Clearly, there was a strong desire by the Communist Party to see the fruits of its principled support, and often organisation of, peoples’ struggles such as those of tenants into the electoral sphere. Without the resources of mainstream parties, the Communist Party could not seriously hope to make a major breakthrough but experience had shown that real advances could be made with consistent work. Its ability to maximise its vote, as well as its membership levels would give the lie to the arguments made by some that Hungary and the 20th congress of the CPSU had fatally damaged the Communist Party.
The Party fielded 450 candidates in the local elections of 1961, the most since 1949. Communist councillors in Fife seemed more secure than ever, with Robert Smith and Abe Moffat (Lumphinnans), Charlie Walters (Bowhill), Bob Selkirk and Willie Sharpe (Cowdenbeath) and Andrew Mitchell (Ballingry).
There were quite a few near misses in Scotland. James McArthur lost by a mere 16 votes in Polbeth, whilst Hughie Reynolds only lost winning a seat by just 42 votes in Pleen, in Sterlingshire, and Jimmy Richie lost Lochore by just 44 votes. In Wales, Tom Hopkins was defeated by just thirty eight votes in Caerphilly and Gordon Jenkins in Neath polled 1,097 and only narrowly lost to Labour.
Elsewhere in Scotland, there were good results: Eddie McDougall in Pollokshaws’ ward, Glasgow, secured 1,025 votes; Hugh Boyd in Knightswood, 1,208 votes. In the East Midlands, Joe Whelan, later to be a leader of the Nottinghamshire miners, stood in Hucknall and increased the Communist vote from 240 to 499.
John Gollan viewed the campaign as having been “on the biggest and best scale for many years. We had the biggest number of candidates since 1949 and the 100,000 votes we received is the highest in twelve years.” [World News May 20th 1961]
A sign of growing confidence was the excellence of the Party’s work amongst women, especially in Yorkshire, where a sense that the Party was breaking out of the habit of placing women into a kind of ghetto. Consider this article from the Party’s weekly journal in 1962.
“Women are on the move against the Tories” by Rosemary Small
WORLD NEWS March 17, 1962
Communist women are stepping out in the march against the Tories. The National Women’s Meeting held on February 24th and 25th showed a steady development in work by and amongst women. Two aspects of the fight predomina¬ted—the social services and peace. On the first of these, action had centred round the increased price of welfare foods and the proposed increases in school meal costs; on peace, the main concern was to get maximum support for the Ash Wednesday “Women’s Day for Peace”.
Everyone reported activity
Among the thirteen Districts rep¬resented “at the meeting, almost every one reported petitions protesting against the welfare food charges and/or the school meals increases, plus letters to local papers. There had been a num-ber of approaches to local medical offi¬cers of health to get the figures of the drop in clinic attendances, with depu¬tations to the M.o.H. in Norwich and Leeds. In East Anglia and Scotland there had been television interviews with mothers at clinics, and in London there had been some activity on school meals, including a deputation of mothers to the M.P. for Putney. Gladys Easton, the Communist candidate in Fairfield Ward pointed out how these actions on social services had helped the Party in its local election campaign.Again, most Districts reported excel¬lent preparations for March 7th, the “Day for Peace”. Leafleting, poster parades etc., were taking place in Bir¬mingham, Ilford, Glasgow, Motherwell, Kirkcaldy, Edinburgh, Leeds, York, Bradford, Cardiff, the Rhondda, Man¬chester, and various parts of London (as well as the main marches in Central London).
There would also be vigils at Cen¬otaphs and leafleting of church congre-gations. In Ilford and London there would be public meetings on peace in the evening. Deputations to local auth¬orities were fixed in Glasgow and Leeds. It was generally felt that there had been a considerable step forward in unity of the peace movement, with Communist women, C.N.D. women and Co-op guildswomen working to¬gether on the preparations for March 7th. Some examples were given of the excellent response by women in the engineering industry to the one-day strike on February 5th—for example, the 100 per cent response from women in Chesterfield, the large proportion of women at the Dundee meeting, the sup¬port from engineers’ wives for the march and meeting in Bristol.
Where work went best
One lesson could be learned. Where the work amongst women had gone forward farthest and fastest (Yorkshire being probably the best example) it was because of support from the Party generally, at District, Area and Branch level—not where it was just “left to the women”. Where careful attention was paid to invitation meetings of women, there was a tangible result in Party recruit¬ing of women; where attention was paid to education and political dis¬cussion among women, the result was the development of women speakers and group leaders; where attention was paid to conferences of aggregates of Party women, the result was a develop¬ment of political activity.
More women candidates
In the forthcoming local elections, there is an increase in the number of Party contests and in the number of women candidates. Women can and should play a major part in the elec¬tion campaign, getting our policy across to the women electorate. Both in these election campaigns and in the remainder of Party-Building Year, the Communist Party needs the help of every possible pair of hands. This women’s meeting shows that some progress has been made towards get¬ting a helping hand for socialism from every woman in the Party, and in in¬volving many more women, at present outside the Party. It also shows that a ready response awaits those who venture forth to give a lead to the working women against Toryism.
This all conveys a sense that the Party was beginning not only to attract women but also to speak to ordinary working people on issues they favoured and in such a way as they preferred rather than a more hectoring attachment to geo-political themes. The result was increasingly positive and, for a time, it really looked as if the Party was poised for a major breakthrough such as had been seen in the 1930s.
During 1963, the Party contested five parliamentary by-elections and then Communists contested all 32 of the boroughs in the first elections for the new Greater London Council, held on 9th April 1964, winning a total vote of 92,323, “attracting widespread comment in the press and political circles”. [29th National Congress, Report of the Executive Committee from January 1963 to July 1965, p7] It was certainly one of the best results for the Party ever, in terms of its general reach.
Enthusiasm for the Party’s success led one of its most unusual members, the Reverend Alan Ecclestone, who had been the vicar of Holy Trinity church in Darnall, near Sheffield, since 1942 to stand for the Party in a municipal by-election in early 1962. Since this the first time any kind of priest had been a Communist candidate in Britain, there was much media attention, even nationwide over this fact as well as what was widely seen as a rising mood of support for the Party, all of which reflected very well on it image. [World News April 28th 1962]
It certainly had been some turn around! A quarter of the 1961 local election Communist candidates had smashed through the 5% barrier that today in a proportional representation system would guarantee representation. Solly Kaye, at 8.3% in Tower Hamlets, had got within reach of passing the threshold that then applied for parliamentary contests of one eighth of the vote, to avoid loosing the highly punitive system of financial deposits. A handful of the Communist candidates were not so far behind Kaye, whilst most candidates polled what the Party would consider a respectable two to four percent of the poll. Coming a mere seven or so years after what had been considered by the outside world the crisis that might end the Party, this was good news indeed. Even better was that the Party’s moderate success did not seem to have hampered Labour at all, even with the Communists running at some 10% of the Labour vote. Unfortunately for the Conservatives, the decided unpopularity of its government produced swings of 6% to 10% to create a decent Labour victory with the outcome being 64 Labour and 36 Conservative councillors.
Results for Communist candidates in the 1964 GLC elections:
(Note: these were varying multi-member constituencies, where the Communist Party generally put up only one candidate; in places where there were two Communist candidates, the percentage of the vote recorded is an average of the two.)
Barking & Dagenham K Halpin 1,385 3.7
Barnet R T Gooding 4,308 3.4
J W Pinder 3,409 3.4
Bexley L H Smith 2,929 3.6
Brent M E Alcock 3,574 3.2
L G Burt 2,722 3.2
Bromley C L Coleman 4,295 3.9
Camden J Nicolson 2,875 3.8
Westminster L R Temple 1,758 2.5
Croydon Dr M Rappaport 3,498 3.4
Ealing H A Tank 3,137 2.9
Enfield R A Leeson 2,449 2.9
Greenwich E Halpin 3,786 5.0
Hackney M Goldman 2,807 7.5
Hammersmith & Fulham P T Robson 1,736 2.9
Haringey Mrs E L Ramsay 5,612 7.4
Harrow R A Ward 3,426 4.3
Havering F Barlow 4,000 5.1
Hillingdon F Stanley 3,240 4.0
Hounslow W H Benson 2,077 2.7
Islington J F Moss 2,309 5.1
Kensington & Chelsea H B Collins 2,153 3.8
Kingston-on-Thames D E Wilson 1,039 2.0
Lambeth J Lawrence 2,416 2.4
T Gorringe 2,052 2.4
Lewisham H Barr 4,159 4.7
Merton S E French 1,552 2.3
Newham J A Walker 2,757 5.5
Redbridge P J Devine 3,885 4.7
Richmond-on-Thames A J Banfield 1,947 2.9
Southwark S P Bent 4,311 6.1
Sutton A T Goddard 1,880 3.3
Tower Hamlets S Kaye 2,618 8.3
Waltham Forest D J Solomons 1,289 1.9
Wandsworth Mrs G M Easton 3,116 2.6
D J Welsh 2,143 2.6
This excellent result for Solly Kaye was by no means a flash in the pan. Communist electoral intervention in Tower Hamlets, in the east end of London would now prove to be enduring especially successful in this period. This London borough was newly created as part of the review of London Government in the early 1960s by amalgamating the former Metropolitan Boroughs of Bethnal Green, Poplar and Stepney, all of which had a tradition of significant Communist intervention in the electoral sphere going back to the foundation of the Party.
In the very first elections to the council, on 7th May 1964, the Communist Party ended up as the second party in local government, indeed after Labour the only other party, discounting a Ratepayers’ Association, with two seats, as a party. (The RA was to join forces with the Tories, where it belonged by the next election.) With their thirteen candidates winning 8.6% of the vote, by concentrating the vote in one particular ward, St Mary’s, the Party earned three councillors.
Three Communists were elected with some 46% of the vote – Solly Kaye, Barney Borman and Peter Roche in St Mary’s ward, even with Labour and Liberal opponents. There was some difficulty with the new Councillor Borman since he failed to make the statutory declaration of acceptance of office within the prescribed two month period and was thus disqualified. Perhaps he had simply not expected to win and serve as a councillor! Clearly, the Party pulled out the stops and resolved whatever it was that inspired Borman’s hesitancy, for he simply ran again! On 13th August 1964, Borman handsomely won the re-election this disqualification had obliged, much increasing his vote to 58% of the total votes cast, with 709 votes.
In Spitalfields, the Party’s next best successful ward, two of the three Communists running for a four member ward beat their Liberal opponents into third place. The highest loosing Communist, Morrie Levitas, had 22.3% of the vote. The Party took as high as 16.5% of the vote in St Katherine’s ward, as much of the votes much as the Liberals were able to win. In straight fights with Labour, Communists won almost 12% in Poplar West, 13.4% (for Danny Lyons) in St Dunstan’s, whilst F(rank?) Whipple, who would fight many a contest over the next decade or so, took nearly 14% of the vote in Shadwell. Jack Dash, the dockers’ rank and file leader, was able to poll a creditable almost 12% of the Labour vote in Bethnal Green South ward an R(?) Rousay took 10% in the west ward.
Moving out of the years of our focus a little for a moment, by 1968, Labour’s unpopularity saw its vote crumble, yet the Communist vote not only held but slightly increased. The combination saw the Communist vote at its height at 18.3% of the vote. Although others stayed on the council for many years after, Solly Kaye would in particular retain his seat for 15 years. Even though, in common with other Communist councillors, it was said that his success in re-housing constituents undermined his power base! Although, more fundamentally, local government reorganisation also removed much of the geographical and community focus that had enabled a Communist break through that lay at the heart of the East End, as well as other, highly localised strongholds.
TOWER HAMLETS OVERALL RESULTS IN 1964
Party Votes % Candidates Seats Unopp
Union Mvt (fascists)
BETHNAL GREEN WEST WARD [Three seats]
Electors T’out Candidate Party Votes %
6,092 19.5 HA Moore
Ms D Macdonald
R Rousay Lab
BOW SOUTH WARD [Three seats]
Electors T’out Candidate Party Votes %
7,070 18.1 TE Phillips
Mrs B Lawrence
Mrs G Collier Lab
POPLAR WEST WARD [Three seats]
Electors T’out Candidate Party Votes %
7,850 14.2 THA Mitchell
HC Pearson Lab
ST DUNSTAN’S WARD [Three seats]
Electors T’out Candidate Party Votes %
6,476 13.2 EW Hill
D Lyons Lab
ST KATHARINE’S WARD [Four seats]
Electors Turnout Candidate Party Votes %
8,175 15.6 DJ Connolly
M Freedman Lab
ST MARY’S WARD [Three seats]
Electors T’out Candidate Party Votes %
5,664 24.6 S Kaye
SH Woodham Comm
The results of the by-election, when Borman was disqualified after failing to make the statutory declaration of acceptance of office within the prescribed two month period follow:
(13/8) 5,664 21.6 B Borman
SHADWELL WARD [Three seats]
Electors T’out Candidate Party Votes %
7,650 12.9 RJ Connolly
F Whipple Lab
SPITALFIELDS WARD [Four seats]
Electors T’out Candidate Party Votes %
9,086 15.0 Mrs A Elboz
Mrs B Simmons
Mrs R Abrahams Lab
What seemed to be an unstoppable come-back, with many councillors still in the Party’s name and new progress being recorded, encouraged others to have a go. Around this time, Jock McKenna polled over 1,200 votes in Rossington, near Doncaster, nearly defeating a strong right-wing candidate who was the NUM branch delegate. Communists were emboldened anew to seek to establish themselves in many communities.
The feel of this mood is well illustrated by the story of the work of John Jackson, a Glasgow book folder and Branch Secretary for the 141 member strong Proven Communist Party in the early 1960s. He lived on the largest council housing estate in Proven, which contained 29,000 houses, with his wife Margaret, their two daughters, Margaret and Tanya, and son Stuart. Jackson became very well known locally for cycling everywhere around the estate, taking up grievances and sorting out problems in the great tradition of the Communist Party’s `shop stewards of the streets strategy’, which predated the later copying of the approach by the Liberal Party as `dustbin politics’. “I’m a greater believer in dealing with bread & butter issues,” he said in an interview in `Comment’, the internal Party journal. In one campaign, typical for him, he organised 300 rates appeal forms for the local tenants’ association.
Jackson had graduated from poster painting into one of the Glasgow Communist Party’s best Daily Worker sellers, factory gate speakers, canvassers and deputation leaders, He had been arrested at Holy Loch during a 1963 protest, for which he got a £10 fine, when he stood as the Communist candidate in local elections in Proven, securing 864 votes. The Communist campaign in Proven highlights included a decorated van visiting local shopping centres on Saturdays and the sale of 400 copies of “Demand a future for Scotland”, as well as the distribution of 7,000 Party leaflets on rent issues. A direct result of election campaign activity was the establishment of a YCL branch, with 28 members, led by 18 year old Frank Gaffney (previously a Labour Party Young Socialist) as Secretary. [`Comment’ 14th December 1963]
Best known, of course, for his much later leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill joined the Young Communist League in 1956. He was Chair of the Yorkshire District of the YCL and a delegate to the World Youth Festival of 1957. In the 1960 local elections, as he got 138 votes as a Communist candidate, a respectable 14.5% of the vote. Scargill joined his NUM branch committee that same year and subsequently failed to renew his YCL membership card in 1963.
Dentist Danny Stalford established, from 1948, a flourishing NHS practice at Carlton, in Burnhurst Road, Horley, Surrey. He soon established himself as a true friend of working people, even paying out of his own pocket for holidays for his less fortunate patients. During the late 1950s, when Stalford first muted the notion of standing for the Horley council seat on the Rural District Council, the locality was in the throws of rapid change with massive building and economic developments associated with the building of Gatwick airport, which the Communist Party was able to tap into. By 1964, he was able to secure 20% of the vote. As he wrote in the Party press at the time: “In Horley and surrounding district we have been building on the democratic work for some years, and achieved a vote of 395 at the last election.” However, the Communist Party’s success in Horley did not go down well with the local Conservatives, who not only tried to change the boundaries of wards to stop him being elected by gerrymandering them, but made life difficult for the Communist Party members in the town. (Stalford would keep increasing his vote, only breaking through by the 1970s when he became an elected Communist Councillor for the town, a position he held for six years, regularly topping the poll, such was his almost universal popularity in the town. He held his seat until he became too ill to meet the requirements of the job and retired.)
The notion that controversy over Israel necessarily impaired the Communist Party’s work is challenged by the experience of Henry Suss, a highly respected Jewish activist in the Tailor and Garment Workers in Pendlebury, near Salford. He was elected as a regional official of his union and also served on the national executive for 26 years. But he was also active in a lively way in his community. Testament to the vitality of his spirit is the fact that at this time he was arrested for painting “ban-the-bomb” slogans on walls. Henry also campaigned locally on the issue of rents and slum housing in a tenacious struggle to gain local acceptance. Suss had stood unsuccessfully as a Communist candidate for the Market Ward of the then borough of Swinton and Pendlebury, Greater Manchester, on no less than ten occasions before, on the 11th attempt, being elected as the first Communist to the local council in May 1964. His vote had only gradually crept up:
What had made the difference was that Suss had been “tireless in taking up issues with the Council and elsewhere”. By the time he had achieved 57% of the Labour vote, he had pushed the Tories to the bottom of the poll. For him, the Party candidate had to be the “shop steward of his or her ward and the branch the organiser of the political life of the ward”. [World News June 17th 1961] This tenacity in leading local Communists in the carrying out of mass work in their locality in which they lived was decisive in this achievement, which was maintained for the next decade until, once again, local government `reforms’, in the shape of boundary abolishing his ward, interfered.
In the run up to the expected general election of 1964, the Party put much effort into contesting parliamentary by-elections; the most celebrated of these actually involved the incoming prime minister, Alec Douglas Hume in a clash with a famous poet! Counter to the trend for intellectuals to find escape routes out of the Communist Party, the celebrated Scots poet, Hugh MacDiarmid (born Christopher Grieve; in all, as MacDiarmid, he published over thirty books and his collected works run to 1,500 pages.) actually joined the Party at this time. He had been expelled from the Party for his actions in support of the policy of Scottish independence in the 1930s, but he had also kept his views on Communism and sought re-admission in 1957, was accepted and remained a member until his death in 1978, even standing in a parliamentary election for the Party.
Nothing about MacDiarmid was ever muted and the background to his becoming a Communist parliamentary candidate was no exception! This position arose out of the election to the Tory Party leadership of Sir Alec Douglas-Home, at a time when the Conservative Party held a majority in Parliament and formed the government. He had been a peer and was required to resign from the Lords and stand in a by-election in November 1963 so as to obtain a Commons seat from which to become Prime Minister. The then exceedingly Tory constituency of Kinross and West Perthshire was vacated for him.
Christopher Grieve was outraged not only at the deference and adherence to archaic ways that all this implied. He was driven especially by the supine attitude of the BBC towards Douglas-Home’s `emergence’ as Tory leader and his effective `coronation’ as Prime Minister – in a Scottish seat at that – to seek legal redress.
In a celebrated case (Grieve v Douglas-Home), he challenged the election, seeking it declared void by virtue of a breach of Section 63 of the Representation of the People Act, in that due balance had not been given to all candidates in the by-election. The long-term result was the care that broadcasters make to at least mention the names of all candidates in all elections covered by them.
Home went on to lead the Tory Party in the subsequent general election but his image, not aided by Grieve’s challenge, was a factor in the defeat of the Tories and the forming of a Labour government by Harold Wilson, who milked the evident disenchantment with the old school tie image of the Tories for all it was worth. Home was replaced in the first ever formal election of Tory by Ted Heath. MacDiarmid, as Christopher Grieve, stood in the Kinross seat in that general election as a Communist Party candidate, a hopeless but endearingly brave endeavour.
Communist candidates contested other by-elections in 1963, an astonishing five in all:
Swansea East Bert Pearce 773 2.5 %
Leeds South Bert Ramelson 670 2.3%
Luton Tony Chater 490 1.1%
Dundee West Dave Bowman 1,170 2.6%
Openshaw Eddie Marsden 1,185 4.8%
THE 1964 GENERAL ELECTION
Labour now had a new leader, Harold Wilson, who had joined Aneurin Bevan in resigning from the government in protest against the NHS charges in Hugh Gaitskell’s 1951 budget and for a short while it seemed that Wilson was going to join the Bevanites. He was even co-author of a pamphlet, `One Way Only’, an argument against revisionist ideas. But he had taken Bevan’s place in the shadow cabinet in 1954.
Wilson supported Gaitskell against Bevan in the leadership contest but actually challenged the former in 1960, being heavily defeated, 166 votes to 81. With Gaitskell’s sudden death, alternative candidates had little time to develop a base. In February 1963, just as the Tories had become deeply unpopular, George Brown, James Callaghan and Harold Wilson contested a first ballot of MPs, the voting system then eliminated Callaghan, who had polled 41 to Wilson’s 115 and Brown’s 88. In the run off, Wilson, beat Brown by 144 to 103 – largely with the help of the old Bevanite left.
The Communist Party’s EC at its January meeting in 1962 adop¬ted the annual report of its Econo¬mic Sub-Committee, `The ruling class sharpens its weapons for survival’. It saw the narrowly averted devaluation of sterling in 1961 as a “new and very important stage in the long-drawn-out crisis of British mono¬poly capitalism—`The crisis of Britain and the British Empire’ in R. Palme Dutt’s succinct phrase”. [World News February 10, 1962] On the economic front, the British ruling class now knew that it could no longer con¬tinue in the old way, “jobbing along from one balance of payments crisis to the next”. It had already been forced to sacrifice its in¬dependence in relation to its main capi¬talist rival, the United States and had now decided to abandon attempt to maintain its independence vis-à-vis its West European rivals. West Germany and France, and had there¬fore applied for membership of their Common Market. The old system of imperialist ex-ploitation has ceased to be profitable to the British monopoly capitalists but there was no intention of abandoning this.
From the wage pause policy and the plans for restriction on govern¬ment social expenditures, it was clear that the protection of the profits and international competitive position of the great monopoly concerns was to be sought by an intensification of a policy of attacking wages and living standards at home. Britain would be subjected more openly than ever before to a reinforced state mono¬poly capitalist dictatorship. For monopolies grew “almost daily” and came out “more and more openly with statements of their precise requirements for national eco¬nomic policy”. There is no doubt that right-wing policies were now deeply unpopular.
Yet, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, at this time, a new element entered political life in Britain; not entirely new, perhaps, since racism had reared its despicable head before but only in a relatively limited way, due to the relatively small proportion of the population that were not white. Only perhaps some 20,000 black people lived in Britain before the onset of mass immigration, but this had risen to 74,000 in 1954 and by 1961 this had soared to well over 300,000, with over 50,000 arriving in the first six months of that year alone. Most of the immigration had been consciously encouraged by the British state to remedy the shortages of labour in the least well-paid occupations. Clearly, as a putative economic crisis had loomed, albeit then being avoided by policies to stimulate consumer credit, many established British workers began to view the incoming cheap labour with suspicion. Moreover, since migrant workers could only initially afford rented accommodation, their demand for such properties tended towards the lower end of the market and this not only removed the safety cushion of last resort for those engaged in mass struggles against rent increases but immigrant desperation for housing of any kind enabled landlordism to ruthlessly play the market price upwards. Both housing and employment became subject to open and unpleasant displays of mindless racism, even though both legally and morally British society tolerated outright colour bars in such areas of social life.
Whatever the dissembling retrospective suggestions of hostile interpreters of the Party’s history on the question of racism, there can be no doubt that it was unambiguously and fearlessly opposed from the start to what was in effect a more or less official colour bar in Britain. With the threat of the coming 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, the Communist Party went on the offensive in July 1961 in the biggest possible way with a massive distribution of its “No Colour bar in Britain” leaflet, supporting pamphlets and the launch of broad campaigns in all areas of the country. Birmingham was especially noted inside the Party for the rapid response of the local City Committee to the need to establish such campaigns, as with the Co-ordinating Committee Against Racialism (CCARD), the prime spirits behind which had been Communists, which was supported by the entire trade union movement as well as “all four political parties”. [John Moss, “Together say no discrimination”, Communist Party pamphlet, October 1961, p13]
In its material, the Party reminded people that only one in every 170 persons in the country was of colour and, responding to the more flagrant opinion that the depth of colour could be better or `worse’, that only one in five of immigrants were from the West Indies. (It was often mooted by especially black-skinned workers that the scale of rents rose in proportion to the degree of blackness of skin – the so-called `colour tax’.) Whilst, given that, over the previous 14 years, twice as many people had left Britain as had arrived on its shores, fears about excess population were simply misguided. Not only did the Party campaign – almost alone at the time amongst any significant political force – against colour bars and racist immigration controls, well ahead of others, it called for racial discrimination laws and “full encouragement to coloured workers (it would be many years before the term ‘black’ replaced `coloured’ as an acceptable term) to join trade unions on equal terms with white workers”. [Communist Party leaflet 13th July 1961]
The Party reminded readers of its material how immigrant workers from other parts of the British Isles were viewed as clannish, or willing to work for low wages – Welsh and Irish for example. A contradiction was that the Tories had welcomed former Nazi military officers into NATO, or with the Common Market (later the European Union!) wanted to “keep open house for people from Italy, France, West Germany and other countries” but would “keep out people who are British citizens”. [John Moss, “Together say no discrimination”, Communist Party pamphlet, October 1961, p6] But, with the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act, the Tories took away the previously held right of British Commonwealth citizens to enter the UK freely. This law was not so much about the actual numbers of persons entering the country as to simply cut at a stroke the numbers of black and Asian people coming in. Labour had seemed opposed to the Bill that led to the legislation, until Gaitskell had began to dissemble on the issue being anxious that public opinion was concerned about an economic slowdown hitting the number of job opportunities available. Perversely, the expectation of a clamp-down actually stimulated a rapid growth in the number of migrants from the West Indies and the Indian sub-continent.
An unconditional commitment that a Labour government would remove the legislation was shelved in favour of silence on the issue, which shifted into an acceptance of the racist nature of the controls. This would have repercussions as Labour’s mealy mouthed stance conveyed a mood to its working class supporters. Eventually, in the safe seat of Smethwick, West Midlands, an openly racist-minded Tory, Peter Griffiths, defeated the sitting Labour MP, Patrick Gordon Walker, in the 1964 general election. Griffiths’ main campaign slogan was: ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour’. It was Mosley’s post-war neo-fascist `Union Movement’ that had begun the trend when it twisted the Labour Party’s 1961 LCC slogan “Labour loves London” into “Labour Loves London’s Blacks”. [John Moss, “Together say no discrimination”, Communist Party pamphlet, October 1961, p10] Labour’s abject retreat on the issue, for fear of loosing the seat, actually rebounded on them and its vote fell by nearly a third but the Tory stood still. The trend was set for race to become a vicious tool in the hands of unprincipled politicians. .
But, back in 1962, whatever else the racist Immigration Act did it did little to restore electoral credibility. In an act dubbed the `night of the long knives’, Prime Minister Macmillan sacked seven members of his cabinet; this was met with a mood of irrelevance in the public mind and more problems followed. Britain’s application to join the Common Market was rejected by the French President, Charles de Gaulle and scandal erupted over Government minister’s private lives. In 1964, Macmillan resigned the premiership due to ill health and the Tories chose the aristocratic Sir Alec Douglas-Home as their new leader. But he appeared incompetent, once commenting that he used matchsticks to help him understand economic problems, and distant from the real world. The professional economist, Wilson, compared favourably; at the Scarborough Labour Party conference of 1963 Wilson gave his famous speech in which he used the phrase “the white heat of technology”. In the run-up to the general election, Wilson made six major speeches utilising the term `socialist alternative’ to the long years of Tory rule. It was widely predicted that Labour would win a substantial majority but the result was only just about enough to form a government. When it came, the election was held on 15th October 1964. Nevertheless, Wilson won only a tiny majority; another election seemed imminent
A Tory revival during the election may have been aided by Chancellor Reginald Maudling’s pre-election Budget. But Douglas-Home struggled with television and Harold Wilson was promoted as a man of the people. Wilson even suggested that the strikes now occurring were manufactured by Tory-minded industrialists to damage Labour, even hinting at the cost of a libel writ that an unofficial stoppage at Birmingham’s Hardy Spicer motor components firm was threatening the industry with closures.
In the popular vote, with both parties hovering around the 12 million mark, Labour had around a quarter of a million votes more. Although Labour enjoyed a 3.5% swing from the Conservatives, its share of the vote did not actually increase markedly but the Tory vote was two million down on 1959. (The Liberals had 3 million and other parties just over a third of a million.) Labour took 317 seats, giving them a majority of just four, the smallest since 1847.
Labour was back in power for the first time since 1951, but only just. With a majority of four, Wilson would be unable to submit any major pieces of legislation to the House. A second election to secure a real mandate seemed inevitable. But problems with the balance of payments, sterling and the economy also saw an outright and immediate challenge to Labour’s manifesto from the establishment, which demanded severe cuts in government spending. An autumn budget was produced that increased pensions and social welfare benefits. Corporation Tax and Capital Gains Tax were introduced, but in response the financiers of the international money market caused a run on the pound which strained reserves. Nonetheless, Britain’s trading position was improved by a series of fiscal measures, but Wilson’s Government failed to tackle many of the economic problems at their roots. There was a desperate need to cut capital investment abroad and to abolish the enormous military expenditure abroad, especially ‘east of Suez’. But the Government balked at the political task involved in adopting such a course. As a consequence, Britain was forced to borrow vastly from foreign bankers to maintain much of its social expenditure.
It was said that part of the price to pay for the situation was the introduction of a wages controls policy. Labour’s manifesto had talked of a planned growth of incomes, related to production. But it now became clear that a formal wages restraint policy had always been planned. Within days of the election this policy was set in motion. A tripartite declaration of intent was marginally agreed to by the TUC. A board to control prices and incomes was set up, whilst the Government rapidly moved away from its earlier commitment to public expenditure projects. The ill-fated National Plan was designed to cut the trading deficit by a massive and sustained economic growth. At first this was warmly applauded by the media and the Tories allowed the Plan to pass through Parliament without opposing it. The Tory Party was rather ineffectual, being rent with internal dissension, only resolved by the resignation of their leader, Douglas-Home, and the subsequent election of Edward Heath. He was the first leader not to ‘emerge’, but to be elected by the limited franchise of MPS.
THE EARLY 1960s COMMUNIST ELECTORAL INTERVENTION