Littleborough and Saddleworth – 25 years on

Shocking as it may seem, this week saw the 25th anniversary of a great 1990s Lib Dem triumph – when we won the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election.

It was the first big by-election I had ever been to and I loved it.

I wrote here about meeting by-election legend Pat Wainwright there.

She greeted us with smiles and very clear instructions about what work we were to do.

She wasn’t afraid to tear a strip of me for doing something wrong either. “You eejit”, she quite justifiably yelled.  She certainly didn’t mince her words but I just did better next time. We had an absolute hoot.

One day she was on the phone giving life advice to someone. Exactly the sort of life advice we all need our friends to give us sometimes, in no uncertain terms.

Bob and I had only popped in for an afternoon to the headquarters in Shaw at the start of a week of travelling around the north west and the Lakes. But we had so much fun we ended up spending our entire holiday there. It was Bob’s first by-election and he got RSI from stuffing envelopes. We had a brilliant time and made several trips back there including for the last few days. I met a few people at that by-election who have become friends for life, too. 

I remember one very enjoyable afternoon skiving in the pub with ALDC’s Pam Tilson, now back in Northern Ireland.
The by-election came about after the death of Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens. In those days, the government did everything it could to avoid moving the writ in case their majority dwindled to nothing. These days they tend to be called very quickly to prevent an insurgent campaign gaining traction. In the run-up to the election, John Major resigned as Tory leader in what was a pretty classy attempt to get rid of his Eurosceptic “bastards.” He easily won the contest against John Redwood but the divisions in his party remained and grew.

I went back to Littleborough and Saddleworth for polling week. The atmosphere was pretty hostile between us and Labour, whose candidate was Phil Woolas. He of course won the seat back in 1997 but lost it again in after an election court in 2010.
I was a very nervous driver at this point and basically drove my little Ford Fiesta around. On the day before polling day, someone asked me if I drove and then handed me the keys for a transit van. Erlend Watson and I had to drive round the constituency clearing up the mess after our posters had been mysteriously replaced with Labour ones or vandalised or stolen.
That by-election was the first time I met Colin Rosenstiel.
I also remember being appalled that the staff had so little cutlery and crockery so went out and bought some that I think stayed in the by-election kit for a while after that.
I’m sure that many of you will have memories of that campaign. Please feel free to share the printable ones in the comments.

* 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.


  • The Labour Party had a stall in Shaw where they were giving out free copies of the daily mirror which just happened to have loads of positive reports on the Labour campaign. I asked if they were free. Yes they said. So I picked up a bundle of 500 and took them to my car.
    Little things give such pleasure.

  • I knew Littleborough & Saddleworth well from the days when the Saddleworth part formed part of my old friend Richard Wainwright’s Colne Valley Constituency (which he won back in 1966)..

    Chris Davies did well to take it for the Liberal Democrats in the by-election Caron describes, although he drew criticism for campaigning from some traditional supporters when the somewhat eccentric sitting Tory M.P. Geoffrey Dickens was known to be dying from liver cancer in hospital.

    Despite going Labour (just) in the Blair landslide of 1997, Liberal Democrats remained very competitive through all three General Elections to May 2010 – when Labour clung on with a tiny majority of just 103. The Lib Dems still polled well (though not winning) a subsequent by-election in January, 2011 after the Labour MP was disqualified.

    Then came the Coalition and the welfare cuts, health service changes and a host of other Coalition austerity measures. The outcome ? A drop to fourth place (which it remains) and votes of just 12.9% in 2015, 3.6% in 2017 and 5.2% last December.

    If ever there is an example of what happened to the Liberal Democrats over the last decade this is it. It would be sensible for any new Party Leader to commission in depth research to ask the people of Oldham East and Saddleworth why they stopped voting Lib Dem. The answers would be enlightening in framing any new agenda whoever becomes the next Leader.

  • Neil Fawcett 1st Aug '20 - 2:48pm

    I suppose it must be. I went up and helped with the local by-election in Royton South (?) that pooled just before the parliamentary by-election. The campaign mainkly revolved around plans for a local landfill site, from memory. My job was to do the literature for the campaign and to ensure a victory to set the scene for the main event. This we did, much to the annoyance of one Peter Mandleson, who turned up on the Friday, expecting to declare a Labour victory 😀

    I then returned to London to prepare for my wedding which took place on the penultimate weekend of the by-election, and had to negotiate the release of various campaign team members who we’d invited, including Garry White who was helping us out with photos!

  • Jane Ann Liston 1st Aug '20 - 5:02pm

    I was there for a day or two. I stayed with friends in Hebden Bridge and travelled over in the train.

  • Paul Holmes 1st Aug '20 - 5:28pm

    I went to the first by election a number of times and what a terrific experience it was. Chris Davies was a great candidate -he already had a local profile and campaigning reputation before it started. We had a decent national profile that at least didn’t harm us, although it was still before we really hit the roll that gave us our best 3 General Election results of modern times in 1997, 2001 and 2005. Chris Rennard was at his brilliant best as Campaigns maestro.

    The whole campaign was a joy. Right at the start we were driving around dropping off window posters with previous sites and many were already up in the window as we drove back to HQ. Another time (a Bank Holiday Monday I think) we broke off from delivering on a hot day, to watch a team of Morris Men dance outside a pub in a village clinging to the Moor side. On another occasion Jo White regaled me with stories of how she had been sent into Labour HQ posing as a Labour volunteer, to see what she could learn! Jo was elected to Chesterfield Borough Council that year as one of the youngest Cllrs in the UK, alongside Juliette Frangos who was a year younger than Jo -both still good friends of mine 25 years later.

    I also went to help in the 2011 By Election. What a different experience. It was obvious, canvassing in what had been one of our stronger Wards, that we were being killed off by the Coalition even when the circumstances of that By Election should have been an absolute gift of an open goal for us.

  • Kay Kirkham 1st Aug '20 - 5:39pm

    I was canvassing in Shaw (I think) where the houses had lots of steps up to the front door. I missed my footing and fell down a complete set. The residents rushed out and applied a bag of frozen peas to my swollen ankle. They were extremely kind and helpful but I have no idea how they I tended to vote.

  • Alex Macfie 1st Aug '20 - 7:19pm

    Although John Major’s tally of 218 votes in his “Back me or sack me” leadership election represented a handsome victory (66.3%), it was only 3 votes more than the target of 215 votes he had privately set himself (below which he had planned to resign for real).

  • Peter Watson 2nd Aug '20 - 10:00am

    David Raw “If ever there is an example of what happened to the Liberal Democrats over the last decade this is it. It would be sensible for any new Party Leader to commission in depth research to ask the people of Oldham East and Saddleworth why they stopped voting Lib Dem.”
    Searching old LDV threads is always interesting and a reminder of regular posters from that time, some of whom are still active here. And funnily enough, another David, David Allen, raised the same point on the day of the by-election: “Let’s hope someone has the sense to poll the voters and ask them exactly why they voted the way they did.” (
    Depressingly, there’s little evidence that the party has asked those questions or listened to any answers. It’s particularly relevant in the context of the leadership election (and any general election or by-election thread in the last 6 years) which makes it apparent that the party still does not know how to come to terms with its time in Coalition Government.

  • richard underhill 2nd Aug '20 - 12:16pm

    John Major’s memoirs show that a simple majority for him was not enough.
    As with the Conservative leader who preceded Winston Churchill, he did not follow the dictum that “One is enough” as stated in the memoirs of Churchill’s chief Whip Edward Heath (sailor Ted) who led them to an overall majority in 1970 and is now a non-person in the Conservative Party, having sacked Enoch Powell, admitted Ugandan Asians and entered the EEC, together with Ireland and Denmark but, sadly, not Norway. Our historians tend to concentrate on the 1974 general electionS, but Ted Heath is of historical importance. Mentioning his name winds up Tories no end. His political secretary was Douglas Hurd, famous for “sitting on window sills” at meetings in Downing Street to which he had not been invited because he could not be excluded.
    The exit of Dickens from the Commons improved it, whoever replaced him.

  • Tony Greaves 2nd Aug '20 - 9:55pm

    What is shocking is indeed the subsequent history as set out by David Raw and Peter Watson.

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