WHY THE LIBERALS ARE NOT LUNATICS
During the general election the Tories will
attack the Liberals as loonies. Andrew Gimson
finds they deserve to be taken more seriously
East Leeds 'I'M TRYING to find out what the lunatics are like,' I said. This was a slip of the tongue. Miss Margaret Clay, general secretary of the Association of Liberal Councillors, seemed to find it amusing. She gave a delightful laugh, at the expense of the incompetent metropolitan journalist who had telephoned her at the ALC's headquarters in Yorkshire. To find out what the Liberals are like, she suggested I spend the weekend in East Leeds, where a small group of Liberals is chipping away, with amazing persistence, at the electoral foundations supporting Mr Denis Healey.
For this view the Tories will be able to dredge up a certain amount of evidence. They will remind voters of what Mr Felix Dodd, chairman of the Young Liberals, told the YL conference in Scarborough last month: 'After the next election we need to look at the alliance with the Social Demo- crats and realise that this was intended as an interim measure. We need to look around at the members of the Labour Party we want to work with. These are not the Social Democrats like John Smith or John Cunningham. They are people like Ken Livingstone and Chris Smith.' The Tories will argue that the Alliance is a deception, intended to conceal a gulf be- tween Dr Owen and the Liberal activists as wide as that between him and the loony Left of the Labour Party. To prove this, Conservatives will quote from the series of ten Campaign Mailings sent by the ALC to all Liberal candidates during the last gener- al election:
The ALLIANCE PROGRAMME FOR GOVERN- MENT is a rather disappointing document.
WE VERY STRONGLY URGE ALL LIBERALS TO USE - INSTEAD - THE LIBERAL PROGRAMME . . . The Alliance Programme by contrast is wishy-washy, fudging so many issues it isn't true; it is certainly not radical (Mailing 2).
If the Tories think the electors can stomach a second quotation from a chair- man of the Young Liberals (and some Tories have a profound faith in the value of these quotations as a form of political debate), they may select the comments of Miss Janice Turner, the then chairman, on the 1983 Alliance manifesto:
We believe that this Manifesto is incompati- ble with YL and Liberal policy and with the views of the majority of the Liberal Party YL policy has much more in common with CND than with the Alliance Manifesto. The Disarmament section seems to have been written solely by David Owen with little or no regard to the policy and beliefs of the Liberals.
Quod erat demonstrandum, some Con- servatives will imply, and indeed believe. They will also reiterate the claim that Liberals do not fight fair in elections, citing as proof another of the ALC's 1983 Mail- ings: 'General statements in all leaflets that "Labour has no chance in Bogsthorpe constituency" are useful to soften up the Labour vote (and they help rather than harm your cause with Tory waverers)' `I (Mailing 5).
After the last general
election, Mr David Steel P had a breakdown. When h I asked Miss Clay whether she thought the ALC, by its gross insub- h ordination during the campaign, had caused this, she said: 'I don't think we were the cause. We were the excuse.'
The behaviour of the Liberal Assembly, the ALC and the Young Liberals, all for a long time beyond the control of the small parliamentary party, escaped close attention in 1983 because most politi- cians and journalists saw that the main contest was between the Tories and Labour. Observers still, therefore, tend to know far less about the Liberals than they do about the two governing parties of recent years, or even about the Social Democrats, who are more easily placed in relation to the Labour Party because they originated within it. The Liberals have been out of national government for over 60 years: we cannot assess Liberalism by reference to the recent actions of Liberal Cabinet ministers, for all Mr Norman Tebbit's attempts to engrave on our memories the fuddled episode of the Lib- Lab pact in the late Seventies.
Miss Clay was brought up on the Sussex Downs, close to the comfortable farm- house Mr Denis Healey now inhabits.
She has moved in the opposite direction. She read sociology at Sheffield University (`This is a gift to anyone from the Specta- tor,' she smiled) and in 1969 settled in Leeds. In 1973, Mr Michael Meadowcroft, one of the pioneering Liberals in Leeds and now the city's only Liberal MP, was looking for a candidate to stand in a local council by-election. He asked someone from the Anglican church to which Miss Clay belonged, who recommended her. Dissatisfied by the failure of the Church to get to grips with the problems of slum clearance, she agreed to stand. She had already, as she puts it, been 'converted' to the North. 'Sussex is far too comfortable,' she says.
She was not elected to the city council until 1978, 'after five years hard slog'. In the general elections of 1974 and 1979 she stood against Mr Healey, but just as the Liberals were beginning to make some progress, 'it all got torn apart'. The bound- ary commissioners redrew Leeds East, removing one of the most Liberal parts of it, Richmond Hill. She blames this for the modest Liberal showing in 1983: Mr Healey took 44 per cent of the poll, the Tory 29 per cent and Miss Clay 26 per cent.
But at local level, the Liberals continue to advance. Leeds East is divided into four enormous wards, each with three city councillors. The Liberals already hold the three seats in one ward, Burmantofts. On 7 May, they hope to begin to capture a second ward from Labour, Harehills. Here the Liberal vote was 12 per cent in 1984, 35 per cent last year, and this year will be somewhere in the 40s.
Last Saturday morning, I accompanied Miss Clay as she and two helpers delivered window stickers on the Gipton Estate. Gipton is a vast council estate, built in the Thirties. The houses are mostly of brick, semi-detached, often with privet hedges round the front gardens. On a sunny morning in spring, it does not look, despite some boarded up houses and great quanti- ties of litter, too bad.
We went first to a house whose tenant had rung Miss Clay that morning, com- plaining that rubbish was being dumped at the back. Behind the house, we found an irregular piece of ground, left over when the estate was laid out. At some time it had been turned into a 'play area': in the middle, there was a stretch of asphalt, on it a decrepit climbing frame and the remains of one or two other fixtures, no longer identifiable. The ground was covered with every kind of rubbish, including an ex- traordinary amount of broken glass.
`This belongs to the council?' 'Oh yes. These estates were built by Labour in the name of progress.'
Miss Clay is incensed by the way the Labour Party has treated the council tenants (about 60 per cent of the electorate in Leeds East) who until now have so loyally voted for it. 'It's Labour that has let these communities down so badly, One of the things that's kept me going for 13 years is I'm so flipping angry. It's municipal centralism, taking power away from these communities and exercising it in their name. The Labour councillors live no- where near these communities.' Mr Healey, as we have mentioned, lives in Sussex. According to Miss Clay, he visits Leeds once a month and relies on defer- ence, 'exactly like many Tory MPs'.
Miss Clay lives just next to Gipton, in a modest street of privately owned houses, and has suffered for it: 'My street is very, very neurotic, with reason. It is an absolute target for burglaries. I had two burglaries one day after the other, whereupon I got a burglar alarm. I've also had two attempted burglaries when they didn't get in.' Among some families living on Gipton, petty criminality is a way of life. Moreover, some of the houses are divided into one- bedroom flats, and these tend to be used by the council as a dumping ground for discharged criminals and mental patients. Respectable residents are often deterred by a well-founded fear of reprisals from complaining. When they do complain, their complaints are often ignored. Miss Clay had recently come across a mother and father whose nine-year-old son had been sexually assaulted just down the road from their house. They were desperate to move out, but unable to persuade the council to offer them somewhere else to live.
Those who can move from Gipton do. As a result, the estate lacks indigenous leadership. It may bear a faint resemblance to a village, but it has no upper or middle class, with the exception of a few clergy- men. It is a place where the lower working classes live, though 'working' is not, perhaps, a happy term to use. About 40 per cent of the workers, living on Gipton are unemployed. Few of the council's tenants have bought their houses.
`This looks better,' I said to Miss Clay, as we entered a street in which most of the front gardens were being gardened.
`Of course. It's a main thoroughfare.' `I'm sorry?'
`They put respectable families along here. You can live your whole life in Leeds without knowing what goes on, even if you drive through.'
Though I should resent being called a bleeding-heart liberal, I was reminded of townships in South Africa, carefully land- scaped so that the ruling classes could avoid seeing them.
`You're a missionary,' I suggested.
`It's funny you should say that. Genera- tions of my family were pioneer missionar- ies in India. From the early 19th century until the second world war.'
Britain has not ceased to be an imperial nation, but our modern imperialism has a narrower scope. The imperialists are still, however, divided into those who want to ignore the natives, or to exploit them, and those who try to help them, or encourage them to achieve self-government.
This latter is what Liberals mean by `community politics', a concept I had pre- viously regarded as both • tedious and im- precise. I recalled asking Mr Michael Meadowcroft to explain what it meant after buttonholing him at the SDP Confer- ence in Buxton in 1984, and being none the wiser having read the ill-written pamphlet to which he referred me. Miss Clay has also written a pamphlet, Liberals and Com- munity (ALC, £1.50). She reminds us that `community politics' was officially adopted at the Eastbourne Assembly of the Liber- als in 1970, and explains:
It is vital to appreciate that the idea of community politics was not just a technique for winning elections; it was a commitment to the dispersal of centralised power in society and its redistribution to the com- munities that make it up. It was a commit- anent to participatory democracy, with action outside traditional political channels as well as within them.
Or as another Liberal activist in Leeds East put it to me, Liberals regard neither class warfare (the Labour Party) nor economic competition (the Conservative Party) as the mainspring of national life, but co- operation within communities: a variety of communities, ranging from the whole na- tion down to individual housing associa- tions, workers' co-operatives or indeed bowls clubs.
`The Labour Party believes you can solve problems by throwing money at them,' one of the Liberal candidates in the 7 May elections told me. 'The Tories always look for arguments for giving less money. The Liberals realise that you need money, but it's not enough. Something much more fundamental is needed. . . . You need a system which encourages people to take more responsibility for running their own lives.' I asked whether taking welfare-state money away from people would not oblige them to take more responsibility for run- ning their own lives.
`That's a law of the jungle philosophy,' he said.
On Saturday afternoon I accompanied, a Liberal who was canvassing in Harehills ward. Over lunch, I had already proposed to him that the Tories would try to pass the Liberals off as a bunch of lunatics. fle cheerfully agreed that they were 'nutcases'. Later he clarified this: 'When I say we're nutcases, I mean there is a history in Leeds East of working harder in local elec- tions. . . . The crowning act of lunacy is to get up at 5.00 a.m. on polling day to put a leaflet through the door of every Liberal voter.'
He described how the Labour vote was going soft in Leeds East. It happened in two stages. First, traditional Labour sup- porters became disillusioned with the Labour Party, often because it was failing to look after council tenants. Secondly, they needed to be given a reason not just to abstain, but to vote for someone else: `You've got to convince people that it really matters and you don't do that by being soggy centre. You've got to have a vision of the future, to encourage people to come out and help us. People don't get excited by the thought of being moderate, they sitback and let other people do the work. Labour and the Tories have more people who're strongly committed to them.'
There are 130 members of the Liberal Party in Leeds East. It is not many, though they have other supporters, who help with specific tasks such as distributing leaflets or raising funds, but have not yet joined the party: To canvass every one of the 10,000 or so houses in Harehills, the 'key activ- ists', as they call themselves, have had to start seven weeks before 7 May.
Ishudder to think how many hours the resulting 'case work' must consume. Both in order to beat Labour, and as a matter of principle, because they want to demons- trate that people's grievances can be re- dressed if only people themselves will act, Liberal canvassers and leafleters go out of their way to discover complaints. On Saturday, we came across complaints ran- ging from the traditional ones about crack- ed and dog-fouled pavements, to that of a family who had for two years been asking for a council house with an upstairs lava- tory for their brain-damaged child.
Many traditional Labour voters in Leeds are of Irish extraction. Through one front door, I saw an inscription hanging over the inner door of the porch: 'Old Irish Toast: May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you are dead.' Support for the Labour Party appeared to me to be fading among these voters. I do not know whether Mr Healey, in Sussex, knows it yet.
Miss Clay summarised the reports which she has been receiving from all over the country at the ALC: 'It's very difficult to tell what's going to happen on 7 May. Labour's vote is collapsing all over the place, except for the trendy Labour vote. On the other hand, the reports we're getting of our support are conflicting — in some places it's very strong, in others it's soft. There's no sign of a squeeze coming like we could see coming in 1983. You could get a weird situation, where Tories take seats off Labour, and we take seats off Tories and Labour. We expect 400 net gains. Only if we get much more than that will Mrs Thatcher not go in June.'
The Labour Party seems to be in the process of being dismembered. As it de- clines, a realignment of the electorate can be discerned. Authoritarian working-class voters — people who support hanging and object vehemently to coloured immigra- tion, sites for gypsies, the EEC, unilateral disarmament, heavy taxes, and to the existence of a poverty trap, just above supplementary benefit level, in which pen- sioners who have worked all their lives find themselves ineligible for state benefits enjoyed by the feckless — are giving their support to the Thatcherite Tories. Labour voters who are themselves weak — people who fear the wind of capitalist change blowing through Britain will freeze, not invigorate them — are turning to the Alliance. So too will some Labour voters who though not themselves among the hindmost, regard the welfare of the hind- most as their political priority. And so too will Tory voters who do not agree with Mrs Thatcher's 'cruel to be kind' approach to problems like unemployment.
The Liberals and SDP are fighting far more Tories than Socialists on 7 May, and are closer to victory in many more Con- servative parliamentary constituencies than Labour ones. But this should not be allowed to obscure the opportunity now opening up before them. If the Labour Party continues to destroy itself, the Liber- al Party has, with whatever Social Demo- cratic allies it retains, a chance of becoming the main, self-professedly compassionate opposition to the Conservatives. From the apparent dullness and pettyness of 'com- munity politics', a new kind of consensus is struggling to be born, to replace that which Mrs Thatcher has destroyed.