Thinking back about the SDP & the parallels with the TIG

My good friend and fellow blogger Phil Holden has recently been pondering on the issue of the new Independent Group in the HofC and in doing so reflecting on the rise and fall of the SDP. His posting is accessible via this link:-

phlhldn.blogspot.com/2019/02/so-chuka-chucked-it-in-for-what.html

One particular part of Phil’s posting stood out for me and it is this:-

‘The SDP foundered in part on whether it should be a party of the left, taking on Labour in a fight to the death, as David Owen wanted, or a centre-party that cosied up to the Liberals, as Roy Jenkins wanted. Jenkins of course won that one.’

As someone who had only joined the old Liberal Party on New Years Day 1980* I was very new to politics when the SDP came along soon after and then I was swept along in the tide that was the famous Crosby by-election**. Heady days indeed but my perspective is just a little different to Phil’s.

Firstly, I think it is fair to say that we Liberals looked upon David Own as a stubborn difficult person with rather right-wing views (who seemed obsessed with NATO for some odd reason) but that the other 3 of the Gang of 4 were to the left of him and far more in tune with Liberal values. Liberals have always been at their best when they espouse radical and left of centre views. Attempts to look moderate or centrist will always fail in my book.

So I saw Owen, Rodgers, Williams and Jenkins from the other end of the telescope to Phil, indeed in my view Owen was probably a big factor in the failure of the SDP along with our appallingly warped electoral system of course. We Libs often referred to Owen as ‘Dr Death’, probably because we feared he would kill us off along with the SDP. In truth he nearly did but we survived and prospered until we tried to commit ritual suicide in the Clegg era on a worryingly moderate platform with one infamous and devastating political U-turn – Tuition Fees.

That there was no love lost between the Liberals and Owen to me is a given and it will be interesting to see whether anyone from the IG starts to fill Owen’s boots again – I hope they don’t but fear they might. And I say that because in my experience many in the Labour Party hold views that are well to the right of us Liberals.

And just to be nostalgic, my abiding memory of the Crosby By-election was a public meeting in Deyes High School, organised by the SDP/Liberal Alliance. It was packed out and standing room only. Obviously, Shirley was there as the soon to be winning candidate, along with Roy Jenkins and Joe Grimond the former Liberal leader who had saved his party from the political wilderness in the 1960s. Being in the same hall as these 3 was wonderful to a fresh-faced political lad like me. Ah memories……

And talking of SDP/Liberal Alliance memories, whilst I’m at it, here’s another story told to me by my very good friend Roy Connell. One day during the heady days of the Alliance he was asked in to drive Roy Jenkins and BBC reporter Kate Adie on an open-top tour of parts of Liverpool. It seems that at one point he had to pull up sharply and Jenkins and Adie were thrown around a bit. Roy can still hear ringing in his ears the words ‘steady driver’ from Jenkins.

* I had read the 3 main party manifestos for the 1979 General Election and concluded I was a Liberal.

** I lived (and still do) in that constituency (now named Sefton Central) and got to know Shirley Williams well. She is indeed a lovely person and the fact that she became a life-long friend of Anthony Hill the already selected Liberal candidate for the seat (who stepped down for her to be the Alliance candidate) says a lot about how well the SDP and Liberals got on in our part of the world back in the early 1980s and indeed many of my friends in the present Lib Dem Party are former SDP activists.

The Left – Every sect thinks it’s tribal way is the right way hence the Tories are in power more often than not

The left of British politics has always been factionalised with numerous socialist parties coming and going, the Labour Party often engaged in vicious internal warfare (as they are at present) and the Lib Dems, in recent years, having been pulled towards economic rather than social liberalism. Of course looking back a while the SDP also failed to ‘break the mould’ as it became split by the ‘Owen’ factor amongst other things.

The lack of unity on the left has always been a problem and our warped first past the post electoral system has also helped to put many Tory Governments in power who have nothing like majority popular support; just like the present one.

What beggars belief therefore is why when Labour have grabbed power for the odd short period they have not pursued electoral reform and a fair voting system. I suppose the last Labour government was too arrogant and thought their ‘New Labour’ guise would last and be popular for generations. Well it wasn’t so Labour went further to the right in opposition, even openly bashing the poor along the way. But as they became labeled Red Tories the electorate said stuff that we may as well have proper Tories.

The Lib Dems also discredited themselves by lying about Tuition Fees in 2010. Nick Clegg thought the electorate would forgive him. They didn’t. Indeed, because many of those who voted Lib Dem in 2010 thought he was a straight forward chap whom they could trust his backing out of a clear promise caused them to drop him and his party like a stone. They expected other parties to tell porkies but having been persuaded the Lib Dems were trustworthy they turned against them big time. Rebuilding that lack of trust in the Lib Dems is probably Tim Farron’s biggest challenge.

The Greens tried lurching to left after 2010 and were the most socialist of the mainstream parties at the last general election but of course this move set their traditional environmentalist sect against an upstart socialist sect. Socialism and environmentalism have never sat comfortably together in my experience. Socialists on Merseyside that I have come across have always seemed to be very much disinterested in environmental issues.

But within the left there is at the heart of so many of its difficulties one major factor that causes the disunity which the Tories always benefit from. Many left wing sects think they are absolutely right and all other left wing sects are utterly wrong. Such tribalism then sets these sects against each other and the Tories win again whilst the left debates, often viciously, who is right and who is wrong. In differing ways I think that the emergence of the SDP and the rise of Tony Blair were reactions to the self destructive nature of the left.

The SDP failed and despite huge initial success Blair’s New Labour failed because he wandered to far right, got involved in the appalling Iraq war and probably laid the foundations for Labour to be cat called ‘Red Tories’.

The real danger that the left faces now is that we could have a seriously right wing Tory Party in power for a generation with UKIP effectively pulling their levers. Is this not enough of a nightmare to sober up the left of British politics?

David Rimmer RIP

My friend David Rimmer died today having been ill for quite a few months. He was well known in Southport as a councillor (retired), a big supporter of Southport Football Club, and a keen supporter of Birkdale & Southport Cricket Club.

David Rimmer (left) with Cllr. John Dodd.

David Rimmer (left) with Cllr. John Dodd.

I first got to know David many years ago in the early 1980’s when he was a member and a local mover and shaker within the SDP. This was in the SDP/Liberal Alliance days when I was a fresh faced lad who had just joined the old Liberal Party. He was certainly a big influence on that famous Crosby by-election when the redoubtable Shirley Williams took the Tory seat for the SDP. I understand that he and Shirley then remained friends all of David’s life.

It was only some years later, during my time as Leader of the Lib Dem Group and Leader of Sefton Council, that I really got to know David well. He was a hugely respected councillor (representing Meols Ward) across the political spectrum in all 4 parties on the council (Lib Dem, Labour, Tory and the Officer Party!) and was a great help to me in managing what was then a unique 3 political party coalition running Sefton Council.

David had been a senior social services officer at Knowsley Council prior to retirement and had then taken on a managing role within an elderly persons charity before he became a Lib Dem Sefton councillor. His diplomatic skills were considerable and like my other old friend Peter Gibson he seemed to have the ability to get people to agree to things that they did not think they were willing to agree to!

If ever I had a sticky problem when I was Council leader, which needed a certain bit of behind the scenes diplomacy, I would turn to David. He would always say ‘leave it me boss, you will not hear of it again’ when I asked him to assist me. And you know I never did hear of the problem again each time and everyone seemed happy with the outcomes. How did he do it?

I had lost touch with David over the past year, indeed I only became aware that he was so ill very recently. It was as though he had deliberately taken a low profile, not wanting to be a burden or a worry to anyone, so much like the man I grew to like and respect immensely.

RIP David Rimmer a true friend whom I shall miss terribly.

Shirley Williams – In praise of a great servant of the public

News that Shirley Williams is to retire from politics after many years in the public eye brings back memories of her for me.

I first met Shirley in the famous Crosby By-election when as a young Liberal I was working to help get her elected as the SDP/Liberal Alliance candidate.

She came across as a down to earth friendly person who really cared about people and this proved to be the case over the many years I have known and met her.

Here are some photos of Shirley with me and others:-

1983 General Election campaigning in Southport with a young Iain Brodie Browne.

1983 General Election campaigning in Southport with a young Iain Brodie Browne.

Lord Ronnie Fearn, Barness Shirley Williams, John Pugh MP & Anette Pugh

Lord Ronnie Fearn, Barness Shirley Williams, John Pugh MP & Anette Pugh

Myself and Richard Clein with Shirley at Tree Tops Restaurant

Myself and Richard Clein with Shirley at Tree Tops Restaurant

Former Cllr. Anthony Hill in Crosby's Pritchard's Bookshop with Shirley in 2009

Former Cllr. Anthony Hill in Crosby’s Pritchard’s Bookshop with Shirley in 2009

A decent and well liked politician and there aren’t too many of them around now nor indeed in the past. I hope she is able to enjoy her retirement. I feel privileged to have known and worked with Shirley.