Fight like a liberal

I’ve had an individual membership of ALDE, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, for a couple of years now. As our membership of the EU was under threat, it seemed important to be a part of that wider movement of European Liberals.

I renewed my subs recently and paid a little bit more for a “Fight like a Liberal” wristband. It’s the ALDE slogan for the European elections. Yes, that’s right, that monolithic superstate decried by Brexiteers was underpinned by a Parliament. It’s not perfect. It needs more powers, but democracies evolve. And the Brexiteers are howling with outrage as our own Parliament threatens to take back the control it was promised in the referendum. When we have a minority government doing catastrophic things, you rather expect that the more sensible MPs will step up and sort things out.

Anyway, my wristband arrived yesterday and it actually made me feel a bit sad. Because we should be gearing up to fight a European election. We shouldn’t be distracted by all this Brexit nonsense. We should be, as the slogan goes, fighting like liberals against the forces of hard right populism across the continent.

It made me think about all the other European campaigns I’ve fought or been aware of in my life.

1979 was the first proper Euro election. I was 11 and in Inverness. Winnie Ewing was always going to win that one and she did.

By 1984, I was heavily involved in the SDP and got into terrible trouble for propping up a Russell Johnston leaflet in my bedroom window. I remember delivering his leaflets in Wick as my parents were following me with Tory ones. It was a forlorn hope, though, because Winnie won again.

1989 was the disaster year when we were down to an asterisk. I was also living in Ayrshire where Lib Dems weren’t exactly in plentiful supply. I was the only one in our village.

By 1994, I was down in the East Midlands. North Notts and Chesterfield formed a constituency and we had a candidate, Susie Pearce, from Aylesbury. That campaign was hilarious fun. You have to wonder how Paul Holmes ever got selected to be MP for Chesterfield when he worked us so hard. Although I remember being told off as his campaign manager because he was just short of about 90% of the vote in that selection. Never one to underestimate anyone’s capacity for work, not only did he have us weighing out a million election addresses from a young council candidate’s flat, he decided we could stuff 40,000 target letters for a by-election in Bradford too.

We pulled a few all-nighters but we had some great laughs and got a good result locally. And nationally, Graham Watson and Robin Teverson were elected in the South West.

At that time we kept winning no-hope by-elections from Labour and the Euros were another staging post for the Council elections in 1995 (which didn’t go so well for us in the end) and Tony Rogers’ 1997 election bid which got us into position to win the seat in 2001.

By 1999, we had proportional representation and a real hope of winning our first Parliamentarian in the East Midlands since 1931. We’d survived the battles of zipping – making sure that the PR lists were gender balanced. And, do you know what? It worked. 

Topping the list in our region was one Nicholas Clegg. I had been involved on the shortlisting committee and I thought his CV was the most boring thing I had ever read that wasn’t a phone book. However, when he turned up at the interview, he blew us away. He talked about social mobility and mental health and well-being and all the things that he eventually tried to do in Government. His selection leaflet was a bit sad, but he threw himself into the campaign and managed to come out on top.

I was the Region Team Leader at the time and, together with Regional Chair Arnie Gibbons, we put together an ambitious and reasonably well co-ordinated campaign.

As polling day approached, I was very heavily pregnant. Before the European elections in June, though, we almost doubled our representation on Chesterfield Borough Council form 10 to 19. My baby was due 19 days after that. I decided that if I was going to go through the pain of childbirth, I might as well use it as a fundraiser so I did  a sponsored labour which raised quite a bit of money for the campaign. In fact, when that was announced at some campaign event, it is the only time I have ever seen Paddy Ashdown, our then leader, look utterly shocked. Most people just gave lots of money out of pity. However, I surprised myself. I’m a state registered coward when it comes to pain, but I was coped quite well.

My contribution to the polling day operation was driving home from hospital with my beautiful baby with a Lib Dem poster in the car. It was great to see Nick elected along with 11 other Lib Dems.

In 2004, the European elections were part of the build up to the 2005 election. I was back in Scotland by this time and we successfully re-elected Elspeth Attwool. I was working in Edinburgh South where Marilyne Maclaren hoped to take the seat from Labour the next year. Sadly, we missed out by less than 500 votes.

I had to sit the 2009 campaign out. Do not mess with Glandular Fever in your 40s, that’s all I’m going to say. I was very sick indeed. In this campaign, Elspeth retired and George Lyon had been selected at top of our list in her place

And the less said about 2014, the better. The rise of UKIP, the loss of all but one of our MEPs. Heartbreaking. And the anger and grief in the party at the time was pretty destructive. I still don’t think we’d have done any better in 2015 if Nick had resigned and Vince had taken over then. It was always going to be the low point in the electoral cycle, but nobody expected it to be quite that low.

Under any other circumstances, we might have expected to gain in 2019. Let’s hope we don’t have to sit this lot out. Or if we do, we get to fight the next ones in 2024. And while it is still unlikely that we will take part in this year’s elections, it has never been more important that we fight like liberals.

So what are your best memories of European elections in times past?

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Being realistic it looks as if the PM will eventually get her deal through.

  • John Marriott 22nd Jan '19 - 10:12am

    Wow, Caron, mighty impressive. It puts my meagre efforts to shame. It’s a wonder that you had any time to start a family!

  • Sue Sutherland 22nd Jan '19 - 2:00pm

    The excellent MEPs Robin Teverson and Graham Watson represented the South West not the South East. The South West is the bit that sticks out at the bottom of maps of the UK. It is often confused with the South or the South East by people who live north of Watford but it is completely different and has a proud history of electing Lib Dem MPs and MEPs.

  • Paul Barker 22nd Jan '19 - 2:48pm

    We should not just assume that we won’t be taking part in The European Elections, we need to prepare in case we do, nothing is settled yet.

  • Margaret Joachim 22nd Jan '19 - 3:24pm

    It wasn’t a European election – it was the ‘Do we stay in?’ referendum in 1975. As a local campaigner I was given a white t-shirt with a green slogan on it – almost certainly designed by a man. Across the top in large letters it said ‘Europe…’. Underneath this was a green map of the existing EEC member countries (with the hole in the middle for Switzerland). And at a precisely situated level very slightly lower down it said ‘….or bust’

  • Simon Banks 23rd Jan '19 - 9:58am

    It’s a memory which has given me a story to tell. I was the candidate before the current regional list system and was canvassing in Leyton. Our hopes were nil. I rang a terraced house doorbell. A woman (middle-aged, white) came to the door. She didn’t know there was an election. My tactic with undecideds was always to ask if there was anything they were concerned about: this produced casework and often a good idea of how the person would vote if at all. I tried this. “YES!” she said. “All these illegal immigrants! We can’t rely on these Spanish and Greek and Italian police – they’re all corrupt!” At this time there had been some news about corruption in UK police forces and I pointed this out. “My son in law’s a police officer!” she said. Oh dear. I was concluding she was not a potential Liberal voter in an EU election; but she went on talking, explaining that her view of some foreign police came from said son in law. Then a young Black guy appeared behind her. “This is my son in law!” she said. He looked at my rosette.

    “Liberal? Yeah,” he said, gave a thumbs up and left.

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