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After listening to the village church bells ringing in the new millenium, I joined their team and began once again to learn the art.
From our arrival in East Yorkshire onwards I continued to help at elections. We got to know the Liberal parliamentary candidate in the area, an elderly woman who occupied a large house where she held the occasional garden party to raise funds.
Following boundary changes, a new candidate was selected for the newly created Howden and Haltemprice constituency. Diana Wallis was a successful solicitor and I recall attending several meetings at her home ahead of the 1997 general election and the 1999 European election. In 1997 she came second to David Davis, in 1999 she was one of several MEPs elected for the Yorkshire Region. She was re-elected to the European Parliament in 2004 and held several important roles there. She has since left the Liberal Democrats, becoming a founder member of the Yorkshire Party.
In 2001 and 2005 the Liberal Democrat candidate was a young man called Jon Neal and in 2001 he succeeded in reducing Davis’s majority. A young PR manager from the local Independent Radio station stood against John Prescott in the Hull East constituency. Because this seat was regarded as safe for Labour, very little effort went into the Liberal Democrat’s campaign.
Howden, however, was regarded as a Liberal Democrat “target” and that young woman worked hard for Jon’s team. Her name? Jo Swinson. Last week she was elected leader of the Party, having secured election to Parliament in 2005 in her native Dunbartonshire. Jon Neal stood again in 2010 but has since moved to Suffolk where he works for the mental health charity Mind.
In the early noughties we took our summer holidays 3 times in Cornwall and contemplated moving there after retirement. The verdant countryside and spectacular coastline were very tempting. House prices less so – especially when compared to values in our part of Yorkshire. So, when, in 2004, we began seriously to consider our retirement options we rejected that idea.
We could, of course, stay where we were. However, we were a long way from Freda’s relatives in Hereford, my mother who was now in Kent alongside my sister and her family, and our son in Ireland. We decided to investigate the possibility of moving to Ireland. We had our house valued and discovered that it had increased by over 150% since we purchased it in 1991. There had been a period when house prices were static through the early ’90s so most of this increase had taken place over about 10 years.
During that time there had been many changes to housing finance. When we purchased we were paying 13% or 14% interest. As time went on, interest rates fell. The chancellor took advantage of the falling interest rates to reduce and, eventually, eliminate tax relief on mortgage interest.
Of course, falling interest rates meant that the returns on the investments backing the endowment policy were reduced and providers began issuing warnings that the final payout may not be sufficient to repay the outstanding capital. Borrowers were advised to maintain the level of payments as the amount required to cover interest reduced, so as to chip away at the outstanding capital.
We were able to do that and, by the time our 15 year endowment mortgage matured, in April 2006, we had a small cash surplus.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Once again Britain has shown itself to have become a divided society. Polarised between young and old, between those who see the advantages of being a part of the European Union and those who don’t, between those who believe in the entrepreneurial spirit and those who think the state should provide for all their basic needs. Long gone are the days when Labour and Conservative parties did well to achieve much above 30% of the vote, with the middle-of-the-road Liberal Democrats snapping at their heels with a vote share above 20% and ‘New Labour’ adopting many of their policies.
Mrs May gambled and failed to win. But nor did she lose, still receiving the greatest share of the votes cast and the largest number of seats in the House of Commons. She wanted “strong and stable”, a majority large enough to overcome what she saw as the flakiness of those of her colleagues who were less committed to her vision of post-brexit Britain. She hoped for a resounding endorsement of that vision from those she described as ordinary people “just about managing”. Now it is she who is just about managing to hold onto the vision. She now hopes to continue just abut managing for the next five years. That shows a degree of optimism verging on the arrogant.
The people she will be relying upon to sustain the vision, the DUP, certainly share some of that vision. But already there are warning signals. Thursday’s result for the Tory’s was achieved in large part because of the success of their campaign in Scotland, masterminded by an openly gay woman, who is engaged to a catholic Irish woman. The fiercely protestant DUP have resolutely fought to maintain Northern Ireland as the only part of the British Islands in which same sex marriage is still not permitted.
It could be argued that the DUP are responsible for the breakdown of the power sharing arrangement under which Northern Ireland has been governed for since December 1999. The refusal of their new leader to step down whilst an enquiry takes place into the failings of an alternative energy project over seen by her when she was Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment was the catalyst for the initial breakdown. Talks aimed at restoring the agreement have failed to reach a conclusion with the two parties to the agreement, the DUP and Sinn Fein, at loggerheads.
What this means for the rest of the UK over the coming months which will inevitably be dominated by the Brexit negotiations is hard to predict. The DUP oppose a so-called hard Brexit. Moreover, if, as seems to be the case, Thursday’s result was driven by an increase in the number of young people taking part when it is also true that young people are more disposed to remain in the EU, then it is reasonable to argue it represented a softening of opinion on membership of the single market. So, too, did the collapse of support for UKIP.
To many outsiders it seems as though May has spent most of her tenure as Prime Minister trying to put off a decision about how to approach the negotiations. She apparently made her decision to call the election whilst climbing a mountain in Wales. She still has a much more important mountain to climb. The election has not made that climb any easier for her.