Michael Steed 1940-2023

Sad news dropped into my inbox this afternoon. Michael Steed, President of the Liberal Party from 1978-79, died this week.

From Young Liberal anti-apartheid activist who was once prevented by the South African authorities from delivering aid to Sharpeville to eminent psephologist who provided the stats for the British General Election Guides up until 2005 to radical social liberal who was ardently pro-European but not blind to dangers of concentrated power in the way the EU worked, he spent his whole life working for liberalism, and was elected as a councillor in Canterbury in 2008.

He was also one of those brave liberals who fought for gay rights well before it was fashionable to do so. He helped fight the early battles that won the freedoms we take for granted now.

Please feel free to share your memories of Michael in the comments.

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

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24 Comments

  • So very very sorry to hear my old friend Michael Steed is no longer with us, although I knew he had been ill for some time.

    I first knew Michael when he was at Nuffield College, Oxford (working with David Butler) way back in 1964….. That was in the days when Garth Pratt was President of the Union and Tony Greaves was at Hertford College. Alas all three have now gone.

    Michael was always kind, always knowledgeable, and always helpful to struggling post grads with the minutae of obscure psephological detail. Most important, he was a good man and always a proper radical Liberal.

  • Mick Taylor 4th Sep '23 - 8:04am

    I have known Michael since I was a very young Liberal. It was due to visiting Michael in Todmorden in 1971 that I moved there in 1972 with my new wife and started 50 years as a political activist in the Liberal/LibDem cause, that only ended in 2022, when I moved to Greece.
    Michael could be pedantic and infuriating but he was a radical Liberal to the core and we had a friendship that lasted until his death. Michael did serve a term on Todmorden Town Council as well as being a councillor in Canterbury. I well remember my young son Daniel helping Michael count an STV election at his house Wood Cottage in Todmorden.
    In common with David Raw, I knew both Garth Pratt and Tony Greaves. Sadly Pratt left us for Labour.
    Michael was married to Margareta Holmstedt for many years and has lived with Barry for many years. Both have our sympathy in their loss.

  • Michael managed to be a consistent radical who also knew how to steady the ship. He could explain complex stuff without patronising his hearers in any way whatsoever. His departure at the beginning of Conference month provides opportunities for sharing good memories over coffee of someone who could disentangle us on occasions when things got a bit muddled.

  • Robert Harrison 4th Sep '23 - 10:15am

    The Liberal International Congress was held in Paris in 1989 because of the bicentennial of the French Revolution and I was the current president of LYMEC. Michael was very upset because the French Republicans had applied to join and, as Michael pointed out very clearly, they were the inheritors of the French conservative tradition and certainly not the “radical” tradition of French politics from the 3rd Republic.

    LI allowed them to join – but their membership only lasted a few years.

  • Duncan Brack 4th Sep '23 - 10:41am

    So sorry to hear the news. Michael was a very good friend to the Liberal Democrat History Group and an always-stimulating member of the Journal of Liberal History’s Editorial Board. We’ll publish a proper appreciation in the Journal in the next or the next-but-one issue.

    When I worked for Liberal MPs in the House of Commons, in the 1980s, I remember one of them describing Michael as one of the people you looked at at conference to see how they were voting when you weren’t sure how to vote yourself!

  • Bernard Greaves 4th Sep '23 - 11:01am

    Every year a small group of radical Liberals from the 1970s meet at Lib Dem Conferences for dinner. This year Michael sent his apologies because of ill health.
    John Smithson and I, the only survivors of the group, will meet over dinner and mark his passing.
    I first met Michael in 1961 when I went up to Cambridge University and joined the Liberal Club. We both served on a policy working party, with Wilkiam Wallace, that laid the foundations of Liberal and Lib Dem policy on constitutional reform. Michael was passionate about regional government and a leading light in The Campaign for The North. He also served with me on The Liberal Party Internal Education Campaign on Gay Rights, 1974-1976, where he argued strongly for the recognition of bisexuals. He was a member of the North West Committee for Homosexual Law Reform in the early 1960s and saw its transformation into the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, an active member of which he remained until it was disbanded a few years ago.
    Michael was a key member of that early band of radical Young Liberals who transformed the Liberal Party His views were sometimes idiosyncratic but always Liberal to the core and uncompromising. The Liberal political tradition owes him a great deal. He will be greatky missed, not least by myself..

  • Peter Wrigley 4th Sep '23 - 11:44am

    Sad. I knew Margareta rather better than Michael, but greatly admired them both and the enormous contribution hey made to Yorkshire Liberalism.

  • Adrian Collett 4th Sep '23 - 1:40pm

    A very sad loss indeed.

    Does anyone have the words of Michael’s version of the Red Flag, which he sang as a jibe at the rather right-wing nature of the Callaghan Government during his Presidential Address at the 1978 Liberal Assembly in Southport. I remember the first line as: “The People’s Flag is slightly pink. It’s not as red as most folks think.”

  • He came and gave a very lucid address on European Parliament elections to the Leeds university Liberal society in 1984 when I was secretary. I also knew him in the Liberal Movement in the first few post-merger years. I still have, and I still consult, his pamphlet ‘The Alliance: a Critical History’. But I will remember above all the unconventional but astonishingly accurate way in more recent years that he could predict general election results for the party. Will someone now take up the reins and continue to use his methods? It is a necessary resource for telling us who our voters are and hence what kind of a party we are, and would be a fine tribute.

  • Laurence Cox 4th Sep '23 - 5:02pm

    @Adrian Collett
    The Liberator Songbook helps as always: http://www.hpcc.ecs.soton.ac.uk/dan/songs/social.htm

  • Katharine Pindar 4th Sep '23 - 7:01pm

    Adrian, the next lines are: ‘We must not let the people know what Socialists thought long ago. Don’t let the scarlet banner float, we need the Middle Classes’ vote. ….. (forgotten the next phrase, but then) ‘We’ll stay in power for many a year.’ Great stuff! I didn’t know that Michael sang it at a 1978 Assembly, one I missed, but his song survives (most of it) in my memory at least, as well as in the Song Book.

  • Clifford Williams 4th Sep '23 - 8:04pm

    As a schoolboy I went to Manchester in 1973 to canvass for Michael in the last by- election to be held on a Wednesday. He finished a creditable 2nd in a strong Labour seat (Manchester Exchange). In recent years I met up again with Michael to help sort through his extensive collection of papers with a view to finding an appropriate archive home for them. It is sad to note that Michael was looking forward to working through his old papers but illness took his life before he got the chance. His collection of local government results data and analysis of the 1950s,60s and 70s is vast.

  • David Hewitt 4th Sep '23 - 8:42pm

    I last saw Michael when he came to Hebden Bridge as part of his 80th Birthday Party celebrations. Michael, Gordon Lishman and I were the founding Directors of North West Community Newspapers Ltd. We were joined later by John Cookson and started the first Liberal Printing society with John C as our full time printer. Later John Smithson joined the board. It was quite a learning experience and our early mistakes paved the way for many who installed offset litho printers in their attics and basements as part of the Liberal journey to practical Community Politics.

    Michael opened my eyes to many aspects of Social Liberalism. In particular I recall him dancing with Bernard Greaves at the Morecambe 1972 Young Liberal Conference Mayor’s Ball (which I had organised). I was initially shocked by this public display but it allowed me to rethink my attitude to homosexuality. Several years later an old school friend announced to me he was gay and years later he physically transitioned. On both these occasions Michael’s example allowed me give support to a good friend in difficult circumstances.

    With the addition of Tony Greaves we were nicknamed the “NE Lancs plotting group”, which gradually took over the ALC and turned it into the campaigning organisation we see today in ALDC.

    This is sad but not unexpected news. Michael was one of my heros. Love to his loved ones, Margaretta and Barry.

  • Katharine Pindar 4th Sep '23 - 8:53pm

    The missing line of Michael’s song just popped back into my delinquent memory: ‘Let our old-fashioned comrades jeer. we’ll stay in power for many a year.’ Perhaps Sir Keir Starmer would like to make an offer for the song…!

  • Gareth Epps 5th Sep '23 - 7:37am

    ‘The Pink Flag” is just one of many song Michael wrote: he, and several of his contemporaries, were well aware of the power of song to communicate political messages.

    Having been in correspondence with Michael for many years I took the opportunity in 2020 to speak to him at length about his recollection of song at Liberal Assemblies and the creation of the Glee Club and the various song sheets and songbooks which were produced before Liberator started the modern version. The conversation led to – briefer! – discussions with others and many tales of the maverick campaign the Young Liberals fought in the Brierley Hill by-election.

    All this came about because of some corrections Michael wanted to see in the Liberator Songbook. I’ve included a number of these in the current edition.

    He was also a great supporter of the Social Liberal Forum and a great help when I was co-Chair.

    Altogether now, “Once a floating voter…….”

  • Rif Winfield 5th Sep '23 - 8:36am

    Ah, fond memories of the Glee Club!
    Really sad news about our dear friend, irrepressible Radical Liberal and fellow psephologist. It is heartening to see all these stalwart names from the Liberal 1970s contributing to your webpage.
    Deepest sympathy to Margaretta!

  • Adrian Collett 5th Sep '23 - 4:15pm

    @Laurence Cox and Katharine Pindar.
    Thank you both. I should have looked it up in the Liberator Song Book of course! and yes, Katharine, he sang it during his Presidential address. Wonderful to see!

  • David Grace 5th Sep '23 - 6:56pm

    Very sorry to hear of Michael’s death. In 1979 I invited him to address a Young European Federalists seminar in Strasbourg on the subject of nationalism. His lecture was magisterial, reminded me of AJP Taylor. Many people working in English as a second language complimented him on the clarity of his talk. As well as being very well-structured, his talk included signing “A Nation Once Again” to illustrate a point. As President of the party he had to fill a gap at Liberal Assembly when David Steel was late to arrive on stage. Michael led the whole assembly in singing “The Land”. I shall miss him.

  • Berkley Farr 5th Sep '23 - 10:56pm

    I first met Michael Steed at the 1962 Young Liberal conference in Brighton when I was part of the first delegation from Northern Ireland to attend. I got to know him well at meetings of the NLYL executive and over the years he was a great supporter of the Ulster Liberal Party and a valued source of advice. I enjoyed visiting him in Lostwithiel and Todmorden and as Party President he came to Northern Ireland during the Troubles. His knowledge of elections was encyclopaedic.
    Michael was a kind and unique person who will be greatly missed, particularly by Barry.

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 8th Sep '23 - 1:02pm

    I shall really miss Michael who lived only a few miles from me and was a great source of wisdom locally, nationally and Europeanly. There is a long obituary to him in several of the Kent Messenger newspaper’s this week.

  • Sandy Walkington 18th Sep '23 - 11:56am

    Such an interesting and rounded picture of Michael from an astonishing roll-call of commentators. I have nothing to add. He, Margareta and the Radical Bulletin crowd were key in shaping my Liberalism, the Liberal Democrats would do well to look back more to their Liberal roots.

  • Clifford Williams 18th Sep '23 - 1:15pm
  • Michael Stahl 23rd Sep '23 - 3:24pm

    I will never forget when I got to know Michael: As a young German leftwing liberal I 1982 took the chance to travel to Todmorden to assist Michael in his electoral campaign. The Falkland war had just begun at that early spring time. Both of us couldn‘t believe what was going us and we were together in our anti-war feelings. Michael was such a brilliant political analyst with a great sense of humour. And he kept that sense till his last months when I was happy to meet him for the last time in Canterbury. As a German I feel priviledged to have met such a great European Englishmen. I will keep him in memory and take him in my prayers.

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