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 Alexi Sugden.
Autumn 1990. Alexi Sugden is sitting at home watching TV. Recently returned after several years working in America, from an apolitical family and uninterested in politics, on hearing the dreaded words “There now follows a party political broadcast…” she gets up to switch off the TV.
Paddy Ashdown starts speaking and she slows her progress across the floor. It becomes a race between Paddy’s words grabbing her attention and her hand reaching for the off switch which Paddy, just, wins. Having reached out for the off switch, her hand falls back, leaving the TV on and Paddy talking. The next day, Alexi joined the Liberal Democrats.
Unlike many people who join the party and then become a campaigner, Alexi was already one. Running an interior design business on the Fulham Road in London, she was already organising her fellow businesspeople against plans to make it a Red Route, stopping customers from parking outside their businesses. The campaign was not only a short-term success, it was a long-term one too for to this day the threatened Red Route has not been introduced.
Seeing her success at leading this campaign, local people then naturally turned to her to help on the next big issue to threaten the area – the future of Charing Cross Hospital which, despite its name, was also located in Fulham Palace Road.
By then Alexi’s community campaigning was overlapping with her Liberal Democrat campaigning. The hospital posters were all yellow diamonds, providing a neat reminder of her political links even whilst having non-partisan content on them which helped the campaign appeal to the widest audience.
As the 1994 council elections neared, with the local party looking to win its first ever council seat, Alexi’s local campaigning approach was a very straight-forward attitude to the basics of electioneering: “we copied the ALDC approach slavishly”.
In this she was aided by the experience in the local party. Despite it not having won any elections since the party’s creation, the turnover of the population in London meant it had several people with experience of winning elsewhere in the country. Crucially, as they saw the local party wanting to take fighting elections seriously, they got involved rather than drifting away in the manner that traps so many badly run local parties who put off the experienced incomers rather than make use of them.
It all came together in May 1994, though not without some alarms on polling day. The Liberal Democrats agent had a proxy vote for a supporter whose wheelchair meant they could not get to the polling station. On going to cast the proxy vote, he was told the person has already voted in person. He went back to check with the woman who was adamant that she had not been able to leave the house all day.
Suspicious that impersonation was going on to block their election, the Liberal Democrat team breathed half a sigh of relief when at the count, the final vote totals saw Alexi elected by a convincing majority. However, her colleague running in the two member ward missed out by just one vote – making those allegations of impersonation crucial. After months of legal wrangling the courts finally ruled in his favour. For several months Alexi was therefore not only the first but also the only Liberal Democrat elected to Hammersmith & Fulham Council, making the usual steep learning curve for new councillors even steeper.
That may have been a blessing in disguise, for the hostility from the massed ranks of the other parties probably encouraged her instincts – to remember to spend as much time on the streets as possible, talking to and helping residents, and not getting lost in a maze of Town Hall meetings and detail.
The demands of her job meant she was only able to stand one term as a councillor. Standing down did not mean stopping contributing to the party, however, with her since twice standing for Parliament in areas of party weakness and also many years helping with London Region’s Candidates Committee.
Having both been a candidate and seen so many other people go through the candidates processes, the central campaigning skill she identifies is that of winning over people. When campaigning you have to “make friends with people … they’ve got to like you first and then they’ll vote for you”. That means not only regular local Focus newsletters to tell people about your campaigns but also going and meeting people in person rather than hiding behind letters and emails. “They’ve got to like you,” insists Alexi.