After Orpington

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In 1962 the best days of the Liberal Party must have seemed like a long way behind them. Decline had been the order of the day for decades, byelections were not scenes of success, a lone win in 1958 at Torrington being their first gain since 1929! The National Liberals who had split way remained a separate force propped up by the Tories and despite a new leader breathing some life into the party the national share of the vote at the previous General Election had been less than six per cent with only six MPs returned.

Then came Orpington, a suburban constituency whose Conservative incumbent had been appointed to a judgeship causing a byelection. The Liberal candidate was the young Eric Lubbock who had been elected as a local Councillor a couple of years previously. The Tory government was going through a period of mid term unpopularity not a surprise given they had been in office for some time. However nobody expected them to lose but they did lose in a spectacular fashion. A swing of over 20% saw Lubbock turn a Conservative majority of over 14,000 into a Liberal one of more than 7,000.

After the result there was much talk of it being an indication of the changes that were place in British society and the existence of a new type of voter Orpington man who shunned the class based politics of the two major parties. The expected Liberal revival didn’t quite materialise but the 1964 General Election an election which Labour won with a wafer thin majority did see an increase in both the share of the vote and the number of MPs.

Luddock held Orpington in that election and 1966 before losing to the Tories in the wake of Heath’s victory in 1970. He went onto join the Liberal ranks in the lords where he founded the Parliamentary Human Rights group. Orpington was an important milestone for a number of reasons. It marked the highpoint of Jo Grimond’s inspirational period of leadership, which had the 1964 election produced a hung parliament could have seen the party enter government, it placed the Liberals back on the road to some sort of a recovery.

A recovery that saw more byelection gains in the early 1970s in places as diverse as Ely and Rochdale followed by 19 per cent of the vote in the February 1974 General Election.

Of course, there have been ups and downs since for Britain’s Liberals not least our heavy defeat in 2015. However after Orpington things improved and there has been no return to the real low point of the 1950s. The local government base of which we are so rightly proud was built and in the years ahead we can ensure that we remain a force in our nation’s political life.

* David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats

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  • One interesting point from the Orpington election. The count was on the television, live. That included the piling up of the votes as the count went on. I remember watching and feeling the excitement. We were told that this should never have been allowed. There was not really competition for the few TV channels then.
    The message was of course that the path to electing an MP had to involve success in local government, the building of a local organisation.

  • Thanks for reminding me of my youth, David.

    Dear old Eric Lubbock. A proper radical Liberal. Would that we had his like today. Anyone who cares to research his biography (Wikipedia entry) will discover what it was to be a Liberal in the 1960’s. Eric campaigned for human rights every day for the rest of his life until his death in 2016.

    Back in 2013, Eric (as Lord Avebury) wrote an article for LDV setting out very clearly why
    the modern Liberal Democrat party should take the issues of poverty and inequality seriously when it it meets in York later this month. If he had been listened to the debacle of 2015 could have been avoided.

    Here’s the link to look it up on LDV : “Eric Avebury writes … LibDems should oppose Tory measures against the poor”. 2 April 2013.

    I’ve got a very precious personal memory of Eric from way back in 1964 …… sitting through the night in Trafalgar Square chatting with him outside the South African Embassy demonstrating against the impending death sentence that had been imposed on Nelson Mandela.

    Eric Lubbock : a great , good and decent man.

  • Steve Magner 1st Mar '20 - 3:13pm

    We badly need people like Jo Grimond and Eric Lubbock to offer a real intellectual and Liberal appraisal of what is needed in our society. The present parliamentary party sadly offer little of such intellectual clarity and purpose.

  • Paul Barker 1st Mar '20 - 3:34pm

    I approve of any attempt to take a longer view & remind ourselves of our Low & High points. Its a useful antidote to the despair many are feeling after seeing last Years hopes dashed.
    The fundamental mistake We made in joining The Coalition was to give up our Long-Term Strategy of replacing one of The two Major Parties for the short-term gain of “Doing Stuff.”
    We took 21 Years to recover from our previous Low Point of 1989 ( & Yes, there was one Poll that gave us 0%) – hopefully we can recover faster this Time.
    We need to commit ourselves to not joining another Coalition as Junior Partner & We have to stick to that resolution whatever baubles are dangled in front of us.
    We dont know what opportunities may come our way, We just have to keep our spirits up while plugging away at building The Party.

  • David Becket 1st Mar '20 - 4:15pm

    @ Steve Magner
    “We badly need people like Jo Grimond and Eric Lubbock to offer a real intellectual and Liberal appraisal of what is needed in our society. The present parliamentary party sadly offer little of such intellectual clarity and purpose.”

    We also lack leadership, which is why we should break with tradition and look outside the Commons. Farage did quite well.

  • @David Raw – Thanks for reminding us of that post. Eric Lubbock, later Lord Avebury, wrote some wonderful articles for Lib Dem Voice on a wide variety of issues. To see the scope go to

    I had a number of delightful conversations with him through LDV. In fact, I was remembering him only yesterday. He suffered from a rare form of cancer, and I was interested in the subject because my husband has a very rare medical condition. In fact, quite a lot of people do have rare diseases but there is little research into any of them because of the low incidence of each one.

    This was the post that alerted me to the fact that there was actually an International Rare Disease Day, which was celebrated again yesterday.

  • Paul Holmes 1st Mar '20 - 7:28pm

    @Paul Barker. You say it took 21 years to recover from 1989 (when we were polling 0% after Merger) but of course you are referring to share of the vote and 1992 at just under 18% was not in fact disastrously below the 22.6% in 1987 and certainly better than 2015/17/19. Neither was the 22% in 2015 much below 1987 either.

    Much more important though, in a FPTP electoral system is actually electing MP’s. So the 20 in 1992 was only 2 down on 1987. The 46 in 1997 however was the best since before WW2, as was the 52 in 2001 and the 62 in 2005 was the best since 1922. A good Target Seat strategy makes all the difference whether against a Conservative Government in 1997 or Labour in 2001 and 2005.

    2010 however, despite a small vote increase on 2005, saw a fall of 5, the biggest net loss since 1970.

  • It’s great to be reminded of “the good old days” in Orpington. I am regularly reminded when I visit my son and family, who live just outside the town (they were until recently living in the constituency – now in Bromley and Chislehurst). The constituency office, no doubt a remnant of the glory days, is opposite the big Tesco superstore, and can be viewed from their huge windows on the first floor!

    It is very sad that the constituency now has one of the highest Tory votes in the country.

  • Colin Peacock 1st Mar '20 - 9:58pm

    I’d canvassed at the Carshalton by-election in 1960 (?) but always regret missing Orpington as I was away as a student. Still think of myself as a Grimondite liberal, a strain of social liberalism we need emphasise more. I regret that I lent and never got back my copy of the Yellow Book that was published about that time, a contemporary version of the famous 1928 one.

  • Tony Greaves 1st Mar '20 - 10:47pm

    I rather think he 1962-peak revival had just about disappeared by the end of the decade. The 1970s revival was (electorally) a new one though a lot of the active Liberals had joined in the Grimond era. The Orpington by-election was the first time I ever knocked on a door for the Liberal Party!

  • Sadie Smith 2nd Mar '20 - 10:51am

    Around that time, a group of us set up a Liberal branch covering two villages. And bevause we did not know it was impossible, we got someone elected to Wombourn Council.
    Martyn and I knew Kina batter. But when I needed advice, Eric was great at explaining what the then Home Office would look for when granting a short stay in the UK. Very helpful advice.
    Reliable voice n the Lords later.
    Would like to heat his views on current Home Office.

  • Sue Sutherland 2nd Mar '20 - 12:39pm

    I suppose back in 1962 the new type of voter would have inevitably been labelled Orpington man since Orpington woman hadn’t really begun the fight for equality. This took me back in time to the male dominance of almost every area of life. There were precious few women on the TV for example, few role models for a teenage girl. However, I shocked some public school boys in 1964 by predicting Wilson would win. They thought it would mean the end of their world.
    However, here we are with wealth and privilege ruling once again and a history of our party losing seats. Perhaps, instead of remembering famous by elections we should be analysing the time between 1997 and 2010, which were our most successful years in terms of MP numbers, to consider all the factors which led to our relative success in those years?

  • Sue Sutherland 2nd Mar ’20 – 12:39pm:
    I suppose back in 1962 the new type of voter would have inevitably been labelled Orpington man since Orpington woman hadn’t really begun the fight for equality.

    Back in 1962 the common man probably understood that ‘man’ is a contraction of the Old English word ‘mann’ meaning a human being and when used in that context or as a suffix is gender neutral. They would have laughed their heads off at words like peoplekind and woperdaughter.

  • Roger Billins 2nd Mar '20 - 5:51pm

    This article was of great interest to me. As a teenager I was his constituent and it was his example that lead me to become a Liberal. My parents were died in the wool Tories but my grandmother was very pleased to elect a Liberal. Her husband had been a Liberal and had heard Lloyd George give his famous Limehouse speech. As an aside, my first girl friend ditched me for Eric Lubbock’s son..what a big house and a hereditary title does. I agree that we have suffered for not having more Grimmonds and Lubbocks

  • Tony Greaves 2nd Mar '20 - 7:59pm

    Or even Grimonds…

    In the Lords Eric had a speech for every oppressed group the planet. And he took action outside as well.

  • Sue Sutherland 2nd Mar '20 - 10:36pm

    Jeff. I think people who don’t identify themselves when being deliberately malicious are afraid of conflict. I had enough of being told that man included women during those years and don’t need to hear that obnoxious argument in this day and age.

  • David Evans 3rd Mar '20 - 8:12am

    Sue, and many liberals consider people who describe a comment they don’t like as conflict and a different opinion with the term an obnoxious argument, as being slightly out of kilter with the needs of objective debate. I hope you do need to hear views representing the full breadth of liberal opinion, and not just from people you don’t choose to disagree with.

  • Sue Sutherland 3rd Mar '20 - 2:25pm

    David Evans, if you read my original comment you will see that this post from David Warren took me back to my teenage years. Jeff responded to this with an attempt to put me down by displaying what he thought was his superior knowledge . I did not use the words he accused me of liking either which was another attempt to put me down by trying to make me look silly.
    I do not consider his comments to be objective debate because it was an obvious attempt to belittle me. I don’t think you would have responded as you did if he’d used these phrases in a discussion about racism or homophobia. Back in the sixties many young women felt excluded by the use of man as a generic term and I was one of them. I am appalled that men in the LibDems are still trying to exclude women in this way.

  • Phil Beesley 3rd Mar '20 - 3:44pm

    Lord Avebury, aka Eric Buttock in Private Eye, was one of the old brigade who kept liberalism alive long enough for me to see its virtue.

  • David Warren 4th Mar '20 - 3:57pm

    Orpington was certainly a sensation and it has been great to read the comments of those who remember it so well.

    I mentioned in the article the success in Torrington four years earlier which was the first Liberal gain at a byelection for nearly thirty years. However it is also worth mentioning Inverness in 1954 where John Bannerman achieved 36% of the vote, cutting the Tory majority to 1331 in a seat where at the previous General Election there was no Liberal candidate.

    Arguably the revival started in the Highlands.

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