The story of Smethwick 1964: Britain’s most racist election

By Wilkie D

In the 1964 general election, the incumbent Conservative government was ousted by the Labour Party. The incoming Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, won with a wafer-thin majority of four. However, one constituency bucked this trend. The constituency of Smethwick, a suburb 4 miles west of Birmingham city centre, voted for the Conservative candidate Peter Griffiths with a swing of 7.2%. This election battle was punctuated by racism and hate. The campaign centred around Griffiths trying to attract the core Labour vote of white working-class men and women.

Griffiths stirred up and weaponised fear and resentment of these people towards Black and South Asian Commonwealth immigrants who had moved to Smethwick following WW2 to bolster industries there. Smethwick had attracted many Punjabi Sikh immigrants especially. This arrival of immigrants had resulted in a long waiting list for council housing, said to be 4,000 by Peter Griffiths in his maiden Parliamentary speech. This was combined with the factory closures in the area and the decline of local industry like the Birmingham Small Arms factory in nearby Small Heath (eventually closed in 1973), causing unrest and dissatisfaction among the white, working-class population of Smethwick.

This dissatisfaction was channelled by Peter Griffiths into fearmongering and scare tactics. Moreover, while Griffiths himself always denied using them, the slogans widely used by Conservative canvassers in the area contained racial slurs and racist sentiment. Similar slogans and abuse were hurled at the Labour candidate Patrick Gordan Walker as he left Smethwick town hall upon losing the vote.

The sentiments felt by the Smethwick population were perhaps not completely unfamiliar for the time. Similar ideas were echoed by Enoch Powell only 4 years later in his famous “Rivers of Blood” speech. What was outrageous about this campaign, though, was Griffiths’ near praise of the slogans used by his supporters. He failed to condemn the slogans outright, instead being quoted in the Times saying about the most hateful of the slogans used:

“I should think that is a manifestation of the popular feeling. I would not condemn anyone who said that. I would say that is how people see the situation in Smethwick. I fully understand the feelings of the people who say it. I would say it is exasperation, not fascism.”

This was a difficult stance to hold given that the leader of the British neo-Nazi movement, the National Socialist Movement (later the British Movement), Colin Jordan claimed that his organisation had created the slogan and begun the poster and sticker campaign.

Following the election result, a British branch of the Ku Klux Klan was formed. Their main activity was putting burning crosses through the letterboxes of ethnic minority residences. In 1964 there was also an attempt to enact policies of racial segregation. Houses on Marshall Street were only let out to white British residents and white residents successfully petitioned the Conservative council to buy vacant houses to prevent non-whites from purchasing them. This scheme was only prevented by the Labour housing minister, Richard Crossman, who refused to allow the council to borrow the money to carry out the policy.

This resulted in the veteran African American activist, Malcolm X visiting Smethwick on February 12th, 1965, only 9 days before he was shot dead in a ballroom in New York. He had been addressing the Council of African Organizations in London and, upon being disallowed entry into France he decided to visit Smethwick in solidarity with the black and ethnic minority community there. He compared the treatment of ethnic minorities there with the treatment of the Jews under Hitler, saying:

“I would not wait for the Fascist element in Smethwick to erect gas ovens”

The backlash in Parliament would be just as fierce. The new PM Wilson called for the Conservative leader Sir Alec Douglas-Home to withdraw the whip from Griffiths, saying in the Commons:

“If Sir Alec does not take what I’m sure is the right course, Smethwick Conservatives will have the satisfaction of having sent a member who, until another election returns him to oblivion, will serve his time as a Parliamentary leper.”

At this, 25 Conservative MPs walked out of the chamber in protest. They proposed a motion condemning Wilson’s insult towards Griffiths. Labour MPs struck back proposing a motion to condemn Wilson for insulting lepers.

Peter Griffiths, was, in fact, returned to oblivion at the next election in 1966, losing his seat to the actor Andrew Faulds, with an 11.8% swing to Labour. The Liberals didn’t put up a candidate in the constituency in order not to split the vote and allow the Conservatives to win. Faulds would hold the seat until 1974 when the constituency was abolished.

However, the 1964 election in Smethwick showed how in times of hardship, the traditional white working-class Labour electorate’s desire for change could make them more vulnerable to scare tactics and cause them to switch allegiances.

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