Friday, 28 March 2014

Shirley Williams at dinner for Ronnie Fearn's 50 yrs as a councillor

A couple of  weeks ago I blogged about Shirley William's impending visit to Southport  Well she came and once again conquered the hearts and minds of all those who turned out. In her talk, to which I shall return, Shirley spoke of the big changes she had seen in her political life time especially around the role of women and the digital revolution. She recalled the only feminist remark she had heard Thatcher make and tried to persuade us that she was as ignorant about digital matter as Ronnie Fearn-whose fifty years as an elected councillor we had come to celebrate.

I had the pleasure of having Jim Hancock join our table at the dinner held at the Ramada -the recently opened hotel next to our conference centre. It was a different world back in 1963 when Ronnie was first elected. In local government terms Southport was a County Borough and we were the largest party. The night Ronnie was elected nine other Southport Liberals topped the ballot and he joined a group of 26 Liberals in the Town Hall. The party was still basking in the after glow of Eric Lubbock's victorious Orpington by election and all things were possible. Southport was always different. After years of Tory domination a formal Lib/Lab pact had a majority in the council chamber. As I understand it we fought 10 seats and Labour fought five. The pact was so strict that we helped out in each other's by elections
For Southport Liberals Orpington was not the first sign of revival. In truth we had always survived. In 1959 Sam Goldberg came second in the  General election, (Michael Meadowcroft tells the story in an edition of  Liberator page 16)

Shirley with some Southport Lib Dems-
Haydn Preece is just visible behind Ronnie's right ear
I was telling Jim this during the meal and repeated an assertion that I have heard frequently made that we were the only 2nd place in England in a three cornered fight in 1959. Jim raised a quizzical eyebrow and, as befits a West Country lad, politely wondered about Torrington-the scene of Mark Bonham Carter's  1958 by election victory.

When I got home I began to check the election stats. In truth scrolling through the 1959 results is pretty depressing. Clearly they were a lot better than 1951, but page after page of third places and no candidate was not promising. Never the less Jim was right. There were eight other seats in England where we didn't fight in 1955 and gained second place in 1959 including Torrington, Roger Cuss in Cheadle and Ludovic Kennedy in Rochdale . In addition there were, chiefly in the West Country a handful of long term second places-Tavistock (Richard Moore), Honiston, Bodmin, North Cornwall etc plus Westormland where A. C Acland came second. (I met Acland in 1992,  well I met a man who was living in Middlewich where I was the County Councillor who introduced himself as the parliamentary candidate for Westmorland in 1959 and reminisced about Jo Grimond. Jo had made a visit to  during the 1992 General Election to the Cheshire constituency.

It was not surprising that when Jim and I were talking the conversation turned to our old friend Viv Bingham.  Viv died in 2012 and Jim helped organise a meeting at the NLC in his memory. If Viv was around today one thing of which we can be certain is that would be concerned about the state of the Co-op. Viv's last job was as head of HR for the Co-op based at it's Manchester HQ. Viv was a firm advocate of workers' co-operatives and like all Liberals of his generation saw co-ownership as a central tenant of his political creed. He would have been depressed by the sad state of his former employers and I suspect angry at the 'lite' version of employee ownership and workplace democracy advocated by his party's leadership. The policy he advocated was one where, as Richard Wainwright frequently told Liberal Assemblies, labour hired capital. Viv wanted to see workers treated on the same basis as share holders with the Boards of companies elected on a common voting roll. and compulsory profit sharing for all companies with more that 50 employees . At the time of his death Viv was talking about publishing his reflections on the need for Liberals and the Co-operative movement to reignite their partnership. Maybe out of the ashes of the present collapse that opportunity may present itself. I shall return to this in a later posting when I get write something about the SLF fringe meeting at York.

The other discussion Jim and I had was over the misguided emphasis on City Regions. He wrote recently:
It is high time the prevailing doctrine that cities are the only drivers of the northern economy was challenged. Without a strong regional policy, towns around our big cities are going to suffer. Leading academics of my acquaintance, who support the cities agenda, openly say that people in places like Burnley are going to have to travel to Manchester to get a job in the future.

Policy today appears to be that the towns and villages in between the cities in the north are a waste of space and ought to be taken over by the cities. This too I will return to in a later posting.

As to Thatcher's' feminist' remark made to Shirley in a House of Commons loo? That too will appear in a separate posting..............  

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