Much Ado About By-Elections, Part 2
Originally published in The National Guardian March 30th 2003 by Tabitha Rust.
2. Oxford: 18th June 1970
1970 was always going to be a tough year for Labour. It had been twenty six years since the party had come to power; three years since Reginald Goodwin had assumed the Premiership; one year since their rot victory at the ’69 General Election. No single party had ruled Britain, let alone a democratic society, for as long as they had. Nor had a single party faced the multitude of crises that Labour faced in what would be its final term.
oad, Britain’s commitment in South East Asia deepened as the Royal Navy crossed into Laos on the Mekong River. Decolonisation was finally and rapidly sweeping through British Africa. This sudden change to Britain’s external economic structure proved to only exacerbate the recession-inflation conditions that had plagued Britain since the mid-60s, in turn deepening and worsening the strike action caused by poor industrial management.
All of this would have been a recipe for electoral disaster, regardless of party, but this was cold comfort for Goodwin. Over the course of the 45th Parliament, Labour could only watch in dread as its 54 seat majority was whittled away by death, resignation, and even a few defections.
The formation of the National Alliance after the signing of the Conservative-Liberal Pact in the Autumn of 1969 only heightened this pressure. Every by-election was a hard fought struggle, and more often than not a loss. From Liverpool to Yorkshire, from Ayrshire to Islington, no matter how glacial the majority the National Alliance seemed supremely capable in melting it.
The sudden resignation of Oxford MP Dick Taverne on May 1st, 1970 (officially so that Taverne could assume the Vice-Chancellery of Oxford University) was the fifth of such resignations and triggered the eighth by-election of the Parliament. It could not have come at a worse time, announced on the same day that the Treasury devalued the pound for the third time since the election, and on the same day the names of ten British servicemen killed in Pakse, Laos was released to the public. There was no doubt that Labour would lose Oxford. But to who?
Initially it looked to be a clear victory for whomever the National Alliance put up. However, the selection of biologist and fervent anti-socialist Tony Whittaker over chemist Margret Bray, the preferred choice by both the Conservative and Liberal Leadership, in an experimental open primary caused a hiccup in what would have otherwise been a cruise to the polls.
Senior figures in both party’s expressed distress at a candidate who had been swept up from the grassroots. Some, such as Liberal Leader Frank Beyers, were willing to grin and bear it. After all, Labour had been able to achieve a quarter of a century of rule thanks to a split in the anti-socialist bloc.
Others, such as the right-libertarian policy guru and Oxford alumni William Rees-Mogg, we’re not and took matters into their own hands. Rees-Mogg announced that he would run as an Independent candidate shortly after Whittaker’s selection. Although not officially backed by anyone, Rees-Mogg noted in his memoirs that it was an open secret that many within the National Alliance backed him and financed his candidacy.
From Labour, it was expected Oxfordite and special advisor Hugh Clegg was to be invited to run for the seat, with Union backing due to his vital part in killing the Industrial Relations Act. Others, such as L.A.W. (Labour Against the War), an internal ginger group, mounted a campaign to select housing activist Richard Corbyn (a familiar name to Islingtonite readers). But both Clegg and Corbyn ultimately declined invitations. Unopposed, Labour selected research fellow and local Cllr, David Luard.
For the Labour leadership, the uncontroversial Luard seemed an obvious choice, an expectedly uninspiring and moderate lamb for the slaughter. The Unions, L.A.W., left-wing activists, and more radical voices were left frustrated at Labour, throats wrought with despair at who they saw as a limp moderate who couldn’t even put-in the effort to campaign.
In came the Communist Party of Great Britain and their candidate: Professor Edward ‘Ted’ Heath. A lecturer of economics at the University itself, Heath was a respected figure locally. Within the Communist Party, he was distinguished in his service in the Spanish and Italian International Brigades, and for having fought Nazism[sic] in the Austrian mountains and Bavarian highlands.
Within the leftist social spheres of Oxford, and to groups like L.A.W., the 54-year-old Heath seemed like an obvious choice for the left to rally around. However, Heath cut something of a cold figure, despite- or perhaps rather because- of his scholarly disposition. Nonetheless, he was an enthusiastic campaigner, even if he was unable to convey the sincerity of a smile, and focused largely on harnessing opposition to the Indochina War and Labour’s labour policies.
However, Heath faced allegations that he was ‘on the side’ of the Lao Communists Britain was fighting, of the African socialist movements winning their struggle for independence, and of the Soviet Union itself. These allegations were largely unfounded, but with ‘Communist’ next to his name on the ballot, it was unsurprising that he faced an uphill battle to convince the electorate his loyalties were to Britain, and not abroad. Indeed these allegations would ultimately cost him the backing of the Unions.
The final candidate worth note was Helen Anderson, a member of the National Democratic Party. A Neo-Fascist outfit based in Oxford itself, and made up largely of reactionaries who had ties with the late Oswald Mosley’s Fascist Action! movement, Anderson and the NDs campaigned on a platform championing peace with honour in Indonesia, British entry into the European Economic Commonwealth, equality of rights for men and women, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and the repatriation of Black and Asian Britons to their newly independent ‘homelands’.
Overall the campaign was unsurprisingly bitter. In the press, Heath and Anderson were treated as more serious candidates than the Official Opposition. Press coverage was vast, with both candidates being profiled in a Panorama episode: Oxford: Between the Extremes, coverage that did rot for their respective public profile.
The cool and aloof Heath played well to douse the stereotype of a CPUK ‘rabble rouser firebrand’, establishing him a technocratic appeal as he cooly spoke of a command planning economics. Meanwhile, Anderson’s uniqueness as both a woman and an openly far-right candidate drew fascination. Her natural charisma proved an effective tool to rally interest around her, and attention .
Attention however attracted violence, particularly with the sharply polarising nature of the candidates. The Oxford chapter of the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift surprisingly withdrew support its support for Whittaker, figuring Heath a better candidate for pacifistic concerns. Acting on their own accord, and donning their ritualistic ‘warrior wear’ of green shirts and feathered tunics, they openly clashed with far-right campaigners who had come to lend a hand to Anderson’s campaign.
A notable incident involved an attempted black-walling of Heath and Luard by Martin Webster and the League of Empire Loyalists. Ambushed at Oxford City Centre, both men escaped potential harm when Kifters and members of the Oxford Jewish Students Union charged the Silver Shirts. Consequently, Police were eventually deployed by the Home Secretary to protect candidates.
This was embarrassing for Luard, who felt it sent the wrong message for black uniformed police to stand next to him door-to-door. But for Anderson it made for good campaign photos, although she would decline overt police protection in favour of the now bully-club armed Silver Shirts.
Despite the violence (no less than 60 campaigners were officially arrested on various charges of assault), all candidates made it to polling day in one piece. There would be no repeats of Belfast North.
Although he had lost his deposit, Rees-Mogg polled well enough to demonstrably split the National Alliance’s vote and deny Whittaker victory. Labour’s vote share however collapsed by nearly thirty points, pushing them into third. Anderson came fourth just behind of the Luard, but within less than 600 votes from winning.
Heath and the Communist Party had captured Oxford by a mere 12 votes, and on the lowest winning vote % in British electoral history. Taking to the stage after a dozen recounts, and after the lights had been turned back on (strike-action at the national energy grid had extended for a day longer than expected), Heath was met with mostly jeers. He even dodged a bottle thrown by a young John Griffin.
But as the jeers died down, those gathered in the results chamber watched in some strange, tense awe (industrial action meant the BBC could not broadcast the results). Prof. Edward Heath, the first Communist elected to Westminster since 1944, coughed into a closed fist and delivered his first- and his only- victory speech to the nation.
6,225 (22.6%) Prof. Edward Heath — Communist Party of Great Britain
6,213 (22.6%) Tony Whittaker — (Liberal) National Alliance
5,903 (21.5%) David Luard — Labour
5,654 (20.6%) Helen Anderson — National Democratic
2,116 (7.9%) William Rees-Mogg — Independent
768 (2.8%) Martin Woloch — Independent
589 (2.1%) Russel Wolk — Ecology
Maj. 12 (0.0%)
An enby writer and student stranded on Portsea Island @MonroeTempleton
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