Graham Tope: a life in politics

To help mark the celebration of Sutton Liberal Democrats running the local council for 25 (yes, 25) continuous years, a family history project between former council leader (Lord) Graham Tope and his son has been turned into a book of political and personal reminiscences.

The book’s subtitle “Conversations between father and son” captures its structure: an email exchange over several years as son Andrew sought to find out more from his father, with Graham sending long replies back tapped in on his Blackberry. That gives the questions and answers an immediate and personal touch, even if sometimes at the expense of duplication and an uneven coverage of events.

But those are minor fall outs from a format that works well at capturing the sort of political details so often lost to the historical record and rarely known about outside the particular local party in which they took place. Graham is one of the most successful Liberal Democrat (and predecessor) politicians, having been the long-serving leader of an extremely successful Liberal Democrat council, an elected member of a regional body (the London Assembly), briefly an MP and also now a Parliamentarian for life in the Lords – though as he says he regularly votes to cut short that tenure and abolish himself.

The book also covers Graham Tope’s lively days as a young politician (not a student politician, for he never went to university), including being arrested and held in jail by the Communist police and taking part in successful direct action to disrupt touring South African sports teams during the apartheid struggles. He was one of a generation of radical Young Liberals that was often in dispute with the party’s leadership. However, as Graham mischievously points out in the book he went on to become an MP and a peer whilst the then Liberal Party leader, Jeremy Thorpe, had his career end in a welter of personal scandals; it was the Young Liberals who turned out to be the more respectable ones.

Graham Tope did not however simply talk the community politics rhetoric of the time, he also put it into practice as a campaigner, an MP and then a council leader with much of his wisdom expressed in the book still very relevant now: “As an MP I used to talk about doing things ‘WITH people, not just FOR them’ … I wanted us [on the council] to have some power to ‘do things’ … We cannot be just a good, well run Council (any party can and does achieve that); we must be a good Liberal Democrat council”.

As for the roots to political success in Sutton – he puts them down to regular Focus newsletters and a well-developed delivery network which did not simply rely on a small number of people shifting massive numbers of leaflets themselves. Those strengths have continued to serve the party well from the early days in the 1970s when, “we divided the constituency into delivery rounds of between 70 and 100 “letter boxes” … We then called on residents in each round who said they’d vote for us asking them if they would deliver Focus about once a month. As soon as we found a deliverer, we moved on to the next ‘round’”.

Distinctively Liberal Democrat policies supported by genuine grassroots campaigning – that is both a description of the approach Graham Tope and colleagues have taken in Sutton and an explanation of their remarkable political and electoral success. Not only 25 years running the council and two MPs to boot, but also a record of Liberal Democrat policy achievements, especially on the environment.

That makes this enjoyable read more than just an interesting exercise in family history; it is also a gentle primer on political success.

Copies of Graham Tope: A Life in Politics – Conversations between father and son can be purchased for £10 from Sutton Liberal Democrats. Cheques payable to “Sutton Liberal Democrats” can be sent to 88 The Gallop, Sutton, SM2 5SA.

A different version of this piece first appeared in Liberal Democrat News, the party’s newspaper.

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