The London boroughs after the 1968 local elections. Conservative gains are marked in light blue.

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.

Governments nearly always experience periods of unpopularity in the middle of their terms of office. Policies fail, ministers quarrel, the economy gets into difficulties.

Local elections at such times tend to produce losses for the government party, as government supporters are grumpy and want to cast a protest vote, or demoralised and fail to turn out, while the opposition’s voters are determined to make their point and are joined by disgruntled swing voters.

Even relatively mild cases of mid-term blues like 1985 or 2003 can cause sharp reverses in local elections, but the most severe cases are awe-inspiring. This year – although one can anticipate London being sticky territory for the Conservatives – is unlikely to be up there with the elections that took place 25 years ago in 1993 or 50 years ago in 1968.

The Wilson government was already having a torrid time in by-elections and local elections before the devaluation of sterling in November 1967. As well as the humiliating policy reverse itself, devaluation had to be accompanied by further unpopular measures like spending cuts and tax increases.

There are some similarities to May 1993, which saw the Conservatives routed, reduced to control over a single county council (Buckinghamshire) in similar circumstances following the devaluation of September 1992, a harsh budget, and Norman Lamont being criticised for the rather Wilsonian offence of appearing to be flippant in the face of policy failure – for ‘pound in your pocket’ read ‘singing in the bath’.

The weeks leading up to the 1968 local elections were turbulent by any standards. The post-devaluation budget introduced by Roy Jenkins in March was eye-wateringly austere, and policies that had been cherished by Labour in 1964, such as free prescriptions and raising the school leaving age, bit the dust in this budget or in another round of cuts announced in January.

The disillusionment was savage, with Labour losing Dudley in a by-election on a swing of over 21 per cent at the end of March.

The international financial markets were in febrile condition, with a massive gold rush in March leading to a hurriedly proclaimed emergency bank holiday in Britain to stop trading in gold and shares. America was in turmoil after the assassination of Martin Luther King on 4 April. On 3 May student protests kicked off at Nanterre and ‘les évènements’ began in Paris.

The biggest British political event in the background of the local elections was Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in Birmingham on 20 April, a piece of oratory that even now retains its power to shock. As I wrote elsewhere in 2014, there is something disturbing about the clipped, precise voice of Enoch Powell dabbling in racist urban legends and vocalising a constituent’s fear that ‘in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’ – a man as careful about words as Powell must have been aware of the violent archetype of the slave turned master.

The speech earned him instant dismissal from the Shadow Cabinet, where colleagues were already irritated by his tendency to roam freely across their policy areas and some like Iain Macleod, Reginald Maudling, and Quintin Hogg were if anything even more incandescent about his demagogue act than the furious Heath.

But the temperature on race kept rising, with demonstrations in Powell’s support in several working class areas and a susurrus of ‘Enoch Was Right’ talk among the middle classes. British passport holders of Asian origin were arriving in increasing numbers from Kenya. The front bench and the government had tried to maintain a consensus approach to the Race Discrimination Bill that was making its way through Parliament, but this exposed both parties to the populist opposition of Powell. As Richard Crossman recorded in his diary on 7 May:

“They all think that Powell is different, not the two official party organisations. This is enormously helpful to us but on the other hand it also widens the gap between Westminster and the public outside. Ordinary people feel that the Establishment and the two party machines are working together, disregarding public demand and fixing everything in defiance of the will of the people. That’s what irritates them and makes them reach out for Powell as a leader.”

The populism, conspiracy theorising and mystical nationalism of Powell – a renegade member of the political establishment himself – found their echo at a time when neither of the main parties were confident of themselves, and when the national and international background was frightening and turbulent to many people.

The Tories reached levels in opinion polls that have only been seen since at Blair’s highest tide (a few years after the 1993 local elections), their traditional support kept on board by Heath’s repudiation of Powell whilst the Powellite surge had no other outlet. The Conservatives were badly split on race and Powell, but the energies that Powell had summoned up worked in their favour and demoralised the already despondent Labour forces even further in May 1968.

By polling day everyone expected a good evening’s results for the Tories, but what happened went hugely beyond that. The Conservative victories in the local elections were florid, almost unbelievable in scale. Labour did not win a single ward in Birmingham – the Tories won 36 out of 39 wards, the other three going Liberal. The Conservatives won everything in Leicester, and gained control of Sheffield for the first and only time since the early 1930s.

The effect was concentrated in London because all the seats were up at once and the boroughs had last been fought in May 1964, when Labour were doing well – the comparison was with 1965 in most of the country. The Conservatives went up from 688 borough councillors elected in 1964 to 1,438 elected in 1968 – a net gain of 750. The number of Conservative-controlled boroughs rose from 9 to 28, with only the most working class dockland boroughs resisting the tide despite the Powellite public demonstrations.

Conservative gains in some individual boroughs were mind-boggling: in Waltham Forest the Conservatives won 3 seats in 1964 and 44 seats in 1968, and the Islington Tories went up from zero to 47 seats and a huge majority. Hackney, Camden, Lambeth… all became Tory councils.

But it was essentially a negative landslide, a reaction against the Wilson government aggravated by differential turnout. There was little sign of positive enthusiasm for the Conservatives, their policies, or their leaders in 1968, but in two party politics it was the only vehicle available in England to give Wilson a kicking (it is worth noting that in Scotland the SNP shared the spoils). The disillusion that produced the extreme results in 1968 led to the low-turnout election surprise in 1970 and the confrontational politics of the next few years.

As sometimes happens with local election disasters, the Prime Minister’s enemies had a plot ready for the night of the results. Cecil King, newspaper proprietor and member of the Court of the Bank of England, made his move, using the Daily Mirror to say ‘ENOUGH IS ENOUGH’ to Wilson. King resigned from the Bank, alleging that reserves figures had been falsified and called for a National Government in some sort of constitutional coup.

Like most other local election based plots such as the one in 2009, the King coup fell flat and Wilson was able to channel Stanley Baldwin – an increasingly comfortable role model – and dismiss the efforts of over-mighty newspaper proprietors. Wilson’s favourite response to plots was: ‘I know what’s going on… I’m going on!’ Wilson may have been a bit paranoid, but there really were people out to get him and the chicanery of 1968 heightened his suspicions.

Of the Conservative councillors elected in London in May 1968, 15 served in the House of Commons at the time or later. The most famous is John Major, one of the three unlikely winners in the Lambeth ward of Ferndale in 1968 – he was unusual in having won a ward that was normally solid Labour while most of the other future MPs stood in marginal or Tory wards. Two other 1968 winners served in Major’s Cabinets – Peter Brooke and Sir George Young.

Another Tory winner in 1968 was John Strafford, a frequent commentator in these parts. For the story of what happened next, and how the unlikely Tory winners of 1968 used their single non-renewable term of power, we’ll meet again next month. In the meantime, if readers have personal reminiscences of being councillors in unusual places in 1968-71 please feel free to get in touch.

The MPs:

Robert Atkins (Haringey); Vivian Bendall (Croydon); Sir Cyril Black (Merton) was already MP for Wimbledon at the time of the election; Rhodes Boyson (Waltham Forest); Peter Brooke (Camden); Den Dover (Barnet), Geoffrey Finsberg (Camden); Archie Hamilton (Kensington & Chelsea); Michael Latham (Westminster); Spencer Le Marchant (Westminster); John Major (Lambeth); Michael Morris (Islington); Michael Neubert (Bromley); Tim Raison (Richmond); Sir George Young (Lambeth). My apologies if I have left anyone out.

Four future Labour MPs were elected too – John Cartwright (Greenwich); Arthur Latham (Havering); Michael O’Halloran (Islington); Michael Ward (Havering).