25 Years on and Cornwall’s Liberal Democrats should still remember David Penhaligon today

Truro and St Austell’s MP from 1974-1986 remembered today

People often ask whether you can remember where you were when JFK died. I don’t I was too young. But, for those of us who can remember David Penhaligon the feeling, I suspect, is similar to those people felt when John Kennedy was shot. A feeling of deep loss having very little personal knowledge of the man personally.

As an MP from a peripheral party at the time he was possibly a surprising national political figure who had garnered a great deal of national publicity and was almost certainly the shoo in as the next leader of the party, ahead of the eventual winner – Paddy Ashdown.

I was sitting in my front room with several school friends when I heard the news, being only 16 he had had a surprisingly big impression on me. Although I joined the SDP I had briefly met David Penhaligon once and also seen him speak once. The former was on polling day in the Knowsley North By-election, caused by the resignation of Robert Kilroy-Silk as a Labour MP. I, and fellow campaigners, had been out delivering leaflets in the pouring Merseyside weather and returned to the Alliance HQ, where we discovered David Penhaligon and other party luminaries with their sleeves rolled up delving into the inner workings of a printing machine. It was a surprising if apparently usual event.

This was an image I will never forget, and it has rather shaped my view of what MPs and party figures should be like since. He was deep down an activist and keen to helping in a by-election, however unlikely the party’s chances of winning. The other time I saw him was when he spoke at Methodist Central Hall at a pre-election rally in December 1986. His was an inspiring speech which set the tone for an exciting day at a party rally.

However, as any Liberal Democrat in Cornwall will tell you, his influence remains an important aspect of the party’s resonance and influence in Cornwall. I can remember campaigning in several general elections in Cornwall and still getting support for the party, twenty years on, because of the work he did for Cornwall, especially in Truro and St. Austell.

Liberal Democrats, especially in Cornwall, owe an awful lot to David Penhaligon and today we remember all that he did for us, the party and for Cornwall.

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Tarquin Fintim-Limbim-Whimbim-Lim Bus Stop-F’Tang-F’Tang-Olé-Biscuit-Barrel – 238 votes, but Shirley Williams (SDP/Liberal Alliance) 28,118…

The 'Gang of Four' set out to break the mould of British politics and Shirley Williams was to become the first elected SDP MP, 28 years ago today...

With 28,118 votes Shirley Williams gained the formerly strongly Conservative seat of Crosby. The by-election took place at an almost unprecedented state of division in British politics.  With social unrest and both the Labour and Conservative parties in a state of flux.

The SDP had, at this point, not elected any MPs but did have an ever-growing group of former Labour and Conservative MPs in Parliament, as shown at its launch earlier that year. 

A few months earlier Roy Jenkins had failed to gain my hometown seat in the Warrington By-election despite a massive swing from Labour, and Shirley Williams was promoted as the potential SDP candidate for the Crosby by-election.  Although the seat was one of the wealthiest in the North West of England the party felt that Shirley would be the best candidate for the seat, having links with Liverpool, through her father, and with her being a practising Roman Catholic.

Always an effective and energetic campaigner Shirley ran a high visibility campaign and romped home in an historic win. It effectively delivered the SDP a 50% swing, which would have elected a House of Commons, if replicated across the UK, full of Alliance MPs.

It was probably, at that point, the most significant post-war by-election. Although there were important Liberal gains like Orpington, there was for a very short time a genuine belief that the SDP, with their Liberal allies, could ‘Break the Mould’ in British politics, and Shirley’s win 28 years ago today was a major moment in that.

Tarquin Fintim-Limbim-Whimbim-Lim Bus Stop-F’Tang-F’Tang-Olé-Biscuit-Barrel contested the election as Cambridge University Raving Loony Society polling 238 votes. Those of you who are Monty Python fans will recognise the gentleman concerned as being the winner of Luton in the 1970 ‘Election Night’, for the Silly Party. He later joined forces with Screaming Lord Sutch of the larger Official Monster Raving Loony Party.

Leaflets and the full results from the by-election can be seen here.

Agent’s Training 10 – ‘Seeing Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams lose made me drink lots at the party – it improved my performance the next day!’

Seeing Roy Jenkins losing Glasgow Hillhead and Shirley Williams failing to win Cambridge turned me to drink, with interesting consequences...

The 1987 General Election was unquestionably a very poor one for the SDP/Liberal Alliance.  The ‘Two Davids’ appeared to be not singing from the same song sheet and the parties did poorly.

SDP luminaries Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins both went down to defeat in Cambridge and Glasgow Hillhead and moves began to merge the two parties in preparation for fighting the election afterwards.

But, before any of this could happen the local Alliance members in my constituency had a party that evening to see the election results come in. 

Being only 16 I was not used to drinking lots but as the results came in with Shirley Williams failing to gain Cambridge and Roy Jenkins losing to George Galloway in Glasgow I sank into the malaise that only Lib Dems can feel following an election – ‘another false dawn’.

So, when I was taken home at an unearthly time in the morning I was fully aware that the Alliance had been crushed, as were my hopes, but only slightly aware of my French literature mock ‘A’ Level later that morning.

Going to bed drunk at 5am, followed by an exam at 9am, and really being drunk until the following afternoon was no preparation for a 3 hour exam in a foreign language, as to be honest, I was struggling quite hard with English, let alone French.

Nonetheless I dutifully took the exam, in French, and left the exam room in only a slightly better state than when I went in.  I could not really discuss the questions with my school colleagues because I literally had no memory of anything that went on.

A few weeks later our French teacher, Mrs Percy, announced, ‘who thinks they have done badly in this exam?’ Unsurprisingly I raised my hand as to be fair I would have been surprised if I had even hit the paper with my writing. She looked at me rather severely and said, ‘No John, this is your best piece of work ever!’

I am sure there is a moral to this tale, but over the past 20 years I have still not been able to work it out!

The Guide for Canvassers – Lesson 2 – Assume Nothing

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Charles Kennedy had been an MP for 7 years but needed canvass training!

Not long after the 1987 General Election, I volunteered to help, as a full-time member of the team, for the Mid-Staffordshire By-election.

As it was a by-election not long after the merger of the SDP and the Liberal Party, the campaign team was quite small, with a continuing SDP candidate opposing us. We, however, had an excellent candidate in Tim Jones, who was a barrister and one of the best public speakers I have ever heard.

As the team was small I was given the job of being the candidate’s aide.

This job basically entailed managing the candidate through their diary and running their work when out in public. This also involved running the canvass operation for the candidate.

It was towards the end of the campaign and we were joined by one of the party’s Members of Parliament, Charles Kennedy.  Although now a former leader and well known public face, he was one of only two SDP MPs to have joined the new party, and had been an MP for 7 years, by this point.

As we marched down our first street, in Lichfield, Charles leant over, out of the candidate’s ear shot, and said;

‘I’ve never been canvassing before, what do I do?’

Having been an MP for 7 years, I must confess I was flabbergasted at this revelation.  I think he saw the surprise in my eyes, and quickly continued;

‘Well, with such a large constituency canvassing isn’t very useful, we just do a big tour of public meetings in all the towns and villages.’

Satisfied he wasn’t having me on I showed him a canvass card, and ran through the questions he should ask to try and find out how people intended to vote.

He was really good at it.  But the moral of the tale is, don’t assume, however experienced the person campaigning with you is, that they know how to canvass. Train them, or listen to them, before you let them lose on the public.

Full details of all the candidates who fought the Mid-Staffordshire by-election, can be found here.

The Guide for Canvassers – Lesson 1 – The Basics

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The Elgin Marbles - it would surprise you the issues that voters will bring up on the doorstep!

Following the Agents Training that was published last week, I was reminded, by a few friends, of a number of canvassing incidents that might benefit from publication.

I have been campaigning for Liberal Democrats, and the SDP/Liberal Alliance before that, for almost 25 years now, and still one of the most memorable canvassing moments was from my first General Election campaign in 1987.

Previous to this I had campaigned on a by-election in Knowsley North, for the now Labour MP, Rosie Cooper, caused by the resignation of Robert Kilroy-Silk to become a TV personality.

This gave me a sound grounding in campaigning, meeting such great Liberal campaigners as David Penhaligon and Paddy Ashdown whom were both churning out leaflets at the HQ when my mum and I arrived to help campaign.

So, having had all this training in Huyton and Knowsley to prepare me, I was ready for the streets of Warrington in the 1987 election, campaigning for Ian Marks. I went to my first door, with canvass leaflets and posters under my arm, to be met by an apparently normal woman who eyed me with general suspicion.

I said I was there on behalf of Ian Marks, the Liberal/SDP Alliance candidate, and wondered if she was likely to support Ian in the election.

She gave it a moment of consideration and said; ‘Well, you’ve definitely got my vote, because you want to send all the blacks back, that Enoch Powell had it right.  But, my husband is another matter!’

As you can probably imagine, this being my first door, and having a relatively good grasp of party policy, I was not under the impression that this was indeed our policy, but before I could reply she called for her husband, who came bundling to the door. I feel certain that I raised an eyebrow.

‘What’s your policy on the Elgin Marbles?’ came the question.

For a moment I was lost for words, neither knowing what they were, or whether the party even had a policy, but, after a moment’s consideration, I responded: ‘what do you think?’

After 5 minutes he had explained what we should do, which was to keep them, and then having taken a poster to display I tripped happily back down the path.

When asked by the candidate who they voted for, to mark the canvass card I replied, ‘two votes for you and they took a poster!’

I didn’t think it was sensible to tell him how broad the church was that allowed them to support him.