Wednesday, 3 June 2015

On endings

A good friend of mine messaged me yesterday. He was writing something about what Charles Kennedy's death meant to him. He hadn't met Charles, and joined after Charles' time as our leader had finished, but the point he made was incredible. It was Charles Kennedy's leadership and principles when opposing Labour's position on civil liberties that had made my friend a liberal. The other incredible thing, was that in checking through what he'd written, he had actually addressed part of the piece to a wider audience and accidentally addressed part of it to Charles himself. It is striking that this kind of thing so often happens. In discussing the death of somebody that we were touched by or care so much about, we very often veer away from the task and end up having that last (or first) conversation we'd always hoped to have but which sadly now won't be possible.

Like my friend, I never met Charles Kennedy. It's one of the reasons that I didn't say anything about any of it until yesterday evening. Whilst we live in a world that has grown used to the comforting hum of social media in the background, I didn't think it was my place to say anything at that point. My colleagues who worked with and cared for Charles on a personal level deserved that space to react, respond and most importantly, to remember their friend.

My first memory of Charles Kennedy is in fact my first memory of David Heath. I remember in the dim and distant past seeing a newspaper with the two men front page - not a national newspaper, just the Somerset Standard. Charles had come to visit Frome and I knew even at that age that it was a big deal. A couple of years later, many people in my town took to the streets to protest Tony Blair's plans to invade Iraq - they joined people around the country doing the same thing. They joined the hundreds of thousands who did the same in London - a march that Charles so famously addressed. Very rarely does it happen that we feel that wherever we might be in the country, we're joining with people right across our islands in standing up for something that matters. I'm just glad that we had somebody so passionate and so eloquent putting forward a liberal argument.

We all know what happened in Iraq. A very wise person on Twitter yesterday pointed out how different our world might be had Charles Kennedy's argument been taken on board. Instead, we await the report of the Iraq Enquiry - one that has been used as a political football for long enough.

The other ending that I want to reflect upon is the result that we saw this time last month. Charles Kennedy, like so many Liberal Democrat colleagues, lost his seat in Parliament. Results aside, the most difficult thing for me to come to terms with is the impact that those losses will have on the lives of people up and down the country. The Liberal Democrats, under Charles Kennedy, before that and since that, have always gone to bat for the people who find themselves without a voice. I've made the point before, and I'll make it again. The reason that I joined this party is because on the council estate where I grew up, no politicians knocked on our door. Hit hardest by successive Conservative Governments that ignored and vilified single parent families, we were left behind.

It's those people that Charles Kennedy fought for. People like my Mum, and like my family. It's people like those that need us now more than ever. So many seats across this country fell to parties who don't work for local communities, but who have enough money to pay the postman to deliver their leaflets. I'm proud to be a member of a party that doesn't just pay the postman to push glossy leaflets through doors. I'm proud that in the Liberal Democrats we knock on those doors, we build lasting relationships and we work to make a difference.

Shortly after he lost his seat, Charles said something that he knew to be true - that our party would rebuild, regroup and return as a strong and battle-ready force for good in British politics. It's a point that is a real testament to his own humility - that even in defeat, he could see the wider picture and look forward. If there's one thing I know to be true, it's that if we go out there and do that work, if we go out and meet people and learn what matters to them, what worries them, we will come back stronger and fitter - ready to make a real difference to peoples lives.

I never met Charles Kennedy. I don't have any funny anecdotes. But one thing I know, is that far from the House where such moving words were said today, people up and down the country are missing him. People he never met and never had contact with, but people who knew that Charles was on their side. Let's reach out to those people and consider the future we want to build together. Our country needs more Charles Kennedy, not less - so let's work in tribute to a fine man, a passionate leader and a friend to so many.