Trawling through the archives I came across a brief extract from an impromptu speech I delivered at the 1988 Conference of the new Welsh Social and Liberal Democrats in Deganwy, North Wales.
The merger debates in early 1988 at Blackpool and Sheffield delivered massive votes in favour of becoming one party. At the coalface, as it were, endless meetings took place over some eight months to arrive at agreed new constitutions for the UK party, Wales, Scotland as well as rules for local constituency parties. A recurring sore point that caused bitter controversy was the party’s name and, to some, the name of the party had become more important than what it stood for. Even to the extent as to which word should be first ... ‘Liberal‘ or ‘Social‘.
The process of getting to March 1988 and Paddy Ashdown becoming leader was not easy. However, the show was on the road and the new party began with 19 MPs, 3,500 councillors and 100,000 members—but what had been achieved over a seven year period through ‘sheer hard work,' as Maggie Clay said at the time, was now being fritted away because of a troubled infancy.
So there followed controversy, divisions and recriminations that lasted for a couple of years. In addition, good people were lost along the way which was sad. Michael Meadowcroft led a band of Liberals and David Owen headed-up a significant faction of Social Democrats, both having been opposed to the merger. Owen’s SDP did have a couple of encouraging by-election performances but it was wound-up in 1990.
The infighting and divisions led to a serious loss of morale and members. Also, finances suffered and the organisation was not as strong. The momentum had been lost. The low point came at the European Elections of 1989 when the SLD only received 6% of the vote and we came fourth behind the Greens.
For my part, following Paddy’s inspirational leadership I was determined to do my bit—after all, too much effort and time had been invested to just see things fade away. So I actually addressed some 80 constituency meetings, social evenings and annual dinners across the country to rally the troops over a two-year period.
Through sheer hard work, things eventually began to turn round. Paddy Ashdown was emerging as a serious political force in UK politics and was often described as the most popular party political leader. The Eastbourne by-election was won and at the 1992 General Election, despite being written off some three years earlier, the party received 18% of the vote and 20 seats. Little doubt, Paddy Ashdown had saved the party from oblivion.
Now, we are in 2015 and there is a task of rebuilding again, but I fear it will be harder over the next couple of years following the debacle of the General Election last May. The member, councillor and Westminster representation base is considerably lower. But the fightback has already started—there is a 25% increase in membership, also there are clear signs of recovery in popular support (as is evidenced by recent local government election results) and importantly Tim Farron is already making a good impact as leader.
As in the period 1988-92, the party needs to quickly identify key themes on which to campaign. There is no need to enter into a period of writing endless policy papers on a vast range of issues. For me, the themes are clear and in many respects they are more or less the same as the ones that I spoke about endlessly in the 1980s. They number some ten in all, including freedom, justice, fairness, democracy, humanitarian values and standing up for the defenceless, Europe, the environment and international development.
The background to the video is as follows. The first Welsh Social and Liberal Democrat conference was in Deganwy and I did not expect to play much of a part. The attendance was extremely disappointing, numbering dozens compared to the 200-300 audiences we had grown accustomed to over six years. So I was relaxing socially when a media person approached me and said 'look, we’re struggling to get anything of value out of this for our 20 minute conference television report programme’. So I suggested that they speak with the conference arrangers which resulted in me making an impromptu speech as my relaxed dress code and appearance indicates!
The message is as relevant in 2015 as it was in 1988.