Obituary: Ruth Pentney, Councillor, agent and dedicated activist

Ruth Pentney“F*** off!” That was Ruth’s succinct response to those who requested her to back ‘Lib Dems 4 Change’ and their ill-fated attempt to oust Nick Clegg as leader in the summer of last year. That two worded response aptly illustrates the three worded summary of Ruth given by former Torbay MP Adrian Sanders, when he described her as: “tenacious, dependable and loyal.”

Attracted by the ‘self-help’ tradition that the party was closely associated with, Ruth joined the Liberals in the early 1970s. Having known what it means to be poor, she saw the hope that the  Liberals could inspire in deprived communities. She fiercely rejected the individualistic values of the Conservatives and the statism of Labour. Only the Liberals offered the vision of an equal society in which communities, once unburdened by the oppression of poverty, could stand on their own feet and strive for the good of all their members. Inspired by this vision she would go on to spend the next four decades passionately fighting to advance the cause of liberalism, and in the mid-nineties she would help turn Torbay yellow whereas before it had only ever been blue.

As the results came in on election night in May 1997 it soon became obvious that John Major’s Conservatives were in for a bad night. However those at Tory HQ were not expecting to lose a seat like Torbay. Indeed, at one time such a thing really was unthinkable even within optimistic Liberal circles. But on that night, after many recounts and with tension boiling over, it was declared that Torbay was a Liberal Democrat gain from the Conservatives. The majority was a minuscule 12.

With a margin of victory so very slender, it’s safe to say that the campaign really did make the difference. Achieving a 5 per cent swing in any election is difficult enough but to do so in Torbay, a natural Tory seat in many respects, was really something. Ruth ran Adrian’s re-election campaign four years later in an election which saw his diminutive minority grow to a healthy 6708. Ruth would also go on to mastermind Adrian’s re-election campaigns of 2005 and 2010. I witnessed first-hand what it took Mum to achieve these successes: sheer effort and determination that verged on the fanatical.

At times, Mum could be ruthless. She was never willing to put up with any nonsense. I recall being barely awake on a chilly polling day morning when Mum effectively banned anyone in the committee room from having hot drinks until they had shifted their Good Morning leaflets. This proved brutal but effective as the leaflets got delivered in double-quick time.

She was unflinching under pressure too. On one occasion, Ruth had made the classic organiser’s mistake of failing to include an imprint on something that had already gone to print. While other organisers would agonise and wring their hands as to what to do in this situation, she merely shrugged her shoulders and proceeded to wholesale the leaflets out to the delivers for distribution. Not surprisingly, the Tory agent cried foul and raised it with the authorities. The solitary police officer sent to investigate decided that no further action needed to be taken and wished mum and the campaign the best of luck. Needless to say, the Tory agent was outraged!

Ruth wouldn’t stop working even immediately after electoral victory. Her energy really was that boundless. On election night 2010, I stayed awake long enough to see the Torbay result come in. I was pleased but in no way surprised that Mum had done it again and Adrian had been re-elected. Contented that Torbay was to remain in Lib Dem hands, I went to bed. A few hours later, at approximately 3.30am, I woke to the sound of someone busying themselves somewhere in the house. To my astonishment, I found Mum doing the domestic errands that had been neglected over the course of the election campaign. Apparently, the fact that she had been awake for around 36 hours at this point did not seem to bother her. This was frankly staggering and perhaps even a little bit scary!

As well as being Organiser for Adrian, Ruth, at one time or another, held every branch and constituency post possible and agented for over 300 local candidates in Torbay and Totnes. She herself won a seat on Torbay Council in 2003, a seat she held until her death.

Ruth’s success and commitment to the party was recognised at federal conference in 2014 when she was presented with the Presidential Award by Tim Farron. Mum was tremendously proud and humbled to receive this honour.

Sadly, Ruth’s Motor Neurone Disease, with which she had been diagnosed in the Summer of 2014 had progressed to such a point that she was very limited as to what she could to do help in the General Election campaign of this year. She was truly sorry to see Adrian lose his seat and the collapse of the party nationally.

With Ruth gone, turning Torbay yellow again may seem like a near-impossible venture to some. However, to think in this way is to betray Mum’s spirit of courage and determination. May we look to Ruth and others like her for the inspiration we need to fight our way back from the brink.

Ruth Pentney leaves four children (Philip, Catherine, Tom and Nick) and three grandchildren (Byron, Lucas and Amy).

She is sadly missed.

Ruth Pentney: Born: 14th August 1953

                           Died: 6th September 2015

* Nicholas Pentney is a member of the Liberal Democrats in Torbay and youngest son of Ruth Pentney

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Andrew Emmerson 16th Sep '15 - 10:43am

    A touching tribute Nick. I had the pleasure of meeting Ruth at a few staff days, and she was always lovely and carried a great reputation with her.

    I’m sorry for you loss ,she will be much missed.

  • Richard Underhill 16th Sep '15 - 4:05pm

    This post should be widely circulated.

  • Jevon Whitby 16th Sep '15 - 8:57pm

    A very touching tribute Nick – a remarkable political life lived!

  • Roger Harcourt 16th Sep '15 - 9:10pm

    Humbling. A lesson to us armchair, do-a-little-bit campaigners.

  • I was pleased to have met and worked for Ruth and her
    in truth being a agent for me and so many other people of the bay and wide and doing so many jobs that we didnt no she was doing for use now rest in peace Ruth Torquays very own “Yellow Iron Lady” God bless

  • A lovely tribute.

  • Liberal Neil 17th Sep '15 - 3:26pm

    Hi Nick, I’m very sorry for your loss. I worked with your Mum over many years and she was both formidable and human in equal measure. She will be missed by many.

  • Paul Pettinger 17th Sep '15 - 4:26pm

    I am very sorry for your loss. Torbay was my nearest target seat when I grew up, so used to try and help there. I remember when I was 16 Ruth let me stay at her home the day before and after the eventful 97 Election Day – as if she didn’t already have enough on. A truly incredible contribution to the Lib Dems in the bay – the Party is built on such dedication. An inspiration to others.

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