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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.

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