Lib Dem Voice

Book review: How grassroots activists saved the Liberal Party

Mark Egan’s book Coming into Focus: The Transformation of the Liberal Party 1945-64 examines how and why the Liberal Party survived its bleakest decades and survived a run of dismal general election results. He’s not the first to look at this question but the book takes a unique approach, being based on an extensive set of interviews carried out in the 1990s with Liberal activists from 1945-64. These are supplemented by an analysis of how local party structures fared during this twenty year span.

Whilst other studies have concentrated on issues of national policies, personalities and politics, Mark Egan draws out how the party survived thanks to its grassroots activists (and often despite the national policies, personalities and politics). He also adds a twist to the usual history of community politics:

The main conclusion of this book is that the origins of community politics and the Liberal Party’s emphasis on fighting local government elections after 1970 lie not with the Young Liberals of the mid- and late 1960s, who promoted the community politics resolution at the 1970 Liberal Assembly, but with activists in several areas of England and Scotland who placed new emphasis on local elections and developed new campaigning techniques after the 1950 general election. This change came about without the encouragement, or knowledge, of the national party, but was greatly assisted by the LPO [Liberal Party Organisation] later on. The Party’s activists not only ensured the survival and revival of the Liberal Party, they changed its character.

The initial lack of interesting in local government partly reflects how, even in 1945, there was a strong belief in many quarters that local government should not be party political but also reflects the degree to which the central party saw getting good Parliamentary candidates in place as the route to rebuilding the party and electing MPs being overwhelmingly dominant reason for a party to exist.

Whilst the modern Liberal Democrat emphasis on local government is a welcome change from these old attitudes, the change in attitude towards Parliamentary candidates has been more mixed.

In the 1940s and 1950s getting a candidate in place was often seen as a necessary step to getting a local party active and growing and a local party had to do very little to end up with a candidate in place, provided there was someone willing.

But as the candidate process has developed (including many welcome features, such as giving party members a vote) this has meant local parties have to do more before they can have a candidate in place. A disorganised local party that never quite gets round to making decisions or getting on with matters can let a selection process drag out over months and months (or in the case of one local party I know of, which has not been wanting for a Returning Officer or applicants, years).

Therefore, whilst selecting a candidate used to be seen as part of the solution to a poorly performing local party, now a poorly performing local party results in a candidate not being selected (until parachuted in at the last moment). We have gone from selecting a Parliamentary candidate being seen as part of the solution to not selecting a Parliamentary candidate being a symptom of the problem.

That said,

One of the main reasons why the Liberal Party remained in existence after 1945 is because its local associations [LAs] remained in existence … Without activists’ commitment to liberalism and the hope of eventual victory, the Party would not have survived …

[Only] some LAs remained active during the late 1940s and the 1950s because their focus was primarily on fighting local government elections rather than Parliamentary elections … [Some others survived] despite not having run candidates in parliamentary or local elections for a decade or more. Partly this reflected social reasons to continue with Liberal activity. Whist drives organised ostensibly to raise money for general election campaigns could become the raison d’être of LAs and it was not uncommon for more energy to be expended by Liberal activists on the organisation of an annual bazaar than on political activity.

Some of the themes of attempting to build the party’s organisation are remarkably familiar to modern ears, such as the recommendation of the post-war Reconstruction Committee – in its wonderfully named report Coats off for the Future – that constituency parties should concentrate on collecting small sums of money from a large number of sympathisers. “Let’s copy Barack Obama!” has rather more of a ring to it than “Let’s copy the Reconstruction Committee!” though.

The activists who got stuck in at a local level were frequently from Lancashire and Yorkshire and from councils with smaller rather than larger wards. They were not particularly radical in their policy views, but rather in the mainstream of party opinion (unlike the Young Liberals and other high profile supporters of community politics in the 1970s). They did though tend to lean more to the left than the right, with former Labour supporters being much more common amongst activists than former Conservative supporters:

Liberal activists lent to the left of British politics, favouring a realignment of the progressive wing of politics to combat conservatism and supporting the principle, if not necessarily the practice, of trade unionism.

In that respect activists differed from Liberal voters, who tended to be drawn more from ex-Conservatives than ex-Labour, though in part that was a reflection of the Conservatives being in power for the bulk of the period under consideration (1951-1964).

The book clearly shows its roots in the previous doctorate on the topic written by the author, but it is still accessible even if there are more tables and fewer passages of flowing prose than you would find in a coffee table history book.

You can buy the book from Amazon here (though watch out for the currently eye-watering price even for a second hand copy).

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