I first met Ronnie pretty soon after getting involved in Liberal politics in 1980. If memory serves he was at that time a Sefton Borough Councillor for Southport’s Norwood Ward and a Merseyside County Councillor. He came across as a campaigner with huge amounts of energy, ideas and enthusiasm.
He encouraged me as a fresh-faced lad to stand for Maghull Town Council but I also recall him wondering out loud if my beard would go down well with the electorate. It did and I won a seat at a by-election in 1985. I would run into Ronnie not only locally when the Liberals, the SDP/Liberal Alliance and subsequently the Lib Dems were campaigning on an issue but also at Liberal Assemblies and then Lib Dem Conferences.
At conferences and assemblies, Ronnie was in his element often surrounded by like-minded campaigners and he had some fun at those events too; Llandudno in 1981 comes to mind as do many a Glee Club (a Liberal political sing-song at conferences) where Ronnie would always do his bit of entertaining. Of course, he was heavily involved in amateur dramatics in Southport so being on stage was second nature to him.
It was no surprise to me when he was elected as MP for Southport in 1987 as my feeling was folks in the Town looked upon him as Mr. Southport. He lost the seat in 1992 election but stepped right back into campaigning to get it back at the 1997 General Election, which of course he did. He retained his council seat for Norwood Ward of Sefton throughout his time as an MP and was a regular attendee at Council meetings as well as fulfilling his parliamentary duties. His boundless energy made it all possible. I recall asking him on one occasion whether he ever had a day when he did not want to campaign or struggled to do so when he was under the weather. His answer was I put my best foot forward and get on with things, or words to that effect.
Ronnie was determined that I stand for Sefton Council and when I won a seat in Molyneux Ward in 1999 no one was more delighted for me. He then decided to step down as an MP and John Pugh was subsequently elected for the Southport seat. Ronnie found himself elevated to the House of Lords in 2001 where he served until 2018. Subsequent changes within the Lib Dem Group on Sefton Council ended up with that fresh-faced lad, that I mentioned earlier, finding himself as Group Leader and then Council Leader in 2004 when the Libs became the largest party on the balanced Council. I was Council Leader until 2011 and Ronnie was a member of my Group and was Cabinet Member for Leisure too. I recall that on a number of occasions I would be leading my group through some tortuous council process whilst thinking to myself Lord Ronnie is sat there whilst I’m advising him what to do! All my instincts were set up to follow Ronnie’s advice and guidance, how on earth had the tables been turned?
The reality was that Ronnie was a kind and supportive chap who just wanted to help me to succeed and I’m so grateful for his years of guidance.
A close friend of Ronnie’s was David Rimmer, a fellow Sefton Councillor for Meols ward. David had the ability to sound just like Ronnie and every now and again he’d slip into his impersonation of Ronnie, usually to the great amusement of all concerned. It was not done in a way to make fun of Ronnie but in admiration of him.
So those are my memories of Ronnie, a kind and supportive man who encouraged a fresh-faced lad into front-line politics. I owe him a lot and will miss him greatly.