, but collectively we achieved some success, increasing the number of Liberals on Cleethorpes BC.
The General Election resulted in an increase in representation for the Conservatives in Parliament, the consequence of a split opposition. Nationally the “Alliance” received over 25% of the vote but only 23 seats. Although this was 12 more than previously, it was bitterly disappointing.
Full result: Conservative: vote share 42.4% (down from 43.9%), seats 397 (up from 339); Labour: vote share 27.6% (down from 36.9%) seats 209 (down from 261); Alliance: vote share 24.5% (up from 13.8% gained by the Liberal Party in 1979); seats: 23 (up from 11 held by the Liberal Party in 1979)
How could a party gain seats while losing vote share? How could a party with 27.6% vote share end up with eight times as many seats as a party with 25.4% vote share?
The answer lies in the “First Past the Post” election system used in the UK. Imagine a constituency with 3 candidates contesting the single seat available. With the votes split 42:30:28 there can be only one winner. It is only because of demographics that Labour won any seats, some constituencies being predominantly working class. In such elections a third party can come second everywhere and win no seats at all. On the other hand, the presence of a strong third party can adversely effect the relative positions of the two other parties, which is why the Labour Party lost seats to the Conservatives.
In Parliament the Conservatives, now with a majority of over 140, were free to implement a raft of harsh policies based on the doctrine of “Reaganomics”, and did so.
That headline is an often used Irish colloquialism that means, roughly translated, “because today is an important anniversary”. And what anniversary could be more important as we face the growing threat of rising Fascism across Europe once again.
Apparently the UK government is preparing for the possibility of riots by extreme right wing factions in the event of a second referendum that might result in a reversal of the ill-informed June 2016 decision by 37% of the electorate to take Britain out of the only international organisation that has held the peace between the forces of communism and Fascism for most of my lifetime.
Meanwhile similar movements are on the march in Poland, Italy, Germany, Austria and France. And all are fueled by fear of “the other”, just as was Hitler’s rise to power and the acceptance of the “final solution” – elimination of “the other”.
In the debate over Brexit many people have tried to come up with suitable analogies. Among the oldest is the idea of the divorce – the withdrawal bill and the £39 billion payment of outstanding budget commitments is even referred to as the “divorce settlement”. More recently some have sought to liken the search for a “deal” to the kind of arrangement you might come to with your local car dealership. Over the weekend I began thinking about both.
Let’s begin by looking at the stages in a marriage at which a divorce may be contemplated. You’ve been together for less than 5 years, both of you are a good deal more mature than when you married. There are no children, neither of you gets on with the in-laws, you have few mutual friends. You live in an apartment block where you hardly ever encounter your neighbours. You come to an agreement to part company. There is some pain, inevitably, but there is an overwhelming sense of relief in both parties at the resulting sense of freedom. Even your friends, who have been treading on eggshells around you as they sensed the tensions in the relationship, feel that same sense of relief.
Now, suppose you have been together for 40 years. You have grown-up children and several grand children. You are aunt and uncle to several other children. You are God-parents to a number of your friends’ children. You are a partner in your father-in-law’s business, expecting to inherit when he finally decides to retire. You are well known in your community, both of you involved in different aspects of community life. Divorce in those circumstances is almost unthinkable and will cause enormous disruption and sadness in the lives of many people, including the employees of the family business.
I leave you to decide which of these, if any, Brexit is most like.
Now let’s look at the car replacement analogy. It might be the case that the car you are trading in is subject of a finance agreement with some outstanding payments due. You will need to settle that as part of the deal, or, quite possibly, before you can contemplate a deal. You discuss your requirements with the dealership and are offered a trade-in value for your old car. You don’t like the offer, believing your old car is worth more. You can take it or leave it. You decide to leave it. What you don’t do is leave your old car in the dealership and, literally, walk away.
The “no deal” option for Brexit is like deciding to manage without a car for the foreseeable future. “No Brexit” is like carrying on with your current model with all its faults rather than accept a bad deal.
The truth is that neither analogy is anything more than an approximation to what Brexit really means. How could it be otherwise, since Brexit is a unique event for which there is no precedent in history. What hurts, and what makes the 40 year divorce example feel close to the reality of Brexit, is the huge number of cultural, sporting and business links that have been built across Europe over the past 45 years and that are now being sullied by the xenophobic rhetoric that has been unleashed.
The choirs, the amateur drama groups, the sports clubs, the agricultural societies, that exchange visits on a regular basis. The beekeepers, bird watchers, surfers, animal breeders, astronomers, geologists, paleontologists, anthropologists – the list is endless. True, such relationships extend beyond Europe, especially in these days of the World Wide Web. But Europe is on our doorstep. Heading across the Channel for a day or a weekend to meet individuals with shared interests is easy and many people do it, for business, pleasure, and to exchange ideas and information about their hobby or profession.
And we must not forget the real marriages between Britons and European nationals and the new rules that mean that the “foreign” spouse now has to register for “settled status”. So do the children, even grown ups who were born here, grew up here and have worked for decades, paying their taxes and NI contributions. All because a few ultra-rich, public school educated people want to avoid paying their taxes.
These are things that we don’t hear so much about. We hear plenty about the businesses that rely on parts manufactured in different regions of the Continent and how that will inevitably be made more difficult – and more expensive – by Brexit, whatever form it takes. But the pain caused at the personal level by the opprobrium about Europe and Europeans that is regularly exuded by the extremes of the leave camp is unforgivable.
I have been pondering some of the responses to a Facebook post yesterday in a pro-EU forum. Contributors were asked to say whether they voted “remain” or “leave” back in June 2016 and to say why. The majority of responses came from people who voted “remain”. What struck me was the way in which the reasons for that decision mirrored the reasons usually given for a “leave” vote, and the gulf in perceptions, not just about membership of the EU, but the world view that it revealed.
I guess it’s been obvious for many years that such a gulf existed but prior to the referendum it was relatively hidden. Since then it has led to accusations of ignorance and treason from both sides. So what are these different perceptions and how can the gulf that separates them be bridged?
“For 40 years membership has never been a real problem and still isn’t. The economic, social and cultural benefits of membership are incalculable.” (JS)
Clearly that view is in complete opposition to those who believe that the EU is the source of all the UK’s recent problems.
“The EU protects the European continent’s food supply, ensures sustainable fish stocks, protects the environment and aims to ensure that as larger global powers become economically stronger the EU maintains strength and European values through unity.” (RV)
Again, a view that is contrary to the “leave” camp’s belief that the EU’s agriculture and fisheries policies are damaging to rural and coastal communities across Britain.
“I think we need immigration and we have lots of Polish where I live and I really like the Polish – they work hard and are polite and a lot nicer than some other people. They have brought footfall to our High Street which was becoming deserted.” (SH-C)
In contrast, there were, at the time of the referendum, a number of vox-pops on television in which people complained their high street was no longer recognisable with all the Polish shops and foreigners taking jobs.
The same contributor to the forum also said this: “It’s quite a good idea to have other higher courts to look at matters of say human rights,” a point echoed by another: “I voted remain because the EU’s laws are the only thing protecting the ordinary people of this country from exploitation by our politicians and employers.” (IR)
A sentiment which is in direct opposition to those who want to “take back control of our laws”.
“I value my right to live, work, study or retire anywhere from the West Coast of Ireland to the Black Sea, or from the Arctic Circle to the edge of North Africa. I think that the EU guarantees standards and conditions which successive Tory governments try to remove. I think it’s much better to resolve disputes between nations with a legal process instead of dispatching the armed forces.” (DF)
A recognition of the way in which the EU’s Freedom of Movement principle is a two way street benefiting many British students, workers and retirees, a fact that many who voted “leave” either ignore or deem to have been gained at too high a price.
“We have huge global challenges to solve and we can do that better as a block.” (JC) A sentiment expanded upon by another contributor: “I voted for Remain mainly to keep our sovereignty. Without being part of the biggest trading block in the world we’ll be a punching bag for larger powers such as the USA, the EU and China upon which we depend economically more than they depend on us and therefore can force us to do things against our will. Inside the EU we have a fair share of power and say in what the rules are and are protected against unfair bullying by larger powers such as China or the USA.” (SK)
The idea that pooling sovereignty with our neighbours actually strengthens that sovereignty is completely alien to those who believe we have lost sovereignty and can only regain it by leaving the EU. Such people seem unable to grasp the idea that making trade deals with anyone involves a quid-pro-quo and that any deal we reach with any of these larger powers is likely to involve the loss of some of the “control” the UK is intent on “taking back” from the EU.
“Because the EU has, in 40 painstaking years, cleared away protectionism and created an actual free market where countries can trade with each other without barriers, which improves our ability to export, and lowers prices. And countries have valued that so much that they really want to join it, that’s how three former fascist dictatorships and ten former communist countries have come in to the EU and become richer, more mature democracies.
When I was a child, about half the countries now in the EU were very hard to visit. Now we can travel there freely, live, love and learn across a whole continent, and the understanding we have gained about each other is what keeps our peace.” (JS)
There are several things here that “leave” voters would contest. For a start they see the EU as a protectionist bloc that uses tariffs to exclude imports from non-member states, ignoring the many free trade arrangements the EU has made with underdeveloped countries, providing tariff free access for certain goods and, inter-alia, making nonsense of the claim by some pro-brexit MPs that we can have cheaper imports from those countries when we leave. Secondly, I think I can say without being accused of elitism that most of the people who voted “leave” have no interest whatsoever in understanding their fellow Europeans.
I think that AD sums up perfectly what all these “Remain” voters believe about the EU: “European unity, security and freedom of movement. Rejection of nationalistic sovereignty.”
And therein lies the crux of the problem. Half the country welcomes the opportunities that EU membership has provided, remembers the horrors that red blooded nationalism brought to Europe twice during the last century, and rejects the idea that the accident of being born in any particular place makes you better than someone born elsewhere. The other half clings to the antiquated notion that being “English” makes them superior. That, certainly, is why we hear so many cries of “Traitor”.
I grew up believing that being English meant more than that. I was proud that English men and women, alongside other Europeans, had developed a set of values that had the potential to make the world a better place. The sentiments that underpin the “leave” campaign are diametrically opposed to that world view. I wish I knew how to undo the damage done by those in the media who have spent 40 years denigrating the EU and those very English values it stands for. I fear that it is too late. I fear for the future of the UK and the young generation that is about to have taken from it the many opportunities their parents took for granted.