Michael Meadowcroft was Liberal MP for Leeds West from 1983 to 1987, confounding sceptics to win a solidly inner-city seat by using the community politics approach which he had helped to develop over the preceding fifteen years. He was the main, indeed very nearly the only, philosopher of applied Liberalism within the old Liberal Party from the late 1960s onwards. In 1989 he founded the continuing Liberal Party, after opposing the Liberal/SDP merger the previous year.
Michael James Meadowcroft was born on 6 March 1942 and grew up in Southport. He joined the Liberal Party in 1958, around the same time that he left King George V School to become a bank clerk. He became Chairman of the Merseyside Region of the National League of Young Liberals in 1961.
He joined the Liberal Party’s full-time staff in 1962, becoming local government officer. In August 1967 he became the party’s full-time regional officer in Yorkshire, and the following year began his marathon stint on Leeds City Council, which lasted until his election to Parliament. For most of this period he was group leader. He also served on West Yorkshire County Council 1973-76 and 1981-83.
In 1970 he was appointed assistant secretary of the Joseph Rowntree Social Services Trust, a post which involved contact with African liberation movements and numerous trips to central and southern Africa. He went on secondment to Bradford University in 1975, being awarded an MPhil in 1978 for a thesis on Leeds political history 1903-26. He then became general secretary of the Bradford Metropolitan Council for Voluntary Service until 1983.
Within the party, he served as chairman of the Liberal Assembly Committee from 1976-81. He was the party’s President-elect in 1987, but the merger prevented him taking office.
Meadowcroft’s track record in urban local government, and in numerous party offices, gave an experience and credibility to his writings on Liberal philosophy which few at the time could match. His pamphlets and speeches established him as an articulate critic of a party leadership which saw radical liberalism as an electoral liability. He provided much of the philosophical underpinning to the party’s local campaigning, providing the why when most other party bodies were interested mainly in the how of community politics.
He was profoundly suspicious of the proposed alliance with the Social Democratic Party in 1981, writing a sceptical pamphlet, Social Democracy – Barrier or Bridge?, for the radical magazine Liberator. As he wrote: ‘The SDP is at one and the same time the greatest opportunity and the greatest danger to Liberalism for thirty years. Without careful philosophic analysis and political vigilance the relationship could be that of the spider and the fly’. The growing conviction that David Steel had willingly allowed the Liberal Party to become the fly informed his subsequent attitude to the Alliance and the merger.
Meadowcroft had fought Leeds West in both 1974 general elections, but stood down in 1979. He was readopted for 1983 and won the seat against the expectations both of the national party and of the band of friends and sympathisers who came from around the country to help. Despite good personal relationships with many Social Democrats, his mistrust of that party grew through his spell in Parliament. During this time he served as health spokesman, and was a whip, though his failure to become Chief Whip in 1985 was a source of considerable rancour. He lost his seat in 1987, later publicly blaming David Owen’s flirtation with Thatcherism for his voters’ disaffection with the Alliance.
He was elected to the Liberal/SDP merger negotiating team, but was among the Liberal negotiators who walked out in January 1988 over what they were convinced were the deal’s unacceptable terms. At the Blackpool special assembly later that month he led the last-ditch No campaign. He briefly stayed on to help Alan Beith’s unsuccessful campaign to become leader of the merged party.
In the early spring of 1989 he announced the refounding of the Liberal Party. As political and financial disaster engulfed the Social and Liberal Democrats its prospects seemed promising, and many former Liberal members, infuriated by the new party’s contempt for its Liberal heritage, seriously considered joining him. But his party needed parliamentary defections to achieve lift-off, and these did not materialise. The SLD’s adoption of the title Liberal Democrats in autumn 1989 encouraged most Liberals to remain rather than make the leap into Meadowcroft’s party. Since then it has held a few dozen council seats consistently, and fought enough general election seats to secure broadcasting time, but has only very rarely saved a deposit. Its annual assembly seldom exceeds a hundred attendees.
Meadowcroft was appointed a senior visiting fellow of the Policy Studies Institute in 1989, and became Chairman of the Electoral Reform Society. This coincided with the fall of the Iron Curtain and sudden demand for expertise in political campaigning and election organising in eastern Europe and the Third World. He set up ERS international consultancy and has since been on thirty-three missions in nineteen countries, assisting the transition to democracy, including Malawi, Palestine, Russia, Bosnia, Bulgaria and Cambodia.
Away from politics he is an enthusiastic traditional jazz clarinettist and saxophonist, and for some years led his own Granny Lee’s All-Stars. He has also been a director of the Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House. He married Elizabeth Bee in 1987, and has a son and daughter from his dissolved first marriage.
Meadowcroft is still President of the independent Liberal Party, but, spending most of his time abroad, is little involved in running it. His presence was the single largest factor in giving it credibility in 1989, and were he to leave it would probably destroy what remains. He fought Leeds West for it in 1992, being narrowly beaten into fourth place by the Liberal Democrats. He did not contest the 1997 election. His continuing involvement in such a peripheral party is viewed as an admirable act of principle by its members, as a regrettable waste by his admirers in the Liberal Democrats, and, no doubt, as the best place for him by those who were always uneasy with his uncompromising Liberalism.
Publications include: Success in Local Government (1971), Liberals and a Popular Front (1974), Bluffer’s Guide to Politics (1976), Liberal Values for a New Decade (1980), Social Democracy – Barrier or Bridge? (1981), Liberalism and the Left (1982), Liberalism and the Right (1983), Liberalism Today and Tomorrow (1989), The Case for the Liberal Party (1992), and Focus on Freedom (1997).
Mark Smulian is a journalist. Since the mid-1980s, he has been involved with the production of Liberator magazine and with writing for the Liberal Revue’s satirical shows at conferences.