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Monday Memories – Political Baptism


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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.

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