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Ronnie Fearn

Guardian obituary

Ronnie Fearn was a most unusual politician. He confounded almost all the electoral rules and, without being a conventional intellectual Liberal, he was the ultimate loyalist and committed activist. Before joining the Liberal party in Southport in early 1961 he had written to the local newspaper complaining about the Conservative local council cutting grants to youth organisations - a cause to which he had a lifelong commitment - and he stated that he only had “slight political leanings”. These became enough to draw him into sixty years of Liberal campaigning. He won his local ward for the Southport council in 1963 and he held this seat through every change of name and local government reorganisation for fifty-two years.

Ronald Cyril Fearn was born in February 1931; his parents were James, a painter and decorator and Martha Ellen (née Hodge). He attended the local state King George V School leaving at the age of sixteen to go into banking, a career he continued until elected to parliament in 1987. He married Joyce Dugan in 1955 and they had a daughter, Susan, and a son, Martin. He contested and won his local Southport council ward in 1963 at a time when the Liberals controlled the council in coalition with Labour. At the 1970 general election the prospective Liberal candidate in Southport withdraw at the last minute and Fearn was persuaded, without much difficulty, to stand. In a disastrous election for his party he managed to increase the Liberal vote by a remarkable 10%. This was the first of four contests until, in 1983, in a contested selection the Southport Liberals selected a more politically focussed candidate who, despite increasing the party’s poll, failed to win the seat. In 1985 he was awarded the OBE. Fearn returned for the next, 1987, election and became the party’s only gain in England.

At the 1992 election he again went against the trend and lost, it being argued that the town’s traditional Conservative voters were determined to make sure that Neil Kinnock did not become Prime Minister. Despite the anguished representations of his successor Conservative MP, accompanied by Fearn’s somewhat less than rigorous support, his local telephone directory continued list Fearn as Southport’s MP. In 1997 Fearn then set a new postwar record for the number of election contests and for returning to the House of Commons at the age of 66. At an election when the Liberal Democrats’ poll fell slightly Fearn achieved a swing of 8% in Southport. He retired from the Commons at the following election in 2001 bequeathing sufficient of his personal vote to ensure the victory of his Liberal Democrat successor, John Pugh. Pugh commented that “He was by no means a typical politician and if there is a book written about how to become an MP or a Lord, Ronnie never read it.” Fearn was created a Life Peer in 2001 and continued as a member of the House of Lords until his retirement in 2018. He initially served as the party’s spokesman on health and tourism and then on local government before becoming a member of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport from 1997 to 2001. He was supported throughout by his wife, Joyce, who eschewed and acted as his constituency secretary.

The other aspect of Fearn’s personality that ran counter to conventional political wisdom was his lifelong involvement in amateur dramatics, appearing in the annual All Souls Church group pantomimes even during his time in parliament, though with his typical self-mockery, he switched from acting the dame to playing the baddie whilst being the town’s MP. These productions played to packed audiences at the town’s main Arts Centre Theatre. He was a natural performer and the rules of political correctness and of the need always to focus on being taken seriously simply did not apply to him. The Southport public were used to seeing him on stage year by year and loved his deliciously camp persona so that it contributed to his electoral success. It also ensured that he understood tourism and the need to entertain visitors. Unsurprisingly his annual Glee Club appearances at the Liberal Democrats’ annual conference were eagerly anticipated. It was also appreciated that he never moved from the local district of Norwood in which his parents had lived and where he attended the local primary school. He was the archetypal local MP understanding what made the town tick with a real affinity with the local residents.

Ronald Cyril Fearn, Lord Fearn of Southport, born 6 February 1931, died 24 January 2022. One daughter, Susan, an Executive Coach and Trainer, and one son, Martin, a retired teacher, and five grandchildren.