First Liberal SDP Alliance MP Bill Pitt dies at 80

Back in the Autumn of 1981, not long after David Steel had told us to go back to our constituencies and prepare for government, the 14 year old me was pretty excited when Bill Pitt won the Croydon North West by-election.

I remember that much as I loved Shirley Williams, I was quite glad that he hadn’t caved and let her stand there. Maybe there was a wee bit of Awkward Squad in me even then.

Anyway, for a while I did think the Liberal/SDP Alliance might just form the next government. The June 1983 election was my first lesson in the perils of believing your own hype.

Anyway, a week ago today, Bill Pitt died aged 80.

Today’s Telegraph has an obituary of him:

Pitt began as a Tory, chairing South Norwood Young Conservatives in 1959-60, but soon afterwards joined the Liberals. He went on to chair the London Liberal Party and serve on the party’s national executive.

He fought Croydon North West in the February and October 1974 elections and again in 1979, losing his deposit with his vote more than halved to 4,239.

Nothing suggested it would be worth Pitt’s while trying again, but when Robert Taylor, the sitting Conservative MP, died, he was quickly readopted as candidate. Heavy pressure was brought on constituency officers to let Mrs Williams fight the seat instead, but the Liberal Party Council stood by Pitt, and he fought the seat as a “Liberal with SDP support”.

It was during Pitt’s campaign that the term “Alliance” was coined – and it stuck as the parties swept to victory in a string of by-elections.

After his defeat, Pitt worked in management training, from 1999 to 2004 as head of training for the Canary Wharf Group. Thereafter, he ran his own management and environmental consultancy.

He fought Thanet South for the Alliance in 1987 and for the Lib Dems in 1992 – moving to Broadstairs in between. In 1996 he joined the Labour Party, seeing it as better placed to oust the local Conservative MP Jonathan Aitken.

I am sure some of our readers must have campaigned in that by-election. Do you have any memories to share?

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

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  • I can remember unloading leaflets with him from the boot of his car very early on in the by-election and before (I think) he had been confirmed as the candidate. “You won’t win this, will you Bill?” I said somewhat negatively. He agreed and the rest is history.

  • And the agent was the excellent Peter Chegwyn. It’s difficult to believe that this was thirty-six years ago and very difficult to convey the excitement of that period to younger Liberal Democrats.

  • Roger Roberts 24th Nov '17 - 11:00pm

    These were the early days of SDP/Liberal co-operation. I remember canvassing with Dr avid Owen . But much more with Shirley in Crosby (closer to north Wales !) Memorable days.

  • Jonathan Linin 25th Nov '17 - 11:10am

    I remember it well. Labour fancied the seat as well and put in a lot of effort, their posters went up early, and then, as we put in sustained effort and built up momentum, they came down again to be replaced by Bill’s posters. There was a whole rag-tag of other candidates attracted by the national attention the by-election was getting, including the National Front and BNP. I was in Croydon every weekend and must have delivered to just about every house.
    At the count, because of the number of candidates each party was only allowed half a dozen observers, so no chance to get in, except I spotted a local radio team going in so removed my party colours and i attached myself to them and managed to get into the hall. The result announced I put my rosette back on, and exited the hall to be greeted with an enormous cheer from the huge crowd of supporters and activists outside who assumed I must have been someone important !!
    I do remember going through the entrails afterwards with some of the professional agents and reaching the conclusion that the Tory vote had stood up very well and was going to be hard to crack, but the Labour vote was soft. Prophetic in light of what happened in 1983.
    I only got to know Bill afterwards, genuinely a nice, funny and unassuming guy. Unfortunately once the by-election circus had gone he had little chance of retaining his seat. Maybe if, like Simon in Bermondsey, the general election had happened only weeks after he might have lasted longer as an M.P. and that would have been a good thing for Croydon and the Liberal Party.

    I still have, in my loft, a large, dayglow blaze poster for Bill Pitt, Liberal Alliance. A reminder of a small part of British political history.

  • John Barrett 25th Nov '17 - 11:37am

    I remember Bill well at the time of his election and when he visited Edinburgh West, That was in the early dat of my long journey with the party. It was great to see a down to earth campaigner elected as an MP.

  • Michael Cole 25th Nov '17 - 1:51pm

    I remember Shirley Williams giving an electrifying speech to activists after we had finished canvassing, delivering, etc.

    I also remember David Penhaligon making a speech on the same occasion. He said he would be glad to give Bill Pitt the benefit of his experience of tin mining and sheep scab.

    ill Pitt the

  • Tony Greaves 26th Nov '17 - 10:01pm

    It was not Bill stood firm and said “no, it’s our turn” after Roy Jenkins had stood in Warrington, it was the Liberal Party Council in support of him as the candidate in place. The SDP had wanted Shirley to stand. In retrospect they were in one sense right (I think she would have held that seat for longer) but the “balance of power” politics of the two parties decreed that it had to be a Liberal. I bumped into him outside his HQ and said on the basis of the canvassing I had done that afternoon (with Peter Snow in tow!) I thought he was going to win. I teased him by adding: “When you get in there I hope you’re not going to sell out.” (Bill had been a prominent member of the ginger group in the party around the Radical Bulletin group back in the 1970s – RB called him “William Pitt the Youngest”.) Bill replied: “When I get in there I am going to sell in!” Sort of summed him up really. But it was sad he joined Labour – I bumped into him just once after that and he did not seem at home; and it is sad he has gone.

  • Stephen Booth 27th Nov '17 - 8:44am

    I remember the byelection well. A small team of us from Stevenage went down to canvass ahead of polling day and then on the day. It seemed that there were more Alliance activists on the streets that evening than residents (someone later reported we had over 2000 workers on the day). Those in charge of committee rooms needed strong nerves not to release Shuttleworths too quickly and be left with a blank table. The committee room we worked in was absolutely jam packed and the person in charge had to constantly call us to order so the telling sheets could be called out and the numbers crossed off. Great days; will they ever return?

  • I was not involved in the byelection. I did, however, watch the count on television. It was something of a surreal event, as seen on the small screen. Outside, there was a baying mob of Labour activists shouting: “Media! Media! Media!” Then, when Bill emerged victorious, carried aloft by members of his team, someone uncorked a bottle of champagne somewhat clumsily, and Bill bawled out: “My Suit! My suit! My wife’s suit!”

    What a pity that Peter Chegwyn is no longer running any of our national and Parliamentary byelection campaigns.

  • Wa salaam Alicum , Bill .

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