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.
Today it is the turn of Sutton’s Ruth Dombey.
Ruth Dombey is different from the typical local Liberal Democrat organiser in two ways: she is older, and more successful. Those two factors are almost certainly related for her years outside of politics provided excellent experience in organisation and logistics, sales and marketing.
After a brief flirtation with politics at university, where she studied politics and economics and remembers trying to get the local MP to come to a meeting, she travelled and then lived in Italy for 19 years. The politics she got involved in there was mostly of the talking type, where politics equalled discussing issues with friends and acquaintances around the table whilst eating or drinking. It was only the impact of a candidate who had spent years in America that brought a touch of more recognisable campaigning to her part of Italy and to her life, with an emphasis on going out and talking to people in the local market and elsewhere.
Shortly afterwards, she moved to the UK and to Sutton, running a wine importing business. The local MP, Paul Burstow, became a client in 1998 with the result that when she started looking for a part-time job a year later, his office was one place she asked around. By chance the previous caseworker had just left and so started Ruth’s more serious political career.
She pays great credit to the warmth and experience of the Sutton and wider London team she joined, rapidly learning much from Sutton stalwarts such as Ruth Shaw and Tony Brett Young and the organisers in neighbouring seats, now both sadly deceased, Belinda Eyre-Brook (after whom a party award is now named) and Andrew Reeves. It was Ruth Shaw who took Ruth door knocking for the first time.
By 2002 Ruth was a councillor and by 2010 she was not only Deputy Leader of the Council but also the successful campaign manager as Sutton Liberal Democrats notched up yet another victory in their long-running grip on the council and also once again saw both the borough’s Parliamentary constituencies won by Liberal Democrats, Tom Brake and Paul Burstow.
She puts her own success as a campaign manager down to the candidates and teams she has worked with, and to learning from what others did well. Before her first winning council by-election campaign she simply decided, “Let’s see if we follow the Chris Rennard method what happens”.
Victory is what happened.
Teamwork is a consistent theme mentioned by Sutton’s leading Liberal Democrats, and in Ruth’s case being a councillor who had worked for one of the MPs means she personally was able to bridge those gaps that can open up and undermine trust.
The sales and marketing experience in the wine industry also informs an approach very target driven and with a big emphasis on getting volunteers involved via a mix of charm and bossiness.
The bigger purpose for Ruth is that campaigning “has got to be all about community politics” – “it’s about what is happening outside people’s front doors”. Sutton’s Liberal Democrats made much in the mid-1980s of trying to restore a sense of pride in the local community, and it is an approach she still relishes, seeing a job for local politicians in helping to nourish and support local communities. Her time in Italy gave her a strong belief that life is not just about the individual and the state; faced with a failing state people made good use of other networks, especially those of family and neighbours.
As for the means to the end – “the organisation is absolutely vital”. Her top tip is “keep people motivated and informed; and work bloody hard”. The 2010 elections, as a result, saw a record number of leaflets and letters delivering through people’s letterboxes and she is already planning for 2014.
UPDATE: Since this post appeared, Ruth Dombey has become leader of Sutton Council.