Jim's Time in Active Politics

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You either came here by mistake (so click here to return to Jim's Jottings home page or here to return to Jim's Biographical Rubbish page), or you really want to know the story of my former amateur career in local politics:

My period of political activity began in a small way as a student when I joined the university branch of the Liberal Party as the only way I could then find of discovering what it stood for. I had previously been vaguely inclined towards the Labour Party, without any real commitment, but had gradually become disenchanted with what I saw as their dogmatic, old-fashioned approach. I never seriously considered anything right of centre, on the basis of a firm belief that any society deserving to be called civilised used some of the wealth and strength of those who had it to help those who, through no fault of their own, were less fortunate. As a fervent democrat, the communists merited no consideration either.

As it happened, the Liberal Party in Britain was then at its lowest ebb, losing a bye-election a few weeks later to reduce it to only five members of Parliament, with two of those dependent on the Conservatives considerately not contesting the seats. Then Jo Grimond took over as leader and everything began to change; radical, socially responsible policies were developed which caught my imagination. I was hooked, and on moving to Luton sought out and joined the local party, only to discover it was almost totally moribund. A monthly meeting took place of about half a dozen people, nominally to discuss progress and further action, but in reality there was very little action at all.

The problem was that Luton, like many other places at that time, had seen a succession of Liberal lost deposits in General Elections, with consequent apparently insoluble problems of debts and lost morale.

To clarify the lost deposit situation, according to British electoral law, any candidate in a Parliamentary election must deposit a sum of cash with his nomination papers, which is not returned unless he achieves a stated minimum percentage of the total votes cast. At that time (mid-1950's and for some time before and after that) the deposit was 150 pounds sterling, and the minimum percentage of the votes required to get it back was 12.5. Since 5 percent was then a good result for a Liberal in Luton and many other places (and 150 pounds was then a lot of cash for such a small organisation to find), the situation was desperate.

To begin with, I had no idea of the practicalities of politics, never having even seen a ballot paper, and to make matters worse from the point of view of my contribution, I was then about the most timid, shy person I have ever known. This changed very slowly, but I did at least learn how the election system worked, and after marriage in 1960 my wife joined in and we slowly improved things, brought in new blood and certainly raised local morale and results, along with what was happening nationally.

However, when a bye-election hit Luton in 1963, at a time when nationally Liberals were regularly coming first or (more often) second in such events, the crunch really came. By now I was constituency chairman and my wife was secretary, membership was up twenty fold or more over the previous 3 years and hopes were high. I was personally not particularly optimistic because popular support was still very fragile, but I at least anticipated a respectable result. In the event the deposit was just lost once again (we gained 12.4 percent of the vote), party support and morale slumped nationally as well as locally, at least partly as a result. At the General Election the following year I managed with some difficulty to persuade the local activists that to field a candidate would be to invite further financial and morale disaster, but support declined anyway.

My career was then developing, and we were thinking of starting a family, so for a time we dropped out of active politics apart from lending a hand with delivering a few leaflets occasionally.

Then in late 1970 I was approached by the local activists with a request to solve a serious problem - they had nobody prepared to take on the job of constituency chairman, and it had been suggested that I should be approached to step into the breach.

I agreed to give it a try, and found myself as candidate for Luton Borough Council once again the following May, and again the following year.

The second year, in one small area of the ward I tried out a couple of new techniques, one for attracting votes and the other for estimating the impact more accurately and far more easily than by traditional door to door canvassing. I was amazed at the success achieved, converting that small area from 70 percent Labour, 30 percent Conservative and no detectable Liberal support whatever, to 60 percent Liberal, with just a few hours work needed to do it! Overall I gained 18 percent the votes in the ward, and things were beginning to look up.

Extending the process to the rest of even that one ward, however, was not straightforward, because it required the identification of particular local problems relevant to the area and being ignored, or apparently so, by the authorities. In the test area, a newly built housing estate with no facilities whatever, they had been obvious. There was also the problem of finance, because the solution lay in door-to-door distribution of literature which we could not finance on the wider scale. I was then able to put together two ideas from different parts of the country to solve both problems.

In the north west of England a Liberal named Trevor Jones, who ran a successful business from which he could afford to finance the scheme, was, in the role of election agent, winning first local council seats and then Parliamentary bye-elections, by frequent distribution of newsletters which ignored party politics and dealt solely with local problems, pushing the candidate as the man who was actually solving specified problems in the area and inviting people to come forward with their own to seek his help. Because the leaflets were not overtly party political, people read them. When they saw the evidence that here was a man (who just happened to be the Liberal candidate at some forthcoming election) who was getting done the things they wanted, they flocked to vote for him. The snag from our point of view in Luton was that we could not finance the literature needed both to appeal for problems to solve and to publicise the efforts made.

The solution to this second part I found in another area (I think it was Finchley), where I learnt that the local Liberals had managed to persuade local businesses to pay for advertising on quite standard (and rather ineffective) party political literature, providing a caption was added making clear that "the advertisers do not necessarily support the views expressed" in the leaflet.

I put the two together, and between December 1972 and the first elections for a reorganised local authority in April 1973, we had distributed 4 different leaflets of the Trevor Jones model to every house in the ward. The election was for the new Bedfordshire County Council, with two vacancies and six candidates. I topped the poll by a significant margin, with Labour second and third, and the Conservatives, who won the ward a year earlier, taking the bottom two places. Six weeks and two more leaflets later came elections for the new Luton Borough Council, this time with 4 vacancies and 12 candidates, and again I topped the poll with a considerable majority; this time, however, we had destroyed the old argument that "a Liberal vote is a wasted vote", and we took all four seats. No Liberal candidate in any election in Luton had previously come ahead of any Labour or Conservative candidate during my lifetime, so you can imagine I felt pretty pleased with myself.

Problems of a different nature were now arising, however. I was a member of two local authorities (one of which held its meetings 20 miles away in Bedford - and I had neither a car nor a driving licence), working at a full-time job 12 miles away in Stevenage, bringing up two daughters, still chairman of the constituency party of which my wife was again secretary, and I was now being flooded with calls for help from outside my own ward as well as inside. The constituency party was growing, which increased the organisational work further, and as group leader on Luton Council I received huge volumes of official paperwork to read each week. I was more than fully stretched (politics now occupied every evening and the whole of every weekend), but did not know when to hold back.

In 1974 Britain had two General Elections, in February and November, and guess who was our candidate in both of them (although I did give up the chairmanship to do it). We easily saved our deposit each time (with about 18 percent of the poll), but were still way behind the other main parties because we had not been able to do the work in many other parts of the town, and the whole thing was now getting too much for me.

The stress from overwork was leading to depression, although I did not recognise it as such at the time. I was also starting to become a little disillusioned with the party, which seemed to me to be losing its way following two changes of leadership. I gradually withdrew, not defending either of my Council seats when they fell due in 1976 and 1977. When the Liberal Party merged with the newly formed Social Democrats to form a new party, I did not join it, and remained clear of any political affiliation until very recently - I joined the Green Party in 2001, but am not playing a particularly active part in it. However, I have not lost any of my enthusiasm for political reform, both in constitutional terms and in actual policies, as you can see (when it is done) from my politics page (last updated 22nd December 2001).

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This page last updated 27th November 2002