Local history: Epsom & Ewell Social Democrats

David Gourley on joining the SDP in 1981 and working with the Liberals through the Alliance and merger.

I am Secretary of the Liberal Democrats in Epsom and Ewell and have been active for some twenty years, with an interruption of a few years, of which more later.

Joining the SDP

I was one of the so-called ‘virgins’ who became a founder member of the SDP in 1981, having never previously belonged to a political party. My leanings had been towards the Conservatives, for whom I had voted in every election, starting in 1964, when my school staged a mock election to coincide with that year’s General Election. I was still voting Conservative in the 1979 Election, which returned Margaret Thatcher. That is the only occasion, I think, when I got it wrong. I am quite happy that I voted for the ‘one-nation’ Tory party of Ted Heath, my local MP before I moved to Epsom after my marriage in 1968. I had assumed, very naively, that Margaret Thatcher would continue this tradition of one-nation Toryism. After all Harold Macmillan, the very personification of that tradition, had been perceived to be the right-wing contender when he defeated Rab Butler for the Tory leadership. I believed moreover that something needed to be done about militant trade unionism, of which we had all too much in the seventies. However I did not want a government that was anti-union; I was a great believer in trade unionism but disliked bad trade unionism.

The record of the Thatcher government once in power appalled me in all sorts of ways. This was a Prime Minister who dismissed as ‘wets’ those who adhered to ‘one-nation Toryism’ and maybe they deserved that epithet, given their inability to stand up to her. The SDP came along just at the right time. Instead of just moaning about the government I could actually put my money where my mouth was. Joining the Labour Party was of course unthinkable. The drift to the right of the Tories was mirrored by the drift to the left of Labour – so much so that when he became leader, veteran left-winger and unrepentant CNDer Michael Foot was perceived to occupy a relatively moderate position in the party. I wanted a party that was social democratic but not socialist.

I sent off my application but then heard nothing for weeks. I began to wonder if joining a political party really was for me. In due course my membership card arrived but it took the 1983 election to goad me into actually becoming active. I did, though, vote in the party’s first election and – again my naivety astonishes me! – supported David Owen on the grounds that he was more left-wing than Roy Jenkins.

Working with the Liberals

The SDP was organised on the basis of area parties, combining several parliamentary constituencies. In our case the East Surrey Party brought together Epsom and Ewell, Mole Valley, Reigate and the East Surrey constituency (based on Caterham). We phoned up Sian, the Area Secretary. She got us involved in the Reigate campaign, where Elizabeth Pamplin, later the Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrats, was the SDP candidate. She should, of course, have got us involved in the Epsom and Ewell campaign. However the candidate here was a Liberal and she wanted us to work for an SDP candidate. Clearly this was not in the spirit of the SDP-Liberal Alliance – an early taster of the attitude many in the SDP had towards their allies. Sian was a lovely lady, who was sadly to die at an early age, but she clearly didn’t like the Liberals very much. She remained loyal to the ‘continuing SDP’ of David Owen and, when I informed her that that I was joining the Liberal Democrats, told me that I would soon be acquiring a beard and sandals. Sixteen years later, I still have neither!

In fact we approached the Epsom and Ewell Liberals and soon got involved in their campaign as well as Reigate’s: we were out almost every evening, not bad for two people who had never been politically active. I generally liked the Liberals whom we worked with. There were some disagreeable people, true, but such people were not wholly absent from our party either. One voter asked me why I had joined the SDP not the Liberals. A difficult one, especially as I did not want to emphasise the difference between our two parties. The SDP, arriving on the scene at the time it did, had caught my imagination and somehow I had never really been impressed with the old Liberal Party. The Liberals needed the SDP, in my view, to be a credible force but the reverse was equally true.

1983 election

The 1983 election was deeply frustrating. The SDP had had a foretaste with the disastrous Darlington by-election a few weeks earlier, where we had fielded a poor candidate. In the early stages of the by-election we were ahead in the polls but finished third. Luck seemed all too often not to be on our side: a good candidate might well have won Darlington, a classic Lab-Con marginal, and this would have established an entirely different pre-election momentum. I remember feeling frustrated when the candidate treated the fact that he’d once voted Tory as if it were a guilty secret that had been found out. For heaven’s sake, I thought, why not proclaim yes, I voted for the Tory Party of Ted Heath but it CHANGED.

1983 was in some senses a triumph, for we garnered over a quarter of the votes. But, crucially, we did not overtake Labour, which then began its gradual recovery under Neil Kinnock. And in a first-past-the-post system there were meagre pickings in terms of parliamentary seats. The SDP was down to just six seats, with nearly all the defectors from Labour, and one from the Tories, defeated. All very discouraging – and Margaret Thatcher had a huge majority. I refuse to accept, though, the canard that the SDP helped the Tories stay in power through the eighties, for Labour succeeded all too well in doing that on its own.

I now became very active in our party, holding various positions on the Executive of the Epsom and Ewell SDP. The meetings were very civilised affairs, held in the house of our Chairman, Margaret, who always provided coffee and biscuits. Male members such as myself invariably wore collar and tie, which certainly is not the case nowadays in the Liberal Democrats. The meetings tended to ramble on a bit, generally running to around 11.00pm, but were enjoyable nonetheless. Margaret and her professor husband Edmund seemed somehow to epitomise all I liked about the SDP. Steadfast in their beliefs and values but always respectful of other’s viewpoints, their’s was the moderate approach, based not on wishy-washy all-things-to-all-men centrism, but on clearly defined and strongly held principles, that had attracted me into the party. She had previously done a stint as a Labour member of Surrey County Council when she had been well-regarded by her opponents – years later the Chairman of our local Liberal Democrats confided that she was the only non-Liberal he had ever voted for.

The Alliance

Generally relations were good with the local Liberals but from time to time there was friction, mainly due to the fact that we both suffered from having two headstrong and high-profile personalities who couldn’t stand each other, producing our own mini Star Wars. The Alliance had made a modest breakthrough on to Epsom and Ewell Council. One ward had returned two Liberals and one SDP-er. I had assumed we could rest on our laurels for four years but, not so, our councillor soon discovered a need to move to Bristol. We should have fielded the successor candidate with no questions asked, but the Liberal half of the Star Wars made an enormous fuss and it was his wife who was selected and who became the new councillor. Actually she was probably the right choice!

Reality of local politics

Epsom and Ewell was, and remains, a very frustrating place in which to be an SDP, Liberal or Lib Dem activist. It has always been a Tory stronghold. Even now the Tory MP has a five-figure majority over Labour, I’m sorry to say, though we are not far behind. Yet, right on our doorstep are no less than five Lib Dem constituencies in southwest London and Guildford, a Lib Dem gain in 2001. I keep hoping that somehow the spirit of Liberal Democracy will be wafted through the air across our boundaries and infect our electorate too! In 2001 my wife and I judged that our time would be better spent next door in Kingston and Surbiton, where we made our modest contribution towards increasing Ed Davey’s majority from just 56 to well over 15,000.

The local council is unique it that it has been continuously dominated by residents’ groups since the borough was created before WW2; their period in office is thus about the same as that of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union! Their arrogance and their belief in democracy is not dissimilar either. Their mantra is that party politics and local government don’t go together. Such attitudes have virtually died out everywhere else but here we face a situation where the ruling party effectively denies our very right to exist as a force in local politics. (They hate being called a party, by the way, claiming to be a coming together of individual residents’ associations but they certainly act like one and, to their chagrin, are now required by legislation to register as one.) It has been very difficult to make inroads in a situation where conventional party politics doesn’t operate. Superficially there is something rather Lib Demish about residents coming together in this way and their mantra still has a lot of appeal in our borough. Labour and the Tories have effectively connived with them for years; the former hold just one ward, which the residents don’t fight (it is after all the council house ward!) whilst the latter have for many years not put up candidates at all, being seemingly happy to leave the field clear to the residents, despite their large parliamentary majorities. A curious situation! There are now signs, though, that conventional party politics is starting to apply with both Labour and the Tories turning against the residents. This provides both opportunities and risks for us. We won a record nine seats (out of 39) in 1999, but fell back to six in 2003, our council group leader losing her seat by just three votes.

David Owen’s leadership

Nationally, I became rather concerned about the direction our party was taking under David Owen’s leadership. I remained bitterly opposed to Thatcherism yet it seemed to me that Owen was embracing it more and more. I also found his arrogant, rather overbearing attitude hard to take on occasions. I disliked too his attitude towards the Liberals. The Alliance had to be based on mutual liking and respect and I did not think he was adequately displaying these sentiments. But I assumed his heart was in the right place and, anyway, there were enough reassuring people around – the other members of the Gang of Four as well as Liberal leader David Steel – for me to feel that I should continue to work for the Alliance. And so I did, up to and including the 1987 election, which was still more disappointing, of course, than 1983.


By now merger seemed to me the natural way forward. Hitherto it had been right and proper to have two separate parties working in alliance but that did not seem a sustainable position in the years ahead. I believed that each party could bring its own strengths to a merged entity. Epsom and Ewell in some ways typified the differences between the two parties. The Liberals were always far better than us at campaigning on local issues. Some in the SDP sneered at this as pavement politics but none of us, even I daresay David Owen, like tripping over paving stones. Conversely the SDP was stronger on national policies. The Liberals did a first-class job of organising lively, but essentially non-political, fundraising and social events whereas we had rather serious members’ meetings with guest speakers. On one occasion we decided to invite an up-and-coming Liberal MP to address one of these meetings and selected for this purpose the new MP for Yeovil. Paddy Ashdown accepted and gave an excellent speech but I later learnt that the local Liberals were a bit put out. With the benefit of hindsight I can see that it was insensitive on our part not to involve them.

But it was concern about the state of the nation that had led me to become involved in politics. Or, as a colleague once said to me, I didn’t join this party because I was worried about dog mess (she used a different word!) in Epsom High Street. To me, a marrying together of our maybe more cerebral approach with the grassroots activism of the Liberals had the makings of an ideal combination.

What shook me, and again I confess to naivety, was the sheer bitterness of the merger process. One of the fundamental attractions of the Alliance had been its emphasis on moderation and reason: people were not supposed to resolve differences by shouting at each other. Sadly the bitterness was replicated at local level. The majority of the SDP Executive supported merger but there was some very strong opposition, including one couple, whom we had especially liked, who had defected to us from the Liberals in 1981 and couldn’t stand the idea of rejoining them. The merger went ahead and I became Vice Chairman of the new party but the continuing SDP was actually quite strong in our area. Our former president, a distinguished and vigorous octogenarian, was able by sheer force of personality to attract many new members into the Surrey Social Democratic Forum. The SDP did not of course survive for long, being wound up after finishing behind the Monster Raving Looney Party in the Bootle by-election. Ironically this was right next door to Crosby, scene of Shirley Williams’ magnificent by-election victory in 1981 which had immensely inspired me at the time. The Surrey Forum inevitably followed suit.

Naturally my criticism of the disastrous events surrounding the merger are mainly aimed at David Owen but I do wonder if David Steel rushed things too much, though I can see the counter-argument that, with Owen so determined to thwart merger, persuasion was not going to work and it was better just to go for it. However I think we tend to overlook that not only did a lot of SDP members fail to sign up to the Liberal Democrats, but so too did many Liberals. I am not here thinking of the small number of people who threw in their lot with Michael Meadowcroft, whose continuing Liberal Party I think still exists. Many former Liberals simply lapsed into non-involvement, seeing the Liberal Democrats as something new and a bit alien. A couple of our near neighbours were in this category. I have never understood why members were not automatically transferred across from the old parties to the new one. Instead we required people to make a positive choice to join the Lib Dems – one should never underestimate the power of inertia. The Owenites would have stomped off anyway but we might have retained more traditional Liberals and been the better off for it. Today the Liberal Democrats in our constituency have fewer members than the SDP had on its own, and the Liberals had always had quite a few more than us. I think this is not so much a reflection on us, rather it reflects the fact that, in our Thatcherised, more individualistic society with its often unhealthy work-life balance, people are generally less inclined nowadays to join things.

Life in a new party

I did not feel very happy in the new party. Somehow the chemistry was not right locally and I became fed up with the squabbling nationally, not least over the name of the party (though I now think Liberal Democrats was a good choice, far better than the original Democrats or Social and Liberal Democrats, aka the Salads). Also I had embarked on a degree course in history at Birkbeck and no longer had the time for active involvement. I stood down from the Executive after a year and subsequently even allowed my membership to lapse. I completely lost interest so played no part at all in the 1992 election.

But then came the Newbury by-election. I thought to myself I’m glad they won. Christchurch soon followed. This time I found myself thinking I’m glad we won. I now knew where I belonged and a membership application was on its way to Cowley Street. Our membership secretary greeted this development by inviting me to join the Executive. I felt uncomfortable at first, given my previous disloyalty. But there was no need for me to feel this way and, when the post of Secretary became vacant, I indicated my interest – there were no other contenders.

My history studies had a happy ending too: after gaining a 2(i) at Birkbeck, I obtained, following early retirement in 1998, an MA in Slavonic and East European History. This time my commitment to the party did not suffer. I was after all not working and my enthusiasm remained intact.