Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘Liberal Democrats’ Category

Remembering Paddy Ashdown

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 23rd December, 2018

85F45194-2F0C-4119-85D7-EDB22A8486DBI first met Paddy Ashdown, who died yesterday from cancer at the age of 77, in a queue for coffee at a Liberal Party Assembly (probably his first?), some time after he had been adopted as candidate for what was assumed to be the “safe” Conservative seat of Yeovil, in Somerset. He had the advantage of having put down roots in the area and of being eminently presentable. Only later would we all learn of his exotic background in India and elsewhere, his sterling service in the Special Boat Service and the Diplomatic Corps (possibly with an MI6 sideline). He was quite diffident at this stage and eager to learn. He thought it would take three elections to crack Yeovil, but in fact he did it in two, seizing the seat in 1983, the year that the great anticipated Liberal-SDP Alliance breakthrough failed to happen, mainly because of Mrs Thatcher’s fortitude and good luck in the Falklands War. The Liberal Democrat Party emerged out of the wreckage of the Alliance; Paddy would have preferred we rebrand ourselves as the Democrats, clearly underestimating the affection many Liberals had for their long tradition and values.

00280C49-71D1-42FE-A736-E5E1D0BD1818When David Steel’s leadership of the Party ceased to be really tenable, Paddy threw his hat into the ring, emerging triumphant in 1988. But triumphant over what? The Party’s standing in the opinion polls was so low that it once appeared as an asterisk — so minimal as to be within the margin of error of non-existent. Undeterred, he sought to rebuild it with the same military determination that must have helped him in Borneo. He was aided by a string of by-election gains in southern Tory seats, masterminded by Chris Rennard, and he established weekly meetings of an advisory group (inevitably, but misleadingly, dubbed the “kitchen Cabinet”), which foregathered early in the morning in his office. I was a member of this, each time rushing off afterwards to fulfill my work obligations at BBC World Service radio. I was impressed initially by how he did listen to other voices, but as time went on, he would become less tolerant of dissent, even impatient. This would eventually come to a head when he entered a political bromance with Tony Blair, which stuck in the craw of many of us who had had to deal with the nasty side of the Labour Party in the North.

7619CB55-4509-445A-932D-BBB8D58E5C87Blair’s landslide win in 1997 put paid to any possibility of a Lib-Lab coalition or working relationship, and Paddy started to look elsewhere for opportunities to use his talents. He had asked me to put him in touch with my literary agent, who placed his first book based on fact-finding visits he had made round the countr when he assumed the Party leadership, but later he would go on to produce much more substantial works, including volumes of diaries and military history. By then he had also moved into a new sphere as High Representative to Bosnia-Herzogovina, with plenipotentiary powers, which he clearly savoured. Later he made good use of being part of that anachronistic but often valuable institution, the House of Lords. I would run into him in Parliament or at various occasions and he would reminisce over all that had happened over the past four decades since our first meeting— often with a little cheeky side-remark in Mandarin Chinese, which we had both studied as young men and which created its own, special bond.

 

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The London LibDems’ Mayoral Hustings

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 1st November, 2018

Siobhan Benita and Rob BlackieLondon Liberal Democrats took over the NUT headquarters in Camden last night for a hustings with the four short-listed candidates for the Mayoral elections in May 2020, the event chaired by former GLA member, Mike Tuffrey. Like the city itself, the shortlist is gloriously diverse: Siobhan Benita, Rob Blackie, Dinesh Dhamija and Lucy Salek. Several of those names might already resonate beyond the approximately 20,000 London LibDem members. Siobhan was a senior civil servant across a range of government departments and stood as an Independent in the 2012 mayoral election, coming close to the LibDems and Greens; like many in the hall last night, she joined the LibDems because of Brexit. Rob has been active for many years in the Party and works in the field of tech/IT; he made it clear, that Brexit would be at the heart of his campaign. Dinesh is a successful entrepreneur (founding Ebookers, among others) and philanthropist, and a first-generation immigrant. And Lucy has worked mainly in international development and other poverty-related issues; she stood as the LibDem candidate in the Lewisham East by-election in June this year.

Dinesh DhamijaOver a period of two hours, the candidates were put through their paces; after a short speech, each was asked separate written questions from the floor, then there was a panel session where all four were on the podium fielding common questions. These ranged across a wide field, from policing to transport, housing and the environment. I had half made up my mind about who I would vote for, and in which order, because I know all four candidates personally. But the hustings certainly firmed things up for me and I am sure will have been of great use to those less familiar with the individuals. I sent off my electronic ballot paper (for the GLA top-up list members, as well as for the Mayor) when I got home late last night.

You can get a good flavour of it all by watching the video uploaded by my fellow London LibDem Executive member, Alan Muhammed:

Part 1: Candidate statements and  questions: https://www.facebook.com/LondonLibDems/videos/1013778015468784/UzpfSTUwOTE1MjE5OTpWSzoxMDk0NDIxNjEwNzM0OTEy/

Part 2: Panel Q&A: https://www.facebook.com/LondonLibDems/videos/185428402341672/UzpfSTUwOTE1MjE5OTpWSzoxMDk0NjY2NDc3Mzc3MDky/

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LibDems and the Creative Industries

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 16th September, 2018

Nik PowellThe LibDem Creative Network held an excellent event on the fringes of the Brighton autumn party conference last night, in an upstairs room at the Bar Broadway in Kemptown. There were two great speeches by producer Nik Powell, former Director of the National Film and Television School, and drummer Bob Henrit, who used to play with The Kinks. They both underlined what a disaster Brexit will be for the sector if it means a return to the bad old days of intrusive customs searches, carnets for instruments and other red tape. The creative industries contribute well over £70billion each year to the UK economy and the sector is growing faster than most others. But all that could be brought to a shuddering stop, before going into reverse, if there isn’t the free flow of actors, musicians and other artists between Britain and the Continent. No wonder there was such a sea of blue-and-yellow EU flags and 12-Star berets at the Last night of the Proms. To undermine the sector really would kill the goose that has been laying the golden eggs as well as enriching our cultural lives.

Bob KinksI reprised the theme in a speech I gave in the Britain and the World debate in the main auditorium at conference this afternoon, calling for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to be actively involved in Britain’s “soft power” through cultural diplomacy, and to report regularly to Parliament about the international aspects of our creative industries. It’s not just institutions such as the British Council and the BBC World Service that are important, but the hundreds of thousands of individual creators who make an enormous contribution. I recalled the wonderful spirit that there had been at the time of the London Olympics in 2012, while lamenting how that has evaporated in the two years since the EU Referendum. But as the clamour for a People’s Vote on whatever “deal” the Government comes up with grows, we must be hopeful that a cliff edge can be avoided. Remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union would certainly facilitate matters, but if we are going to do that, then we might as well stay in the EU, full stop.

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Why Lewisham East Matters

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 28th May, 2018

Lewisham EastParliamentary by-elections are the cup-cakes of political nerds and I have followed them closely since my early teens. I cut my political teeth as an 18-year-old sub-agent in the Birmingham Ladywood by-election in 1969 (which Wallace Lawler won for the then Liberal Party) and I have lost count of all the by-election campaigns I’ve helped in since. So naturally I’ve been heading down to Lewisham East ever since a by-election was called there, following the resignation of Labour MP Heidi Alexander to take up a job as a Deputy Mayor for London. Based on the 2017 figures one might imagine that Labour will walk it in the by-election, though the Liberal Democrats came a very strong second in 2010. But this is no normal by-election. As Leaving the EU Day (March 2019) looms, this is being seen as a Brexit litmus test, with the LibDems rallying Remainers behind the talented local candidate, Lucy Salek, in what was an overwhelmingly Remain constituency in the 2016 EU Referendum. More specifically, it is an opportunity for voters in Lewisham East to pass their verdict on Labour’s policy on Brexit. Despite repeated opinion polls showing that a majority of Labour members believe leaving the EU is a mistake, Jeremy Corbyn stubbornly persists in underwriting the Conservative government’s Brexit. Ideally there will be a People’s Vote on the final deal Mrs May and her team reach with Brussels, but in the meantime the Lewisham East by-election is the best opportunity to send a message to Mr Corbyn, as well as to the Prime Minister. That’s why so many of us, including party leader, Vince Cable, have been heading there often. Labour called the by-election quickly, with polling on 14 June; the Brent East by-election 15 years ago showed them that having a long campaign allows the LibDems to build up steam. They lost Brent East and if enough of a momentum builds up over the next fortnight in Lewisham East, they could get a shock there too.

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The LibDems are Right to be Happy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 4th May, 2018

Kingston LibDemsWhen it comes to results, local elections in England can be frustrating as it often takes a long time for the details to come through and the early returns from super-keen places like Sunderland are not necessarily representative. But now that all but one Council has declared, the pattern is clear. UKIP has had an utterly disastrous election, losing all but three seats (-123). This undoubtedly helped the Conservatives, who picked up many former UKIP seats, but they still finished down (-31). Labour are up 59, but that is well short of what they were hoping for. Indeed, in London — which many Momentum supporters hoped was still infected by Corbynmania — Labour got nowhere near winning any of its key targets of Barnet, Wandsworth and Westminster. Indeed, in Barnet, as a result of the fallout of the allegations of anti-Semitism against some Labour activists, Labour fell back badly.  However, the real news of the election is the LibDem bounce-back: the party had a net gain of 75 seats, and gained control of four councils, including spectacular victories in Richmond and Kingston in south-west London. Of course, the LibDem successes have not been uniform, but significantly the party also advanced in northern cities such as Hull, Sheffield and Manchester, whereas the Tories are nowhere to be seen there. The overall LibDem vote nationwide was around 16 per cent, well below its level in pre-Coalition days, but still substantially better than the national opinion polls. In Richmond, interestingly, they entered into a sort of pact with the Greens, which meant that four Greens have been able to savour the delighted of ousting the Conservatives, though not every part of the country would be prepared to go along with such arrangements.

Tower Hamlets town hallSo, what of the one Council that has still to declare? No prizes for guessing which, as, yes, it is my home borough of Tower Hamlets, which is near as London politics comes to a basket case. The previous (ex-Labour) Independent Mayor was forbidden to stand again for public office because of various alleged malpratcices, but several of his former pals did. In fact, four of the Mayoral candidates had previously been Labour councillors, including the Tory! It was shocking but typical to hear on election day itself that some presiding officers were turning EU27 voters away from polling stations, not letting them cast their ballot, on the grounds of ineligibility, whereas in fact they are barred only from voting in general elections — an elementary bit of electoral law that even the most junior official should have known. But having lived in Tower Hamlets for 30 years, nothing surprises me anymore when it comes to elections, from harassment of voters to illicit acquisition of postal votes. I’m waiting for the day when it is reported that the total number of votes cast exceeds the size of the electorate. In the meantime, we await this year’s council results, including in my home ward of Mile End. But I shan’t stay up, as on past experience it might be tomorrow — or next week — before we know.

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Remembering George Dunk

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 27th April, 2018

7492AFE3-A1C8-478F-B94B-952DD4262BA5It was perhaps fitting that the news of George Dunk’s death came through while we European Liberal Democrats (ALDE, previously ELDR) were gathering for tomorrow’s Council meeting in Sofia, Bulgaria, as George devoted so much of his time and energy to causes European. A former Chair of the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG), he was hugely supportive of my efforts to get into the European Parliament  (I twice almost made it!) but he was also a genuine internationalist. South Africa was a country of particular concern and he had a wonderfully close marriage with his South African spouse, Sandra, who worked for years in party HQ, and who died far too young. George also mucked in with the Southwark Liberal Democrats, not only in supporting Simon Hughes, election after election, but also in his home Rotherhithe ward. He was the ultimate backroom boy, working hard to get other people elected, while staying out of the limelight himself. He must have loved the fact that if you google his name the only photos that come up are of lithe black American basketball players. Inevitably, because George was so physically huge (he would laugh at my choice of that term), he had mobility problems, especially in recent years, when he walked with a stick, though that did not prevent him attending many ALDE Councils all over Europe. Many of us worried about the strain that all that extra weight must be putting on his heart, let alone his knees. And there is a certain irony in the fact that he reportedly lost 30kg while in hospital during his recent incapacitation. That still did not save him. But George was one of those people who was very philosophical about life. He did so much for the Party, as well as for the European project, that one cannot grieve his passing but rather should celebrate what he achieved and the steadfastness of his belief. Yes, he was larger than life. And yes, sometimes he put people’s backs up with his forthright views about how things should be done. But he now deserves the most almighty of wakes. He won’t rest in peace, however, because he will be urging those angels to get off their backsides and fly off to deliver a few thousand leaflets.

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Winning Here

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 10th April, 2018

0BC563C7-00F1-4254-A995-6EFB48B87F6DFor more than two decades, Chris Rennard was the Liberal Democrats’ campaign guru, masterminding successive by-election wins and astounding many media professionals by being able to predict results with uncanny accuracy (sometimes winning himself some useful cash with judiciously-placed bets at the same time). But as his memoir Winning Here (Biteback, £25) makes clear, he was something of a political anorak when he was barely out of short pants (and an orphan), cutting his teeth in the not always friendly environments of Liverpool and Leicester. His talents were soon recognised at the HQ in London, where he graduated from being a one-man campaign band to be the head of a team of 20. Ah, those were the days. Under his stewardship (later with the starring role of Chief Executive) he nurtured the growth of the Party until it won 62 seats in the 2005 general election, post-Iraq War, with Charles Kennedy as party leader. Willie Rennie’s by-election win soon after was the cherry on the top, taking the LibDems to an unrivalled 63 in the House of Coomons (and a hefty contingent in the House of Lords, too, including Chris Rennard himself).  But the wheels we’re beginning to come off the LibDem bandwagon, with Charles’s imminent resignation because of unchecked alcoholism, Simon Hughes’s sexual orientation confusion and Mark Oaten’s walk on the wild side. The book ends there, on a note of triumph, but with storm clouds gathering. But I am sure I cannot be alone in being a little perturbed by the fact that the cover says this is Memoirs Volume 1. Given the rumpus over Chris’s alleged inappropriate behaviour (unproven, a subsequent inquiry decided), maybe it would be wiser to call it a day here. As it is, for a longstanding campaigner and serial candidate such as myself, this book is a treasure trove of memories and anecdotes. I know/knew virtually everyone mentioned, and campaigned with many of them. Interestingly, the European elections get only scant coverage, confirming my suspicion that Chris (and some others in HQ) saw them as a somewhat irritating sideshow. The parliamentary by-elections were the things that kept him motivated — often working grotesquely long hours, detrimental to his personal health — and we can gloriously relive them all here and remember when for Liberal Democrats, the good times really were good.

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Full LibDem Slate for Tower Hamlets

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 5th April, 2018

THLDs 1Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrats are running a full slate of borough council candidates for the election on 3rd May, for the first time since 2010 (when I was the parliamentary candidate for the constituency of Poplar & Limehouse). Elaine Bagshaw is our Mayoral candidate. This time I’m standing for Council in my home ward of Mile End, along with Richard Macmillan and Tabitha Potts. As in much of the country, the local party was hit badly by the fallout from the 2010-2015 Coalition government with the Conservatives (despite the fact that several positive LibDem policies were introduced during that time, including the pupil premium, a substantial rise in the personal tax allowance and same sex marriage). However, in common with most other London borough local parties, Tower Hamlets LibDems have experienced a great surge in members (now well over 700) and keen young activists. Many of these have been motivated by the shock of the 2016 EU Referendum result (for which London as a whole did not vote Leave, Tower Hamlets markedly so) and the linked fact that under the leadership of Vince Cable the LibDems have firmly established themselves as the party of ExitFromBrexit, in sharp contrast to Theresa May’s Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. That is a message that is going down well on the doorstep, not least among the thousands of (non-UK) EU citizens — many of them married to or living with Brits — who are alarmed by the threats to their situation post March 2019. Of course, EU citizens can vote in local elections (but not in national ones, unless they are from Ireland, Cyprus or Malta) and their participation in this May’s vote could have a decisive effect on the outcome. Both for them, and for UK and Commonwealth citizens resident in Britain who are not yet on the electoral register, do please register by the deadline of 17 April. It’s a quick and easy process to do online through the government website:

https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIodGxhKKj2gIVir_tCh3SDAO1EAAYASAAEgLmV_D_BwE

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Exit from Brexit

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 11th February, 2018

Catherine Bearder 3Yesterday Catherine Bearder MEP hosted a rally in Richmond-upon-Thames as part of the LibDems’ campaign to Exit from Brexit. As the Party’s London spokesperson on Brexit, I gave a short speech of welcome, underlining the importance of two dates this year. First is May 3rd., when there will be all-out elections for councillors in all 32 London boroughs. Though obviously local issues will be at the fore, these elections can also serve as a verdict on the Conservative government’s chaotic performance so far in relation to Brexit. Moreover, for citizens of the other 27 EU member states who are resident in the UK, this is a chance (maybe their last) to make their voice heard through the ballot box. So local parties need to be encouraging those who are not yet on the electoral register to get on, and to make clear to EU voters that the Liberal Democrats are the only major party in England campaigning for an Exit from Brexit. The second important date is October, by which time, in principle, the UK and EU will have mapped out their proposed new trading relationship, and a public vote on the details of that deal would be timely. So we need to persuade the public as well as Parliament over the next six months or so that such a vote is desirable, so they can pass their verdict on “Is this really what you want?”

Sarah Olney Catherine Bearder Costanza de TomaFittingly at a time when Britain is celebrating the centenary of the extension of the franchise to women (over 30, initially), the rest of yesterday’s event was entirely in the hands of women. Catherine Bearder gave a speech outlining many of the practical problems that will occur if Britain does leave the Customs Union, as the Government maintains. Many things will be more expensive, choice will be reduced and there will inevitably be delays, threatening the viability of many businesses. Sarah Olney, LibDem MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston until last June’s general election, gave an update on the progress (or otherwise) in Parliament regarding the EU Withdrawal Bill and other related legislation. The House of Lords is currently proving its worth by critically analysing what is before it. But there is a growing feeling that the timetable the Government has set for Brexit is impossibly short. The third principal speaker yesterday was Costanza de Toma of the 3 Million group, which lobbies for the rights of EU citizens here (and liaises with representatives of UK citizens on the continent and in the Republic of Ireland, who will also be impacted by Brexit, if it goes ahead). Much of her testimony highlighted the gross injustices and absurdity of the way the situation is developing, as well as the frequent incompetence of the Home Office. The 3 million are encouraging EU citizens to vote in local elections in May, so they could make a real difference.

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Grilling Vince Cable

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 29th January, 2018

Vince Cable David SelvesSir Vince Cable, Leader of the Liberal Democrats, this lunchtime faced a grilling at the London Grill Club, a group of journalists, broadcasters and businessmen who meet on a regular basis to put probing questions to prominent figures in British life. Other recent invitees have included Alex Salmond, Nigel Farage and Chuka Umunna. Vince dismissed a perhaps predictable early question about his age, arguing that age is just a number and that one is as old as one feels, before moving on to the more solid matter of the state of Britain’s democracy. This he described as being in serious trouble — dysfunctional, in a word. Theresa May appears to be increasingly weakened and there are renewed rumours of a plot among Tory MPs and even Cabinet Ministers to oust her, but Vince thought it unlikely that there would be a general election this year, reminding us of the five-year fixed term under the Parliament Act, unless there is a sufficient majority of MPs voting for it in the House of Commons — something the Conservatives would be unlikely to support. Besides, the government is totally bound up with Brexit, even it seems unable to agree what sort of Brexit it wants. Vince refuted a charge from one person present that it was denying democracy to call for a “second referendum” on Brexit, arguing that this would in fact be a new referendum on the terms of the deal — assuming the government is able to put one together with Brussels — and that that was definitely democratic, as the electorate would decide, not MPs (as some have suggested would be a possible way of stopping Brexit). He had harsh words about Jeremy Corbyn for being frozen in a 1970s mindset of Socialism in One Country, according to which the EU is dismissed as a capitalist club that inhibits nationalisation and certain types of state intervention. But he was also highly critical of the way David Cameron and George Osborne handled the EU Referendum Campaign; Project Fear just did not resonate and actually backfired. Vince defended his own record in the Coalition Government of 2010-2015, saying he had got several good things through and stopped some bad things from happening. But he felt the British public had not really been ready for coalition politics when the situation arose, being too tightly wedded to tribal politics.

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