Lord Tony Greaves Speech for ALDC/LDH Fringe Meeting in Bournemouth
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This is about ancient history, the years up to 1985 – the crucial time when ALC changed from a Councillors’ club and minor party pressure group into a serious political force. I want to pay tribute to everyone who helped that happen.
We set out to make revolutionary change to the nature of Liberal campaigning, to rebuild the Liberal Party from local level and transform its fortunes, and to make important changes to local Councils – the way they operated and related to their citizens. We took the community politics developed by the Young Liberals around 1970 and melded them with the populist style of campaigning developed by Liverpool’s Trevor Jones and others, which had been used in by-elections such as YL Graham Topes’ win at Sutton and Cheam.
A group of those Young Liberals including Gordon Lishman, David Hewitt and me took over the ALC, working with people like John Smithson and Phoebe Winch whose book on the first ten years at Birchcliffe called Action with the ALC is an entertaining and essential source for that period. We persuaded the Dorset Councillor Trevor Jones to take over as Chairman when David Evans stood down in 1976. What we wanted was an operation outside the stifling corridors of LPO (the Liberal Party HQ) which was providing next to no useful services for Councillors and local campaigners.
Andrew Ellis worked for ALC as a travelling salesman for local campaigning for a few months – his suitcase bulging with leaflets was a wondrous sight. Then in December Trevor got a letter out of the blue from the Joseph Rowntree Social Service Trust (whose Trustees included David Shutt and Richard Wainwright and whose chief executive was Pratap Chitnis, one-time Liberal Party local government officer) with the offer of a grant to pay one employee, plus free accommodation conveniently available in the Birchcliffe Centre in Hebden Bridge, a majestic former Baptist Chapel which the Trust had bought to convert into offices as a “Poland Street for the North”.
I got the job, held my seat in the County Council elections in May 1977, and started work. Those elections were a disaster. We took just 90 seats and in total only held around 800 on Principal Councils. ALC had 350 members. We just had scattered beacons of active Liberal campaigners and Councillors, and our first job was to provide them with support, ideas, encouragement. The second was to create more of them and bring them all together into a countrywide family of enthusiastic activists, and to proselytise for the new style of local campaigning. This was long before the invention of the internet but cheap table-top offset litho printing was taking off – it was the era of golf-ball typewriters, Letraset and cut and paste artwork using scissors and cow gum.
We produced the ALC Bulletin six times a year – full of news and experiences from campaigners round the country. We had a slot in the Liberal News, now sadly no more, written at first by Andrew Ellis and later by Phoebe Winch. We later produced a separate mailing for Councillors called Grapevine. “Advice” (I put that in inverted commas since we did not mince our words), good practice, experiences good and bad. Briefings on new legislation and a long series of Campaign Booklets which sold in their hundreds to a growing number of local activists ravenous for ideas and advice.
The first, mainly written by Chairman Trevor Jones, was called Could YOU be a Liberal Councillor? This was followed by guides to Casework by Elisabeth Wilson, On the Council, Community Campaigning Manual by John Smithson, Parish Politics by Phoebe Winch, How to Produce Focus and Live!, Life in the Balance, How to Fight Local Elections and WIN! – a revolutionary concept for many Liberals in those days, Press, Radio and TV by Mike Oborski, and a Guide to Rural Campaigning including a small section by one Paddy Ashdown.
Many more followed, and a new series of Activists’ Guides such as Polling Day Organisation, How to Organise the Postal Vote, and How to Organise a Liberal Council Group. The Campaign Booklet which has lasted over the years is The Theory and Practice of Community Politics by Bernard Greaves and Gordon Lishman, still a much required read. We produced campaign guides before each round of local elections, and Action Programmes as a basis for local manifestoes. We published a fortnightly Campaign Mailing put together by Peter Chegwyn. And of course Focus artwork sheets, invented by our printer John Cookson at North West Community Newspapers in Manchester – clipart on paper sheets!
We ran training sessions around the country and did tours and visits, to find out what was going on, to drum up local campaigning, sometimes to trouble-shoot when groups fell out. We provided a service for answering questions and giving advice. We went to regional conferences and we promoted the cause robustly within the party. At Liberal Assemblies we put on fringe meetings on a previously unknown scale and the growth in size of the ALC Stall became a legend, much parodied in the pages of Liberator. All these things were quite new.
When I say “we”, in the first couple of years it was just me and a handful of the officers and committee, notably Trevor Jones and Phoebe Winch, Gordon Lishman and David Hewitt. In 1980 we got another Rowntree grant for a Political Secretary to work with Councillors and Council groups and appointed the great and very sadly missed Maggie Clay who produced the new Grapevine mailing. A couple of years later we appointed an Information Officer, the excellent David Vasmer. We gained more staff including administrative support and Maggie started to build a team of part-time funded volunteers around the country.
So did we achieve our revolutionary aims? We certainly changed the nature of many local Liberal parties, and we changed what active Liberals did. By 1985 we had some 3000 Councillors (which later approached 5000) and ALC had some 2300 members. The not entirely unfair caricature of a typical Liberal changed from a kind but elderly man earnestly discussing site value rating and an nice old Women’s Liberal lady running a tea party, to a young person grinning sheepishly as they pointed to a pothole in the road. More seriously we rescued a dying movement, and we laid the foundations for a party of election winners, which later came to run many Councils and win over 60 MPs. We made real Liberal changes to the way many Councils work, and we showed how the process of parties working together can often be productive as well as possible. In so doing we changed the landscape of local democracy.
Now a lot of this seems to have shrunk or disappeared like straw in the wind. But there is still a lot left. Times have changed and computers and the internet have revolutionised how we do things. But local democracy has been ground under the heel of central Government in a host of undesirable ways. What we achieved was in many ways a miracle – and it was exciting, and it was good in its own right and in its own time. The foundations remain and frankly a new generation of Liberal campaigners is going to have to build on them, all over again.