Remembering the Brecon & Radnor by-election


30 years ago, in July 1985, Richard Livsey came from third to win a sensational by-election victory for the SDP/Liberal Alliance. In doing so, Richard re-established a Liberal presence in Brecon & Radnor that few had thought possible after a period of gradual decline.

In 1945 the Welsh Liberal party had formed the backbone of British Liberalism – supplying its leader, Montgomeryshire MP Clement Davies, and half the parliamentary party.  By 1979, the representation had been reduced to one – Geraint Howells being the sole survivor in Ceredigion (as we found out last month, history repeats itself; sometimes painfully). He was joined in 1983 by Alex Carlile who reclaimed Montgomeryshire.

The by-election was triggered by the death the Conservative, Tom Hooson, who had taken the seat from the Labour Party in 1979.  The Liberal Candidate, Richard Livsey a farmer and former lecturer in farm management had come third.

Richard was again selected to fight the by-election and the Liberal Alliance by-election unit and hundreds of activists were mobilised.  The Agent was General Secretary Andy Ellis, and other key members of the by-election team included Les Farris, Steve Mulholland, Peter Chegwyn and Celia Thomas as well as Welsh and local figures including Martin Thomas, Gwynoro Jones and Roger Williams. As with all by-elections it is invidious to name names and it’s impossible to find a Welsh member of a certain age who does not remember the campaign with fondness.

Well into its mid-term Mrs. Thatcher’s Conservative government was now deeply unpopular, particularly in Wales.  From the start, polling suggested Labour were favourites to re-take the seat but as the campaign progressed and it was clear the Tory vote was slipping away, it was Richard Livsey who was able to take advantage. When the votes were counted on the Friday he secured a Liberal/ Alliance majority of just 559 over Labour.

At the time of his death in 2010, Vaughan Roderick, the BBC’s Welsh affairs editor said of Richard Livsey: “His great achievement was to make us think of Powys as being the Liberal heartland, because it wasn’t before Richard Livsey. Montgomeryshire was, Brecon and Radnorshire wasn’t.”

Of course, right now neither of the Powys seats are represented in the Westminster parliament by Liberal Democrats but they both remain at the heart of the Welsh Party.

Like many of the great post war Liberal by-election victories, this is one that goes down in folklore.  It has a special place in Welsh hearts as it remains the Welsh Liberals’ only post war by-election gain. The by-election was the start of a legacy that continues today – not least through the inspirational Kirsty Williams, who represents the seat in the National Assembly of Wales.

We would love to hear your stories and anecdotes from the election. We would like also to extend a warm invitation to friends and colleagues from across Wales and the UK to join Kirsty and Lord David Steel, Leader of the Liberal Party at the time of the election, to celebrate a famous victory and the legacy of a great Liberal.

This will be held at the beautiful Peterstone Court hotel outside Brecon and tickets are available here. All proceeds will go towards the fund for Kirsty Williams’s 2016 re-election campaign.


* Richard Thomas is Chief Executive of the Welsh Liberal Democrats and a party member in Brecon & Radnorshire.

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  • Steve Comer 8th Jun '15 - 4:36pm

    I remember this by-election, it was an important win and followed gains in the County Council elections a few weeks earlier (remember gains in local elections?)
    Ironically I believe Tom Hooson (whose death caused the by-election) was a cousin of Emlyn Hooson (Liberal MP for NMontgomershire 1962-79).

  • Mike Falchikov 8th Jun '15 - 4:55pm

    Great memories of this by-election in a lovely part of the world, warm sunshine for the 3-4 days I spent there and very nice people in the constituency. This was pre-blog and twitter days when most things happened on the streets
    and in lively meetings. Evenings were often spent in theCastle Hotel (I think it was called) chatting and making friends. On one such evening Screaming Lord Sutch, the perpetual candidate, turned up and said he would give us a few numbers on his guitar (starting, I seem to recall, with Jailhouse Rock), and would we please put money in his hat for his deposit. Alliance folk paid up willingly – a nearby Labour table refused. (The deposit was lost of course!) Another memory was a great rally a couple of days before polling, addressed by leading figures from both Libs and SDP, I particularly remember Shirley Williams and the late great lovely David Penhaligon who said he had been asked to introduce the next speaker (David Owen) as they were both Westcountrymen. David P said he couldn;t recall David O as a Westcountryman, but decided that it must be because he (Penhaligon) was just a “country bumpkin” whilst Owen was “one of the city sophisticates.” Laughter from all except Owen.
    A g reat time was had by all!

  • I love this anecdote from Dan Falchikov especially the Panhaligon story — ” …because he (Penhaligon) was just a “country bumpkin” whilst Owen was “one of the city sophisticates.”

    This and the list of characters in the main article ( Andy Ellis, Les Farris, Steve Mulholland, Peter Chegwyn and Celia Thomas) bring back memories of various byelection victories in the 1980s and serve as a pointer for the party over the next couple of years. Now that we are no longer the third party in The Commons we need to take every chance to re-establish the party in the minds of the voters and the media as a party that can win again.
    Parliamentary byelections will offer that chance to re-establish ourselves as a party of more than just former ministers in an unfortunate coalition that most of us (especially the voters) would prefer to forget.

  • Dear me. Whilst I understand the nostalgia for past victories, isn’t it time now to grapple with the reason for the Party’s current dismal position and map out a future direction rather than harking back to a by-gone age?

  • Mike Falchikov 8th Jun '15 - 7:27pm

    John Tilley – actually it was my blog, not my son’ s but we did go to the by-election together and he may have something
    to add to my recollections. Not quite sure as to your view of Penhaligon,but he was actually a very bright guy and
    though I will always have an enormous respect for Paddy,I think Penhaligon, had he not died so tragically, might have given him a run for his money in the leadership election. He had the authenticity of Charles Kennedy.
    Phyllis – fair enough, but elections in those days did at least engage with real people on a real day-to-day basis. There
    really is something to be said for this kind of electioneering which does rely on face-to-face contact.

  • Mike Falchikov “Phyllis – fair enough, but elections in those days did at least engage with real people on a real day-to-day basis. There
    really is something to be said for this kind of electioneering which does rely on face-to-face contact.”

    I agree with you completely.

  • Jonathan Pile 8th Jun '15 - 7:51pm

    @ Mike F
    David Penhaligon was one of the Greatest Liberals who would have been a brilliant leader if he hadn’t been killed. He was a man of he people like Charlie Kennedy. He would have had a word or two to say about the party today.

  • Alex Macfie 8th Jun '15 - 8:28pm

    David Anthony Llewellyn Owen is also a Welshman

  • In 2010 the LibDems fought Brecon and Radnor with the message vote LibDem or get Tory. It was everywhere. However this happened anyway so people voted Tory in 2015. Perhaps you should take the advice of Phyllis and look why you have lost the seat?

  • There are so many things that I remember about the Brecon & Radnor by-election.

    The first, I suppose, is that “The Guardian’s” political correspondent, Jonathan Aitken, predicted the result with almost pinpoint accuracy. When pressed by Sir Robin Day, he opined: “I think the Alliance will just make it.”

    I was sent out canvassing in a large, straggling village (was it beside the Usk or the Wye?). This was hard going, for the peculiar and now (I guess) archaic reason that none of the houses (expect the council houses) bore names or numbers. Then someone at campaign HQ came up with an annotated sketch-map, which eased the difficulty somewhat.

    I canvassed a former German POW who had never acquired UK citizenship, so was unable to vote, though he assured me that he would have voted for Richard Livsey if he had been allowed to. Then there was a lady in her 90s who lamented modern life. People were much happier when they were poor, she told me. Life was so much better without televisions, cars, electricity, running water, modern healthcare, etc. I remember that, because attitudes of that kind were commonly expressed in my growing-up years, but I have not heard anything like that from anyone since that day. I was standing at a watershed when the last of an older generation of working-class Tories of the “know your place” persuasion was dying out. “People don’t believe that rubbish anymore,” a colleague helpfully explained.

    Richard Livsey, though a farmer, was no country bumpkin. He attended the same school (Bedales) as did Jeremy Browne, Lily Allen and David and Sarah Armstrong-Jones.

    Now, that headline really is dated. The flogging of school children was outlawed the following year.

    The tragedy is… well, we all know what the tragedy is.

  • John Farrand-Rogers 8th Jun '15 - 8:47pm

    You ask for stories and anecdotes – I remember that byelection well. I shared a room with Paul Jacobs (from the Isle of Wight), but we hardly ever met, because he worked in the daytime and I was on the night shift.

    Night shift? Yes, we were kept busy on canvass analysis and cleaning up the canvass cards. This was in the days before computers came in, of course. The boss was Michael Key, who kept all the information very close to his chest – but we could work out for ourselves that things were moving the right way. His other helper was Lizzie Bell, who later married David Alton. The only other person in the building overnight was David Penhaligon who was printing the leaflets for the following day, and who occasionally emerged for a smoke and a chat.

    A good learning experience – the importance of monitoring how a campaign is going. In the 1987 general election, we phoned through the figures from Bristol West each night – I gathered from Les Ferris that we were the only local party in Western Counties that that was doing this then.

    This highlight of the election was probably going to hear Neil Kinnock speak. The youthful Peter Chegwyn had the idea of sending some Liberal volunteers along to his meeting – with a purpose – by way of an experiment, which seemed to work. I wonder if he remembers that. Ah, the good old days!

  • Simon Cordon 8th Jun '15 - 9:00pm

    Did a fair bulk of the printing in this by-election on David Penhaligan’s offset litho. Printing room was shared with Paddy’s ‘new fangled’ PCs doing target letters. Contrast of the old campaigning tools with new. But best memories was David P annoyingly but characteristically and with great humour insisting on ‘servicing’ the offset late most nights when I was just desperate to get the print run done. Irony is ‘servicing’ usually meant replacing one elastic band holding a crucial part together with another!

  • To Phyllis and Anne – every other thread on this site, and every LD blog, is analysing our defeat and the way forward. To reminisce like this just for a moment is lovely, so I think we are entitled to do that as well. This party is a family. We have history, and memories, and emotions. Perhaps we take those for granted sometimes – last week we got a painful reminder of that. If a thread like this makes us feel a wee bit better and strengthens us to face the future, bring it on. If you guys don’t want to read it, you don’t actually have to.

  • Richard Underhill 8th Jun '15 - 10:27pm

    Enid Lakeman was there and referred to the election as “orienteering”.
    She was still working in council by-elections in Tunbridge Wells at the age of 91.

    Richard Livsey spoke at an event at the National Liberal Club. I asked him whether a turnout of 84% was caused by different voters having a chance of winning in a 4-way marginal. He said that it had always been a high-voting constituency.

    We also heard that Clement Davies had been offered a Cabinet post by Winston Churchill. The peacetime Tory government only had a small majority. Clement Davies had refused because he thought that to accept would lead to the end of the Liberal Party as an independent force. This predated the emphasis on local government.

    After 1997 Paddy Ashdown was pointing out that a lot of money bwas being spent on by-elections with no wins. Paul Jacobs was the agent for Eastbourne, Ribble Valley and Kincardine-Deeside, all wins., leading to the Tory chairman Chris Patten getting an early bath at the 1992 general election.

  • Mike Falchikov 8th Jun ’15 – 7:27pm

    Mike, apologies for the confusion.

    I have very fond memories of by-elections and David Penhaligon. The first was at some point in the mid 1970s just before the time of the Newcastle Central by-election when Andrew Ellis was the candidate. We got a phone call from David Penhaligon shortly before 10pm one night. This was unusual because I had never met him, did not have a clue how he had got our phone number and lived more than 300 miles from Newcastle. He explained that he was in the Commons and had to wait for a vote at 10pm so thought he might as well do something useful — so he was phoning every phone number that anyone had and also asking anyone he phoned if they had any phones numbers of Liberals stupid enough to travel hundreds of miles to help in a by-election.

    So of course we went and helped in Newcastle.
    Andrew Ellis only came second but it was still worth it. A second place in a parliamentary by-election nowadays would be like gold dust, which is the lesson of these experiences from the past. It is not just nostalgia it is a lesson to those who mistakenly think politics is something done only by “important” people within the Westminster Bubble.

    David Penhaligon was the best party leader we never had.

  • David Bertram 9th Jun '15 - 9:10am

    I was working for Ian Wrigglesworth at the time and remember driving down from London with him and Mike Thomas (former SDP MP) to Brecon and, yes, staying in the Castle Hotel. Canvassing by day, though I can’t recall where, and if I recall well, a big public meeting in Llandrindod Wells in the evening at which Ian and others spoke. Great memories.

  • Didn’t the Daily Mirror (?) publish part of an opinion poll in Brecon and Radnor late on in the campaign, the poll didn’t give full details but enough for the Mirror to say that Labour were in lead. They didn’t count on David Penhaligon who like others smelt a rat, sat down with a calculator and came up with the real result of the poll that we were in the lead. Which then featured heavily in our leaflets! Can anyone remember the details?
    Memories of a hot Summer day delivering letters to farmers with Keith Whitmore and John Commons, bit different to Manchester or Stockport.

  • I remember vividly the scene in the centre of Brecon on the Friday morning as we all waited for the result of the count. Large crowds were waiting, held back by metal barriers. A trade union band marched by and people were hanging out of windows in eager anticipation. It was like something from a Hogarth print. Exceptional times.

  • I meant Ian Aitken, not Jonathan Aitken.

  • @Tonyj
    I reminisce over many things but in no way will that help me in the present. It actually makes me more miserable as it highlights times lost.

  • As an area agent I took part in several byelections around the country but the most enjoyable by far was Brecon & Radnor. My patch included Ystradgynlais which had the largest Labour vote by far in the vast constituency. So I decided to visit the Miners’ Welfare Club (and Local Labour Party HQ) to ask if a rally could be staged there with Cyril Smith (oh, dear) as the Alliance MP possibly most likely to appeal to local voters. Over a chat the Club secretary hinted that he was a Communist with no particular liking for Labour and yes, of course, we could hold the rally. The meeting was well-publicised and consequently Cyril spoke to a sizeable and not unfriendly audience. Labour were so rattled that come polling day an estimated 30 of their MPs campaigned in the town in an attempt to bolster their candidate’s vote. Coincidence corner: the parents of the defeated Labour candidate, Chris Bryant, subsequently owned the house far away in south Somerset where my wife and I have lived for some years.

  • Richard Underhill 25th Dec '15 - 11:51am

    Andy Ellis was from Maidstone, Kent. At a time when things were more difficult than now he explained to a meeting at County Hall the result in a borough council by-election in Maidstone. Our candidate lived “at the the heart of the village”. The Tory did not. Labour never expected to win and campaigned accordingly. The Greens used rather absorbent recycled paper, rather messy recycled ink and put out one leaflet.
    At the Epping Forest by election we hit the ground running, campaigning against hospital closures in a constituency which Labour had no hope odf winning They did not. I missed polling day because I was in Strasbourg. BBC TV pictures showed our our campaigners lifting Andy Ellis shoulder-high. The BBC commented that they had “celebrated as if we had won”.,_1988 Michael Pettman reportedly had the benefit of paid for deliverers and a donation from a billionaire.
    Credit was also due to our hard-working regional agent, who went on to be a parliamentary candidate in 1992 Elizabeth T. Bottomley 17,000 votes, 30.5%, +5.5%.
    Last time i saw Andy Ellis he was “making quite a good living” advising the new political parties in central Europe which had emerged after one party rule ended in Central Europe.

  • John Swarbrick 23rd Jun '19 - 12:14am

    I ran a committee room on polling day in a village of about 800 voters. We were promised by the locals that a full complement of tellers had been arranged so were slightly concerned when we turned up there to discover that the rota consisted of the couple whose house it was to sit at the bedroom window overlooking the polling station and call out the names of whoever was voting. They didn’t miss a single one.

  • Serena Martin 29th Jun '19 - 7:44am

    Remember it being glorious weather for the By-election. Helping outside a polling station in Bwlch with locals bringing us pots of tea. Everyone was incredibly friendly and upbeat.

  • Stephen Mulholland 29th Jun '19 - 1:26pm

    Good to see the Party gearing up again – without being complacent, the portents are good. As one of the ’85 B&R alumni, I should record that Michael Key sadly died in September after a long illness. He was indeed the canvas analyst every by-election agent in the ’80s wanted on their team – for incredible projections and voter intelligence – working through the night to produce fresh breakfast reports. Maybe Michael’s memory might inspire some to repeat visits to the constituency with the hope of a repeat result. This time around I can even vote as a local resident!

  • gordon hyde 17th Jul '19 - 5:45pm

    I was there,in ystradgynlais and then sennybridge and i am coming up soon to do my bit again

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