Author Archives: Max Wilkinson

A tribute to Nigel Jones


From left: Nigel Jones, Max Wilkinson, Martin Horwood

Nigel Jones gave so much to Cheltenham.  To me and many others, he was a friend and a mentor.  As generous with his kindness as with his wisdom, he was a liberal to his core.

I did not know him as Nigel the MP, who achieved so much for his hometown.  I became his friend after he left the Commons.  But his legacy lives long in Cheltenham and it’s hard to knock more than a handful of doors without somebody mentioning his name.  After winning the seat in 1992, he lobbied successfully to keep GCHQ in Cheltenham and supported the trade unionists who worked there, alongside very many other local activities.  In parliament he was chair of the parliamentary beer group and was a true internationalist, serving in several party spokesperson’s roles.  Others will, I’m sure, pay much more expansive tributes to Nigel’s work as an MP than I can.  What I can do is tell the story of how he helped me.  It’s a story I know others in Cheltenham will recognise, such was the breadth of his generosity.

My friendship with Nigel started almost as soon as I joined the party.  He helped me so much in my earliest moments as a liberal activist.  For that I will be forever grateful.

Nigel was there to help when I was producing and delivering my first Focus leaflet.  After being introduced to the local office by Martin Horwood, Nigel’s successor as our MP, I received some important advice: “Nigel lives in Park ward.  He might deliver a round for you.”  That advice came from Andy Williams, our longstanding organiser well-known to many Lib Dem campaigners.  Andy had worked with his friend Nigel for many years.  Later that day, I phoned the number I was given by Andy to see if Lord Jones, our former MP and a busy working peer, was indeed interested in helping my longshot council election campaign in what was then the strongest Conservative part of town.  Soon after, I was in Nigel’s lounge, learning about how he had won the very same ward himself in 1989.  “It was by four votes and only because we called on a family of four at 9.50pm to get them to the polling station,” he advised.  “Remember that when it comes to election day”.  Nigel took three batches of leaflets and assured me he’d make time to deliver – an offer he repeated every time I asked.  What I didn’t know until long afterwards was that he was also helping out an old friend by delivering in an adjoining ward – typical of his self-effacing way of helping the liberal cause.

Posted in Obituaries | Tagged | 1 Comment

“We voted Tory and we got chaos anyway” – a report from the streets of Cheltenham

Not long ago a constituency poll put the Liberal Democrats on 58 per cent in Cheltenham, ahead of the Conservatives by a clear 28 per cent. That Blue Wall poll was published not long after the local elections, in which we defeated the Conservatives by 29 per cent in the Cheltenham constituency council wards.

Many people are assuming that this means we are strolling to victory next time. However, as one of the 2019 general election candidates, I remember all too well receiving similar MRP polling figures suggesting a comfortable victory. Those leads disappeared and many of us suffered heart-breaking narrow losses on the night after a campaign many will want to forget. That feeling in Cheltenham was compounded by the fact I received 27,505 votes – enough to have won every election as far back as 1997.

That’s why, since my reselection in early 2022, we have been speeding up the pace of our campaign. In Cheltenham, that means knocking more doors than ever. After the local elections in May, where we came within a whisker of a Conservative wipeout with our positive message on housing investment, addressing the climate crisis and looking after struggling families. I promised local activists we’d be back on the doorstep within a month. We were.

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Navel-gazing Tories arrive in Cheltenham (or was it Derbyshire?)

It was a night that confirmed what many people already thought.  For those of us on the outside, it’s now clear that the Conservative party leadership is out of ideas.  In fact, the boldest thinking we heard during the debate at Cheltenham Racecourse last night (Thurs) was when Liz Truss suggested Cheltenham was in Derbyshire.

You’d think that in this moment of national crisis, the two candidates would have something new to say.  Alas, there was very little to help those worried about the cost of living during the debate.  If only they had the foresight to pursue bold policy ideas to solve the looming energy bills crisis, like Ed Davey’s call for the October energy price rise to be cancelled earlier this week.  As for the NHS: Sunak wants to charge people for missing appointments. Truss wants to ‘get a grip’ of waiting times.  That won’t bring much comfort to people here, who report long ambulance waiting times and being sent to Malvern for NHS dentistry.

In Cheltenham, local Lib Dems are making a difference.  After our cost-of-living emergency declaration, we’ve put £60,000 aside to support food banks for the next few months.  We’re also investing £180 million in affordable homes and our first carbon neutral development is on the way – helping to drastically lower energy bills for residents.  Our Golden Valley project will help build on the success of our blossoming cyber security industry.  If only that sort of vision was matched in the Conservative Party’s thinking on the NHS and cost of living.

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Why I’m thanking residents for getting behind Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions

Today I did something unusual for a Liberal Democrat councillor. I thanked local residents for being patriotic.

The area I serve always likes to join in big events. People make huge efforts at Christmas and major national occasions. At the moment, the place is consumed with football fever and many houses are flying England flags of all shapes and sizes. Football truly is coming home in Oakley ward.

That’s why today I delivered a letter of thanks to every home displaying an England flag.

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We’ll always have a pro-EU message – but it’ll take time to get to ‘rejoin now’

“That’s the final straw.”

“This isn’t our conference policy.”

“I’m furious – we MUST form a new pro-EU party.”

Those of us who speak with fellow members and supporters will have heard a lot like this over the past few days.

Ed Davey’s interview on Marr may not have fully captured the nuance of our position or even our long-term aim.  But as much as we are all still upset about Brexit, contesting the content of that one interview misses the point about the challenges we face.

As we know, the context for us is very difficult.  The UK has left the EU.  We have lost the biggest political fight in a generation.  Our party has only 11 MPs – partly as a result of our failure to get the message right.

But to get a better view on the how we make our case from now, it may be instructive to consider how we became the most pro-EU party in the first place.

The day after the 2016 referendum our then leader Tim Farron addressed a public demonstration at a time when nearly all other politicians were silent.

Tim’s brave decision placed us at the heart of the pro-EU movement.  But his message was not a blunt ‘overturn the decision’ – and nor was that our policy.

Tim started with a simple call for a referendum at some point in the future.  The formal policy followed to push for a public vote on the government’s deal.

By the 2017 election, the message was that there would be a referendum and we’d campaign for remain.  As a candidate in that election, my Eurosceptic Labour opponent told me in hustings to “be honest and just say the Lib Dems want to cancel Brexit”.

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Lib Dems must stop being the tail end batter with all the kit

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I wasn’t very good at cricket when I was a youth.  But I could bowl and bat and field well enough that I was asked to join the senior 3rd and 4th teams when I was 14 or 15.

They were a friendly bunch who played for the love of the game.  We weren’t going to win the World Cup (nor even the local league).  The success of the team was in the values we shared with each other and the people we played against.

We were sporting also-rans, but one man evidently couldn’t accept that.  He was our number 11 batter.  While the rest of us showed up with a bag full of standard kit: whites, bat, pads, jockstrap and box, our number 11 was the best prepared player in the league.  He had a large coffin-style hold-all, replete with at least two bats, changes of whites (all club branded, of course), alternative pads for all parts of his body, a helmet, a spare helmet, a few hats, plenty of sun cream options and even changes of sunglasses.

There was only one problem: he very rarely got to bat for any length of time.  And when he did, he was more preoccupied by his own kit than the reason he was standing at the crease.

He presumably thought people were impressed by all his kit.  In reality, his teammates ribbed him gently, while his opponents and anyone else watching on wondered why on earth he bothered.

It may not be obvious how this relates directly to Liberal Democrat politics, but bear with me.

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The latest peerage announcements are yet more evidence that the system is broken

Sometimes you just have to call a spade a spade. And, in the case of this government, that means we need to be much more direct in tackling a problem at the heart of our democracy: corruption.

I write not as a conspiracy theorist wearing a tin foil hat, frantically scrolling through obscure online message boards and Facebook groups. My observations are made as a liberal who is fed up of the broken system that governs our country.

The appointment of sixteen more unelected lawmakers to our bloated parliament might be enough to prompt anger, but there’s more. The Prime Minister has brazenly overruled independent advice and given a life peerage to a Conservative party donor.
He’s not just a donor, he’s a man who has given several million to the party and previously had to quit as its treasurer. Boris Johnson has, of course, rightly pointed out that an internal Conservative party investigation found no wrongdoing…

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Liberals must be clear: the system is broken and we want to fix it

The system is broken. We all know it – voters and politicians alike. And as liberals we must make the acknowledgement of this failure a key part of our message.

Liberals have long argued that the system robs people of their natural rights as citizens. We are against concentrations of power in the hands of vested interests – whether in the private or public sector. And yet these concentrations of power are everywhere we look – whether it’s multinationals or public life.

We want an equitable and accountable political class, but the one we have is elected under a shady form of democracy or appointed by a government elected on minority support. We want a fair tax and social security system that rewards ambition and protects the vulnerable, but we are a long way from it. And we want to reform the economic system that is destroying our environment, but powerful interests are causing that to happen too slowly.

The current political and economic system is preventing all the systemic changes we need. And by doing so it has allowed powerful people with malign intent to drag this country to the edge.

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Liberals must not defend the discriminatory status quo when supporting John Sentamu

Constitutional reform is a longstanding golden thread running through liberal political philosophy. We don’t believe the current system of government is fit for purpose. Liberals have long wanted to replace the House of Lords with an elected upper chamber accountable to voters. And liberals have long called for the disestablishment of the church and equality for people of all faiths and none. That’s because our values tell us that in a multi-faith society, handing law-making powers to a small number of people from a single faith tradition is discriminatory and illiberal.

So while I understand the motives of Liberal Democrats getting exercised about the government’s decision not to award John Sentamu a continuity peerage, I disagree with their arguments. The former Archbishop of York has a long and admirable history of campaigning for positive social change. That is not up for debate, though many will remember with some pain his opposition to equal marriage. If we had an elected upper chamber, I’m sure he’s exactly the sort of person who might belong in it.

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I’m not a COVID sceptic, but there must be no more free passes for this incompetent government

I’m not a COVID-sceptic. I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I am willing to accept that the government needs powers to fight the virus. But it’s time to face up to the fact that the opposition has given Boris Johnson more than enough room. There should be no more free passes to restrict our day-to-day freedoms while his band of incompetents are in charge. As much as nearly everybody I know accepts collective action and the need to build consensus, we must also strongly oppose more unchecked powers.

The record is pretty clear and it has led to thousands of unnecessary …

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Enough of this puritanical miserablism – I’m off out for a burger

We aren’t puritans. We aren’t miserable. We aren’t automatons. We are liberals.

So why oh why is the party resorting to wringing its collective hands about ‘unhealthy’ Eat Out to Help Out discounts?

We’ve all had a really tough few months. We all know that eating fast food every day isn’t great. We all know that the government’s message is hopelessly confused. And we know that we need to have something to say about the big issues of the day.

But why are we saying something so unutterably miserable, illogical and illiberal? We are seriously being encouraged to tell people that they …

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Three things we don’t need in this leadership campaign: a goody, a baddy and more policy

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In politics it’s always tempting to think we can resolve problems by resorting to the same old solutions. That usually involves lionising a goody, demonising a baddy and a rollicking good debate about policy.

In the debate over our leadership, I’m seeing many people seeking to create a goody and a baddy, and loads of people banging on about policy.

But I don’t think we should be focusing on those in this leadership campaign. Here’s why.

Let’s start with the first problem. The traditional good v bad argument. We need to stop this nonsense. The fact that Ed served in the coalition should absolutely not rule him out from being the leader. In fact, we are fortunate to have somebody with his experience in government on the ballot paper. His achievements on the environment are matched by few in modern politics and he has an inspiring, touching personal story to tell too.

Layla is a talented politician, an effective campaigner and an excellent communicator. She may well enable us to access a demographic that has largely ignored us in the past three elections. It’s right that she’s willing to try to talk to people who just want a bit of ‘hopes and dreams’ in their politics and bought into that element of the Labour message. That’s a good thing and we should welcome it rather than deliberately misinterpreting her words.

This isn’t a battle of good v bad, it’s one liberal taking on another. Let’s not engage in the unattractive factionalism that we dislike so much in other parties. That gets us nowhere and gives succour to our opponents.

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The Football Lads Alliance doesn’t represent football fans, so don’t judge us by their thuggishness

I had a troubling experience yesterday. A thing I love came under attack for being racist, or at the very least, associated with racism.  I’m talking about the football community.  It’s not a new attack, but it gave me pause for thought on how we communicate with one another – particularly those on the liberal side of politics.

Before we begin, I need to state that were this an article about the racists responding to Black Lives Matter then they’d feel the full force of my keyboard. Their views are abhorrent and have no place in our society. But I’m interested in a specific part of the debate that emerged: the conflation of the racist thugs with football.

I regard myself as part of the broader progressive movement.  I support the Black Lives Matter cause, I campaign on equality and the environment.  Among the people I’ve watched football with are socialists, moderates, one nation types, liberals, greens and people who don’t care at all about politics. Nobody I go to football with has ever said anything remotely bigoted or racist in my presence.  However, I have heard a handful of racist comments made by other people in football grounds.  Every one of them was a disgrace.  I’ve reported people to stewards and spoken to perpetrators too.

So when I saw a stream of tweets damning the racist protestors in London as ‘angry football lads’  with ‘nothing better to do’ I bristled.  The fact that the idiots causing trouble call themselves the Football Lads Alliance means nothing. It’s just another cover title for the nasty far right, which is again using the game as a recruiting ground for hatred.  Let’s not be fooled by them – they don’t represent football fans and they never will.

But I’m not under any illusions: there are racist people who watch football.  Of course that’s true.  And there are historic problems with racism in football that persist today.  But when I saw the accusations lazily conflating football fan culture with racism, as if the two were synonymous in 2020, I felt a very visceral response.  I was affronted.  I was insulted.  I was angry.  Somebody even made a bizarre analogy asking whether the WI would riot!  I’m sure there haven’t been WI riots, though my experience of talking to women in the WI demographic suggests that a significant minority of people who might be eligible to join the group have some troubling opinions on race matters – just like the tiny minority of football fans who go to racist marches or commit hate crimes in football grounds.  But that doesn’t mean I’d argue that older women are racist, so nor should others argue that football fan culture is synonymous with racism.

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Levelling up between the generations in the post-pandemic world

There’s been lots of talk of levelling up between regions, but what of levelling up between the generations? After the coronavirus crisis is over, we are likely to see a worsening of the intergenerational inequality our young people already suffer. We must look at putting this right.

We all know that younger millennials and generation Z have on average been dealt a difficult hand in life. Housing costs are eye-watering and home ownership seems a distant prospect for most. Wage growth has been largely stagnant for many years (with a small uptick lately). There’s no prospect of a career …

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My lockdown pub crawl (of sorts) in solidarity with landlords

If you ask lots of people what social activity they’re missing most during the lockdown, you’ll hear a pretty resounding answer: “going to the pub”. I’d give exactly the same answer (the gym is second on the list, natch).

Having a few pints in one of Cheltenham’s many welcoming inns is one of my favourite things to do. Whether it’s admiring the many pineapples decorating The Swan, sitting in the garden of The Railway or watching football in the Frog and Fiddle, it wouldn’t usually be long between visits for me – until …

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In praise of opponents – and a plea for the future

I believe in robust debate and in holding our opponents to account. Those who have campaigned with me will know that despite my light-hearted personality, I’m not prone to giving much ground. Scrutinising our opponents is a vital part of politics and our democracy is worse off if the tough questions aren’t asked.

But after a divisive election, in a time of damaging and sometimes poisonous debate, I want to do something just as important as robust campaigning. I want to offer praise and thanks to my opponents. In Cheltenham we managed to squeeze a large number of hustings into the campaign. I spent a lot of time debating with Alex Chalk (Conservative) and George Penny (Labour), and I exchanged messages of goodwill with Tabi Joy (Green), who had stood aside as part of the Unite to Remain initiative. In what can sometimes be a dehumanising process, regular meetings with opponents renewed my respect for everyone who took part.

So here goes:

To Alex, I thank you for continuing your service in Cheltenham when many expected you to do a ‘chicken run’ to a safer seat. I will always respect you for engaging with pro-European campaigners who protested at your office, though I disagreed strongly with your stance on the Brexit debate. Others would have found an excuse to run away and it is to your credit that you engaged in face-to-face conversation. I also congratulate you on campaigning on schools and the environment. We won’t always (or even often) agree on the way forward, but I want you to succeed.

To George, I admire your bravery in standing for parliament so soon after leaving university. You mastered the craft of debating at the hustings remarkably quickly and clearly have a gift for communication. You did not deserve to become the first ever Labour candidate to lose a deposit in Cheltenham. I know that when you stand in a winnable seat you will make a fine MP.

To Tabi, I owe you huge thanks for being part of the Unite To Remain initiative. Stepping aside was a huge political and personal sacrifice to make. I’m only sorry your big-hearted gesture and our campaign didn’t help deliver more MPs from our two parties. When we did share platforms before the election in events focused on the EU and the environment, you spoke with great passion and knowledge.

And onto the future:

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Merry Christmas from Cheltenham (even though politics is a steaming pile of mess)

This is a Christmas message with a difference. I make no apologies for the colourful nature of the story and I assure you it is absolutely 100% true.

When I was delivering the Liberal Democrat Christmas cards the other day I noticed on the pavement the largest pile of dog’s business I had seen in some time. “What a calamity,” I thought “That’s a big problem for whoever steps in it.” I was heartened, therefore, to see a man approaching the mess with a purposeful stride.

I could see he was going to solve the problem for the good of other people in his road, probably by picking it up and finding a bin. That was until I noticed he was carrying a large bucket of hot water. He then proceeded to pour it over the offending deposit. Naturally, rather than solving anything, this merely compounded the problem by spreading it around. I was carrying out my final campaigning act of 2017 and my political brain was therefore weary, but when reflecting on the scene I had witnessed later on that day I concluded it was the most appropriate metaphor for the political year: a fundamental problem was correctly identified by a public-spirited individual, but the chosen solution was ill-judged and left everyone else with a steaming mess to clear up. It’s not all bad news, though. In the spirit of good will to all, I’ve passed the person’s address to Theresa May with a suggestion he is promoted to Brexit Secretary. With problem-solving skills like those, he’ll fit right in.

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Building a movement based on our values

People join political parties because they are interested in politics.

That may seem an obvious thing to say, but those of us engaged in the grind of day-to-day campaigns must regularly remind ourselves. Because, while lots of us are passionate about our community activism, a large majority of our members are more motivated by values and bigger ideas.

If we want to galvanise them into a campaigning force – helping our community campaigns in the process – we need to remind them why they joined. That means talking about our liberal values and giving our members an opportunity to campaign for them.

Think …

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My message to liberal Tories: join us

During the General Election campaign I found myself in an interesting position. Standing as the candidate for the most liberal, pro-EU party, I found myself against an incumbent MP who spent a lot of time talking about his enthusiasm for Europe. He also spoke often of the need for ‘liberal pluralism’ and his enthusiasm for a change to the voting system.

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