Watford Liberal Democrat newsletter celebrates golden jubilee edition

This month sees the 50th anniversary of the first publication of Oxhey Opinion, the regular Liberal Democrat newsletter published in the ward I represent on Watford Borough Council.

In January 1970, Tony Poole the Liberal candidate for Oxhey, wrote the first edition and printed it himself on a Roneo machine, in two colour orange and black. This was an era when Liberals were increasingly developing ‘community politics’ techniques, including what we now call Focus-style newsletters.

Yet Tony’s reasons for launching the newsletter arose from local circumstances. Oxhey has its own distinct identity and he felt that a newsletter that went beyond simply issuing election addresses once a year would go down well in the local community.

The strategy was vindicated when the following year when the Liberals won the ward, in the process gaining their first ever seat on Watford Borough Council. By 1973 the Liberals held all three seats in Oxhey and six out of 36 on Watford Counci. The future looked bright. Unfortunately, the national party’s difficulties in the mid to late 1970s had their effect in Watford and by 1976 there were no more Liberals on the council.

It not until the 1990s that the Liberal Democrats were able to regain all the seats in Oxhey, but in the intervening time Oxhey Opinion continued to be published (sometimes intermittently), meaning that there was a strong legacy to build on when I became the candidate and by extension editor in 1990.

We have now won every local election in the ward since 1991. Both of Watford’s Liberal Democrat elected mayors, Dorothy Thornhill and Peter Taylor were first elected as Oxhey councillors. And although Tony Poole was not among the Liberal councillors in the 1970s, he served as ward councillor for 14 years from 1998 and was an excellent chairman of the council.

Looking back at the very first edition, one realises how many issues are with us always: the featured issues of local development, streetlighting, traffic management and amenities in Oxhey Park are just the sort of thing we have covered in recent editions.

Over the years Oxhey Opinion has been a vehicle for campaigning on a variety of local issues. The initial victory in 1971 was built on a successful battle for a footbridge across the railway line to give pedestrians a safe place to cross. In my time as councillor we have used it to build support for various campaigns, including: saving the fast train service into London Euston, maintaining public access to fields that were threatened with being converted into a golf course, for pedestrian safety measures across the ward.

When I first started the newsletter was still produced using Letraset and by cutting and pasting text onto artwork sheets. Soon afterwards I bought a computer and learned desktop publishing, producing it over the years using variously Pagemaker, QuarkXpress and PagePlus. We have also branched out into email newsletters and other social media communications.

But Oxhey Opinion remains at the core of our communications – something we send out regularly to all local residents. Although once or twice I have been told by campaign experts that it is too wordy, I am keen that it should remain a real newsletter with information that people will find interesting and useful – not just a kind of poster with huge headlines and minimal text.

We also have occasionally been pressed to change the name to ‘Focus’ to bring it into line with the standard Lib Dem title. But I have resisted on the basis that we of all parties should encourage a bit of quirkiness and local distinctiveness.

When the first Oxhey Opinion was published in 1970, such publications were relatively unusual. I can remember even in the 1990s both Labour and Conservative politicians sneering at ‘Liberal newsletters’. Now they copy them, and the idea of keeping in touch all year round is common practice across all parties in places where they want to get elected. Liberal newsletters like Oxhey Opinion were part of a process of making politicians more accountable and responsive to the people – not just remote figures in the town hall.

So thank you to Tony Poole, who remains one of our deliverers and chief photographer, for starting Oxhey Opinion, and to other pioneers of Liberal newsletters back in the early days of community politics. And here’s to our next 50 years of publication, although I fear it won’t be me editing the centenary edition.

* Iain Sharpe has been a Liberal Democrat councillor in Watford since 1991. To read more about the history of the Liberal Democrats in Watford, see Winning the Watford Way, published by the Local Government Association Liberal Democrat Group.

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  • Paul Holmes 22nd Jan '20 - 1:39pm

    There was something about that 1970’s generation of Liberal campaigners that we need to replicate today.

    Since 1986 I live in Brockwell Ward in Chesterfield and in the 1970’s, initially called Central Ward, it was the heart of the tiny Liberal Party campaigns in Chesterfield. One of just half a dozen active Liberal campaigners at the time was Bob Davenport who whilst door knocking in 1970 recruited another youngster called Ray Russell. Bob went on to be elected in the 70’s as one of the very first post war Liberal Cllrs in Chesterfield (long with the wonderful Trudi Mulcaster) but lost his seat in 1983 taking us (I joined a few weeks later) back to nil Cllrs.

    In 1987 however we won all 3 seats in Brockwell (plus 4 elsewhere) electing Ray Russell, June Beckingham and Asif (Nicky) Qazi. June went on to be a long standing Borough and County Cllr and is still our Honorary President. Nicky was our Group Leader in 1999 when we moved from 10 to 19 Cllrs (hi President Pack -yes a BAME Group Leader in a 97% white Town and we had another recently in Alexis Diouf who was born in Senegal). Ray went on to lead a large majority Lib Dem Council from 2003-2011 and would have done so for longer but for the destruction wrought by the Coalition Government.

    We have held all 3 seats in Brockwell from 1987-2015 and again in 2019 with a temporary lapse to one in 2015. That one in 2015 (and Deputy Group Leader of 17 Cllrs today) is Maureen Davenport, Bob’s wife and an early contributor of articles to those Letraset leaflets in the 1970’s.

    What exactly was it that sowed those early seeds of the Liberal revival in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s in places like Oxhey Ward in Watford and Brockwell Ward in Chesterfield? How many of the mass of new Members who have joined post 2015 will still be campaigning for us in 2065?

  • Neil Fawcett 23rd Jan '20 - 8:15am

    I mentioned having helped deliver some of those in Dorothy’s first election at the Federal Board meeting on Saturday!

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