Earlier in the year, I penned a series of posts profiling forgotten liberal heroes (to which a couple of other people also kindly contributed), looking at some of those who achieved great things for liberalism in their time but have been unjustly forgotten – such as Margaret Wintringham, the very first female Liberal MP.
There is also another group of people who I think are often unjustly obscure – those local campaigners who are often at the heart of their local community and local party, delivering liberalism and helping others, but as their stage is a local one they are often unacknowledged in the wider party.
Having previously profiled Daniel Brown, today it is the turn of Barnet councillor and member of the House of Lords, Monroe Palmer.
Many people active in politics readily acknowledge how much their success, with the time and stress that it has taken to achieve, depends heavily on the forbearance and support of their partner. Monroe Palmer’s case is a little different, because while the support of Susette has certainly been vital, in his case he got into politics because in his early 20s she told him to go and get a hobby – and his response was to contact Liberal Party HQ to find out how to join the party.
Shortly afterwards someone came knocking on his door, signed him up and then persuaded him to stand in the ward where he and Susette lived – Childs Hill in the London Borough of Barnet. At the seventh attempt he was finally successful, having just missed out previously in a by-election called when he was on holiday. The resulting disruption to his campaign was almost certainly the difference between winning and the defeat by a handful of votes which he suffered. Victory finally came in 1986, with SDP running mates Brian Stone and Jack Cohen also winning – and one of the defeated candidates being a Conservative by the name of Cohen too. Monroe Palmer has stuck with that ward since, and been joined on the council by Susette too, who has also agented many of his campaigns.
Monroe describes his early style of political campaigning as “community politics before we knew what it was called”. The sense of his politics being rooted in the generosity of local people willing to vote for him was reflected by what he did early in the morning after his election victory. He and others went round pasting up “Elected – thanks” over their stakeboards around the ward and then he headed off to work.
Monroe also fought one of the local Parliamentary constituencies – Hendon South – three times before deciding to try for somewhere else, which turned out to be Hastings & Rye on the south coast. That caused the one break in his record of fighting Childs Hill ward for just under 50 years as he stood down from Barnet t concentrate on the Parliamentary fight. Two attempts in Hastings were unsuccessful and he subsequently won election back on to Barnet Council.
What kept him going through all these elections, many victorious but also five Parliamentary defeats? “Everyone should be heard – rich or poor, big or small”, says Monroe explaining that he saw only the Liberals (and then the Liberal Democrats) provide that combination of concern for freedom of the individual, a respect for civil liberties and a desire to tackle depravation and poverty which is so important to him.
The Labour Party never appealed, for he saw it as hostile to the profit motive necessary to encourage healthy enterprise and wealth for our society to use wisely, and he saw it as being a machine party run by the trade unions rather than one really motivated to help and free the least well off.
Alongside a belief in the profit motive goes a belief in the importance of individual morality – he is very dismissive of people such as Philip Green, whose attitude towards tax he views as legal but immoral.
His time as a councillor included several years as Cabinet Member for Regeneration and Monroe Palmer views as his best achievement in politics (so far!) the work he then did to encourage the regeneration of Barnet’s high streets. It was a policy based on talking closely and regularly to traders in those high streets, in stark contrast with the previous Conservative administration’s imposition of central diktats.
His campaigning advice for others is that, “Liberal Democrats get elected and stay elected because they get themselves known”, followed by a joke about having to put on a balaclava to disguise himself before going out shopping if he wants to come back just with his shopping and not with also a handful of new pieces of casework. Although he has stuck with his basic campaigning philosophy, he has innovated his campaign tactics over the years, as with the special targeting of European citizens in the 2010 local elections.
What he has not altered is his belief in politics being about listening to local people and picking up on their concerns – which is as relevant now as it ever was.