40 years ago today: Liberals win Edge Hill by-election

On 29 March 1979, polls opened in the Liverpool Edge Hill by-election less than 9 hours after the bombshell vote of no-confidence in Jim Callaghan’s Labour Government which I wrote about last night. 

Whoever was elected could potentially not be MP for very long.

It was Liberal David Alton who grabbed the seat from Labour with a massive 30.2% swing.

He took his seat the next week, made his maiden speech 3 hours later and fought the election on 3 May where he consolidated his win, albeit with a reduced majority.

He remained an MP for the next 18 years. In 1983, the seat’s boundaries changed, making it much more marginal. In 1997, the boundaries changed again, making it the safe Labour seat it has been ever since. Alton stood down at that election.

David Alton himself now sits as a crossbench peer in the Lords. He became estranged from the party over the issue of abortion in the 1990s. He was a pro-lifer in a party that was becoming increasingly pro-choice.

The campaign slogan he won on – Everyone knows someone who has been helped by David Alton – applies to many other Liberals and Liberal Democrats. We certainly used it in the 1990s about Tony Rogers in Chesterfield. And it was true.

Did you campaign in Edge Hill? Share your memories in the comments.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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5 Comments

  • Chris Rennard 29th Mar '19 - 2:21pm

    The by-election effectively saved the Liberal Party as it occurred on the first day of the 1979 general election campaign. We were at just 5% in the opinion polls after former Leader Jeremy Thorpe had been charged with conspiracy to murder and we suffered a huge backlash against the Lib Lab Pact which had propped up Jim Callagahan’s Government. We gained the seat with a 28% swing and immediately went to 10% in the national polls. David Steel’s skilful media appearances then got us to 14% by Polling day. I was a quite junior organiser in the campaign, but had worked on it virtually full-time for many months. Thousands of Liberals flooded in to help from all over the country. This was David Alton’s account written a few years ago:https://davidalton.net/2010/12/23/the-edge-hill-by-election/

  • Margaret Joachim 29th Mar '19 - 4:05pm

    I still remember waking up to this on the morning news and leaping out of bed with enthusiasm. Unfortunately my own campaign in the ’79 election didn’t go quite as well.

  • David Evans 29th Mar '19 - 5:16pm

    I remember David as a good instinctive liberal with his heart in the right place on so many things – usually on the side of the underdog. He was the key figurehead of a campaign of a great many and many great liberals, that probably did save our party from potential oblivion in 1979.

    He was also well ahead of so many with his support and persistent enquiry on behalf of the Liverpool fans so badly maligned by the police and press after the Hillsborough Disaster.

  • My main memory is of the geographically small constituency being flooded by Liberals on polling day. I remember knocking up with a mother and daughter who had flown from the United States to help on polling day.

    The victory was the most tremendous boost to party morale and gave us the best possible media coverage at the start of the campaign.

  • I was just about to sit my o levels so wasn’t allowed to go and help. Given my results I may as well helped! However I was already known as the ” the Liberal” at upper school and when the result was known on the Friday I was congratulated by everyone including the teachers as if my football team had just won the FA Cup! It was a great moment

    The result undoubtedly gave the party a huge lift at a vital time and contributed to the 13% share of the vote achieved at the 79 election.

    David Alton was a breath of fresh air at the time and an instinctive Liberal on most issues a loss to the party

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