Thursday, 23 April 2015

When 1,438 Voters Stopped A Conservative Fourth Term

One of the closest general election results was that of October 1964:

  • Labour - 317
  • Conservative grouping - 303 (includes 24 Scottish Unionist, 12 Ulster Unionist and 6 National Liberal)
  • Liberal - 9
  • The Speaker - 1

The Speaker was Harry Hylton-Foster, the MP for the Cities of London & Westminster, who in September 1965 would be the last Speaker to die in office. The Labour majority was a solid 5 - these days a party getting an overall majority of 5 would be seen as a landslide.

After three successive elections (October 1951, May 1955 and October 1959) where they had just 6 MPs, the Liberals were back to the level they enjoyed in February 1950, as they began the 45-year climb back to Government.

This is the last election with just 3 parties or groupings - in 1959 the only MP elected outside these groups/parties was David Robertson in Caithness & Sutherland, who had resigned the Conservative whip in January 1959 and been re-elected as an Independent, but in 1964 he was retiring (his seat went Liberal). The March 1966 election would see Gerry Fitt win Belfast West under the banner of the Republican Labour Party.

This was also the Scottish Unionists' last election, and the National Liberals' penultimate election, as both groups were fully absorbed into the Conservative Party in the 1960s - while in the following decade the Ulster Unionists travelled in the opposite direction.

The sitting Prime Minister, Alec Douglas-Home, who was the Scottish Unionist MP for Kinross & West Perthshire, had been in office for just under a year.

But just how close was this election?

The full set of results is available, as well as the Labour marginal seats. Each of these falling would see the number of Labour MPs fall by 1 - but not necessarily the number of Conservative MPs increase by 1, as such a seat could fall to the Liberals.

We could also look at the Liberal marginals, but in the first of these (Caithness & Sutherland), Labour are the runners-up. You might wonder why I have ignored Bristol North East, which is listed as more marginal. The list of Liberal marginals also includes some National Liberal seats, whose MPs would take the Conservative whip.

The closest Liberal/Conservative marginal in 1964 was Inverness, where Russell Johnston was beginning his 32-year stint as an MP (eventually becoming the first deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats) by unseating the sitting Scottish Unionist MP, Neil McLean.

We need to ask how many votes need to shift in a constituency for it to change hands. If the majority is even, divide by 2 and add 1. If the majority is odd, divide by 2 and add 0.5. For example, if A has a majority of 100 over B, then 51 of A's voters switching to B means B wins with a majority of 2.

Labour's most vulnerable seat was Brighton Kemptown, where the Conservatives' David James, who had held the seat since the 1959 election, lost to Dennis Hobden (who would hold the seat in 1966 but lose to the Conservatives' Andrew Bowden at the June 1970 general election). James would become a retread, as MP for Dorset North in 1970, until retiring at the May 1979 general election. Just 4 Labour voters needed to switch for James to have hung on here. Lab 316, C 304, L 9. Lab maj. 3

Next is Ealing North, where the Conservatives' John Barter, who had held the seat since the 1955 election, lost to William Molloy, who would hold the seat until being defeated by the Conservatives' Harry Greenway at the 1979 election. 14 Labour voters would have needed to switch for Barter to remain the MP. Lab 315, C 305, L 9. Lab maj. 1

Next is Wellingborough, where the Conservatives' Michael Hamilton, who had held the seat since the 1959 election, lost to Harry Howarth. Howarth died in August 1969, and the by-election in December 1969 saw the seat return to the Conservatives, with Peter Fry winning. By this time, Hamilton was back in the Commons, having held Salisbury for the Conservatives at the February 1965 by-election - a seat he would represent until retiring at the June 1983 general election. 24 Labour voters would have needed to switch for Hamilton to remain at Wellingborough. Lab 314, C 306, L 9. Lab maj. -1

At this point we are in hung Parliament territory - which has just needed 42 Labour voters to switch to the Conservatives.

Next is Norfolk North, where Bert Hazell began his parliamentary career by holding this seat for Labour. He was defeated by the Conservatives' Ralph Howell at the 1970 election, and died, aged 101, in January 2009. Just 27 Labour voters switching to the Conservatives would have seen Frank Easton win this seat. Lab 313, C 307, L 9. Lab maj. -3

Next is its parliamentary neighbour, King's Lynn, where the Conservatives' Denys Bullard, who had held the seat since the 1959 election, lost to Labour's Derek Page, who held the seat until being defeated by the Conservative (and later Social Democrat) Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler at the 1970 election. Just 53 Labour voters switching to the Conservatives would have seen Bullard remaining an MP. Lab 312, C 308, L 9. Lab maj. -5

Next is Birmingham Yardley, where the Conservatives' Leonard Cleaver, who had won the seat from Labour in 1959, lost it back to Labour, with Ioan Evans winning it. Evans then lost the seat to the Conservatives' Derek Coombs at the 1970 election. This was not the end of Evans' career, though, as in February 1974 he became MP for Aberdare (a town that my family nearly moved to in 1984) until his death in February 1984 (by which time it had become Cynon Valley). Just 85 Labour voters switching to the Conservatives would have seen Cleaver remaining an MP. Lab 311, C 309, L 9. Lab maj. -7

The 1964 election wasn't just about the Conservatives and Labour, as we can see when we come to Colne Valley, where Patrick Duffy - who had held the seat for Labour at a by-election in March 1963 - narrowly saw off a challenge from the Liberals' Richard Wainwright, who had brought the Liberals up to second place (from third in 1959) at the by-election. Wainwright would win this from Duffy at the 1966 election, lose it back to Labour (David Clark, who later served in Tony Blair's first Cabinet) in 1970, recapture it in February 1974 and remain its MP until retiring at the June 1987 general election. Duffy would return to Parliament - as MP for Sheffield Attercliffe - in 1970, and hold that seat until retiring at the April 1992 general election. Just 94 Labour voters switching to the Liberals would have seen Wainwright win this seat a couple of years earlier than he did. Lab 310, C 309, L 10. Lab maj. -9

Next is Glasgow Pollok, a seat which had been held by the Scottish Unionists since its creation for the December 1918 general election. John George, who had held the seat since the 1955 election, was retiring, and it was won by Labour's Alex Garrow. Garrow died in December 1966, and at the by-election of March 1967, the seat was won by the Conservatives' Esmond Wright. Just 149 Labour voters switching to the Scottish Unionists would have seen Bob Kernohan become an MP. C 310, Lab 309, L 10. C maj. -9

Just 450 Labour voters needed to switch (94 of these to the Liberals) for the Conservatives to be the largest party in a hung Parliament.

The next seat is Preston South, which the Conservatives' Alan Green had held since winning it from Labour in 1955. At the time of the 1964 election, Green was the Financial Secretary to the Treasury - with the post of Chief Secretary to the Treasury not having been created, the Financial Secretary was deputy to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Green lost the seat to Labour's Peter Mahon, failed to win it back in 1966, and then unseated Mahon in 1970. In February 1974 Green lost to Labour's Stan Thorne. Just 175 Labour voters switching to the Conservatives would have seen Green remaining an MP. C 311, Lab 308, L 10. C maj. -7

Next we have Meriden, which the Conservatives' Gordon Matthews had won from Labour in 1959. He lost it to Christopher Rowland, who died in November 1967, with the resulting by-election in March 1968 being won by the Conservatives' Keith Speed. Just 182 Labour voters switching to the Conservatives would have seen Matthews remaining an MP (and, as in Glasgow Pollok, preventing a by-election). C 312, Lab 307, L 10. C maj. -5

Whenever we go back through old election results, it is easy to be surprised at some of the constituency results - such as Meriden going Labour, something which Labour couldn't manage in its 1997 landslide.

In part, this can be due to long-term changes, such as the decline in Conservative vote in urban parts of northern England and in Scotland - in the 1979 election, in Glasgow the Conservatives were reduced to just Glasgow Hillhead, and when its MP, Tom Galbraith, died in January 1982, the Conservatives ceased to have any Glasgow MPs - and they have never had a Glasgow MP since. 1979 was the last election when the Conservatives had any MPs in Liverpool (Liverpool Garston and Liverpool Wavertree). In some areas the Conservative/Labour battle was more orange/green than blue/red.

When I looked at how Southampton's constituencies have changed, I mentioned, in passing, that Eastleigh has changed. The current constituency is to the east of Southampton, with the town of Eastleigh on its northern edge. Go back to the 1960s, and the constituency included land to the north of Southampton, and stretching down along Southampton's western border, covering parts of what are now in New Forest East, Romsey & Southampton North and Winchester.

There may be constituencies in 1965 and 2015 with the same name, but covering different areas - especially ones named after towns. After all, both Eastleighs contained the town of Eastleigh. It was just which direction they then went in that differed. So we would not be comparing like with like.

That Eastleigh constituency was, surprisingly enough, a Conservative/Labour marginal from its creation in 1955, until it became a safe Conservative seat in 1970.

Meriden is a classic example of extreme redrawing. Here the cause was the Local Government Act 1972, which contained some radical changes - including splitting the county of Warwickshire up, with an urban core round Birmingham and Coventry (including the town of Meriden) ending up in the new metropolitan county of West Midlands, and part of Warwickshire around Tamworth ending up being added to Staffordshire. Hence Meriden was a constituency in 3 counties (Staffordshire, Warwickshire, West Midlands), and as the practice is not to have constituencies crossing county boundaries, it was heavily altered at the next set of changes, for the 1983 election.

Don't compare the marginal Meriden with the present day safe Conservative seat - the closest comparison should be with Warwickshire North, which does indeed flip back and forth between Labour and the Conservatives.

It can feel with election results that often a party has one shot, just one chance. You see constituencies which go marginal and then safe again, with the challenge being seen off. For every Chesterfield, which took years of the Liberal Democrats slowly building up their vote until winning it in 2001, there are the Chelmsford Wests, the Erith & Thamesmeads, the Renfrewshire Wests....., the seats which if only the Liberal/Social Democratic Alliance had done a little bit better in 1983, would probably have had a sitting Liberal Democrat MP seeking re-election in 1997. But in these cases, the Alliance had one chance, and from then on its vote slipped away.

The next constituency is Dover, where the Conservatives' John Arbuthnot (whose son, James was the first MP to announce he was retiring at the next election, having been MP for Hampshire North East for the past 18 years) won the seat from Labour at the 1950 election, lost to Labour's David Ennals. Ennals lost the seat to the Conservatives' Peter Rees at the 1970 election, but returned to Parliament as MP for Norwich North at the February 1974 election, serving there until losing it to the Conservatives at the 1983 election. The peak of Ennals' career was in the Cabinet as Health & Social Security Secretary in the Callaghan Government of April 1976 to May 1979. Just 210 Labour voters switching to the Conservatives would have seen Arbuthnot remain an MP. C 313, Lab 306, L 10. C maj. -3

The next constituency is Birmingham All Saints, where the Conservatives' John Hollingworth, who had won the seat from Labour at the 1959 election, lost to Labour's Brian Walden. Walden represented the seat until the February 1974 election, when it was mostly absorbed into Birmingham Ladywood, which he then continued to represent until he became the Crown Steward & Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds in June 1977. Just 236 Labour voters switching to the Conservatives would have seen Hollingworth remain an MP. C 314, Lab 305, L 10. C maj. -1

That brings us, finally, to the constituency of Clapham, where the Conservatives' Alan Glyn, who had won the seat from Labour at the 1959 election, lost to Labour's Margaret McKay - who would hold the seat until retiring at the 1970 election. Glyn returned to Parliament at the same 1970 election, as MP for Windsor, remaining its MP until retiring at the 1992 election (that seat had become Windsor & Maidenhead at the February 1974 election). Just 279 Labour voters switching to the Conservatives would have seen Glyn remain an MP. C 315, Lab 304, L 10. C maj. 1

This switch from a Labour majority of 5 to a Conservative majority of 1 has involved just 1,438 voters switching from Labour to the Conservatives.

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