Look round the room at the next Liberal Democrat event you attend and ask yourself how many people in the room will have their names recorded in places that future political historians can find. A few, certainly, especially if they have been elected to public office. For most, however, their contribution to a political party slips away through the cracks of the historical record, disappearing as the direct personal memories people have of them fade and then end with death.
Yet many of those whose fate is to dissipate into nothingness are crucial to a party’s success, playing roles as important – or even more important – than the few who have some fragments of information about them preserved.
That is what makes the recently published history of Sutton Liberal Democrats – A Flagship Borough: 25 Years of a Liberal Democrat Sutton Council – so very welcome. Here, in this 317 page book, are remembered and preserved the names and deeds of numerous vital volunteers from over the decades.
Many people have contributed to the awesome electoral and political record of success that is Sutton Liberal Democrats: winning election after election as they have been at the cutting edge of both green policies and local campaign tactics.
Thanks to the book, many of them are now rightly honoured in print. Recorded too are the sorts of stories that entertain many a political reminiscence, such as the vomiting doll dressed as a superhero which a Conservative councillor brought to one meeting. (See page 77 to find the full story!)
The book takes a fairly conventional narrative approach from the 1970s through to the current day, emphasising recording events over analysis. That makes it a comprehensive work, if at times a little bit of a dry read as one issue after another is briskly recounted.
It also means that by the end of it the reader has some clues as to how Sutton has been so successful for so long, yet little in the way of direct analysis to tease out the lessons that could be applied elsewhere. Having a talented and successful team clearly helped. How much was that luck and how much was that due to measures which could be copied elsewhere?
Moreover, having taken over from a very low-spending Conservative regime, even the increases in spending introduced by the Liberal Democrats left overall spending levels low in many areas compared to other councils. Yet the Liberal Democrat council managed to win widespread public support the quality of its public services. High quality, popular services despite relatively low spending levels is a combination many Liberal Democrats would like to be able to copy in all sorts of places – including Whitehall! Again there is a hint of an answer – consult, consult, consult – though I suspect many readers will be left wanting to know more about quite how this combination was pulled off.
Those, however, are topics that can be picked up in training sessions and talks. What the book does, which neither of those can, is to preserve the memories of Sutton Liberal Democrats and many of the thousands of helpers who in their own ways were crucial to it – from running the printing machine through the night through to regularly delivering leaflets in the apparently most unpromising of territory. It makes it a great book to have produced and a very enjoyable one to read.
If you enjoy this book, it’s also well worth taking a look at Graham Tope’s memoirs too.
Copies of the book are available for £17.50, including post and packaging, from Pauline Penneck, 13 Worcester Road, Sutton, Surrey, SM2 6PQ. Cheques should be payable to ‘Sutton Liberal Democrats’.
Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me.