History CP early 50s early 60s


In the electoral sphere, those Communists, the vast majority of active members remained loyal, who wanted to see the Party restored to its level of vitality before the revisionist onslaught now worked overtime to project it in their communities.  Oddly, the Party’s electoral profile took a turn for the better, despite retrospective judgements often made by some commentators that Hungary and the 20th congress had weakened the Party, it did not seem so on the ground. This often arose out of the sheer tenacity and talent of leading activists.

It seems odd that so many commentators have assumed that loosing large numbers of members in the aftermath of 1956, necessarily damaged Communists electorally. For all the furore over Hungary and the Khrushchev speech, one measure of the Party’s strength is to consider that the average vote per Communist candidate fell only but a little from 1,950 in 1955 to 1,716 in 1959 in the national general elections of those years. But more stunningly, Communist electoral success took the form of a rapidly growing strength best seen at a local level that did not in effect show a recovery from 1956 but a recovery from the losses that had occurred at the beginning of the cold war. 1956 was mainly a convenient moment for those who had not already lost courage to permit themselves the luxury to do so. As far as its effect on working people is concerned, it did not seem to do any harm, some might say a principled stance actually brought some respect. Far from losses at the ballot box, the period from 1958 to 1964 saw the most impressive growth in the Communist Party by any sensible measure or standard than had been seen since the 1930s.

In fact, during the 1958 local elections, most Communist candidates saw much increased votes and fairly sizeable shares of the poll. Voters faced with just a Tory to vote for, with the alternative being a Communist, did not seem that exercised about the choice. Lee Chadwick in Leiston took 579 votes against the 702 for her opponent, being beaten by only 123 votes. Against only a Labour candidate, Stan Davies in Ystrad won 415 votes to the winner’s 1,652, a very respectable one quarter of the Labour vote. In North St Pancras, Jock Nicholson lost but had 1,631 votes, whereas in Stepney, Communist councillor – one of four – Solly Kaye was returned once again as a member of the borough council with 1,673 votes. In North Battersea, John Evans had 863 votes, whilst Joe Bent won 612 votes in Southwark, Lena Prior 207 in Stroud Green, Middlesex. Percy Denny had a crack in Dagenham and, whilst his 69 votes sound small beer, he was only some forty votes behind the Tory and had 7% of the Labour vote.

From small wards to larger ones, the Party’s intervention was not too depressing at all. The 78 votes for John Parry on the island of Anglesey represented over 25% of the winning Independent’s vote, and Chris Evans’ 962 votes in the Welsh Dulais Valley was 30% of the Labour winner’s. Communist votes in a wide range of contests had significantly increased over the 1955 figures:

1955  1959

Gateshead    38  142
Chatham     94  161
Ordsall Park (Salford)   103  175
Saltley (Birmingham)  99  225
Old Swan (Liverpool)  66  191
Muswell Hill (Hornsey)  166  223

If this was a Party in crisis, then the electorate did not seem to think so. It was by no means an optimistic gloss for the Party to conclude that “(t)he county (council) results show that after the difficult period of the last two years the Communist Party is making progress on the municipal front.” [World News April 26th 1958]

72,000 people had voted Communist in the 1958 municipal elections, more than twice the number that done so in the General Election of 1955. No doubt that 72,000 figure could have been more than doubled if more candidates had been able to stand than the 245 fielded. Now this kind of number had been the actual number of councillors not candidates that the Party had been able to claim in 1946 before the onset of the cold war. Considered in that vein, the Party had clearly taken one hell of a knock. But had Hungary and the Khrushev speech caused problems that could be considered a crisis? In the immediate aftermath, even the Party had at times thought that not an inappropriate word. If this was a Party in crisis in its relations with working class people in the communities and workplaces in which members were active, it does not feel like it; not if we compare the electoral position of the Communists as the 1950s were expiring with the position at the beginning of the decade, 1956 and all that notwithstanding, what we get is a feel of positive advance not decline!

In 1958, 21 Communists were elected as councillors – four unopposed! This was a net gain of eight seats. Nine Communists had come “within striking distance of victory”. In the last comparable elections, in 1955, there had been 15 Communist councillors won, itself a net gain of six on 1952. It has been often suggested that the Party was simply based on some old `little Moscows’, mining villages that had stood out from the rest in the trials and tribulations of the past.  It is true that in 1958 Scotland had 11 of the remaining Communist councillors, and that their 56 candidates shared 21,333 votes; whilst Wales had 6 Communist councillors and their 37 candidates won 21,077 votes. It is also true that many Communist councillors were also leading NUM activists, such as Walter Jones in Risca and Andrew Mitchell in Fife. Whilst, in an unpropitious year of 1956, Stewart Gilmour had been elected to the Leslie Town Council in Fife, Scotland, with 698 votes – top of the poll. But Phil Canning had taken a seat in Greenock. But this 1958 surge, albeit perhaps more despite the events of 1956 than because of them, was not merely a “Celtic” show.

In England, where Communists could find a way to connect with the public on a personal level, generally in small towns and villages, certainly where there were multi-member seats, they could break through with hard work and consistent displays of integrity. New councillors were also won in England at Houghton-le-Spring (Durham), Chesterfield (Derbyshire), Thorne (Yorkshire), and Sevenoaks (Kent). Whilst many of the near misses were also in England; in Leiston (Suffolk) not only had Lee Chadwick missed election for the county council seat by only 123 votes, Paxton Chadwick lost the election for the Town Council seat by a mere 81 votes. At Trowbridge (Wilts), Idris Rose obtained 1,154 votes, the highest ever Communist vote in the town, losing by a mere 182 votes. (He would be elected a Communist councillor for the Urban District Council in 1961.)

Even in places where there had never been much chance of a Communist councillor some rather encouraging votes were recorded. In Cowes (Isle of Wight), the 199 Communist votes actually represented 25% of the poll. The same percentage was brought by the 240 votes in Hucknall (Notts), and not far off that in Horley (Surrey) with 289 votes (where in a few years a Communist councillor would be won). In Biggleswade (Beds), the first Communist contest for many years pulled in 323 votes. [World News 24th May 1958] In Bulwell Town, north Nottingham, a mere 12 members of the Party had won “supporters, in one way or another, in over 200 households”. [World News January 31st 1959] On the Channel island of Jersey, subject to its own laws and without a Labour Party contesting elections, Communists were working in a broad way, which would eventually provide them with a member of the “States”, or parliament. On May Day 1958, no less than 183 Daily Workers were sold in Jersey. Party membership on the island was now 31, “the highest for several years”. [World News December 13th 1958]

What was it that was at work on the electoral front in some places but not others? The Party knew full well that the “least progress was in the English boroughs”, that it to say in highly urbanised areas, where both the electorate and the territory covered was huge. The most significant factor of all was less the first-past-the-post system but the operation of what was then largely a two-party system operating in single member representational areas. The argument that a vote for a Communist was a wasted vote and split the working class camp led to many who would have quite comfortably voted Communist not to do but to put up with voting Labour. The debarment of the Communist Party from the historical federation that is Labour posed problems for the Party’s independent stance, even if at the time few saw this as posing questions about the validity of the notion of Labour Party as a broad electoral vehicle

Yet, despite the damage that the split vote argument brought, the reality is that contests in major urban areas were made more difficult as the British state consolidated local councils in fewer and large entities as the 20th century progressed. Rural district councils and urban district councils, which shared duties with county councils, began to be eroded. The effect of this was that, increasingly, multi-member wards or electoral divisions began to be eliminated. In the 1950s and early 1960s, some space in this monolithic centralisation still existed and the historic culture of multi-member seats still retained. But this increasing trend, which would be rolled out everywhere in 1970, tended to reinforce the two-party electoral system.

In some areas, the Party had had a historic base but this had been severely challenged by the cold war. The immediate years after the end of the Second World War had seen Welsh Communists hold as many as six councillors on the Rhondda Urban District Council in 1946, within a year this total was down to five and the year after there were only two. By 1949, there were no Communist councillors in the valley.

By 1955, even before the traumas to follow, the Communist vote in the Rhondda had collapsed. In Treherbert, this was of the order of well over a quarter of what it had been in 1946.  There had been no contest in Treorchy since then, when 1,510 were won, or in – Llwynvpia and Clydach Vale which got 920. In Ystrad and Gelli, the vote was down to only two-thirds of what it had been. In Tonypandy and Treataw, the vote had halved by 1950 and halved again before rising, phenomenally in 1955 to 1,568. In Penygraig, the vote had slumped to almost a quarter of what it had been in 1946 to getting back to a reasonable level by 1955, when local school teacher Annie Powell stood for the first time. In Porth and Cymmer, the Party vote was down to only a quarter of what it had been by 1950 and no contest had taken place since then. In Tylerstown, the vote had more than halved and Ferndale and Mardy had seen a drop of over five-fold from the stunning winning vote of 3,209 in 1946. [C Williams, `Democratic Rhondda: Politics and Society (1885-1951), Cardiff University (1991) pp. 564n] The Party had fared no better in general elections. Pollitt had won 15,761 votes in 1945 (45.5%) in Rhondda East and only 4,463 (12.7%) in 1950. Idris Cox had dropped to only 2,948 votes in 1951 but Annie Powell had pushed the Party back to a similar vote (but a slightly higher percentage) as Pollitt’s last contest in both 1955 and 1959.

Since the Rural District Council had been abolished in 1955, and a borough formed, Rhondda Communists had faced a difficult time finding a way in the new entity to restore their previously strong position. But, in the post-1956 surge to reassert the Party’s position, Rhondda Communists pushed hard in the 1959 local elections. Afterwards, Annie Powell was able to report that the local Party had decided to contest seven wards, as many as they had in 1946, even though some comrades were initially unsure about whether this was too “ambitious”.

But the total vote in the area of 5,011 being an increase of 1,300 over the previous year and had reached the astonishing level of 38% of the Labour vote more than vindicated the decision. In Penygraig, with 1,455 votes, the Communist candidate came within a mere 154 votes of winning the seat.  No less than 46,000 different kinds of leaflets had been distributed, a thousand `Outlook for Mining’ pamphlets by Will Paynter were sold, along with 700 `Which way for Socialists’, 500 British Roads, over a thousand `The Future in Your Hands’, and 300 Daily Workers were now being sold every Saturday. Street meetings were held everywhere across six of the wards.

Admittedly, this had been traditionally fertile territory for the Party but the cold war had had an effect here, too. Despite the relatively small numbers of Communist Party members in the area, the overwhelming impression is that what can only be seen as an unqualified success had result from sheer hard work, whilst the best results were made in the wards where new recruits had been made. There is little sense of a crisis in British Communism at this time in the Rhondda, only a resurgence; within only a few years, Annie Powell herself would be elected a councillor and even went on to become Mayor! [World News May 30th 1959]

But just in case we think that this rise from the dead in the Rhondda was just another Celtic mining phenomenon, take the example of Neath butcher, Gordon Jenkins. Neath, near Port Talbot, in Wales, is hardly mining territory. But Gordon Jenkins came from nowhere in 1955 to become an elected Communist councillor after only six years of trying.  When he had first contested Neath’s South Ward he got only 127 votes, and with local Communist Party supporters, was only able to give out a few leaflets – there was no canvassing. Nevertheless, every time he contested the seat, the vote increased. In 1958, Party members can¬vassed the ward for the first time and continued to do so in each succeeding election. By May 1961, the Communist vote was greater than the Tory’s. After seven contests, in June 1961, when Aldermanic elections caused a by-election for the ward, Jenkins was elected a councillor with 1,455 votes, beating both Labour candidates and coming top of the poll with a majority of over 300 over the first Labour candidate.

The Neath Communist Party branch had election files recording all 1,400 Communist votes in the ward as a result of many canvasses. Three thousand houses out of the total of 4,500 were canvassed. On polling day, from 8 am to 8 pm. Communist Party members and sup¬porters with cars went to these houses to bring their voters to the polling booths. Jenkins spoke at 300 street meetings; twenty Communist Party members and a few non-party people helped. The Neath Party Branch worked as a collective not merely at election times, but in the ward between elec¬tions as well. In 1955 there were twenty-two mem¬bers in the branch, in 1961 there were fifty. [World News February 24, 1962]

Much of the resurgence in the local electoral sphere arose after the Party held a conference of councillors and candidates in October 1958 to “review experiences, consider policy questions and prepare for the 1959 Municipal Elections”.  In 1957 “only” 109 candidates contested the local elections and their total vote was 23,102. One seat was gained, three others retained and four lost. In 1958 there was a marked improvement in contests, with 145 Communists contesting county and local elections, gaining a total vote of over 72,000. Eleven seats were gained. 14 others retained and 3 lost. The Party now had 36 councillors:

London Boroughs     4
English and Welsh District Councils   15
District Parish Councils     4
Scottish Burghs     5
Scottish Counties      4
Scottish District Councils    4

[Communist Party 26th National Congress; report of the Executive Committee covering the period January 1956-December 1958, p12]

Many of the obvious lessons were being taken up even in big cities such as Glasgow. There, Communist votes doubled from 2,207 in 1957 for seven candidates to 4,572 in 1958 and then rose by 28% to 5,863 in 1959, although the number of wards contested had increased only to 12 of the 37 wards in the city.  The vote in Knightswood went from 424 in 1957 to 924 in 1959; that in Shettleston from 444 to 801; Craigton from 460 to 700. Govan was contested for the first time since the war but the Communists got 673 votes. 780 extra Daily Workers were sold on May Day. [WN June 13th 1959]  Three years later, Glasgow Communists could report yet another increase in votes of over half their earlier total “to 9,071 votes in 1961 with fifteen candidates; in two of the wards, our candidates polled over 1,000 votes and in one 960 votes.” [WN April 28th 1962] Communists in Scotland’s biggest city would quadrupled their vote in a mere five years.

Many of the Party’s candidates in local elections were never to break through and win a seat, despite the most sterling of performances. More typical of many Communists contests was perhaps that in 1959 of David Grove. who was the party candidate in Northgate ward in Crawley for the first time. He recalls modestly increasing the vote from 59 to 78 but in 1960 it leapt to 110, in 1961 to 115. He writes: “Another measure of our recovery was the number of recruits: 18 in 1958-59 compared with only 8 in 1956-57”. Party public meetings raised the profile, such as the one celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Party in 1960 with John Gollan as speaker. 120 people attended the meeting, only a quarter of them party members. [David Grove `Crawley Communist Party in the 1950s: A Personal Memoir’ Our History New Series No 3 (2007)]

Another typical expression of the Party’s electoral approach would be outside of mining and other highly localised communities. For example, Joe Bent was a towering figure in Southwark, London, community politics for a couple of decades in the 1950s and 1960s. He had a regular pitch on Sundays at the East St market in Walworth and stood in many elections as a Communist. A superb orator who never needed a microphone or loud hailer, during the GLC elections, when he stood for the whole of Southwark, Bent narrowly missed by less than a thousand votes from winning a seat. Over this period, he built up a significant vote, more than doubling the numbers and almost reaching 5% of the total votes cast. In this locality and case, at least, there is little sense but recovery in popularity for the Communist Party as the Cold War ease:

Votes for  Percentage
Year  Joe Bent of total vote

1950  668   1.30%
1955  951   2.39%
1959   1,395   3.57%
1964   1,599   4.91%

Another fastidious campaigner was Jock Nicolson, the Communist Parliamentary Candidate in the North St. Pancras Constituency for many elections in this period. One of his election addresses was able to boast, without exaggeration, that: “Jock Nicolson is a familiar figure to the people of St. Pancras, both during and between elections.” His parliamentary vote was well over a thousand every time. In 1959, one of the founders of the future National Front stood in the same constituency as Jock. This was, as he was to write, “a rumbustious election campaign right from the beginning … “Electioneering was heavy going. It meant canvassing round the council flats and working class streets with the ‘Morning Star’ most Sundays, and on week-nights during the summer. We didn’t limit this to three weeks before an election, but kept it going as a regular activity. On a Saturday afternoon I would do street meetings at Queens Crescent or Kentish Town station.”

In the Yorkshire Coalfield, by the mid to late 1950s compared to the early 1950s, strong public sales of Daily Worker at pit heads and a 50% growth in Party membership across some 24 pits in the coalfield had seen it become a much stronger and more influential force, especially as it now began to make many significant allies. Soon with a command of at least one-third of the branches willing to nominate any left candidate, Sammy Taylor made the first major breakthrough by becoming the first Communist from Yorkshire to win a seat on the NUM National Executive in 1959. The number of Party members on the NUM Area Council also increased from three to nine, with many additional left delegates also being elected. But this strength in the union was matched in some localities also.

Following the 1955 Armthorpe strike, Bill Carr had been elected as the local Thorne Branch NUM delegate to Area Council, a key union position. He now found himself in a stronger position to contest a seat on the Thorne Rural District Council for the Communist Party. The election of Carr in 1958 as a councillor was no accident; “it was the result of years of hard work, particularly by Bill in the pit, the union branch and regular sales of the Daily Worker, both in the pit and in the village”. [Frank Watters `Being Frank (1992)]

Carr was elected second from top of the poll in a multi-member ward with 934 votes, a stunning result out of a total electorate of around three thousand. Then, the following March, a by-election took place. Sam Cairns, the Communist candidate, received 623 to Labour’s 1,093 in a straight fight when the poll was even higher than in May, but had failed to win the seat. Clearly, there was a strong basis for looking for a second Communist councillor and Cairns would eventually join Carr on the local council. A larger area than Moorends was contested by Carr for the West Yorkshire District council in 1963 and he took 1,200 votes, despite an extraordinary massive mobilisation by the Labour Party on a regional basis. Most of Yorkshire’s Labour MPs were brought in to combat the Communist `threat’.

The full time Party organiser for the Yorkshire coalfield, Frank Watters had been nurturing the development. He was himself a product of a `little Moscow’ village in Lanarkshire – his brother was a Communist councillor in their home mining village of Shotts. He now spent an inordinate amount of time in the locality. As a result of intense activity, membership of the local Communist Party branch increased from 12 in 1958 to 60 in 1961, out of three thousand electors. Fully 2% of the community had joined the Party, a result that would have meant well over half a million members if transposed nationally! But even so, Cairns’ eventual win was only narrowly achieved, given the right wing dominance of the Yorkshire NUM. He was deliberately opposed by a NUM left-winger, the turnout was phenomenally high and three counts were needed to determine the result, it was that close; in the end his majority was declared as two votes! The story was told that the last clinching votes – albeit that this was unknown at the time – had been achieved at one minute to nine pm, just before voting was to close, by persuading a Communist voter to rush his wife out of the bath to be run down to the polling station in a Communist canvasser’s car, wearing only a dressing gown!

Amongst the modest achievement of the small Communist group on the Thorne council, was the successful winning, against extraordinarily virulent Labour opposition of the building of a local swimming baths. The council was demolished by the Maudling local government reorganisation of 1972, thus ending the localism that enabled a welding of trade union struggle with community activism, like so many other Communist council fractions. A more persistent and pervasive inheritance was the observable mass resistance, producing un-believable and unrestrained violence from the police, in the area around the Armthorpe pit to the Thatcherite destruction of mining communities in 1984-5, far beyond that sustained by any other pit  or village. The remnants of Carr’s, Cairns’ and Watters’ creation was still present in the next generation, even if the locals had by then lost their organisational and electoral adherence to the Communist Party – its name was still a force to be reckoned with, as any visitor during the strike prepared to mention the word `communism’ can testify.

The Communist Party has also won a significant base in the heavy shipbuilding territory of Clydebank in Scotland. Whilst Clydebank provided several councillors in the local council, such as Arnold Henderson, Finlay Hart was a Communist county councillor for Dunbartonshire, a more difficult and large constituency to win. Chair of the Scottish Party, and parliamentary candidate for the Springburn constituency, he was also author of the Communist Party pamphlets `The Communist Party and the trade unions’ (1958) and `Shipbuilding – looking forward’ (1960). In later years, in recognition of his three decades as a Communist councillor in Clydebank, Hart was honoured with the `provost-ship’, equivalent to mayoralty, of the borough. Interestingly, as with most Communist councillors, the value of canvassing and knocking up was cited in Clydebank as the key to winning, not some spurious notion of a loyal block of voters that would just turn out.

Scotland provided a significant electoral base for the Party; Jimmy Sneddon was a Communist councillor for the Forgewood area of Motherwell for 20 years, and also convenor of shop stewards at the local Dalzell Steelworks. Whilst Dan and Effie O’Hare were the inspiring Communist Party leadership in the Vale of Leven and Dunbarton area, which was able to win a significant electoral voice for the Party in the post-war period, including many councillors. Indeed, the Vale was noted for its huge Communist presence and outstanding sales of the Daily Worker. There were also long-standing Communist councilors in Cowdenbeath, in particular Bob Selkirk.

Rab Smith was a Communist who had held the Lumphinnans seat on Lochelly District Council for ten years, and was one of nine Communist councillors elected to Fife County Council in 1944. In common with all but one of these, he lost his seat in 1949 during the height of the Cold War. But Smith won his seat back again in 1954 and then held it for 20 years until, as with so many other Communist councillors, local government re-organisation forced retirement.  His 30 years of almost continuous representation of the red belt of Fife led to Lumphinnans being dubbed `Little Moscow’; to this day a street in the area remains called `Gagarin Way’ in honour of the first manned exploration of space by a Soviet sputnik.

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