Michael Steed, election expert and Liberal Party president at the height of the Jeremy Thorpe affair – obituary

Michael Steed as Liberal candidate in the 1973 Manchester Exchange by-election
Michael Steed as Liberal candidate in the 1973 Manchester Exchange by-election - Hulton Archive

Michael Steed, who has died aged 83, was a leading academic expert on elections who fought six seats for the Liberal Party between 1967 and 1983 and was its president in 1978-79, at the height of the Jeremy Thorpe affair.

Steed’s closeness to the party grassroots was crucial to his attaining the presidency. The “establishment” candidate was Christopher Mayhew, who had not long before defected from Labour. Despite simultaneously attending an academic conference in Aberystwyth, Steed worked the 1977 Liberal Assembly in Brighton assiduously to become president-elect, commuting between the two by milk train.

As president-elect, Steed had to manage tensions within the party as David Steel stuck to the Lib-Lab Pact which was keeping James Callaghan in office, eventually withdrawing in September 1978.

He was also central to efforts to keep the party on an even keel between Thorpe’s resignation as leader in 1976 and his trial and acquittal after the 1979 election on charges of conspiracy to murder. For many, the Liberals’ emergence from that election having lost only two of their 13 seats was a signal achievement.

Steed and his leader were not personally close, but Steel did offer to nominate him for an OBE. Steed declined, saying: “I’m not a fan of the Obsolete British Empire.”

Jeremy Thorpe arriving at the Old Bailey in 1979 at the start of his trial for conspiracy to murder Norman Scott
Jeremy Thorpe arriving at the Old Bailey in 1979 at the start of his trial for conspiracy to murder Norman Scott - Popperfoto

Steel in his memoirs commends Steed for having announced to the 1978 Liberal Assembly an inquiry into the handling of various party funds set up under Thorpe. This followed complaints from the party’s main donor, Jack Hayward, that monies from him had been misused in a private account controlled by the former leader.

As lecturer in government at Manchester University until ill-health forced his early retirement at 45, Steed acquired a detailed knowledge of voting behaviour right down to ward level, to become one of Britain’s leading psephologists. From 1964 to 2005, latterly in collaboration with John Curtice, he contributed statistical appendices to the Nuffield series of books on British general elections.

In the process, he developed his own personal measure of “swing”, having concluded that in a safe seat, the swing toward the incumbent was generally higher than in a marginal. This led him to predict a future pattern of landslide wins or hung parliaments.

Steed during the 1970s was a fixture on election night television, and established a sociological background to the results coverage of The Observer and The Economist; editors he dealt with found him pernickety.

Michael Steed and young Liberals canvasing at Brierley Hill in the 1967 by-election
Michael Steed and young Liberals canvasing at Brierley Hill in the 1967 by-election - Chas Williamson

Regarded as the party’s expert on electoral matters, Steed in 1976 designed the system for the election of the Liberal leader under which Steel would take charge, extending it from a relative handful of MPs to the membership at large.

He was a strong critic of Thorpe’s leadership, seeing a need to concentrate more on policy and ideas and less on the leader’s showmanship. He was also an ardent pro-European: as early as 1969 he called for a common currency, and at the 1971 Liberal Assembly he moved the main motion on Europe, calling for the EEC to develop from a “secret cabal” to a democracy in which national sovereignties would wither away. However his diverse range of activities denied him the time to write the psephological book on Western Europe that would have established his reputation.

Exceptionally lean and almost bald apart from the odd string, Steed was a pioneer in the gay rights movement, taking up the cause years before accepting that his own sexuality lay that way.

He was an early committee member of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, and in 1971 showed his courage by speaking alongside Ray Gosling at a public meeting in Burnley over plans to open a gay club.

Michael Steed in 1967
Michael Steed in 1967 - Anthony Marshall

Michael Steed was born at Ramsgate on January 25 1940, the eldest of a farmer’s six children. Intrigued by elections from the age of 10, he helped set up Ramsgate’s Liberal association and was active in the Young Liberals.

From St Lawrence College, Ramsgate, he won a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he chaired the British Union of Liberal Students. He read Economics in his first year, then switched to Geography, and in 1963 started a PhD at Nuffield College, Oxford under the pioneering psephologist David Butler; his involvement with the BBC’s 1964 election coverage led to his not completing it.

Steed was barred from South Africa in 1960 when he tried to deliver food aid to survivors of the Sharpeville shootings. As the Young Liberals’ national vice-chairman, he stepped up the organisation’s campaigning against apartheid.

He took up his lectureship at Manchester in 1966, teaching courses on French and western European politics. He stayed until 1987, when an energy-sapping neurological illness forced his retirement. For some years he was confined to a wheelchair.

He first stood for Parliament at the 1967 Brierley Hill by-election. He fought Truro at the 1970 general election, then the 1973 Manchester Exchange by-election and Manchester Central at the 1974 general election. In 1983 he was the Liberal-SDP Alliance candidate for Burnley.

Michael Steed as the Liberal candidate for the 1967 Brierley Hill by-election, his first attempt to get into Parliament
Michael Steed as the Liberal candidate for the 1967 Brierley Hill by-election, his first attempt to get into Parliament - Anthony Marshall

He finished third each time except at Manchester Exchange, where he polled a creditable 36 per cent. But two elections after his third-place finish at Truro, David Penhaligon would capture the seat for the Liberals.

Steed also contested the 1979 European elections, for which, as party president, he had been heavily involved in the planning. Taking on Barbara Castle at Greater Manchester North, he polled 10 per cent as the Liberals flopped nationally.

In 1975, Steel and a former Campaign for Homosexual Equality colleague, Paul Temperton, founded Northern Democrat, a magazine advocating democratic regional government. This developed into the all-party Campaign for the North, pressing for devolution for the English regions as well as Scotland and Wales, with Steed its chairman. He also founded the humorous Radical Bulletin, which called him “the Venerable Steed”.

After the 1983 election, Steed decided to concentrate on academia and hope for a life peerage. But it was not long before illness caught up with him.

In retirement, he returned to his native Kent, where he became active in local Liberal Democrat politics, and in 2008 was elected to Canterbury City Council.

Steed was Honorary Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent, and a vice-president of the Electoral Reform Society.

In 1970 he married Margareta Holmstedt, a Swedish fellow radical who lectured at the University of Bradford. They separated in 1990 and were divorced in 2004. There were no children.

Earlier this year, Michael Steed and Barry Clements became civil partners.

Michael Steed, born January 25 1940, died August 30 2023

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