Lord Paul Tyler writes….Reflections on 65 years as a party member

As with so much else in politics, our conference this year was by turns very different and strikingly similar to the first I attended some 60 years ago. This year’s conference was beamed into my living room; my first Liberal Assembly took place in the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. This year’s conference took place in the shadow of Western humiliation in Afghanistan. My first took place when Britain was still reeling from the Suez scandal.

Either way, this year’s was my last as a Parliamentarian. The House of Lords is a place of many anachronisms, and I wouldn’t like to risk becoming one of them. Since I turn 80 at the end of October, the moment has come – after 65 years as a party member – to take a back seat.

Don’t despair: this is not just a forlorn trip down memory lane, but a reflection on how the present and future should be faced, after that experience. In the 1950s and 1960s the UK political landscape was remarkably two dimensional. In General Elections a large majority voted for – and against – the two major parties. In the former decade that total was regularly well over 90%. Even in my first parliamentary contest in 1966 some 89.8% of those who voted supported Labour or Conservative candidates.

Canvassing experience reflected that dichotomy. “My husband is in the union, we’re Labour” or “We’re in business, we’re Conservative”. In Cornwall and Devon there was a very welcome variation: “Our family have always been Methodists, we’re Liberals”. Only very much later, during my 1982 Beaconsfield by-election campaign, did I encounter the show-stopping response “We are not interested in politics, we’re Conservatives”.

All that has fundamentally changed. The population, and especially the regularly voting component, are nowhere near so consistently aligned. Their motivation is far from that previous clear economic/social divide. Their support churns around between elections, and even during the last few days of a campaign.

Of course the two-way stretch has also weakened. In December 2019 – even with the large resulting Conservative majority in the Commons – the two ‘big’ parties only notched up 75.7% between them. And a third of the eligible electorate didn’t bother to vote.

Key determinants of voting behaviour now seem to be educational experience and attitude to other people, at home and abroad. The extremes are easier to identify. Ill-educated abhorrence of “foreigners”, even when it is not evident racism, shows up now at the Johnson Junta end of the spectrum. By contrast, informed and internationally sympathetic people – especially younger ones – are natural liberals. Labour retains some tribal elements (not least in the Lords) and continues to get caught in the crossfire.

In this political climate our need as Liberal Democrats is to convert our values into a more recognisable and individual identity. For example, Ed Davey’s renewed emphasis on education, and his own unique strength of experience in energy and the global response to the challenge of climate change, give us relevance we have yet to exploit.

Meanwhile, “Leave” or “Remain” persist as a significant indicator of political support but I venture it will ebb as common, bitter disappointment with the actual deal takes hold. This week, excluding “don’t knows”, 78% are recorded as believing “Brexit has created more problems than it has sorted”, with only 22% taking the reverse position.

In consequence distinctive clarity demands a surer translation of our anti-Brexit position. This is not just a matter of idealistic commitment to internationalism and freedom of movement. The bungled deal has led to bread-and-butter, doorstep issues of shortages, price rises, job losses, bureaucracy and more hardship for the already hard hit. We should be unafraid to remind voters that of the major UK parties we alone voted against that deal.

As ever, the national print and broadcast media won’t do this for us. If we don’t tell people where we stand – through ground campaigning – nobody else will.

When binary politics was entrenched in the public mind, our liberal voice was drowned out. Today – for all else that has gone wrong – a much larger section of the electorate is instinctively more open-minded and susceptible to argument. Most know there are more than two answers to a given question. The electoral system has not yet caught up, but if our efforts to smash the ‘blue wall’ at the next election succeed that may yet change too.

Seismic political change there seems invitable as pragmatic, conventional conservatives back out – or are driven out – of this dogma driven administration. There is no room for people of calibre like Dominic Grieve, David Gauke or Anna Soubry, or their equivalent at the local level. The party of Macmillan, Heath and Major no longer exists anywhere.

After 65 years on the liberal ship, I note that the currents may be confusing, and the wind unpredictable, but I am confident our crew and craft are better equipped for this political weather than our opponents.

* Lord Tyler is the Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson for Political and Constitutional Reform.

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  • Mike Falchikov 22nd Sep '21 - 1:33pm

    Thank you very much for that contribution and best wishes for your retirement from an old friend dating back to OU Liberal Club 1959-61. I’ve followed your career with interest and enthusiasm ever since. All the best.

  • Mike Falchikov 22nd Sep '21 - 1:33pm

    Thank you very much for that contribution and best wishes for your retirement from an old friend dating back to OU Liberal Club 1959-61. I’ve followed your career with interest and enthusiasm ever since. All the best.

  • John Marriott 22nd Sep '21 - 1:46pm

    Well done, and well said, Lord Tyler! I remember him as plain Paul Tyler, when he stopped off during a whistle stop tour of the East Midlands in the 1990s here in North Hykeham for a photo opportunity. Despite our success in local elections he was the first and only Westminster politician to pay us a visit during my active political career, although, in fairness, Sir Vince Cable, as a government minister at the time , did appear in North Hykeham a few years ago to open our Energy from Waste facility and, as one of the two Lib Dem County Councillors for the area, I had to pleasure of speaking to him.

    Lord Tyler’s canvassing vignettes are particularly apposite. I can remember a few of my own, like the lady, who answered the door, and, when I asked her how she was intending to vote, replied; “My husband hasn’t made up his mind yet”. What used to amuse me in particular was, when presented with a leaflet, how many exponents of origami we appeared to have, as they proceeded to keep folding it together as they listened to what I had to say! I wonder whether it ever got unfolded? Mind you, these days you are lucky to see any canvassers around here, let alone leaflet deliverers.

    Now that he is taking more of a back seat, I, for one, would like to thank Lord Tyler for all he has done for Liberal Democracy in his own unflamboyant way.

  • The House of Lords is going to be poorer without your contributions. (I can just about remember the Cornish lanes plastered with your posters during the 1974 election campaigns).

  • Anthony Acton 23rd Sep '21 - 9:52am

    Paul you were still a legend in the OU Liberal Club in 1966-69 (when we had 1000 members). Your words about the party’s need to convert values into recognisable policies on eg education, energy and climate change, are timely. All good wishes for your retirement from the Lords.

  • William Wallace 23rd Sep '21 - 11:57am

    Paul: The Edinburgh Assembly in the Ussher Hall was the first one I went to – that’s a distant memory! Though I remember 2 personal aspects: the mother of my then-girl friend in Linlithgow (a staunch Unionist Tory, but a Gaelic speaker and thus an admirer of Johnny Bannerman) saying to me ‘Och, you’re one of Jo’s wee boys’. And being introduced to the son of the local Linlithgow minister, a student Liberal called David Steel…

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