In 1951, the Liberal Party’s existence was in grave doubt. At the October general election, the party contested a mere 109 seats, and only six MPs were returned. The party was badly divided over basic questions of strategy, and membership and morale were low.
The late 1950s saw an upturn in the Liberals’ fortunes. In March 1962, they won a sensational by-election victory at Orpington and, soon after, reached 25 per cent in the Gallup poll. The party’s performance at local elections was similarly impressive and it claimed a record 350,000 members.
Join Lord William Wallace of Saltaire and Mark Egan (Greffier of the States of Jersey) to discuss how the Liberal Party survived a near-death experience and revived. Chair: Baroness Liz Barker.
Winning local elections has been a keystone in Liberal (Democrat) success in the years since the adoption of the community politics strategy at the Eastbourne Assembly in 1970. There have been many spectacular advances across London, from the heartland of the south western boroughs to Southwark, Islington and more recently breakthroughs on Camden and Brent to share power there. But there are still black holes – ten London boroughs with no Lib Dem representation; and places like Harrow and Tower Hamlets where we controlled the council only to see a near wipe out follow.
In a meeting supported by the Lib Dem group on London Councils, the umbrella organisation representing all 32 London boroughs, the City of London, the Metropolitan Police Authority and the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, the History Group will look at the performance of Liberals in London local government since the 1970s with our speakers being two key players from the party. Cllr Stephen Knight of London Councils will chair the meeting and our speakers will be Cllr Sir David Williams, first elected for Ham and Petersham Ward in 1974 and a former leader of Richmond Council and London Assembly member Mike Tuffrey, who was also GLC/ILEA member for Vauxhall in the 1980s.
On 27 March 1958, Mark Bonham Carter, Asquith’s grandson, won the Parliamentary by-election in the Devon seat of Torrington by a margin of just 219 votes.
It was the first Liberal by-election gain since the 1920s. Although the seat was lost in the 1959 general election, it marked the beginning of the first major Liberal post-war revival, under the leadership of Jo Grimond.
To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Torrington by-election, the Archives of the London School of Economics, the Liberal Democrat History Group and the Richard Scurrah Wainwright Trust are holding a seminar to investigate the post-Second World War experience of the Liberal Party – from the defeats of the 1945 general election to the general election of 1979, when 13 Liberal MPs were elected.
The keynote address will be given by Lord Dholakia and Lord Wallace, on ‘Campaigning Liberals in the 1950s and 1960s’.
Other sessions during the day will include:
Liberal campaigning: elections and by-elections
Local government – grassroots survival
Leaders and leadership
Collaboration – pacts and other parties.
Speakers include Lord Kirkwood, Lord Greaves, Michael Meadowcroft and Martin Wainwright.
Cost: £10 (including refreshments)
In the 1960s and early 1970s the press coined the phrase the “Red Guard” to describe the radical politics of the youth wing of the Liberal Party. At the 1966 Party Conference in Brighton, the Red Guard sponsored an anti-NATO resolution. Over the next decade the YLs were active on a number of foreign policy areas. They were at the forefront of the opposition to apartheid and the Vietnam war and took a leading role in the Stop the Seventy Tour of South African cricket and rugby teams. The party leadership were disturbed by the activities of the youth wing, and Jeremy Thorpe set up a three-man commission which produced the Terrell Report. The report accused some of the Young Liberals of being communists.
Chair (Lord) Tony Greaves
Speaker Dr Matt Cole, Lecturer at the London School of Economics for the Hansard Society and author of Richard Wainwright, the Liberals and Liberal Democrats: Unfinished Business, shortly to be published by Manchester University Press
Witnesses who have agreed to attend are Gordon Lishman, William Wallace, Terry Lacey, Michael Steed and George Kiloh, and we welcome other testimony from audience members.
The Orpington by-election of March 1962 was a political landmark: a stunning victory for Jo Grimond’s Liberal Party, as Eric Lubbock turned a Conservative majority of 14,760 into a Liberal majority of 7,855. The term ‘Orpington Man’ was coined by the press to identify a new type of voter, young, white-collar, skilled, well-educated and upwardly mobile socially and economically a social group supposedly rejecting an old-fashioned and out-of-touch Tory party but not attracted to a cloth-cap, Clause IV Labour Party either.
The expectation was that this group would decide the next general election and would vote decisively for the Liberal Party. But this never happened. The Liberals did relatively well at the 1964 election, gaining almost 5 per cent of the vote and three more seats – but not in the areas where ‘Orpington Man’ was supposed to live.
So what happened to ‘Orpington Man’? Dennis Kavanagh, Emeritus Professor and Research Fellow in Politics and Communications at Liverpool University and author of many works on British electoral history, and Dr Mark Egan, who recently published the book Coming into Focus: The Transformation of the Liberal Party, 1945-64, will explore the phenomenon of ‘Orpington Man’ from the by-election to the 1964 general election.