Dear Reader, forgive me for the self-indulgence of this post but 20 years ago this evening I finally managed (after more than two months of trying!) to join the Shepway Liberal Association and wanted to reminisce a little. Signed up by the late Bernard Budd QC I had been prompted to join for three reasons:
- Belief in Liberal values;
- Receipt of a very funny, if dated, Liberal 18th Birthday card;
- Anger at the low Tory tactics used in the 1987 General Election. I'd also been very unimpressed with Michael Howard at a Ashford & Shepway Branch meeting of the National Federation of Self-Employed which my Mum and Dad were Chair and Secretary of. He had threatened to walk out of the meeting if anyone asked him an awkward question! Accountability?
It was perhaps one of the most momentous decisions of my life and one which has strongly conditioned my approach to life but regrettably made me living proof of Churchill's dictum as my late Father, Peter, had warned me could happen. He warned me that the fire is often worse from your own side than the opposition. He was proved right. That's for the final chapter of the story.
Several weeks after I joined the Liberal Party I went to Birmingham Polytechnic and started, in the face of a fair bit of opposition and ridicule, an Alliance Students Society to bring together those of us who shared the ideas of Liberalism and Social Democracy and wanted those forces to work together to transform Britain.
This was at the time when the Alliance was starting to unravel somewhat and pressure was on to merge the two component parts of the Alliance. I had the great privilege of representing the Shepway Liberal Association in Blackpool at the Special Assembly in January 1988 at the Norbreck Castle Hotel. What a really awful day it was walking along the seafront to the hotel. It was howling a bitterly cold gale and it started snowing. I recall Tony Greaves and Paddy Ashdown making their speeches against and in favour of the merger. The margin of victory for merger (which I supported) was huge. 2086 in favour, 385 against (if my memory serves me right).
Sadly, somehow we managed to muff it all up just before it all started with the "Dead Parrot" manifesto "Voices and Choices for All". The ship steadied a bit with Paddy Ashdown and we seemed to get over it but started with a pretty awful name the Social and Liberal Democrats (shortened to the Democrats). That's when the pisstaking amongst my friends started to kick in. We were on diddly squat in the opinion polls and Paddy had a big job on his hands trying to rebuild our credibility in the face of David Owen's intransigence and his continuing SDP.
I contested unsuccessfully for the Student Liberal Democrats National Secretary position in 1988 against a Catherine Brown (who I have heard later buggered off and joined the Labour Party - my mistake to take on the "Cambridge Crowd" - a theme that will return towards the end of these 20 years). The following year I was elected National Vice Chair and was responsible for developing the regional structure of the organisation. This is all before the LDYS era when we had seperate Youth and Student Wings. Ben Rich was the National Chair at the time and I remember a young Lembit Opik, an INDEPENDENT (I'll remove this reference for a suitable consideration Lembit!) candidate for the National Union of Students Presidency, courting our support. He managed to convince us on the Exec to support his candidacy.
1989 was a pretty awful year for the SLD. We came a disastrous 4th behind the Greens in the European Parliamentary elections (which, incidentally was the first time I was able to vote Social and Liberal Democrat) and there was a sense of gloom over the party. The Richmond By-election probably put the icing on the cake when the Owenites managed to stop Barbara Pearce (a lovely and very supportive lady) taking out the young William Hague who should have lost easily. The crescendo of pisstaking from my non-political and Tory leaning friends peaked around this time.
I graduated in 1990 and became a National Vice President of the Student Lib Dems with Tim Farron. It was at this time that I started to consider becoming a Parliamentary Candidate and got more involved with the Birmingham North West Liberal Democrats. In the May elections I helped Ray Hassall finally get elected after several years of trying. He managed to take out the "delightful" sitting Councillor Tory Thelma Cooke.
Shortly afterwards I started from scratch as Focus Team Leader for Oscott Ward on Birmingham City Council. Tony Hewitt very kindly funded my Focuses and we would literally cut and paste them and letraset them. Some of you candidates out there simply don't know you've been born! I also had to trudge the streets for weeks on end as our delivery network was almost non-existent except for the Tarmey's who lived on Elmbridge Road and one or two others. 10,500 is a lot of leaflets to shift and it took quite a lot of effort getting them out. That was a pretty tough introduction to active campaigning and I put in quite a few miles on my feet.
1990 was also the year I became an Approved Parliamentary Candidate and was later selected to fight Birmingham Perry Barr. More on that later. This was also the year that Margaret Thatcher fell from power. I was working as a Labour Market Economist at Birmingham City Council and remember hearing the news on the 22nd November that she had gone. It was like "what do I do now?". I was expecting a General Election very shortly afterwards but that wasn't to come until April 1992 as it turned out.
The following May (1991) at the tender age of 21 I managed to nearly double the Lib Dem vote in Oscott Ward but was way back in third. Still, at 550ish votes it was ten times the vote of the "Nationalist" who was spreading the now familiar hatred of the nascent BNP. I remember well enjoying sticking the boot into them during my speech.
1992 and the rest comes tomorrow.