Book review: How grassroots activists saved the Liberal Party

Mark Egan’s book Coming into Focus: The Transformation of the Liberal Party 1945-64 examines how and why the Liberal Party survived its bleakest decades and survived a run of dismal general election results. He’s not the first to look at this question but the book takes a unique approach, being based on an extensive set of interviews carried out in the 1990s with Liberal activists from 1945-64. These are supplemented by an analysis of how local party structures fared during this twenty year span.

Whilst other studies have concentrated on issues of national policies, personalities and politics, Mark Egan draws out how the party survived thanks to its grassroots activists (and often despite the national policies, personalities and politics). He also adds a twist to the usual history of community politics:

The main conclusion of this book is that the origins of community politics and the Liberal Party’s emphasis on fighting local government elections after 1970 lie not with the Young Liberals of the mid- and late 1960s, who promoted the community politics resolution at the 1970 Liberal Assembly, but with activists in several areas of England and Scotland who placed new emphasis on local elections and developed new campaigning techniques after the 1950 general election. This change came about without the encouragement, or knowledge, of the national party, but was greatly assisted by the LPO [Liberal Party Organisation] later on. The Party’s activists not only ensured the survival and revival of the Liberal Party, they changed its character.

The initial lack of interesting in local government partly reflects how, even in 1945, there was a strong belief in many quarters that local government should not be party political but also reflects the degree to which the central party saw getting good Parliamentary candidates in place as the route to rebuilding the party and electing MPs being overwhelmingly dominant reason for a party to exist.

Whilst the modern Liberal Democrat emphasis on local government is a welcome change from these old attitudes, the change in attitude towards Parliamentary candidates has been more mixed.

In the 1940s and 1950s getting a candidate in place was often seen as a necessary step to getting a local party active and growing and a local party had to do very little to end up with a candidate in place, provided there was someone willing.

But as the candidate process has developed (including many welcome features, such as giving party members a vote) this has meant local parties have to do more before they can have a candidate in place. A disorganised local party that never quite gets round to making decisions or getting on with matters can let a selection process drag out over months and months (or in the case of one local party I know of, which has not been wanting for a Returning Officer or applicants, years).

Therefore, whilst selecting a candidate used to be seen as part of the solution to a poorly performing local party, now a poorly performing local party results in a candidate not being selected (until parachuted in at the last moment). We have gone from selecting a Parliamentary candidate being seen as part of the solution to not selecting a Parliamentary candidate being a symptom of the problem.

That said,

One of the main reasons why the Liberal Party remained in existence after 1945 is because its local associations [LAs] remained in existence … Without activists’ commitment to liberalism and the hope of eventual victory, the Party would not have survived …

[Only] some LAs remained active during the late 1940s and the 1950s because their focus was primarily on fighting local government elections rather than Parliamentary elections … [Some others survived] despite not having run candidates in parliamentary or local elections for a decade or more. Partly this reflected social reasons to continue with Liberal activity. Whist drives organised ostensibly to raise money for general election campaigns could become the raison d’être of LAs and it was not uncommon for more energy to be expended by Liberal activists on the organisation of an annual bazaar than on political activity.

Some of the themes of attempting to build the party’s organisation are remarkably familiar to modern ears, such as the recommendation of the post-war Reconstruction Committee – in its wonderfully named report Coats off for the Future – that constituency parties should concentrate on collecting small sums of money from a large number of sympathisers. “Let’s copy Barack Obama!” has rather more of a ring to it than “Let’s copy the Reconstruction Committee!” though.

The activists who got stuck in at a local level were frequently from Lancashire and Yorkshire and from councils with smaller rather than larger wards. They were not particularly radical in their policy views, but rather in the mainstream of party opinion (unlike the Young Liberals and other high profile supporters of community politics in the 1970s). They did though tend to lean more to the left than the right, with former Labour supporters being much more common amongst activists than former Conservative supporters:

Liberal activists lent to the left of British politics, favouring a realignment of the progressive wing of politics to combat conservatism and supporting the principle, if not necessarily the practice, of trade unionism.

In that respect activists differed from Liberal voters, who tended to be drawn more from ex-Conservatives than ex-Labour, though in part that was a reflection of the Conservatives being in power for the bulk of the period under consideration (1951-1964).

The book clearly shows its roots in the previous doctorate on the topic written by the author, but it is still accessible even if there are more tables and fewer passages of flowing prose than you would find in a coffee table history book.

You can buy the book from Amazon here (though watch out for the currently eye-watering price even for a second hand copy).

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This entry was posted in Books.


  • There is a fascinating review of this book in the latest issue of Liberator by Michael Meadowcroft who became the Liberal Party’s first Local Government Organiser in, I think, the early 60s. The activists remaining from the 50s are sadly becoming fewer and fewer and it would be great if as much of the history of the Party as possible from this period was recorded before it is too late. My first serious connection with the Party was just after the period being covered here, but my fairly wide experience of local parties around the country, especially prior to the Alliance, leads me to think that it is very difficult to generalise about the nature of the Liberal Party in those days. I remember one local association, for example, whose principle activity was raising money throughout the year to pay for chickens to distribute to pensioners at Christmas!

  • David Blake 31st Jan '10 - 6:00pm

    I also found Michael’s review interesting, mainly because of some of the amusing stories he told. It would be great if there was an oral history project on the Liberal Party which could record lots of these stories.

    I recently looked at some Ealing local papers from the 1970s and was amazed at the amount of coverage which the party got – similar to the amount I remember us getting in Bridgwater where I first joined. Local papers now seem to avoid political coverage – especially the free ones which are the ones which most people in Ealing now see.

  • Does the Ulster Liberal Association get a mention?

  • Bill le Breton 1st Feb '10 - 9:01am

    In the mid 1950’s the Executive of the Isle of Wight Liberals held an AGM to vote on their proposal to wind up the party. Two stalwarts including a Mr Howard Downer opposed the motion and carried the day. In Feb ’74 Stephen Ross won the seat after a long local campaign over the Conservative MPs involvement in former British Rail land disposal. He held on in the second ’74 election and won narrowly in 1979. On that day when Thatcher first came to power, Howard, who had been my proposer for nomination to the Borough Council, did car calls (I seem to remember in a very old but smart Humber). We won control of the Borough on that day too. What a contribution to Liberty! I hope Mark Egan had heard that story.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Feb '10 - 9:46am

    Yes, we owe a great deal to those who kept the party alive in those days. They did so not with any expectation they would ever gain big political power or wealth from it, but because they wanted to see an alternative to the political duopoly exist. In some cases it was just through the sheer delight in keeping the mechanism oiled and running. Although my feeling is that it was the 1974 elections that were the turning point, what happened before then obviously established a foundation for the electoral success (in terms of vote share) in 1974, and perhaps more importantly a solid enough basis of real people working hard on the ground with long-term commitment that in the much more difficult situation of 1979 the party held together. Had the six million votes in 1974 been for a flash party, newly formed and rootless, the disappointing share in 1979 would have been enough to wipe it out. The staying power of the 1945-64 generation and the “fight even though it looks hopeless” mentality they inspired to those of us who joined later, helped us through the monumental cock-up of the Liberal-SDP merger, which again would have wiped out anything that did not have deeper roots.

    That is why I get so angry when I see it written up now as history – look at the sort of textbooks they give on British politics to students for example – that the main reason for our party’s existence was the foundation of the SDP in 1981. Standard orthodoxy amongst those who study British politics is still that elections and parties are about the people at the top nationally, and that what happens locally is a minor issue, that local activists fool themselves if they think what they do has much effect. That is just so wrong, and perhaps now it will require bright PhD students to do the research and find that out for themselves.

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