A while back, 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 Lambeth Liberal Democrat Peter Truesdale.
Peter Truesdale’s debut as an elected politician came in 1994 when he was elected to one of the worst run councils in the country, with deeply dysfunctional management and an election result that saw Labour and the Liberal Democrats tied on the same number, with a sizable Conservative contingent to add to the fraught political balance.
Luckily for Peter, politics was not new to him. He had been interested in it from a young age during his Pennine upbringing, with his father having been a Labour councillor and one of his cousins a Liberal councillor.
Drawn as an adult into party politics by the creation of the SDP, Peter Truesdale had built up a key role in the local party organisation, regularly and efficiently organising the wholesaling of leaflets to delivers, earning gratitude from the councillors who thereby had a crucial piece of work lifted from their shoulders. As a result, when the party was looking for more candidates in the run-up to 1994, opportunity (in the form of Roger Liddle) came knocking.
After the 1994 elections it took 11 hours over two nights simply to elect the Mayor, followed by seven hours on the third night to approve standing orders. Peter ended up in charge of housing. Well, one third in charge as part of a three-party rotation that would have been tricky with the best of councils and was a major challenge in the face of the mess that was Lambeth.
Lambeth politics over the years has seen a regular cycle of whoever was running the council struggling to turn it round and suffering at subsequent elections as a result. However, during all those ups and downs he has been re-elected four times in his ward, including surviving major boundary changes, helped by his strong belief that councillors are “there to help people”.
You listen to their needs, you help with their casework and then on a regular basis you “put a big piece of paper through their doors about things they are interested in”. When doing so, “speak in the language of The Sun, not the Daily Telegraph” and remember to be political, he says.
With the advantage of hindsight, Peter identifies lessons with a contemporary echo from the battle to turn administrative success at sorting out the Town Hall into votes in the ballot box. These include the difficulty of both giving energy and attention to the Town Hall and also having energy and attention to spare for local Liberal Democrat campaigning. He also mentions the need to have identifiable and clearly Liberal Democrat headline achievements beyond simply ‘helping sort out the mess the others left behind’.
Asked about his greatest achievement for his ward, Peter picks the three times he and others have seen off threats to a local primary school, either of closure or merger. Beyond that his priority has always been to “do your surgeries, do your correspondence (emails now), turn up at council meetings and help to produce and deliver Focus”.
He has managed that combination whilst always avoiding becoming a full time politician. Despite the struggles of balancing demanding political roles with a non-political job, he has always worked at least part time, saying he likes the protection that gives you from being subsumed by politics. It may make being a politician tougher, but it makes him a better politician. And Lambeth still needs the best possible politicians.