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Bill Pitt

Liberator obituary

Bill PittBill Pitt was a popular and convivial Liberal party colleague. For a decade and more he was very much one of "the club" of Liberals of like mind who campaigned together and socialised together. For a time he edited Radical Bulletin, then a separate internal party briefing journal. On occasions when it did not appear he always had an excuse, sometimes blaming problems with his local post office, but it was suspected that he had simply not prepared it! He had joined the party in the 1960s after, rather curiously, a few years in the Norwood Young Conservatives. He became a member of a number of party committees and was well known and liked around the party - a fact that stood him in good stead when it came to the Croydon North West by-election of October 1981.

Bill had fought the three previous general elections in Croydon North West, losing his deposit in the most recent, 1979, contest. He had, however, polled more respectably - 23.7% - in the May 1981 Greater London Council election in the identical seat. Croydon North West was technically a marginal seat with the Labour party almost but never quite gaining it from the Conservatives. In normal circumstances the Liberals could not have envisaged winning it but the circumstances when the MP died in June 1981 the situation was entirely different. The SDP had been launched three months earlier with great fanfares and an immediate public response. An alliance with the Liberal party was negotiated and when an unprepossessing by-election vacancy occurred in Warrington. Roy Jenkins bravely took it on for the SDP-Alliance and failed to win by under 2,000 votes.

Although the understanding was that the two parties should fight by-elections alternately but when Croydon came up, Liberal Leader David Steel, made public his wish that Shirley Williams should be the joint candidate. With Bill's electoral record he regarded him as a loser. As he records in his memoirs, David Steel never had much time for the party, and rather than preparing the ground by persuading party officers of the good sense of the proposal, he simply tried to bounce the party. Inevitably, the party responded by backing Bill. A party council meeting in Abingdon overwhelmingly affirmed its support for him as the candidate and he was duly nominated. This internal defeat rankled permanently with David Steel, but Shirley Williams and other SDP leaders loyally backed Bill and he won a remarkable victory on 22 October 1981, becoming the first Alliance MP to be elected as such. The point was well made at the time that if the Alliance could win a by-election in a Conservative-Labour marginal seat with a non-celebrity candidate it augured well for the future. It turned out to be Bill's fifteen minutes of fame and he lost the seat in May 1983. He was somewhat complacent about holding the seat and he spent more time on parliamentary business than was conducive to local success.

There was an important sub-text to Bill Pitt and Croydon North West. Myself and a number of party colleagues were concerned to safeguard the future of the Liberal party against an over-weening dominance of the SDP within the Alliance, which was a real possibility at the time. I wrote a booklet at the time on the philosophical challenge to Liberalism of a resurgent social democracy but the possibility of electoral eclipse was more immediate. An SDP victory in Croydon, following on the heels of Roy Jenkins' near miss in Warrington, would have created an SDP momentum of great danger to the party. Bill Pitt's victory was therefore of wider significance.

Subsequently he and his wife Janet moved to Kent and he fought Thanet South unsuccessfully at the 1987 and 1992 general elections. Thereafter he, rather perversely, joined the Labour party for whom he unsuccessfully fought local elections.

The postscript to the inauspicious attempt to replace Bill Pitt by Shirley Williams in Croydon occurred when the next vacancy occurred, in Crosby, Merseside. David Steel records that Anthony Hill, the Liberal candidate in situ there, "graciously stood down." That is not the case! The news of the sitting MP's death became known when the SDP's rolling conference had arrived in Southport. I was standing in the conference bar talking to Anthony Hill while Shirley's voice addressing the conference came over the PA system announcing from the platform that she intended to fight the by-election! Anthony, a loyal Liberal of twenty years' standing, was simply pushed aside, but felt that it was futile to try to "do a Croydon."

Bill was raised by his mother in Brixton Hill, south London, and attended Heath Clark grammar school, Croydon, and the London Nautical school before studying for a philosophy degree at North London Polytechnic (now the University of North London). In 1961 he married Janet Wearn, an artist and teacher. They had a daughter, Janet.

He worked first as a lighting engineer, then as a housing officer for Lambeth council, and finally as group training manager at the Canary Wharf group in east London. On his retirement from full-time employment in 2003 Bill got involved with a number of local voluntary organisations, particularly to do with music and photography. He also became a newsreader for the Academy FM Thanet local radio station and became a mentor to newer recruits to the station's team.

William Pitt, born 17 July 1937, died 17 November 2017.