Michael Steed

Michael Steed is a British psephologist, political scientist, broadcaster, activist and Liberal Democrat politician. He was born in 1940 in Kent, where his father was a farmer. He has written extensively on parties and elections.

He was educated at St. Lawrence College, Ramsgate, and at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. In 1960 the South African authorities refused him entry to Sharpeville to deliver food aid to victims of the Sharpeville shootings.[1]

From 1963 to 1965 Steed undertook postgraduate research at Nuffield College, Oxford, under Dr David Butler. At the same time he was active in the Young Liberals, particularly on the issue of apartheid in South Africa.[2] He became national Vice-Chairman of the Young Liberals.

In 1966 he became Lecturer in Government at Manchester University, a post he held for many years until taking early retirement through ill health. As a psephologist he became a specialist in the detailed analysis of election results from a sociological point of view, for many years providing media such as The Observer and The Economist with texts making such complexities as "percentage swing" accessible to the lay reader.[3] In the later 1960s and throughout the 1970s he made regular television appearances on "election night" programmes, often at the side of Bob McKenzie who popularised the "swingometer" based on the concept of swing devised by David Butler.[4] Steed was to develop a more complex formula for calculating swing, sometimes known among psephologists as "Steed swing" to differentiate it from "Butler swing".

From 1964 until 2005, Steed – latterly in conjunction with John Curtice – was responsible for the statistical analysis in David Butler's regular Nuffield election studies entitled "The British General Election of ....".[5][6]

Steed was a leading member of the "radical" wing of the Liberal Party which in the late 1960s and 1970s found itself at odds with the parliamentary party and its leader Jeremy Thorpe over a number of issues. In particular, Steed and his colleagues felt that "the party must shift attention away from personalities to a wide-ranging debate about ideology, principles and policies".[7][8] He contributed several articles to the radical monthly, New Outlook. For a time he was an elected member of the Party's national executive.

Michael Steed has always been an ardent pro-European, and his study of parties and elections soon came to embrace continental as well as UK politics.[9] In 1969 he called for a common European currency.[10]

At the 1971 Liberal Assembly, he successfully moved the major pro-European resolution, noting however that the then EEC, in which decisions were taken by "a secret cabal", must be made more democratic. National sovereignty, he argued, would "die away as a European democracy of widely diffused power was created and exercised at all levels" in "a close political union of the people of Europe".[11][12]

Michael Steed consistently called for wide-ranging constitutional reform, including devolution all round, with elected regional governments, a more proportional election system, and the abolition of a Prime Minister's right to dissolve Parliament on a whim.[13] This last objective was finally achieved by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011.[14]

He stood as Liberal Party candidate in the 1967 Brierley Hill by-election[15] and the 1973 Manchester Exchange by-election, in which he pushed the Conservatives into a poor third place.[16] In the 1970 general election he was the party's candidate for Truro. In the February 1974 general election he stood in Manchester Central.[17] In the 1979 European elections, he was the Liberal candidate for Greater Manchester North, where he was defeated by Barbara Castle.[18] In the 1983 general election he was the party's candidate in Burnley.

In 1976 Michael Steed designed the new system for the election of the Leader of the Liberal Party.[19]

Steed was elected President of the Liberal Party 1978–79.[20]

For many years Michael Steed was a leading light in the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, serving on its Executive Committee and for a time as its Treasurer. At a time when there was still great hostility to gay rights, he spoke out at public meetings, including an acrimonious one in Burnley in 1971 over the proposed establishment of a gay club, at which he shared the platform with Ray Gosling. This meeting has come to be seen as a watershed in the emergence of a national grass-roots gay rights movement in Britain.[21]

In 1975, with his former CHE colleague Paul Temperton, he founded Northern Democrat, a magazine calling for democratic regional government.[22][23] This later developed into the Campaign for the North, an all-party group pressing for devolution for the English regions as well as Scotland and Wales, with Steed as chairman and Temperton as Director, using funding from the Rowntree Trust.[24][25]

In retirement, Michael Steed has returned to his native East Kent, where he remains active in local Liberal Democrat politics. In July 2008 he was elected to Canterbury City Council.

He is currently Honorary Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. He has also been Senior Research Fellow of the Federal Trust. He is a Trustee of the Arthur McDougall Fund and of the Canterbury Commemoration Society, and a Vice-President of the Electoral Reform Society.

In 2012, Michael Steed was elected to the Council of the Social Liberal Forum.[26]

Publications include

(with Dan Mateer and Jon Steel) Charter for Youth, National League of Young Liberals, 1964. OCLC 315337463

"Voting in Cities: The 1964 Borough Elections", in Urban Studies, 5, no. 3 (1968): 351–352. Sage, London. ISSN 0042-0980

(with Bryan Keith-Lucas and Peter Hall) The Maud Report (Royal Commission on Local Government), New Society Publications, London, 1970, ISBN 0-900438-01-0

(with David M Clark and Sally Marshall) Greater Manchester votes: a guide to the new metropolitan authorities, Stockport, 1973, ISBN 0-9502932-0-2

Who's a Liberal in Europe?, North West Community Newspapers, Manchester, 1975, OCLC 4034678

"Parties in the European Parliament", in Journal of Common Market Studies, vol. 15, Oxford, 1976. ISSN 0021-9886

(with Ralph Bancroft and Ben Sawbridge) Self-government for the British, Prism, Watford, 1976. OCLC 333607215

Fair elections or fiasco?: Proposals for a sensible voting system for the European Parliament, National Committee for Electoral Reform, London, 1977. OCLC 4428843

(with S.E. Finer) "Politics of Great Britain" in Roy C. Macridis et al. (eds.), Modern Political Systems: Europe, (4th edn), Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1978. ISBN 978-0-13-597187-1

"The Liberal Party" in H. Drucker (ed.), Multi-Party Britain, Macmillan, London, 1979. ISBN 978-0-333-24056-4

(with John Curtice) From Warrington and Croydon to Downing St.: How to sort out the psephological details of a Liberal-Social Democrat alliance, North West Community Newspapers, Manchester, 1981. ISBN 978-0-907803-00-3

(with David Faull) First past the post: The great British class handicap sponsored by Margaret Thatcher and the Labour Party, LAGER, London, 1981. OCLC 222101152

"Voters, Parties and Money" in Parliamentary Affairs, vol. 35, Oxford University Press, 1982. OCLC 13162457

(with John Curtice) "Electoral Choice and The Production of Government: The Changing Operation of the Electoral System in the United Kingdom since 1955", in British Journal of Political Science, vol. 12, Cambridge University Press, 1982. ISSN 0007-1234

"The Formation of Governments in the United Kingdom" in Political Quarterly, Blackwell, Oxford, vol.54, 1983. ISSN 0032-3179

"The European Parliament" in Bogdanor and Butler (eds), Democracy and elections: Electoral systems and their political consequences, Cambridge, 1983, ISBN 0-521-25295-4

"The Alliance: A critical history", in New Outlook vol. 22 No 3, Prism, Guildford, 1983. OCLC 78212441

(with John Curtice) One in four: An examination of the Alliance performance at constituency level in the 1983 general election, Association of Liberal Councillors, Hebden Bridge, W. Yorkshire, 1984. ISBN 978-0-901651-05-1

"Dr Reece and the proportional loss hypothesis" in Representation, vol. 25, Routledge (for the McDougall Trust), London, 1985. ISSN 0034-4893

"The Constituency" in Vernon Bogdanor (ed.), Representatives of the People? Parliamentarians and Constituencies in Western Democracies, Gower, Aldershot, 1985. European Centre for Political Studies. ISBN 978-0-566-00878-8

(with John Curtice) "Proportionality and Exaggeration in the British Electoral System" in Electoral Studies, vol. 5, No 3, Butterworths, Guildford, 1986. OCLC 71618129

"The core—periphery dimension of British politics", Political Geography Quarterly, Volume 5, Issue 4, Supplement 1, October 1986, Pages S91-S103, doi:10.1016/0260-9827(86)90060-1

(with Raymond Plant) PR for Europe: Proposals to change the electoral system of the European Parliament, Federal Trust, London, 1997, ISBN 0-901573-66-3

"Will devolution change British parties?" in Representation, vol.36, Routledge (for the McDougall Trust), 1999, ISSN 1749-4001

(with John Curtice) "And now for the Commons? Lessons from Britain's first experience with proportional representation", in Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, vol.10, 2000, ISSN 1745-7297

(with Roger Morgan) Choice and Representation in The European Union, Tauris (for the Federal Trust), London, 2002, ISBN 0-901573-73-6

(with John Curtice and Stephen Fisher) "An Analysis of the Results", in British Politicians and European Elections 2004 (Ed. Butler and Westlake), Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2005, ISBN 978-1-4039-3585-4

"Defining Democracy" in Representation, vol.41, Routledge (for the McDougall Trust), 2005, ISSN 1749-4001

Party political offices
Preceded by
Gruffydd Evans
President of the Liberal Party
Succeeded by
Richard Holme


  1. "Not allowed in Sharpeville: Cambridge student barred", The Guardian, London, 23 August 1960.
  2. "Young Liberals protest to Home Secretary", The Guardian, London, 30 March 1964.
  3. E.g. Peter Pulzer and Michael Steed, "What your votes foretell", The Observer, London, 12 April 1964.
  4. E.g. "The Night of the Machines: Clive James on the BBC's great election spectacular", The Observer, 13 October 1974.
  5. Richard Rose, "The Nuffield election studies come of age", The Times, London, 27 October 1966, p.13.
  6. David McKie, "A man with a franchise to unlock the secret of the ballot", The Guardian, London, 15 April 1988.
  7. "Liberal calls to end 'slanging': Leader will face his critics", The Times, London, 17 June 1968, p.2.
  8. "Renewed challenge to Thorpe leadership", The Guardian, London, 15 September 1969.
  9. E.g. Michael Steed, "De Gaulle no longer a 'national' leader", The Guardian, London, 23 December 1965.
  10. "Flexible pound urged", The Times, London, 20 September 1969, p.15.
  11. "Common Market poll rejected", The Guardian, London, 18 September 1971.
  12. "Goal of unity in EEC", The Times, 18 September 1971, p.23.
  13. See e.g. Michael Steed, "Changing the rules of the general election game", The Times, 19 June 1975, p.14.
  14. Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011
  15. "Liberal choice is lecturer", The Guardian, London, 8 April 1967.
  16. John Chartres, "Domestic issues dominate by-election", The Times, London, 14 June 1973, p.3.
  17. The Times, London, 14 February 1974, p.7.
  18. "David Boothroyd's United Kingdom Election Results".
  19. "As Thorpe storm rises Steel says 'I'm staying'", The Observer, London, 7 March 1976.
  20. "Next Liberal president", The Guardian, 7 October 1977.
  21. "Tempers fly at 'club' meeting", Burnley Express, 3 August 1971.
  22. "Power to the North urged", The Guardian, 7 February 1975.
  23. "Growing concern in North at devolution proposals", The Times, London, 4 November 1976, p.4.
  24. John Chartres, "Northern campaign against 'London chauvinism'", The Times, London, 30 August 1977, p.3.
  25. James Lewis, "Crying halt to South-east oligarchy: Northern grass roots movement seeks an end to 'over-centralisation'", The Guardian, London, 23 May 1978.
  26. "Social Liberal Forum announce newly elected Council". Social Liberal Forum. 9 September 2012.
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