Thirty years ago, on March 29th 1979, I won my seat in the House of Commons , elected to represent Liverpool Edge Hill.
With a majority of 8,133, a swing of 32%, and 64% of the votes, Edge Hill briefly became one of those record breaking by-elections. The Guinness Book of Records also listed me as the “baby” of the House and its shortest-lived Member – serving just two and a half days.
The week of March 29th was a dramatic time and it would become a tragic one – with some echoes in contemporary events.
On Wednesday March 28th, the night before my by-election, the Government of James Callaghan faced a crucial vote of no confidence.
The vote was taken against the backdrop of the Winter of Discontent. Throughout the country the electorate was seething and there was an irresistible desire for political change.
In Liverpool , endless strikes had infamously led to a refusal by grave diggers to bury the dead. The streets stank of uncollected refuse and pickets were permanently camped outside factory gates and public buildings. I sensed that voters in this fiercely Labour city – and in one of the safest seats in the country, held by them since World War One – were determined to stage a ballot box revolt. It was time for a change.
At Westminster, meanwhile, a desperate last ditch attempt was being made by Labour’s Whips to avert disaster in the Division Lobbies and to gather in every possible vote.
They even flew over one Northern Ireland Nationalist MP, Frank Maguire – only to find that when the vote of no confidence came, he abstained.
At nineteen minutes past ten, when the Speaker, George Thomas, announced the result, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Opposition had won by the narrowest of margins: by just one vote. But a one vote majority was enough and it precipitated a General Election. Some defiant Labour MPs brandished their Order Papers and sang the Red Flag.
At that moment I was still in full flow, addressing the last meeting of my by-election campaign at an eve of poll rally held at Wavertree’s Lawrence Road School. The two other advertised speakers, David Steel and John Pardoe, had failed to materialise because of the vote in the House.
As the rally drew to a close, I vividly remember being handed a piece of paper that said: Government have lost, 310 votes to 311, General Election called for May 4th. Jim Callaghan had become the first Prime Minister since Ramsay Macdonald, in 1924, to be forced by the Commons into holding an election . He told Parliament that he intended “to take his case to the country.”
Meanwhile, at Edge Hill I told voters that their verdict the next day could help to shape that debate in the country – but was also privately anxious that voters might stay at home knowing that they would have to go to the polls again in the General Election four weeks later.
I needn’t have worried.
From the moment I saw Liverpool people streaming into the polling stations I knew that the election would be mine.
Even before the voting began a “Good Morning” letter had been delivered by an army of volunteers to every home in the constituency. One Liberal MP, Clement Freud, travelled from the Commons to Liverpool over night and commandeered Capaldi’s café, to cook bacon and egg breakfasts for the helpers. Throughout the day the excitement was electric and change was in the air.
When the result was declared at the city’s St.George’s Hall, the result represented a seismic shift away from Labour. Paradoxically Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative candidate lost his deposit.
Political commentators tried to make sense of it all but the runes were comparatively easy to read. The same desire for change that had propelled me in to the Commons would sweep through the country and the Conservatives would be the beneficiaries.
For the Liberals the by election represented a much needed burst of oxygen. Unpopular for propping up Jim Callaghan during the Lib-Lab Pact, they had been languishing at 6% in the polls. One of their MPs, the former leader, Jeremy Thorpe, was on a conspiracy to murder charge. Morale was desperately low and, with pundits predicting wipe out, the private calculation had been that their 13 MPs would be reduced from 13 to 6. David Steel later remarked that the by-election win had helped avert catastrophe and 11 of us would make it back. Two years later, with the formation of the SDP Steel was able to forge the Liberal-SDP Alliance.
But in March 1979 that week of dramatic events concluded in terrible tragedy.
The day after the by-election, on Friday March 30th, Irish Republicans attached a bomb to the car of the Conservative Northern Ireland Spokesman, Airey Neave. He was killed when the bomb exploded, as he drove out of the House of Commons car park. A close friend and advisor of Margaret Thatcher’s, this outrage was the precursor of many more killings. As recent events in Northern Ireland have demonstrated, even the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, has not seen the total elimination of this curse of murderous violence.
As Parliament was being on prorogued on the following Tuesday, April 3rd, I took my seat. Immediately after Prime Minister’s Question Time, having waited apprehensively at the Bar of the House, the Speaker called “Member’s desirous of taking their seats” to come forward.
As I went forward to the Dispatch Box Ted Heath quipped “I see they’re recruiting them from school theses days” . After swearing the Oath of Allegiance on the Bible and shaking Mr.SpeakerThomas’ hand I went to sit on the Liberal Bench – alongside Cyril Smith. Never lost for a barb, Denis Skinner, the proverbial Beast of Bolsover, was on hand to describe us as “little and large.” Two hours later, immediately after Barbara Castle, made her “swan song” speech to the Commons, I made my Maiden Speech. In other circumstances this would have been seen as premature and precocious – but the House understood that for me it might be a case of now or never.
I remarked that following Airey Neave’s cowardly murder the House “was bathed in sorrow”, that in a free society “the bullet can never replace the ballot” and I pointed to the progress made in Liverpool in banishing the blight of sectarianism, and conquering bigotry of all kinds. I reflected on Liverpool’s unemployment crisis, poor housing and deprivation and contrasted it with grandiose “pie in the sky projects.” I also talked about the low esteem in which politicians were generally held by the public. Some things, I suppose, never change.
Thirty years later, and from my perch as an Independent, I still believe that political service is a high calling, that democracy, with all its failings, is worth fighting for, and that the best guarantor of our freedoms and liberty is the continuing ability of the electors to turn things on their heads and, once in a while, to vote for change.