From the reading pile: Alan Beith’s year of three elections

Alan Beith book March 09I have this massive and growing pile of stuff I want to read but don’t have time for at the moment. I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

Yesterday, though, a spell in a hospital waiting room gave me the opportunity to catch up with this article from February’s Total Politics. Alan Beith was interviewed about first becoming MP for Berwick. He won the by-election in November 1973 and then had to defend the seat twice within the space of a  year.

He described his disappointment at contesting the seat in 1970 and not achieving his goal of coming second:

It was a very bad election for us – we lost some of the leading figures in the Liberal party and the ones that held on with very slender majorities, including David Steel in the next-door seat to me. My objective had been to come in second place in the election, which we didn’t do, but we were one of the only seats in the country to increase our vote. It was very disappointing and at the count I felt it had fallen far short of what I wanted to achieve.

When the local MP Antony Lambton (who insisted on being referred to as Lord Lambton despite renouncing his peerage) had to resign in a scandal, Alan Beith had to make a choice between a 6 month sabbatical in Norway and fighting the by-election. Like Charles Kennedy 10 years later (who was on a Fulbright scholarship in the US when the election was called), he decided to fight. So, how did they win?

By the standards of the time we had quite a strong by-election team that had built up its experience in Sutton, Rochdale, and before mine we had by-elections in Ripon and the Isle of Ely. My agent had started out in John Pardoe’s constituency; he was of the old-school style and was very well-regarded. He drew in other constituencies and the party’s very limited pool of paid agents. The by-election lasted nearly six months.

He won by just 57 votes. But the next year, there were two general elections, in February and October 1974. How do you fight a campaign when the constituency is still getting to know you and when a national issue is seriously affecting your constituents?

As any Liberal Democrat will understand, I was going to be a different member of parliament, more accessible, much more interested in what was happening in the constituency, holding surgeries, which had never been held before. I had some opportunities to demonstrate this and was campaigning and saying ‘give me a bit longer to show you more’. But the campaign was overlaid by the mining issue and I had two working collieries in the constituency. So the miners’ strike was a divisive issue locally, even within the mining community locally, so we were looking at ways to find a formula that would enable the dispute to be resolved.

How, he was asked, did Ted Heath compare to Harold Wilson as Prime Minister:

Ted Heath was quite an awkward person but clearly he faced a very difficult situation and made the wrong call about how to handle it. He was the prime minister who got us into Europe and that is very much to his credit. Harold Wilson had been fairly mealy-mouthed on the subject – the truth was he didn’t want us out of Europe either but he had to manoeuvre the Labour Party and the electorate. He was a much more devious character. I wanted to be more sympathetic to him because like me he was a Northern grammar school boy who came from an ordinary background, but politically I found him a bit too devious and unprincipled.

I’d have liked to have found out more about how he’d coped with fighting those 3 campaigns over 18 months as we Scots are having to find unprecedented reserves of stamina as we have the European elections, the referendum and the general election in a similar period. Maybe I should add his autobiography to the reading pile…


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

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Peter Chegwyn 18th May '14 - 7:59am

    I briefly worked professionally for Alan Beith in 75/76 before going on to be full-time Agent for Steve Ross MP on the Isle of Wight.

    Alan Beith was (and still is) a 1st Class constituency MP. That helps explain his success in winning and then holding his seat for over 40 years.

    I have great memories of constituency surgeries in border villages like Norham with the mist rising over the Tyne and constituents bringing freshly-baked shortbread to Alan’s surgery.

    I still look for the Berwick football result every Saturday to this day.

    The ‘old-school’ agent referred to in Caron’s article was John Spiller, a brilliant agent who played a key role in the Liberal revival and by-election successes in the 1970s having previously helped John Pardoe win and then hold North Cornwall. We seldom hear his name mentioned these days, a pity as he deserves greater recognition for what he achieved for the Party in those far-off days.

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