The Oldham West by-election: looking back to 1968

CCO 500-18-114 - Michael Meacher (Labour)

[Michael Meacher’s election address, Oldham West, June 1968: Shelfmark: CCO 500/18/114]

Polling Day in the Oldham West & Royton by-election takes place tomorrow,  3rd December, 2015, in the constituency formerly held by the late Michael Meacher, the veteran Labour MP who held the constituency for 45 years, who died in October.

While the Westminster parties prepare for the voters’ verdict in this the first by-election of the 2015-2020 Parliament, the detailed records of Conservative Central Office, deposited at the Bodleian Library as part of the Conservative Party Archive, afford us the opportunity to look back to 13th June, 1968, when the last by-election was held in Oldham. While the conditions of 1968 were very different from today, there are some obvious parallels as well.

The Oldham West by-election took place four years into the Labour Government led by Harold Wilson which had been strengthened by its 1966 election victory. But despite leading what was arguably one of the most socially progressive governments of the 20th century, Wilson was dogged by economic problems and imposed austerity measures in a number of areas – notably introducing prescription charges, increasing National Insurance contributions, and reducing tax allowances. In addition, poor economic growth and the large deficit had resulted in Wilson’s decision to devalue Sterling the previous year.

Taken against this backdrop, some kind of protest vote was probably inevitable. But the scale of the by-election defeats which Labour suffered took all the parties by surprise, and paved the way for the Conservatives return to power at the 1970 general election. The Oldham West by-election was the eighteenth of the 1966-1970 parliament, and the sixth of eleven by-elections to be fought in 1968 alone, of which eight resulted in Conservative victories, including five which were gains from Labour.

Oldham West & Royton, as it is now, was created as a parliamentary constituency only in 1997, formed primarily out of Oldham West. Since the late 19th century, Oldham had demonstrated a marked preference first for the Liberals until the early 1920s and then for Labour (one of the few exceptions to this was Winston Churchill’s election there as a Conservative in 1900, though he subsequently crossed the floor to the Liberals in 1904). Since 1945, Oldham West had been represented continuously by Leslie Hale. A highly popular MP locally, at the 1966 general election he had been returned with an increased majority of 7,572. The by-election was caused by his decision to retire.

Oldham clearly had its problems by the end of Hale’s tenure. Traditionally the centre of the UK Cotton Industry, and at one time the most productive cotton spinning mill town in the world, by 1968 this was an industry in decline. A public opinion survey commissioned by the Conservatives and undertaken by the Opinion Research Centre (ORC) between 9-13 February, 1968 found that Cotton was rapidly being overtaken by Engineering as the main industry in Oldham, with 65% of those surveyed feeling that the Labour Government had failed to provide sufficient support to the Cotton Industry. Perhaps surprisingly, Tommy Thompson, Head of Communications at Conservative Central Office, advised against focusing the Conservative campaign on this point. In a note to the Party Chairman dated 1st March, 1968, he said,

I think there is always a tendency, perhaps, to be slightly nervous about old and dying industries – and often to over-compensate by paying too much attention to them….[It] suggests to me that our campaign should concern itself more with the importance of the new industries rather than bemoaning the decline of the old.

[Source: Memorandum from Tommy Thompson, Head of Communications at Conservative Central Office to the Party Chairman, 01/03/1968: shelfmark: CCO 500/18/114]

While the survey found that 74% of voters felt they would be affected by the economic problems facing the country, and 50% were worried about rising prices and the cost of living, generally, Oldham’s voters felt that the Labour government had handled the issues of education, the NHS, road and traffic, well. Surprisingly with the furore going on elsewhere concerning Immigration following Enoch Powell’s inflammatory ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, only 2% of those surveyed considered this to be a problem for Oldham. In his Preliminary Report on the Oldham by-election, dated 15th February, Tony Garner, the Central Office Agent for the North West Area, advised the Conservatives to run a ‘softly-softly’ campaign, intended to avoid rousing the Opposition, while at the same time encouraging full mobilisation of the Conservative vote. Agreeing with this, Tommy Thompson recommended that the one exception should be over Defence:

It is necessary, for the faithful, to appear to be bashing the Government pretty hard and the defence aspect of the cuts is one which, while satisfying the hard core party boys, is fairly harmless. If, for example we can point pretty strongly at the waste of money which has turned the RAF into a Eunuch…it might damage the Government…

20151127_113412(rev)

[Extract from memorandum by Tommy Thompson, Head of Communications at Conservative Central Office, to members of the Party’s Policy Initiatives & Methods Committee dated 14th February, 1968, concerning the strategy for dealing with the by-elections: Shelfmark: CCO 500/18/114]

From the outset, a major hindrance to the Conservative campaign was felt to be the Party’s own candidate. Bruce Campbell, a veteran of Dunkirk who had seen service across the Middle East and Italy during the Second World War, had stood unsuccessfully in Manchester Gorton during the 1955 General Election, and Oldham West in 1966, where he was kept on by the local Conservative association to fight the by-election. But despite his previous experience, Central Office had no confidence in him. Richard Webster, Director of Organisation at Conservative Central Office, reporting on the situation to Deputy Party Chairman Sir Michael Fraser on 6th February, stated,

Mr Campbell is not an impressive figure. He appears to be very lacking in personality though probably a nice enough chap. In addition, even the Chairman tells me he is an appalling speaker.

This opinion was supported by Tony Garner a week later:

Mr Campbell is not a strong Candidate. Although he is an eminent barrister he is a poor speaker and seems to lack personality. However, he is highly thought of in Oldham and there is no question of any alternative.

He went on,

The Candidate’s political knowledge is limited and it will be necessary to have someone attached to him from Research for the period of the Election.

Chris Patten was mentioned as a possibility, but with Conservative Research Department personnel stretched due to the spate of by-elections then being fought, he was directed to Meriden, where that by-election was due to be held on 28th March.

PUB 229-1-18 - Bruce Campbell (Conservative)1 PUB 229-1-18 - Bruce Campbell (Conservative)2

[Election address of Bruce Campbell, Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Oldham West, June 1968: Shelfmark: PUB 229/1/18]

To add to the Conservatives’ woes, their experienced local Agent was ineligible to take on the duties expected of him as an Election Agent during the campaign as he was then serving as the Mayor of Oldham. A temporary replacement had been brought in but after a 4-month delay in determining the date for the by-election, he had left, and the post was then filled by Mrs Blaby, a ‘qualified Women Organiser employed by the Area’.

As today, much was made of Labour’s seeming inability to attract many of its ‘big-hitters’ to campaign in Oldham in 1968. Webster wrote on 5th June, just over a week before polling,

They claim that they have 17 MPs canvassing. With the exception of one press officer from Transport House no other officials other than the Area Agent for Yorkshire have been seen….[They] do not strike me as being very high powered lists of speakers and the obvious missing links are Roy Jenkins, Barbara Castle, Michael Stewart, Anthony Crossland, Jim Callaghan, Richard Crossman, Dennis Healey, etc.

In contrast, the Conservatives persuaded a number of its Front-Benchers to assist in Oldham, including Bernard Braine, Selwyn Lloyd, Anthony Barber, Geoffrey Johnson Smith, Alec Douglas-Home, and Margaret Thatcher.

The Conservative investment in Oldham paid off. Despite Central Office’s concerns about its candidate, Bruce Campbell was elected with a majority of 3,311, and a swing to the Conservatives of 17.7%.

Weekend Talking Point Weekly News

[How the by-election victories were reported in 1) the Conservative Party’s internal newsletter for Party activists – Weekend Talking Point; and 2) the main Party newsletter, Weekly News, June 1968: Shelfmarks: PUB 216/5 and PUB 193/22]

The Conservatives’, and Campbell’s, success in Oldham was short-lived, however. Despite the 1968 by-elections anticipating the national swing to the Conservatives at the 1970 General Election, Campbell bucked the trend and lost his seat, and Oldham returned to Labour control for the next 45 years. Campbell himself returned full-time to the Law and ultimately became a Circuit Judge. In 1983, he was caught by Customs attempting to smuggle whisky and tobacco into Ramsgate aboard his yacht, following which he received the ignominious accolade of being the first judge to be struck off by the Lord Chancellor.

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