Michael Steed (1940 – August/September 2023) was a British psephologist, political scientist, broadcaster, activist, and Liberal Democrat politician. He had a career spanning various sectors from academia to activism, leaving a significant impact on British and European politics.
Education and Early Life
Born in 1940 in Kent, Steed was the son of a farmer. He received his education at St. Lawrence College, Ramsgate, and later at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. In a significant early episode, he was denied entry by South African authorities in 1960 to Sharpeville when he attempted to deliver food aid to the victims of the Sharpeville shootings.
Between 1963 and 1965, he pursued postgraduate research at Nuffield College, Oxford, under David Butler. During this period, he was also involved with the Young Liberals, especially concerning the apartheid issue in South Africa. Steed rose to become the national Vice-Chairman of the Young Liberals.
In 1966, Steed joined Manchester University as a Lecturer in Government. He later became renowned as a psephologist, specializing in the intricate analysis of election results. He contributed to media outlets like The Observer and The Economist, making complicated election metrics like “percentage swing” understandable to the general public.
Steed was a frequent face on “election night” TV programs during the late-1960s and 1970s, often appearing alongside Bob McKenzie, who popularized the “swingometer.” Steed developed his formula for calculating electoral swing, sometimes referred to as “Steed swing.”
From 1964 to 2005, in collaboration with Professor John Curtice, Steed was responsible for the statistical analysis in David Butler’s series of Nuffield election studies, known as “The British General Election of ….”.
Political Activity and Views
Steed was a prominent member of the “radical” wing of the Liberal Party, often at odds with the mainstream party leadership. He was an advocate for focusing on ideology, principles, and policies, rather than personalities. For a time, Steed also served on the Liberal Party’s national executive.
An ardent pro-European, Steed’s work extended to continental European politics as well. In 1969, he advocated for a common European currency. He was also a supporter of constitutional reforms within the UK, including devolution and a more proportional electoral system.
Steed contested several elections as a Liberal Party candidate. These included the 1967 Brierley Hill by-election, the 1973 Manchester Exchange by-election, and the 1970 general election in Truro. In the 1979 European elections, he was the Liberal candidate for Greater Manchester North but was defeated by Labour politician Barbara Castle.
In 1976, Steed designed the new system for electing the Leader of the Liberal Party. He served as the President of the Liberal Party from 1978 to 1979. Steed was also an active member of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, and he co-founded a magazine, Northern Democrat, which later evolved into an all-party group called Campaign for the North.
Retirement and Later Years
After retiring, Steed moved back to East Kent and remained active in local Liberal Democrat politics. He served on Canterbury City Council, and he was also an Honorary Lecturer at the University of Kent.
Michael Steed passed away in late August or early September 2023. His contributions to British political science, the Liberal Party, and social issues remain influential, marking him as one of the key figures in modern British history.