Just over forty years ago, the Liberal Party was on 8.5% in the polls. The chair of the London Young Liberals, Graham Tope, was the party’s candidate for the Sutton and Cheam parliamentary by-election. Few people believed that a Liberal win was possible. We had come third in 1970, some 17,000 votes behind the Conservatives.
Some people prominent in the national party were dismissive of the ‘community politics’ campaign that was brought to the by-election by a Liverpool Councillor called Trevor Jones. Possibly the first ‘Focus’ leaflets outside Liverpool were produced for that by-election promoting the local Liberal campaigning led by ‘Focus Editor’ Graham Tope. They were mostly printed on an old offset-litho machine in Trevor’s Liverpool warehouse by Trevor himself and a young student volunteer called David Alton who 7 years later went on to win his own by-election in Liverpool.
Trevor was confident of victory as the campaign progressed. On the back of one of his famous cigar boxes he sketched the upward trend in canvass returns. In December 1972 Graham Tope won with a majority of more than 7,000 votes over the Conservatives. It was a record 32% swing against the Tories (later only bettered by the 35% swing achieved by Diana Maddock in the 1993 Christchurch by-election).
Graham became only the fourth Liberal MP in England (joining three from Scotland and one from Wales). Now Sutton has two Lib Dem MPs in their fourth term and a Lib Dem council in its 7th term with 42 Lib Dem Councillors and 11 Tories!
As a result of the by-election, the party’s national poll ratings rose to over 15% and further by-election successes the following year pushed us to over 6 million votes in 1974. Trevor also ran the campaign that led us to control of Liverpool City Council in 1973 and as President of the Liberal Party he spread the use of ‘Focus Newsletters’ throughout the country. Many of our Councillors and MPs may owe their success to him. He also claims to have taught me everything that I know about winning elections! Certainly I learned a lot from him as we planned many Liverpool campaign successes and he talked about what he had done in Sutton.
Trevor is now over 80 and rarely comes to London. But, together with David Steel (who as Chief Whip helped deliver the ‘Good Morning’ leaflet on polling day) he is the chief guest at a dinner to mark the 40th anniversary of the Sutton & Cheam parliamentary by-election. A few places are still available.
The organiser of the dinner is one of the people who helped Graham in that campaign and he was then the editor of ‘Liberal News’. Phillip Young has booked the National Liberal Club for a reception at 6.45 pm, followed by dinner at 7.30 pm on January 24th. He has also suggested that guests might like to dress as they might have done in the early ’70s (not compulsory!).
The cost is £45 per head with proceeds towards the re-election campaigns for the two Liberal Democrat MPs who will be defending their seats in the London Borough of Sutton in 2015. If you would like to come, please write to Simon Roberts, Secretary National Liberal club, 1 Whitehall Place London SW1A 2HE(please enclose cheques payable to ‘National Liberal Club’) or e-mail Philip directly at [email protected].
We won another Sutton council by-election last month with 53% of the vote!
* Chris Rennard is a former Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrats. He has led for the Party in the House of Lords on the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill