Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.
In April, I wrote about Reggie Maudling’s budgets, which nearly managed to win the 1964 election for the Conservatives. We have now passed the 50th anniversary of that close, exciting contest, and this offers an opportunity to take the long view. There are some superficial similarities to the 2010 election in the pattern of that election result, and some profound differences.
The defeated Conservatives of 1964 won 303 seats out of 630, on 43.4 per cent of the popular vote, while the semi-victorious Tories of 2010 won 306 seats out of 650 (on 36.1 per cent).
Comparing seats over the long term is always a cloudy exercise; there have been four complete sets of boundary changes since 1964, and the contents of constituencies are regularly shuffled. The same constituency name may be applied to very different locations in 1964 and 2010: the Rushcliffe that Ken Clarke gained in 1970 is quite similar to the marginal Broxtowe seat currently occupied by Anna Soubry, and the modern Rushcliffe does not resemble any seat that existed in 1964.
Sometimes the old constituency is present only in homeopathic dosages in the new one; one ward of the 1964 version of Croydon South is to be found in the 2010 seat of the same name. The tangled history of the names and boundaries of the Plymouth constituencies is worth an essay in itself, if for a somewhat select readership, and is to be found at the intersection of Plymouth local studies and boundary change experts (paging Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher of the Elections Centre, Plymouth).
One tends to think of the geography of British party support as being mostly stable over time – the places that are safe Conservative seats in 2010 being, for the most part, the same as those that were safely Tory in 1964 – or 1924.
This is true a lot of the time – rural and suburban seats in South-East England have rarely strayed from the Conservative fold, except perhaps to dally with the Liberals in 1906 or 1923. In all the elections in modern Surrey, the Conservatives have lost only two constituency contests since 1918 (Spelthorne to Labour in 1945, and Guildford to the Liberal Democrats in 2001). Of the 306 seats that the Conservatives won in 2010, 180 had recognisable predecessors that were also Conservative in 1964.
But this means that there is also a lot of change as well. What were the other 126 constituencies doing in 1964?
As many as 52 currently Conservative seats were Labour in 1964. Admittedly, the Conservatives were 7.1 percentage points ahead of Labour in 2010 and 0.7 points behind in 1964, so one could expect a number of gains on main-party swing alone.
This accounts for 21 of the 52 switchers. The other 31 are scattered around, and tell a story of political change. The most interesting are the New Towns. Harlow and Stevenage, and the proto-Milton Keynes towns of Wolverton and Bletchley, were enough to turn quite large rural seats Labour in 1964 (the Epping, Hitchin and Buckingham seats – the latter two returning Shirley Williams and Robert Maxwell respectively).
But in 2010 the core urban New Town seats themselves are Conservative by more than the national average. While volatile – the New Towns loved Tony Blair in 1997 and 2001 – these social democratic utopias have proved long-term blessings for the Conservatives.
Another clutch of constituencies that have turned blue since 1964 is to be found in the small town and semi-rural Midlands: North West Leicestershire, Kettering, Belper and others. As mining and manufacturing have declined, and the motorways have opened them up as commuter areas, their Labour traditions have faded. The concept of Woodrow Wyatt as representing the Labour interest in Bosworth, in 1959 – an election the Tories won comfortably at a national level – is mind-boggling on several levels. Some of the same phenomenon applies to the northern seats that were Labour in 1964 and Conservative in 2010, such as Calder Valley and Rossendale. There are similar seats in the south – notably a stretch in north Kent from Dartford to Sittingbourne via Rochester.
The biggest source of new Conservative seats, however, is creation – new constituencies being awarded particularly to the southern English counties in successive boundary reviews because of population growth. There are 70 current Conservative seats that have no recognisable predecessor in 1964, usually because they have been carved from safe Tory seats in past boundary reviews.
Among these is the Prime Minister’s seat at Witney and the Foreign Secretary’s at Runnymede & Weybridge. Fifteen of the creations are in Eastern England: the huge Billericay seat that Edward Gardner held narrowly in 1964 (but lost in 1966) is the parent not only of safe Basildon & Billericay, but also the semi-marginal South Basildon & East Thurrock and another safe seat, Eric Pickles’s berth at Brentwood & Ongar.
So what areas have, slipped away from the Conservatives between 1964 and 2010? The largest loss is the seats that Gordon Brown’s Labour won in 2010 but Harold Wilson’s Labour didn’t in 1964. There are 46 of these (and would be 68 if one adjusts for the national swing).
The bulk are inner suburban areas – three in Edinburgh, four in Birmingham, five on Merseyside, and nine in London. Most of the larger cities have such a seat (e.g. Leicester South), although some of them have swung past Labour and voted Liberal Democrat in 2010 (Bristol West, Manchester Withington). A fair amount of this reflects the suburbanisation of the ethnic minority population, but it is also to do with the alienation of the public sector and liberal professions from the Conservatives during the 1980s.
The majority of current Liberal Democrat seats were Conservative in 1964 – 37 out of 57. Ten of these are in the South West, and six in Scotland. Many have Liberalism in their genetic code, and were among the last to abandon the Liberals in the 1920s. The most intriguing is St Ives, which was held by Sir John Nott (whom I encountered last week on Rochester High Street, on charming, courtly and lively form) on his first election in 1966 as a “National Liberal and Conservative”.
Other Liberal Democrat seats are in urbane city constituencies (Sheffield Hallam, for instance), and in outer Souht-West London. The Conservatives have also suffered the heaviest losses to “others” between 1964-2010 (17 seats).
Most are to Northern Ireland parties and the SNP, but there is also the Green seat of Brighton Pavilion (it was a safe seat for staunch right wing Tories – Sir William Teeling between 1944 and 1969 and Sir Julian Amery from 1969 until 1992). The Tories have also lost 23 seats since 1964 through abolition – 14 of them in London, including Wanstead & Woodford, which Sir Winston Churchill relinquished to Patrick Jenkin in 1964.
The local detail tells us a lot about political and social trends, particularly in the cities and post-industrial small town England, but what of the big picture? The Conservative delegation in the Commons is, more than ever, drawn from the East and South East of England.
In 1964, 84 Conservative MPs out of 303 (27.7 per cent) represented seats in these regions. In 2010, the total had risen to 126 out of 306 (41.1 per cent). Conversely, 95 of the 303 Tories (31.4 per cent) of 1964 represented the “periphery” of the UK (Northern England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) while the total in 2010 was down to 52 (17.0 per cent).
Historically, the Conservative Party has always been about more than the Home Counties even if its strongholds are to be found there – the powerful Conservative machines in Scotland, the West Midlands and Merseyside are no more, and the revival of Liberalism has undermined the Liberal-tinctured Conservative strength in the south west. For the first time in Conservative history, there are no robust pillars of the party outside the south and east. This is cause, and effect, of profound changes in the party’s statecraft and governing approach. Perhaps 1964 is even further away than it seems.