After three decades in the political wilderness the party left behind when the Liberal Democrats were formed is after exploiting Nick Clegg’s parties declining popularity. This has seen support in opinion polls fall to just 7%, well down on the 23% gained at last years May general election, with hundreds of councillors, including four in Runcorn and seven in Rochdale, resigning from the party.
It was on January 25th 1981 that four Labour MPs, including former Cabinet Ministers Shirley Williams and Dr David Owen, and one time deputy party leader Roy Jenkins announced that by forming the Social Democratic Party they hoped to “break the mould of British politics.”
By the autumn they’d persuaded the vast majority of the Liberal Party to join them in the Liberal-SDP Alliance jointly led by Jenkins and Liberal leader David Steel. Within a year, as a result of defections from Labour, it boasted 30 MPs and later secured 25% of the vote at the 1983 general election. After the 1987 election most of the SDP’s membership, including current cabinet members Vince Cable, Chris Huhne, Greg Clark and Andrew Lansley, agreed to back an official merger.
Liberal Party Councillor Steve Radford had only just been elected for the first time to Liverpool City Council when Jenkins and Steel announced their plans. He was immediately opposed to joining with what he regarded as “the right wing of the Labour Party with its militarist tradition and belief in the corporate society that excludes people from being involved in the decision making process. “ He believed a merger would mean adopting a centralised constitution that would destroy local organisations autonomy and bring to an end the “historical traditions of Liberalism” first formally adopted in a party structure in 1877.
Radford, who represents the 15,000 strong inner-city areas of Tuebrook and Stoneycroft, thus refused to join colleagues in the new party in 1987. He knows he wasn’t the only councillor to do so, but unlike the rest, who either served out their remaining period of office or subsequently stood for re-election as Independents, he refused to stand as anything other than a Liberal Party candidate at election time.
It meant he faced a rough ride in 1990 when as the first specifically anti-merger candidate his one time political allies worked, ultimately without success, to unseat him. Today he enjoys one of the highest levels of support anywhere in the country, with 72% voting for him when he was last re-elected in 2008 to sit alongside his party colleagues from the same ward, Hazel Williams and Christopher Lenton.
The three are part of a small group of Liberal Party councillors in Britain totalling little more than 25. Radford though is hoping to see the number leap considerably. He’s aware of “at least” 100 former Liberal-Democrat councillors who’ve quit in protest at the party’s coalition with the Conservatives and the cuts that have followed.
Tactfully he’s keen to avoid telling them “I told you what would happen 25-30 years ago.” Instead he hopes his “commitment to the principles of engagement rather than war, free trade, support for small businesses, democracy, a national minimum wage and council housing as well as opposition to the cuts will persuade them to join us rather than stand as independents. Especially as history shows they are unlikely to retain their seats in the future under such a banner.”
Radford joined the Liberal Party as a teenager more than four decades ago. He accuses his former colleagues now participating in governing the country of making promises they never had any intention of keeping. He also rejects as “nonsense” any idea that they didn’t know about the state of the nations finances prior to entering office because “they were allocated considerable sums to fund their role as an effective opposition and had access to detailed information as they shadowed the cabinet. The scale of the cuts is for ideological not economic reasons.”
He’s dismissive of any idea that Chancellor George Osborne is anything but a “right wing conservative who doesn’t believe in a proactive state and is intent on privatising the NHS. Initially the plans are to do this through the back door but when the time is right he wants to see private companies running hospitals for profit.”
As Radford believes that the Lib-Democrat’s support for such policies is demonstrated by the party remaining in Government then he has “little doubt’ that many of its leading lights face being defeated at the next general election. This he feels will “inevitably” lead to a more permanent coalition. He points as evidence to the Conservative Party’s scaling back of its campaigning during the recent Parliamentary by-election in Oldham East and Saddleworth.
All these points were put to the Liberal Democrats in the form of an extensive series of specific questions, with a follow up phone call asking if they could expand on their subsequent reply in which a party spokesperson said "The Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are working together in the national interest to deal with the record budget deficit left by Labour. By raising the income tax threshold, putting money into our schools through the pupil premium to help the most disadvantaged children in society and by rebalancing the economy, away from over-reliance on the financial sector in the City, we will make sure Britain comes out of the financial crisis stronger."