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 Camden councillor, former party staffer and Margaret Thatcher impersonator, Flick Rea.
“I can’t stop a war but I can get your dustbins emptied.” That sort of cheerful understanding of the limit – and also the power – of local political activity has been a hallmark of Flick Rea’s political career. Always good for a chat about wider issues and impressively effective at getting the small things done in her ward which foolish people belittle and wise people cherish for their cumulative impact on people’s lives.
In that local success a key tool has been her cooking: “If you feed people well, they will come back,” she says. Whether it is food for socials, food to keep people going on campaign days and polling days or food for thank you parties, the food is always great – from very more-ish nibbles through to chocolately desserts.
She fell into local campaigning “by mistake”, standing cursing the traffic on Finchley Road whilst on a pedestrian island and finding herself stood next to someone who was organising a demonstration on that very issue. The Liberals came a little later, when – again on Finchley Road – she turned up to the campaign office during one general election to ask why the party had not delivered any leaflets to her, unlike the other parties. A smart thinking Liberal helper turned that question into an offer to deliver leaflets to her neighbours too.
It was not a straightforward path into Liberal activism from then, for she subsequently discovered one of her friends was an election agent – and for Flick the natural thing to do was to help her friend. The only thing was that the friend was agenting in Sutton & Cheam for an independent candidate standing against the Liberal, Graham Tope.
However, her absence from home one day and her husband returned Flick to Liberal activism when the local party popped round one evening to see if she would be willing to address some envelopes. “I’m sure she’ll say yes” decided her husband, taking delivering of a pile of clerical work for Flick to do and from there a career as an activist, candidate, councillor and eventually council group leader flowed.
In the early stages, Camden Liberals had very limited electoral success or campaign experience, something she regularly remedied by calling on friends from boroughs such as Richmond to share their own more successful campaign lessons. The local Spotlight newsletter was born, using a logo hand drawn by her husband and still in use four decades later.
In 1986 she was finally elected, alongside ward colleague Roger Billins in a two-member ward, and they became the only two Alliance councillors in the borough. Roger became Whip and Flick leader, a role she continued in until handing over in 2005 but still continuing as a very active and popular councillor.
In fact, talk to Flick about any part of her ward and the chances are she can regale you with tales about its history and the history of its road names, where they came from and the reasons for any changes.
Flick has stayed comfortable with technological changes – rarely without a mobile phone, often on email, blogging on local issues and even on Twitter. None of that has changed her basic attitude towards political campaigning: “You need to be interested in the community; you need to be involved in the community; you need to be known in the community – and then work harder than anyone else to make sure people know it”.