On 27 October we held our first ‘witness seminar’ at the Devon Heritage Centre as part of From the Grassroots: an oral history of community politics in Devon. The aim of a witness seminar is to bring together a small group of people who were involved in particular event or organisation to share their memories. The result is different from a one-on-one oral history interview and often more lively, especially as the participants respond to one another’s memories.
Our seminar focussed on elections in Exeter during the 1990s. The participants were Rod Ruffle, Liberal Democrat councillor for Exeter, Jeff Coates who held various roles in the Exeter Conservative Association including party Chairman and President, and Eddie Lopez, election agent for Labour MP Ben Bradshaw. We hoped to also be joined by Joan Morrish, Liberal Councillor for many years, but unfortunately she was unable to do so – although you can read about her interview for From the Grassroots on our website.
Our discussion lasted over two hours and the audience were treated to the inside view of politics in the constituency. We began with impressions of Exeter politics in 1990s. All three recognised that the Labour party was extremely well-organised in the city, even though the Conservatives had held the parliamentary seat from 1970 to 1997. All three also noted a change in campaigning recently – a theme emerging strongly in From the Grassroots interviews – from canvassing and visiting voters to more reliance on social media.
Our speakers soon turned to the two parliamentary election campaigns in the 1990s. In 1992 Jeff Coates remembered that he was confident of a Conservative victory, despite national divisions and concerns, because of the popularity of sitting Conservative MP Sir John Hannam. Rod Ruffle, on the other hand, remembered that his experience in canvassing had not led him to expect a Conservative victory nationwide. Sir John Hannam indeed held his seat in the city with a majority of over 3,000.
The 1997 election in Exeter was much more controversial. Before the campaign even began the Labour candidate, John Lloyd, had been de-selected following intervention from the National Executive Committee after a controversy emerged over his past involvement in anti-apartheid activism in South Africa. Eddie Lopez remembered arriving in Exeter in 1996 to find a party still recovering from the divisions caused by this. In the Conservatives, Jeff Coates remembered Hannam’s decision to step down came as a surprise, and recalled his own attempts to be selected as the parliamentary candidate. However, the party instead chose Dr Adrian Rogers. For the Liberal Democrats, Rod Ruffle remembered expecting a hard campaign – but in fact the Liberal Democrat vote remained fairly consistent from 1992.
The campaign itself was dominated by Dr Rogers’ decision to use Ben Bradshaw’s open homosexuality – one of the few candidates to do so at that time – against him. Eddie Lopez remembered that this was a difficult time for Bradshaw, who faced ‘obnoxious’ material and some direct abuse, but in fact it was a ‘godsend’ in what became an ‘exciting’ campaign: Bradshaw won the seat with a swing of 12.5%. Jeff Coates remembered not expecting to win in 1997 thanks to national issues, but agreed that the Conservative party in Exeter were still in some ways struggling with the aftermath of this campaign.
As an observer, the strong impression left by the event was that, although these three were clearly political rivals with distinct views, their mutual respect was clear – even in arguments about current politics!
You can find out more about From the Grassroots on the project’s website – and stay tuned for news of our exhibition in the New Year!