Cllr John Pugh writes: Cautionary tales from Southport

We’re happier people in Southport after our council by election which we won decisively in what used to be a rock solid Tory Ward and left Labour in a poor third place.

People might be surprised to know that whereas I owe my success to my small and dedicated team, I drew what inspiration I had from my limited reading not of J.S.Mill or Jo Grimond but from the Hindu classic ,the Bhagavad Gita.

Let me explain. We’ve had a rough time lately in Southport – pushed from first to third place on a rising tide of Corbynism in the General Election. a councillor suspended, two defecting to Labour and a fractious and demoralised mood growing. We had a substantial rally of the Corbyn cult on Southport beach with St Jeremy himself in attendance, a media losing interest in us, the party nationally tanking in the polls, a new Tory MP and many of us were just plain knackered after the gruelling, high-intensity campaigning of July’s General.

In such circumstances we were scarcely in a position to welcome a by-election in a ward polarised between a wealthy shoreside area and a deprived town centre. There was serious a possibility of us only being able to add to a narrative of decline. On the other hand we could conceivably change that narrative.

I had when stepping down this year intended to return to local politics but would have welcomed more propitious circumstances in which to do it. I was only too aware of the adage that ‘all political careers end in failure’ and a former MP not winning or worse in a council seat in his own constituency would be a pretty good way of proving it- especially as I knew both Labour and Conservatives needed to pull out all the stops in the contest.

That’s where for a Liberal and practising Catholic, oddly the Gita came in. The Gita is a story centred round the vacillation of the warrior, Arjuna, before committing himself to battle. He despairs knowing that disaster or victory can result and is tortured by the prospect of dire and dreadful outcomes. At hand though is his charioteer (the Hindu god,Krishna in disguise) who urges him to detach himself from results which he can never control and concentrate on his actions and duties which he has total control over.

I knew I had to/ought to gamble for the sake of my town (wretchedly treated by the Council), my party, my colleagues and my sense of what I was about and be prepared to tough out whatever consequences – humiliating or successful -might result. Had I never read the Gita I think I might have contented myself with not getting back in the ring and concentrated on tweeting or improving my dire Facebook page. I would have slept better possibly.

Well it all ended seemingly happily and delegates to our Spring Conference will find the local party in better shape, but there are perhaps wider lessons for us to draw.

Vince Cable said recently ‘all politics is local politics’ and local success is a partial antidote to the shameful way we are treated within the Westminster media bubble .

We know we have to believe we can win or we won’t win. The problem is that at the moment we are supporting one another less well than we should. The amount of outside help we had in Southport for a make or break by-election was enormously valued but pitifully small compared to what was potentially available and this, I think, is a general pattern.

Understandably many activists depressed by recent outcomes won’t move when we can win – responding only when we are pretty sure we will. Hugely more people share or forward bulk e-mails asking for their help than respond practically to them. Anxiety and scepticism about outcomes weakens our readiness to offer mutual support in a good cause.

Sending out bulk e-mails to activists is so futile an endeavour as to match Einstein’s definition of insanity – ‘doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different outcome.’

Can I recommend that occasionally we put down the campaign manuals and dip into the Gita ?

* John Pugh was Liberal Democrat MP for Southport until 2017 and was elected as a Councillor for the Dukes ward of Sefton Borough Council on 2 November 2017.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Thanks John, will pass on your article as widely as possible

  • Michael Cole 3rd Nov '17 - 1:26pm

    Thank you John for a very heartening result.

  • John,

    I have never read the Gita but do recall J. Robert Oppenheimer quoted the Hindu text on the occassion of the first Atom bomb test, saying:
    ” I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

  • nigel hunter 3rd Nov '17 - 4:31pm

    It seems to me that forget the rule book and go for it .Amass the troops available and say we WILL win.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Nov '17 - 6:30pm

    Well done John, I would have helped out more but I’m worried about an exam I have next month. I enjoyed the small bit of canvassing that I did do. The team of volunteers deserve so much credit for all the work done – I noticed they were on the streets at 6am, as I was getting up for work myself at that time.

    Councillors, party volunteers and everyone giving their time for the party deserve a lot of credit. Councillors do a vital job and it must often feel thankless and undervalued.

  • Thanks for your input, John. I think it’s important for activists to remember that the 2017 election didn’t consolidate the poll position of parties, and that regardless of how dire national polling may seem, liberals have historically had a lot of strength in local campaigns.

  • Tony Greaves 3rd Nov '17 - 8:08pm


  • “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”
    ― Gautama Buddha, Sayings Of Buddha

  • Walk the path and deliver Focus leaflets.

  • adrian sanders 4th Nov '17 - 7:10am

    Well done John, an application to join the ALDCWWOMOP is in the post.

  • Christopher Clayton 4th Nov '17 - 11:06am

    An inspirational posting from John Pugh. Well done, both for the electoral result and for writing this account. In the eighteenth century , in a wholly different context and for reasons connected to the question of who was qualified to be a member of a government, the Elder Pitt coined the phrase “Measures, not men” , meaning what was done was the most important thing, not who did it. But it seems increasingly obvious in today’s politics that the calibre of who(men and women) is at least as important as the validity of what (Measures or what we call today policy). John is too modest to point this out, but he as a person was undoubtedly a key element in this impressive victory. We should place immense importance on who stands in the party’s cause. The public will judge by personality and ability and not just party platform. The most worrying element in John’s account is the news to me that two local councillors defected to Labour- why were people who could do this ever selected to stand in the first place?

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