Politics and gardening

Politics and gardening don’t easily mix. I remember ruefully discussing this with Councillor Stuart Galton as I was giving out the prizes at a West Yorkshire Allotments event years ago.  Long before that, Ian Stuart said it to Helen and me in 1973, standing in our spare room and looking at what we had just achieved in our Manchester garden after two years of limited political activity (triggered by discontent with Jeremy Thorpe’s leadership and the drift within the party).  He’d moved in for the duration of the Manchester Exchange by-election, where our good friend and university colleague Michael Steed was candidate.

Several weeks of campaigning, with a succession of Young Liberals sleeping on our floor, did for the garden for the rest of that year.  Reviving the Manchester Liberal Party, with Helen becoming chair and me agreeing to become candidate for the Moss Side constituency, through two general elections in the spring and autumn of 1974, ruined our garden for the next year as well (and threatened to ruin our careers).  When we moved to London, we restored a neglected garden, planted several fruit trees and even kept hens.  But then I stood again for a Yorkshire constituency through two elections, the fruit trees grew too large and the weeds invaded the vegetable patch.

Local elections present the greatest challenge to the political gardener.  Just when you should be planting out vegetable seedlings, watering devotedly, and keeping spring weeds down, there are leaflets to deliver and doors to knock on.  Miss that stage in the gardening year, and you will be struggling to catch up for months afterwards.  A by-election in June or July is as dangerous a distraction: weeds proliferating everywhere, and the peak of the soft-fruit season, with picking, processing and freezing to be done before everything becomes overripe or the birds eat them.

Climate change has increased the difficulties. I used to be able to pick much of our soft fruit crop during our August break, though missing some of the blackberry-picking when party conference came along.  Now the strawberries have finished, I’ve beaten the birds to the red and blackcurrants and the jostaberry bush (if you don’t have a jostaberry you’re not a serious gardener), and distributed our gooseberry surplus to friends, relations and neighbours around Saltaire.  And already the first blackberries are ripe.  Helen made mixed berry jam last weekend, after harvesting broadbeans, artichokes, and assorted salads and filling the freezer.  We did some informal canvassing on the allotments as well – but most of our fellow plot-holders seem to share our views already.

Ian Stuart was right when he told us that ‘you can’t be a good Liberal and have a neat garden.’  The last thing a visitor would call our allotment plot is ‘neat’.  But I admit that I benefit from Helen’s ban on my continuing to canvass door-to-door, after the combination of the referendum campaign and a local by-election landed me in hospital.  Telephone canvassing is gentler, and can even be done in the rain, leaving more time for the garden.

Younger Liberal Democrat activists still face the competing priorities of leaflet delivery, canvassing, family, children and career, as they pledge their environmental principles and their preference for homegrown food.  I recommend calling on grandparents to help with gardening; younger generations are too valuable in other roles when you have a stack of leaflets in the dining room and a pile of canvass cards to work though.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords. He has taught at Manchester and Oxford Universities and at the LSE.

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8 Comments

  • John Marriott 29th Jul '21 - 3:25pm

    Politics is indeed a bit like gardening. Back in the early 1980s, fresh from our first exposure to local campaigning in the 1983 General Election, a small group of us living in a small town just outside Lincoln decided to do a bit of weed control in a patch that had been basically neglected for many years. The weeds in question were mainly Tory, or so called independents masquerading as such. The Labour variety of weed killer, sporadically applied over many years, had never proved very effective.

    Our first FOCUS went out in 1984, with a ‘Grumble Sheet’ that elicited over sixty replies, mainly through the post. By 1987 the weeds were in retreat. We won two District Council seats out of five in the town and three seats on the Town Council. The regular FOCUS leaflets continued, more seedlings replaced more weeds and by 1999 we had captured all the District Council seats and one of the two County Council seats, as well as having a majority on the Town Council.

    However, while the planting continued, the weeding proved harder. It didn’t help when the number of houses nearly doubled by the early 2000s making leafleting more difficult. In the end we had to concentrate on the wards (by now up to five from the original three) where we were strongest. We captured our second County Council seat in 2009; but had lost three of our District Council seats by then.

    After over two decades of hard graft, with many of our activists now councillors and some of us finding age playing an increasingly restrictive part in our activities, the weeding (leaflet delivering) virtually stopped and, by 2017 with boundary changes, the weeds were back in force. Now the Lib Dems have no Representatives on District or County Council and have two members of the Town Council, who call themselves independent.

    The moral of this story is clear. You stop the weeding and the weeds come back. Life was clearly different back in the ‘good old days’. A new approach is clearly needed is this digital age where personal and professional commitments have changed as well.

  • Barry Lofty 29th Jul '21 - 4:27pm

    John Marriott @ I believe you can now purchase a type of flame thrower to control the weeds, maybe worth a try??

  • Hilton Marlton 30th Jul '21 - 10:34am

    So much in this article resonates. Incessant GEs, Senedd and local elections coupled with Lib Dem by elections have certainly taken a toll on my garden. I can’t recommend too highly Tim Richarson’s wonderful book “The Archadian Landscape – inventing the English landscape garden”. It is a fascinating (and gripping) look at the politics and sociology underlying the trend away from French and Renaissance formalism in the 18th C. You won’t be surprised to discover that the English naturalistic garden that we all love and recognise today is a product of Whig and liberal thinking. A good holiday read and not in the least bit dry.

  • John Marriott – I’m in Lincoln for the first time to see my great-granddaughter (six weeks). I notice that in May we won our first seat on the City Council for years – let’s hope a new generation of skilled gardeners are developing!

  • Geoff Walker 31st Jul '21 - 12:22pm

    Politics and gardening inseparable! I deliberately took on an allotment when the Local Authority (Leicester) was eyeing allotments for development and campaigned for an allotment strategy. I turned down the offer of a pristine allotment that had just become available and took on one that hadn’t been cultivated for years. This resulted in praise for the improvement rather than criticism for neglect from other allotment holders who would start a conversation “we know your not our councillor but…..” and there were successes new drop kerbs and gates to facilitate disabled access and an annual photographic competition to promote take up of disused allotments with different themes each year “friendship” and “nature”. There were some stunning photographs.

  • John Marriott 31st Jul '21 - 4:15pm

    @tonyhill
    The ward you mentioned apparently had the benefit of a candidate, who had great experience elsewhere and appeared to employ the same campaigning methods we used to employ back in the 1980s and 1990s. I cannot claim any credit as I have not been a member of the local party for a number of years, for a variety of reasons.

    To be honest, Lincoln City has never been fertile ground for Liberals or Liberal Democrats. The area where we were successful was outside the city boundary and, in local government terms, has been a separate political entity. It will, however, be interesting to see if the local Lib Dems can build on their success or just revert back to appearing at election time.

  • I find that keeping the garden in reasonable state is massively helped by having a partner who got so burned out by the party that he retreated to armchair membership. He’s a lot happier tending to the fruits and flowers than he was refereeing countless arguments among lib dems…

    Me, I’m still in the thick of the lib demmery, but I do find myself gazing wistfully at him happily bimbling about the garden while I’m on zoom in an all day FCC meeting or a FAP hearing or an exec meeting or assessing candidates or….

  • phil Gilchrist 7th Aug '21 - 9:54pm

    As a gardener and a councillor I would recommend the gardening as a great way to unwind. It is possible to mull over ideas whilst pottering about too.

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