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Monday Memories – Back in the Real World #4: In Reverse

I had one month’s salary in-lieu of notice. I began the weekly search of the “Situations Vacant” columns in the Yorkshire Post and Daily Telegraph, sending my CV to various companies in need of men with my skill set. Christmas came and went with no offers of employment. I contacted the mortgage company and they were sympathetic to my plight. The bank, less so, when it came to my maxed-out credit card. Freda offered to sell some of the cheap jewelry she had accumulated over the years. She got a job on the housekeeping staff of a nursing home.

My former colleague who had worked for Pertmaster contacted me to say I might be able to work for them on a casual basis training new users to use the software. I presented one such course successfully, but it meant travelling to Bradford on each of the three days of the course.

In March I was contacted by a man I had worked with when he was a member of the CEGB’s planning team at Eggborough. The privatisation of the CEGB had now been completed and he had left to set up a recruitment agency. One of the power stations operated by National Power was installing a new stores cataloguing system and needed suitably qualified individuals to verify the data being transferred from the old to the new system. It was a six month contract at a relatively low hourly rate, paid for a basic 35 hour working week, with a £1000 completion bonus.

I took the offer despite the low wage, in the belief that after 3 months I would be able to take on a summer season with the power station overhaul company. That did, indeed, happen and the longer hours more than made up for the loss of the completion bonus I would have received had I remained on the other contract.

This time the station to be worked on was at West Burton in North Nottinghamshire, a 90 minute drive from our new home.

When the job finished I let the agencies I’d previously worked with know that I was once again seeking work. This time I had a call within a week, from the agency that had got me my job at Tioxide over 3 years before. Was I available to attend an interview that day? He would like to recommend me for a vacancy he had been asked to fill at short notice. I responded in the affirmative and he rang back half an hour later to say the interview was 20 miles away at 1:30pm.

At the end of the interview I was informed that a contract launch meeting was scheduled for the following morning in Grimsby. I would need to attend, along with the director, and the project manager who had, together, conducted the interview. I later learned that the project manager had also been recruited the same day via the same agency.

A view of the suspension bridge over the Humber estuary
Having crossed the Humber bridge many times during my 4 years as a county councilor, in 1992 I began crossing it daily to work back in Grimsby. Image from Wikipedia

So it was that, having moved away from Grimsby 15 months earlier to reduce commuting time, I was now commuting daily in the opposite direction!

Meanwhile, I had made enquiries about a Talking Newspaper service for visually impaired people in the district and discovered there was none. Goole District Hospital’s broadcasting service needed volunteers, however, so it was not long before I was hosting a Friday evening “Country and Western” show and the Sunday morning request show.

Sunday mornings we also had a pre-recorded religious tape which I played whilst visiting each of the six wards in search of requests to play later. After a while hospital management introduced a policy whereby people who were not desperately ill were sent home at the weekend so that the only people present on a Sunday morning were in no fit state to make, or listen to, requests.

In the school summer holidays a small group of young people began using the Hospital Broadcasting Service’s facilities to produce a talking newspaper as a community project. It was only a temporary project, but demonstrated the need for such a service. I found out that the mother of one of the boys was the local social worker with responsibility for the welfare of visually impaired people. I contacted her about setting up a permanent service, telling her of my experience. She put me in touch with a small group of friends and relatives of blind people in the district. This group were the core of the local branch of the RNIB (Royal National Institute for the Blind).

Recently the RNIB had changed its policy, insisting that funds raised locally could no longer be spent locally but must be remitted to HQ. Branches were then supposed to request funds for specific projects. It makes a certain kind of sense, ensuring that funds raised in the more affluent districts are distributed to poorer areas. The local group in Goole were not happy at this policy change and welcomed the opportunity to support, instead, a new service for local blind people.

We had our committee, we could use the Hospital Radio studio – at least for the time being. All we needed was funds to purchase some tapes and recording equipment. Once again I undertook a sponsored walk – this time from Snaith to Howden, dressed as an emu!

I also contacted the CVS (Council for Voluntary Service) for advice and help. Before long I found myself seconded to the CVS management committee and appointed as treasurer.

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Monday Memories – Back in the Real World, Pt.#1

The draughtsmen we employed in the capital projects department at Courtaulds in Grimsby were supplied by an agency which had been set up some years earlier by a former employee. After losing my county council seat I contacted the MD , sent him my CV and enquired if he had any suitable vacancies. He sent me to Tioxide, then a subsidiary of ICI, who operated a titanium dioxide manufacturing facility a short distance along the Humber bank from Courtaulds. I was offered a job as a draughtsman. The hourly rate was equivalent to a salary rather more than I had been getting at Courtaulds 3 years earlier but without paid holidays, sick pay or pension rights.

Image shows factory complex with very tall chimney
The Tioxide plant at Grimsby. The plant closed in 2009. Image from the demolition contracor’s website, https://www.gbmuk.com/

There was still one more political commitment to fulfill: the European Election in June. At this time the UK was still using First Past the Post for elections to the European Parliament, except in Northern Ireland. PR for elections to the European Parliament for the whole of the UK was not introduced until 1999.

The party had no money to spend, despite its enthusiasm for the EU “Project”. Debts had been incurred running the Richmond by-election and the county council elections. Councillors distributing post-election newsletters were asked to include a plea for support for our candidate in the European election and that was it. There was a £1,000 deposit to find. We “crowd funded” it – 10 people, including me, each pledged £100, in the hope that we would gain a vote share large enough that we would not have to forfeit the deposit.

I attended election meetings in Hull and Bridlington, where neither the Labour nor Tory candidates bothered to turn up, although they did send representatives. The same was true of a phone-in on BBC Radio Humberside. A TV crew filmed me handing out leaflets on the main street in Barton-upon-Humber and the late Nick Clarke, from BBC Newsnight, interviewed me over the phone – this was to gain impressions, not for broadcast.

Image shows Hull City Hall. A large 3 story building featuring pillars beneath an arch on one aspect, topped by a copper clad dome
Hull City Hall. Image from Wikipedia

The count was held on a Sunday in Hull City Hall. The Labour candidate, married to a Labour county councillor I knew and liked, won. The Green candidate came third. Nationally the Greens took almost 15%. I struggled into fourth place just ahead of the SDP candidate. I took the opportunity to make a speech pleading with the dissenting members of Liberal and SDP to recognise that they were destroying any future for the centre ground in British politics.

We lost our deposit. I paid up my £100 share. I’m not sure how many of the others shelled out but suspect the agent had to find more than £100 from his own pocket.

I still had two years to serve as a Borough Councillor but, apart from continuing to help at elections, my dream of a political career was now over.

At Tioxide I was working on small improvement projects not unlike those I had managed at Courtaulds. There was one major project that occupied the majority of men, and one woman, working in the small office. Among the staff there were a couple of young men and two guys older than me with wide experience as Project Engineers or Site Engineers. Their draughting tables were across an aisle from mine, the young men behind me. We were all employed by the agency. I tended to relate more closely to the older guys and drank with them at lunch time in a converted Humber ferry moored in Grimsby docks.

Image shows the white painted stern of a paddle steamer with a red painted smoke stack and white railings.
The old Humber Ferry Lincoln Castle
In the late 1980s it was moored in Grimsby, as shown here, and used as a pub/restaurant.
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © John Firthgeograph.org.uk/p/1957817

With me now earning a reasonable income once again, and Freda working in the small supermarket a short distance from our home, we decided to move into a larger apartment. I had fitted all new kitchen cabinets and carried out various other improvements to our existing apartment, including hiring a plumber to upgrade the bathroom. With a relatively small loan we could afford to move to something more spacious. We purchased the whole upper floor and the back kitchen of a large semi-detached house on Queen’s Parade, not far from the sea front, moving in in November.

A Stupid Decision

The young men in the office came to the conclusion that the woman was being favoured in some way by the supervisor. There was a suggestion that she had been permitted to book more hours than she had actually worked. After a number of days of listening to their mutterings I suggested they take the matter up formally with the supervisor. I really should have known better. I was nominated to undertake the task.

The supervisor, of course, denied the allegation. When I attempted to press the case he said I was accusing him of lying. Within a matter of hours the HR director from the agency was in the supervisor’s office. It did not take long. He came to my drawing board to tell me that unless I apologised I was dismissed from that assignment. Furthermore, he had no other vacancies available.

I decided to eat some humble pie and apologised. But I knew that my days there were numbered and began searching the situations vacant pages of the Yorkshire Post and Daily Telegraph for suitable jobs.

My decision to leave that place was strengthened when an interesting development project on which I had worked with a young, female, chemical engineer was transferred from Grimsby to the Tees side head quarters. We had proved the recycling process with a small pilot plant and I was looking forward to being involved in scaling it up to full production. The company board decided that work would be undertaken at head office, leaving me disappointed.

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 – 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.

Monday Memories – Campaigning Begins

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.

Image shows a relatively young Shirley Williams. In front of her, two microphones.
Shirley Williams. Image found at https://www.standard.co.uk/topic/shirley-williams

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.

Image shows Roy Jenkins standing beside a canal. His thinning hair blown by a breeze, his jacket lapel bearing a sticker with the letters SDP
Bob Thomas’s photograph of Roy Jenkins found at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/roy-jenkins-a-well-rounded-life-by-john-campbell-fqwhplgr3m9

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.

Monday Memories – Political Baptism


Getty Images
SDP founders William Rodgers, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and David Owen

Early in 1981 a group of Labour MPs, led by four former ministers, left their party in order to establish a new one – the Social Democratic Party or SDP, a left of centre grouping. They were unable to support three of Labour’s then policies: unilateral nuclear disarmament, opposition to EU membership and “Clause 4”, the long term intention to achieve public (ie. State) ownership of “the means of production”.

I had long been someone who supported a middle-of-the-road political outlook which, up to that point, meant voting Liberal. Enthused by this new development I wondered should I join the new centre-left party. I liked the policies that people like Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams, in particular, had pursued in government. I suppose it was a sense of loyalty that drove me to stick with the Liberals, especially when the two parties agreed not to stand against each other in elections. It seemed that this could yield a change in fortunes for the Liberal Party.

About the same time an international trade treaty called the Multi Fibre Agreement was being renegotiated and seemed likely to increase competition for Courtaulds from low-cost countries. Of course, Courtaulds had been indulging in potentially suicidal activities by selling, not only fibres, but the means to manufacture them, to China and the Soviet Union. So there was a certain amount of hypocrisy involved in the request to employees to write to their MPs seeking assurances of continued protection for home produced textiles. Nevertheless, I did so, and copied the letter to David Steel, then leader of the Liberal Party, with a request for information about joining.

One morning the Works Engineer asked me if I’d heard back from our local Tory MP. He had, and the MP had mentioned a meeting due to take place that week to protest about plans for a new leisure centre to replace the swimming pool on Cleethorpes sea front. I attended the meeting and was pleased to see that the small group of Liberal Councilors were the most helpful, not offering support for the protestors, but explaining the benefits of the development, how it had come about and apologising for the fact that the council had not consulted or informed the people living close to the site.

As the meeting broke up I buttoned-holed one of these councillors and asked about joining the Party. “We are heading up to the Liberal Club later. Do you know where it is? You could meet us there.” She went on to point out the Club’s location and suggested I wait in the bar until she arrived.

That night I had a long conversation, almost an informal interview, with three leading members of the local party, as a result of which I not only joined the Party and the Club but became a volunteer in both. During the course of the conversation I was informed that the party was seeking suitable individuals to stand for election to the County Council in May of that year.

There was a council by-election taking place in Grimsby at this time. Assistance from party members from outside the borough was always welcomed and I joined a few other Cleethorpes Liberals canvassing and distributing leaflets. It provided a valuable insight into campaign practices which I was able to put into practice in the County Council election the following May. I did not win on that occasion but my appetite for campaigning was certainly whetted!

It was not long before I was elected as secretary to both the local and constituency parties. This was a time when there was a lot of negotiating to be done. Around the country Liberals were struggling to reach agreement with SDP officials on the question of which party contested the General Election, widely anticipated to take place in two years time. Fortunately, in the case of our constituency, there was no difficulty in agreeing that the SDP, who already had quite a strong following in Grimsby, would contest that constituency, and Cleethorpes, where there was a strong Liberal tradition, would be contested by a Liberal.

The problem for us was that a recent re-drawing of constituency boundaries had created a difficult situation for Cleethorpes. In past elections the borough had been included in a constituency with a large rural hinterland to the south, centred on the market town of Louth. Now Cleethorpes had become the southern half of a constitency that included a rural hinterland to the north, centred on the market towns of Brigg, Barton and Barrow-upon-Humber. We had to get to know a whole new group of people – not that this proved on the whole to be difficult. Much harder to resolve was the question of party assets, especially the Liberal clubs.

Louth Liberal Club had been allowed to run down and a team of Cleethorpes Liberals had, in the period before I joined, worked hard to get it re-established. They were not over-eager to see that asset lost. Cleethorpes also wanted to keep the Parliamentary candidate that had contested the previous general election. A resident of Louth, where he operated a wine importing business, he was reluctant and, despite repeated entreaties from leading Cleethorpes Liberals, he decided to stick with the new constituency that contained Louth. The newly formed Brigg and Cleethorpes constituency would have to find a new candidate.

The new constituency also had to approve a constitution. So, as secretary, I found myself with a great deal of work recording the many meetings in which two groups of people with broadly similar aims about which they were passionate were nevertheless determined to ensure that their local demands were recognised.