William Wallace writes: Michael Steed, his Liberal history

Liberal Democrats in Kent, Yorkshire and Manchester in particular will remember Michael Steed as a candidate, councillor, and activist on many issues over more than 60 years.  Others will recall him as party president in 1978-9, as a regular attender of party conferences in spite of being wheel-chair bound by a neurological disease that resisted precise diagnosis, and latterly as an active member of the Liberal History Group and of its journal’s editorial board.

Michael grew up on a farm in Kent, went to a local independent school, and took six months before he went to Cambridge University in 1959 to work on the continent, coming back a convinced European and internationalist. After narrowly losing election to the presidency of the university Liberal Club he became president of the Union of Liberal Students (then a separate organization from the Young Liberals).  There he cultivated closer links with ‘the World Federation of Liberal and Radical Youth’ and its Swedish president, Margareta Holmstedt.  They married some years later, and set up home in Todmorden.

He was, however, always as much of a scholar as a campaigner.  He was a student of David Butler at Nuffield College Oxford from 1963-65 (alongside Alan Beith), and then for many years a lecturer in government at Manchester University.  As a student he already demonstrated an astonishingly detailed knowledge of parliamentary and local government elections.  He contributed the statistical appendix to the Nuffield election studies through many elections, in later ones in cooperation with John Curtice.  Teaching about the British constitution and commitment to political and electoral reform linked his professional and political lives.

Michael was on the radical wing of the 1960 Young Liberals, becoming vice-chair of NLYL’. He campaigned on apartheid in South Africa, on gay rights and on joining the European Community. He fought his first parliamentary campaign in the Brierly Hill by-election in 1967, gaining less than 8% of the vote. From his study of constituency histories and results he then decided that Truro was one of the most promising prospects, and travelled down to fight it in the 1970 election – disappointingly coming third.  He came closest to entering Parliament in the bitter Manchester Exchange by-election in 1973 – a safe Labour seat, almost entirely council housing, where Labour reacted furiously to what councillors saw as a Liberal ‘invasion’, in the wake of by-election wins elsewhere.  After an enthusiastic campaign in a seat that had had no Liberal activity (and which Labour had taken for granted) he gained 36.5% of the vote.  Typically, he afterwards wrote an academic article which noted that the real winner had been the 56% who had not voted.

Michael fought Manchester Central, one of the two seats into which the Exchange constituency had been divided, in February 1974, the European elections in 1979, and Burnley in 1983.  But he put more effort into the national party, as a member of the national executive and then as president.  Like most of his Young Liberal contemporaries he had been unhappy with Jeremy Thorpe’s leadership; happier with David Steel, he nevertheless wanted him to pay more sympathetic attention to the party’s activists.

Alongside his party campaigning, he was a prominent member of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality from the late 1960s, and at one point its treasurer. In the mid-1970s he also created (with Ray Temperton) the Campaign for the North, with financial assistance from Rowntree, to push for regional government for England’s six northern counties.

The neurological illness which later developed confined him to a mobility scooter.  Separated from Margareta and unable to cope with Todmorden’s steep streets, he moved back to Canterbury, where he became an honorary lecturer in politics at the University of Kent and, in time, a local Councillor.  He entered a civil partnership with Barry Clements, which became marriage earlier this year.  And he continued to write on political and historical themes, including for the Journal of Liberal History, and to take an active interest in local, national and international politics until he died.

He was a real Liberal: happy to be in a minority arguing for change on a range of issues, undeterred by those who thought him obsessive or eccentric in his enthusiasms, a valued teacher to a great many students in Manchester and Canterbury, and a scholar who valued evidence and reasoned argument against emotion and prejudice.

William Wallace was a contemporary of Michael Steed at Cambridge and Manchester, and in recent years a colleague on the editorial board of the Journal of Liberal History.


* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

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  • Paul Temperton 7th Sep '23 - 1:51pm

    A nice tribute to Michael by William Wallace. Just a small point: my name is not Ray Temperton!

  • Martin Pierce 7th Sep '23 - 4:16pm

    What a brilliant tribute. I only met Michael Steed once or twice, but he was definitely my sort of liberal – including the election geek bit. I also knew he was significant in ULS, but didn’t know he was part of CULC (Cambridge University Liberal Club), both organisations I enjoyed being part of in the 1980s. Michael is a great loss for sure, but the principal point you make well is – look at how much he did.

  • George Cunningham 10th Sep '23 - 12:57pm

    Michael Steed was a wonderful man. He stood by my side, taught me about and campaigned with me in North Thanet (now Herne Bay and Sandwich) when I was PPC in 2015, a horribly hard Brexity constituency with Roger Gale MP as the perpetual Tory Lord of the Manor (standing yet again). At party conferences, I would always greet him from afar with the cry “Where is my Steed?” before engaging with his boisterous good natured spirit. I shall miss him.

  • A really wonderful person we shall all miss. We need more people like him with his depths of knowledge and as William says, appreciation of evidence and reasoned argument.

  • Keith Whitmore 20th Sep '23 - 3:29pm

    It was seeing the Liberal Party at work in the Manchester Exchange By Election which was my motivation for joining the Liberal Party. I got to know Michael well and he really encouraged me to stand for election as did Tony Greaves leading me to represent Levenshulme Ward on Manchester City Council for some 33 years. I worked with Michael to try and encourage him to deposit much of his archive with the Peoples History Museum in Manchester which he did with both his CHE and Campaign for the North files as well as some of his Liberal Party collection as well. I do know that there is still much to go through. I was especially pleased to be involved in Michael’s 80th Birthday celebrations not only in Todmorden but also for him to be able to take a trip behind Steam on the East Lancs Railway from Rawtenstall to Heywood via Bury and back. His contribution to Liberal values and the European idea never faltered and he will be sorely missed. My condolences to Barry and to Michael’s family.

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