Tag Archives: history

Review: Turning Point: Unscripted Reflections by Steve Richards – The formation of the SDP

Thanks to my friend Neil for drawing this one to my attention. Steve Richards has done a series of reflections on the big turning points in our politics over the last 40 years, from the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister to the 2017 election.

The second in the series concerns the formation of the SDP, when 4 former Labour Cabinet ministers left Labour over that party’s adoption of an anti European, pro nuclear disarmament platform along with internal reforms that gave more power to members and trade unions.

Richards makes the important point that if you are going to form a new party, you can’t just be against stuff. You have to have an agenda. He points out that the SDP had a definite left of centre vision that involved redistribution of wealth, high public spending  and definitely internationalist.

He observed that the party got masses of media coverage because they had credibility as well as novelty.

David Steel’s role in encouraging the formation of a new party rather than just having Labour people joining the Liberals was also highlighted as an early positive.

Richards says despite all of this, there were “impossible hurdles” for the party to overcome.

First of all, the Labour Party was never going to disappear. They were too well resourced.

Secondly, they didn’t attract those on the left of the Conservatives.

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New from the Liberal Democrat History Group

As well as publishing the quarterly Journal of Liberal History (which features one of the esteemed editors of Lib Dem Voice on its Editorial Board), the Liberal Democrat History Group also publishes a range of books and short booklets on aspects of Liberal history.

New out, just in time for Bournemouth conference, is the second edition of Mothers of Liberty: Women Who Built British Liberalism. This booklet contains the stories of the women who shaped British Liberalism – including Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Taylor Mill, the suffragist leader Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the first woman Liberal MP Margaret Wintringham, Violet Bonham Carter, Megan Lloyd George, Nancy Seear, Shirley Williams and many more. This second edition updates some of the entries, adds two entirely new ones and a table of all Liberal, SDP and Liberal Democrat women elected as MPs, and includes a foreword by Jo Swinson MP.

We have also published a new edition of our popular Liberal History: A concise history of the Liberal Party, SDP and Liberal Democrats. This has been revised and updated to include the 2015 and 2017 elections and their aftermath, including the election of Vince Cable as leader.

Starting with the earliest stirrings of Liberal thought during the civil wars of the seventeenth century, the booklet takes the reader through the coming together of Whigs, radicals and free-trade Peelites in 1859 to form the Liberal Party; the ascendancy of the Victorian Liberals under Gladstone; the New Liberalism of Asquith and Lloyd George and the party’s landslide election victory in 1906; dissension and eclipse; the long decades of decline until nadir in the 1950s; successive waves of Liberal revival under Grimond, Thorpe and Steel; the alliance with the SDP and merger in 1988; and the roller-coaster ride of the Liberal Democrats, from near-obliteration in 1989 to entry into government in 2010 to electoral disaster in 2015 and, now, the path to recovery.

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A belter of a TV programme on the family history of Noel Clarke

Embed from Getty Images

Back in August, I waxed lyrically about the history which is reflected regularly in the BBC programme “Who do you think you are?”. I feel compelled to return to the subject, given the sheer awesomeness of the last episode in the current run of this BBC series.

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The Philosophy of Henry George

Liberal economic philosophy has its roots in land reform and economic justice. John Locke said that “God gave the world in common to all mankind….” Thomas Paine stated that “men did not make the earth… It is the value of the improvements only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property.”

John Stuart Mill wrote: “When the ‘sacredness’ of property is talked of, it should be remembered that any such sacredness does not belong in the same degree to landed property.” Mill also wrote: “The increase in the value of land, arising as it does from the efforts of an entire community, should belong to the community and not to the individual who might hold title.”

In a free market capitalist economy markets allocate resources through the price mechanism. An increase in demand raises price and businesses produce more goods or services, but they cannot produce more land.  The quantity of products consumed by people depends on their income, but rising income translates to increased land rents when supply is static.

John Maynard Keynes challenged the idea that free markets would automatically provide full employment. He instead argued that aggregate demand determined the overall level of economic activity and that inadequate aggregate demand could lead to prolonged periods of high unemployment. Keynes advocated the use of fiscal and monetary policies to mitigate the adverse effects of economic recessions and depressions.

William Beveridge set out the framework for the modern welfare state to tackle poverty, health, housing, education and unemployment.  Following the principles of Keynes, the post-war government took control of key industries. Under this managed economy tax money could be used to keep an industry afloat, even if it faced economic difficulties and maintain full-employment.

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Our Liberal “Internationalism”, born in a period of party fragmentation, is now our uniting and unique selling point

When you consult books about Liberal and Liberal Democrat party history about the birth of our “Internationalism”, European “Federalism” and our thesis that stand-alone nationstates (and “narrow nationalism”) become more and more obsolete, you discover a surprising fact.

According to Michael Steed’s chapter “Liberal Tradition” in Don MacIver’s bundle “The Liberal Democrats” (from 1996), it was in the comprehensive policy survey “The Liberal Way” of 1934, that we stated that in future, “narrow nationalist” parties everywhere would face parties, the Liberals firmly among them, supporting the growing, factual interdependence as best policy basis. Philip Kerr, marquis of Lothian, said (1935): “the only final remedy for war is a federation of nations”. But personal guilt about having himself written the War Damages clause in the Versailles Treaty made Kerr become an  advocate of appeasement to Germany, a Liberal dissident, until the Munich Agreement.

Both Chris Cook’s history of the Liberals in 1900-’76, and Robert  Ingham & Duncan Brack’s authoritative bundle “Peace Reform & Liberation” (PRL; 2001) tell that this  “interdependence  makes collectivism better policy”-idea was formulated in a phase of disintegration of the Liberal party (the split about the 1931 National Government; desertions to the National Liberals and Labour; loss of seats).  

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History doesn’t always have to be written by the victors

On 5th March 1770 outside the customs house on King’s Street, Boston, Private Hugh White was talking to some off-duty comrades when a passing Bostonian made a crack about the British soldier’s commanding officer – prompting Pvt White to clock the civilian across the side of the head. The off-duty soldiers made themselves scarce, leaving the private to deal with the fast-growing ring of angry Bostonians that soon surrounded him. White backed up against the custom house door – gun raised out of fear of what might happen next. The growing crowd heckled him, daring him to shoot.

Up the street, Captain Preston, commander of the custom house garrison, watched events unfold. The Captain was hoping that the situation would resolve itself naturally but soon the church bells started tolling and more men, many armed with clubs, started showing up and Preston knew it was high-time that he went to get his man. He led a corporal and six privates through the crowd, now numbering 300-400 strong, towards Private White but rather than just pulling the soldier out from the situation he ordered his men to form a semi-circle around him while facing the crowd, guns unfortunately loaded.

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Political elites and why we think we need them

Scenes Frontispiece

The blessed work of helping the world forward, happily does not wait to be done by perfect men; and I should imagine that neither Luther nor John Bunyan, for example, would have satisfied the modern demand for an ideal hero, who believes nothing but what is true, feels nothing but what is exalted, and does nothing but what is graceful. George Eliot

The only thing that has kept the race of men from the mad extremes of the convent and the pirate-galley, the night-club and the lethal chamber, has been mysticism — the belief that logic is misleading, and that things are not what they seem.  GK Chesterton

We have been told a lot lately that recent political upheavals represent a revolt against the “club” of “elites” dominating western politics. On reflection, I wonder if it actually meant the opposite: the realisation “elites” are not very elite at all, but in fact every bit as flawed and tangible as ourselves, just as they always were in the days before television. I was thinking this, recently, wandering around the National Portrait Gallery transfixed by the mesmeric eyes of inane bully Henry VIII – and wondering if we have traded these faintly Tory myths, for the more dangerous oil paints of the Spectator butterfly.

George Eliot’s words from the 1850s are a double-edged sword. Writing in “Scenes on clerical life” she pointed out the great secret of progress, and good politics: normal people like ourselves. This is not always easy. It was, I think, one of the great joys of Coalition for many Liberal Democrats, one which we were too slow at times to appreciate, that we were actually changing quite a lot. With hindsight, I wonder if it felt hard to believe the strength of policies like the Pupil Premium and Shared Parental Leave, not because the Tories did it, nor even that Nick Clegg did it, but because we did it.

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The founding king of England encouraged an open, outward-looking country

Full marks to Tom Ash. Earlier this week he nailed an historic parallel for Brexit. That was Henry VIII and the reformation.

However, those who favour an open, outward-looking UK, can claim an older, greater precedent than the Brexit-like Henry VIII, who broke with Europe basically because he couldn’t perform in bed sufficiently to produce enough healthy sons. (OK, there’s a bit of historic licence there and I’m being a bit (a lot?) cheeky – apologies – and I also apologise to the Scots, Welsh, Irish and Cornish that this is all about England).

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Wikipedia “edit-a-thon” on Liberal History

Wikipedia will be holding an “edit-a-thon” on Liberal History at the National Liberal Club on Wednesday 24th August. All are welcome.

This edit-a-thon is a collaboration between the Club and the Wikimedia Foundation (which runs Wikipedia), to get better, more in-depth coverage of liberal issues and liberal history in the online encyclopaedia, updating and expanding articles.

Wikipedia is the seventh-most-visited website and the world, and is the first port-of-call for many basic background facts, so the National Liberal Club thought it would be helpful to offer its backing to improve coverage of liberal issues. The NLC will be making its library — full of rare material around liberal history — available for the event.

The NLC is particularly proud to be doing this, as it has long been the spiritual home of Liberals and Liberal Democrats. Founded by Gladstone in 1882, the club provides a sumptuous “home from home” for those interested in liberal politics and the liberal arts: you can read more about it here, on the club’s own Wikipedia page.

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Deserving of more than a footnote: George Watson and The Unservile State

The Unservile StateThe announcement that the Cambridge academic George Watson had left the Liberal Democrats £950,000 in his will was one of the most surprising political stories of 2014.

George Watson was a distinguished literary scholar and a lifelong Liberal. After working for the European Commission as a translator and interpreter during the 1950s he became a Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, in 1961 and remained there until he retired in 1990. As a scholar, he was known for serious bibliographical work, spirited polemics, and a traditional approach to literary criticism. He also made two forays into electoral politics, contesting Cheltenham in 1959 and Leicester in the 1979 European Election.

Watson is perhaps best remembered by Liberal Democrats, however, as the editor of The Unservile State – a 1957 volume billed as ‘the first full-scale study of the attitudes and policies of contemporary British Liberalism since the famous Yellow Book’ of 1928.

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Michael Moore reselected for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

Michael Moore MP with apprentices Cameron Collins and Mark Tully at Mainetti 30 08 1349 years ago today, the Liberal Party created a political earthquake in the Borders when David Steel won the Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles by-election as the Liberal Democrat History Group remembers:

In the winter of 1963-64 a vacancy arose for a Liberal candidate in the much more winnable Scottish Border seat of Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles, whose Conservative incumbent, C. E. M. Donaldson, was elderly and ailing. Steel jumped at the chance to move and in January 1964 was adopted as the Liberal candidate. He failed to win the seat from the Conservatives at the general election of that year, but nonetheless moved his home to the Borders and took a short-lived job in television with the BBC. The death of Donaldson in December 1964 gave him his opportunity. Steel won the byelection in March of the following year with a handsome majority. He held the constituency (subsequently re-drawn and re-named Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) at the eight general elections from 1966 to 1992 before bequeathing the seat in 1997 to Michael Moore (q.v.) after more than thirty years in Parliament.

Twenty years after the by-election, David Steel announced he was stepping down as MP and Michael Moore was selected to fight the seat which he won in 1997.

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Five stories from five years – March 24th

Time, I think, to revive that part of the old Friday Five where we looked at what we were writing about on this day in previous years. Here are five posts from March 24th.

First up, a little Boris related schadenfreude from 2013: Boris has a right Mair in live BBC interview.

For most of the 10 minutes — and perhaps for the first time ever — Boris looked as if he would rather be anywhere else than beneath the glare of the TV lights. This was his reckoning, and he looked winded, lumbering like a past-his-prime former heavyweight champion. Only

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Opinion: A letter to Michael Gove

Dear Michael,

I hope this finds you well.

A confession.

Unlike Paxman, I’m a fan.

You’re an unusual Tory with unusual origins. And your passion to change education is laudable.

The 1960s Crosland reforms, implemented by your mentor Mrs Thatcher, were supposed to promote social mobility. The reality is mixed. Overall literacy and numeracy have improved. Higher education has become more accessible across class, gender and race.

But this has come at a cost. Some think general mediocrity is better than a few attaining excellence while the majority attain little. I think it’s still mediocrity. Employers lament school-leavers’ inadequate skills. Our performance in the Pisa education …

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Opinion: Politicians should keep out of history debates

Michael GoveMichael Gove’s intervention into the complex historical debate over the First World War was as bizarre as it was ignorant. Gove attacked ‘left wing historians’ for promoting the Blackadder (a satirical sitcom, not, unless I am mistaken, a documentary) viewpoint that thousands of young Brits were consigned to an early grave by an out of touch elite. The issue with Gove’s comments weren’t his interpretation of history, which is certainly arguable, but the idea that history and commemoration should be used to score political points.

It is the diversity of opinions and interpretations within historical scholarship which makes it such an interesting and enriching subject. One does not have to be a Marxist politically to appreciate the contribution Marxist historians have made to historical study, rather, these historians make up a small part of a multiplicity of opinions based on rigorous historical research.

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Opinion: Thanks to Simon Hughes and Liberal Democrat Voice for helping get Florence Nightingale back in history lessons

The Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has announced that Florence Nightingale will remain in the National Curriculum after all, reversing a decision earlier this year to boot her out.

I want to offer my hanks to Liberal Democrat Voice for letting me state my reasons why Nightingale should stay in earlier this year. Thanks also to Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader, for his efforts in getting the decision re-examined. Liberal Democrats can take a particular pleasure in seeing a fellow Liberal re-instated. Florence Nightingale was a lifelong Liberal supporter, at a time when political allegiances were …

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Our politicians should be dull, worthy and never seen wearing a leopard print bra

Nelson TorsoWriting in today’s Daily Mail, Dominic Sandbrook rages against the cult of celebrity and declares that “the lines between politics and show business have become dangerously blurred.” Is he right?

Today is Trafalgar Day, a celebration of the victory of our nation’s greatest celebrities, Horatio Nelson. Many may be surprised to hear Nelson described as a celebrity rather than a hero, but a celebrity he was, and he so knew it.

When, on 14 September 1805, Nelson arrived at Portsmouth to board the Victory, he could not make his way to the ship due to the pressure of crowds who wanted to cheer off their national hero. Nelson did not misjudge his own fame. He was loved by the nation and he loved their adulation. He told Thomas Hardy as he left English soil for the last time:

I had their huzzas before, I have their hearts now.

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RIP Pratap Chitnis

In memory of Pratap Chitnis, we reproduce below Mark Pack’s tribute to an unjustly forgotten Liberal Hero. The Guardian’s obituary is here.

Pratap (later Lord) Chitnis was the post-war Liberal Party’s first grassroots campaigning mastermind, whose pioneering activities laid the groundwork for the later work of better known people such as Trevor Jones and Chris Rennard.

Born in 1936 to a family with a history of Liberal politics (his grandfather stood and lost in 1906), he was inspired by Jo Grimond to join the Liberal Party himself in 1958. Chitnis first worked in the National Liberal Club’s library and then …

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The 1983 election: highlights and hindsight

I spent more of my bank holiday than is healthy watching the rerun of the 1983 election on BBC Parliament.

When I lived through it, I was an innocent and idealistic 15 year old. I really believed people would be so outraged that the Alliance had polled 7 million votes, finishing marginally behind Labour but with about a ninth of their seats. As Shirley Williams said, it was “absolute rubbish.” Surely we would have PR within a decade?

Thirty years on, it depresses me that we are no further forward. Westminster remains the last bastion of first past the post, for Scots …

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What the Liberal Democrats believe

“Tell me more about what the Liberal Democrats believe”. Whether it’s a possible new member, a potential council candidate or a new office volunteer asking, I’ve always found over the years that one of the trickier questions to answer. Not because of the inherent question, but rather because of the paucity of materials available to conveniently answer it.

There’s always been a simple short 1 or 2 sentence answer to hand (such as the slogan of the day or an extract from the preamble to the party’s constitution) or a really long answer available, such as Conrad Russell’s superb An

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Not all is quite so new in the world of political messaging and behaviour change

On my way to windmill spotting in Lincoln recently, I happened across this example of an 19th century election leaflet for the City of Lincoln’s local elections:

It’s a neat example of a point I’ve made before, that what can seem new and exciting in the world of communications often is really long-established ideas in slightly new clothes.

In this case, note two particular features of the message. First, the reference to electors having previously elected Mr Page four times before. In other words, …

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A longer watch for the weekend: Mothers of Liberty

I blogged last month about the new pamphlet from the Liberal Democrat History Group, Mothers of Liberty: Women who built British Liberalism, a series of biographies of famous women liberals, which details the contribution of women to Liberal politics from the eighteenth century to the present day.

That was launched at a conference fringe meeting, chaired by Lynne Featherstone and featuring three excellent speakers:

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How leaflets used to look: Labour’s Citizen leaflet from 1929

Today’s leaflet in my series on old election leaflets is a centrally produced Labour party 4-pager from 1929. As with the Conservative leaflet from 1931 which I previously featured, the design may be very different from good modern leaflets, but the content has some very familiar overtones.

The May 1929 contest was the first general election in which women under 30 could vote and also one of only three elections in the modern era where the party with the most votes did not also win the most seats. Despite being slightly out-polled by the Conservatives, Labour won more seats in …

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Mothers of Liberty: Women who built British Liberalism

For an organisation that looks to the past and to party politics, it is almost inevitable that the Liberal Democrat History Group’s publications are rather dominated with accounts of men. Even now, well into the 21st century, we only just have the first female Liberal Democrat ministers, whilst female Liberal Democrat Cabinet members or party leaders are still something for the future.

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A flagship borough: 25 years of a Liberal Democrat Sutton Council

Look round the room at the next Liberal Democrat event you attend and ask yourself how many people in the room will have their names recorded in places that future political historians can find. A few, certainly, especially if they have been elected to public office.

For most, however, their contribution to a political party slips away through the cracks of the historical record, disappearing as the direct personal memories people have of them fade and then end with death.

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Order! Order! A Parliamentary Miscellany

Robert Rogers, the Clerk of the House of Commons, is the latest in a long line of distinguished authors to have produced a miscellany of Parliamentary history, information and quirks. His volume Order! Order! A Parliamentary Miscellany is a worthy addition to that sequence.

Originally published in 2009 it has just been republished with little changed other than a new Foreword. As a result, although it is not quite as up to date as its 2012 publication date might suggest, it is still pretty fresh. Given Rogers’s background, it is also no surprise that this is primarily a miscellany of the House of Commons. The House of Lords is much the neglected partner.

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Book review: William Gladstone – New Studies & Perspectives

Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin and William Ewart Gladstone, giants of the nineteenth century, were all born in 1809 yet as Frank M Turner argues in this collection of essays Darwin and Lincoln are much better remembered today. I am sure this is true even for Liberal Democrats. In the final essay, Eugenio Biagini reflects on a 1992 Economist front cover describing Gladstone as ‘A prophet of the Left’. Gladstone’s legacy has been appropriated by Thatcherites who over simplify the Victorian Liberal view of the roles of government and private enterprise. …

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How leaflets used to look: a Tory attack on Labour’s economic policies, 1931

Today’s leaflet in my series on old election leaflets is a centrally produced Conservative Party leaflet from October 1931. Ramsay MacDonald had led a Labour administration under August 1931 when it split over a Budget and economic crisis. MacDonald earned his place in Labour’s hall of infamy by then forming a National Government with Conservatives and Liberals. Only two Labour colleagues joined MacDonald in this government, so the attacks in this leaflet on “Arthur Henderson and other Socialist ex-Ministers” are, nominally at least, directed at Labour rather than MacDonald and co. in the coalition.

Swap references such as the Empire Marketing Board for current ones and the basic arguments being made in the leaflet are remarkably similar to contemporary politics:

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How leaflets used to look: Sutton, 1972 – no bar chart but a darn good skull

Welcome to another leaflet from the archives, this time courtesy of Sutton Council leader Ruth Dombey who has kindly provided a copy of the first Focus leaflet put out in Sutton back in 1972. It kicked off the winning Parliamentary by-election campaign for Graham Tope and was put together by Liverpool’s Trevor “Jones the Vote” who pioneered many of the campaign tactics now taken for granted.

Some of the issues may feel rather familiar and given its pioneering nature I think we can forgive the missing apostrophes and question marks… Interesting too both the level of personal detail about Graham and the inclusion of a story about what the Liberal Party believed in.

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Jo Grimond: Towards the sound of gunfire

A better understanding of Jo Grimond’s life is always a healthy corrective to some of the cartoon caricatures about right-wing lurches and Thatcherite policies that sometimes get thrown around over the views of contemporary Liberal Democrats.

Grimond was, after all, a man who talked of himself as being on the centre-left and who pushed for a progressive realignment of politics that would see a new centre-left party supplant Labour. Off and on feelers went out to those in Labour ranks during his career. And yet, he was …

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Eric Lubbock: From Orpington Man to Buddhist Monk?

For many years Adrian Slade has interviewed prominent Liberal Democrats. To mark his recent decision to make his archive of the interview recordings available to researchers and other interested parties, Lib Dem Voice is running a selection of his write-ups of interviews from over the years. The latest is from 2002 and is with Lord Avebury, formerly Eric Lubbock – victor of the 1962 Orpington by-election, MP for eight years and chair of the parliamentary human right s group from 1976 to 1997.

For a few astonishing days in March 1962, the Liberal Party led the Conservative and Labour parties in the opinion polls, the only time it had ever done so since polls were invented.

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Recent Comments

  • User AvatarGlenn 26th Sep - 8:21am
    Frankie' The problem a lot post-cold war end of history centrists thinking is that like Marxism it's based on the idea of the inevitability and...
  • User AvatarOld Liberal 26th Sep - 3:49am
    No Michael1, it really is much more than just a very clear message and massive massive hard work as Kingston shows. It is having a...
  • User AvatarMichael 1 25th Sep - 11:58pm
    @OnceALibDem Um.... I appreciate the point. We did do well in Haringey – up from 9 to 15 - and held our ground in Ealing...
  • User AvatarDan Falchikov 25th Sep - 11:19pm
    Possibly the least accurate account of any campaign I've ever been involved. No reference to the appalling arrogant previous Tory administration that switched voters off...
  • User Avatarfrankie 25th Sep - 11:06pm
    They must be improvers Glenn they wish to improve things. Unlike most Brexiteers who wish things to return to a by gone age. One set...
  • User AvatarAlex Macfie 25th Sep - 8:32pm
    Yes, take away the areas we gained and we made no gains at all. Funny that.