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Monday Memories – Birth of the Liberal Democrats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Memories – Finding a Middle Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Memories – 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.