Local liberal heroes: Roger Hayes

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 Kingston’s Roger Hayes.

Roger Hayes is an unusual sort of dedicated community campaigner in Liberal Democrat ranks. Whilst he is certainly devoted to the communities he has stood to represent, rather than spending long periods of time in just the one area he has been a councillor in four different wards, three in Kingston and one in the Isle of Wight. He has also, by his own choice, been an on and off councillor, with three separate stretches as a councillor, each time standing down of his own volition.

His political career started in fairly unpromising circumstances as “for years I was the only Liberal I knew”. He had been attracted to the party by Jo Grimond, but Jo’s magic hadn’t worked on his friends or acquaintances. Then he got a lucky break – moving to the Isle of Wight in the 1970s, where there was an active party which had an office and – very unusually for the time – had successfully elected a Liberal MP. In other words, as with many of the other people I have interviewed, Roger hit lucky by falling in at an early stage with good party people and for him, as for them, that mattered far more than what he learnt from books or training sessions.

Having “always been somebody who wants to do something”, he quickly became a councillor and then soon after started thinking about becoming a Parliamentary candidate. This road took him to the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames, where he stood for Parliament, not winning the seat but helping to build up the local party in a way that prepared the ground for Ed Davey’s subsequent victory. This included starting to win local council elections, building the party up from no councillors to control of the council.

One reason he ended up in Kingston was that, “it’s a real place, a town in its own right … with a real community”. That sense of place and community extends across the ward boundaries in Kingston – helping to explain his peripatetic attitude to individual wards – which as he says also has the benefit of helping to spread the word more widely.

It also helps explain the style of community campaigning that Roger and others adopted and adapted, with a strong emphasis on practical steps to improve a place people cared about – such as “clean-up the river” days. This sort of practical action not only delivered direct results, it also made campaigning very enjoyable – intentionally. “We always tried to make local politics fun”, says Roger, explaining how this approach helped attract to the local party young people with a desire to take direct, practical action.

The belief in people taking direct local action also led into a strong preference for devolving power when the Liberals and then later Liberal Democrats won majorities at the council elections in Kingston.

The combination of community and council action had a deliberate ideological thread running through it, one that Roger and colleagues were careful to ensure was shared with new recruits so that a large team was built up that had a strong belief in a common set of values and a way of approaching local politics. As Roger puts it, “If you’re not sure what to campaign on next, go knock on some doors … [but] don’t join the club at the Town Hall and go native”.

In many ways, helping create such a local activist tradition is Roger’s biggest legacy to the party, though the communities he has served have their own legacies too, such as the revived Newport Harbour in the Isle of White which he worked hard to turn round from dereliction.

He believes politics needs “good people who do good things” and in that he sets the example himself.

You can read all the other profiles in this series here, including:

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