Chris Rennard writes… 50 years after the Orpington by-election


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On Sunday night, I joined Lord Avebury in a Westminster Hour programme in the week that marks the 50th anniversary of his dramatic victory in the Orpington by-election of March 15th 1962.

We discussed the huge importance of the Orpington by-election in reviving the fortunes of Jo Grimond’s Liberal Party after decades in which am almost fatally divided party had come close to disappearing.

The Liberal win also caused panic in the Tory ranks and Macmillan sacked 7 cabinet ministers in what became known as “the night of the long knives.” Jeremy Thorpe famously quipped, “Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his friends for his life.”

Political commentators have sometimes wondered what became of “Orpington man.” Sadly the political momentum from the by-election was not sustained. Eric Lubbock as he then was retained the seat in the next two General Elections before narrowly losing it in 1970 and subsequently becoming a hereditary (and very effective) peer. Nevertheless, the win was seen as launching the revival of the Liberal Party in modern times.

The campaign, however, had effects on campaign techniques that are still felt today. Long after the by-election I made it my business to study how the remarkable swing (just over 26%) was achieved. A young and inspirational team was in charge – and this was not without some controversy in the establishment.

The original Liberal candidate had to withdraw when it appeared that he had misunderstood the distinction between a decree nisi and a decree absolute in divorce proceedings. His (ex) wife threatened to expose his bigamy. A reluctant Eric Lubbock had to have his arm twisted severely to step in. But the choice of a respected local Councillor was part of a formula for success for Liberal by-election wins over the next 50 years.

Creating a belief that a Liberal could win was key to the strategy then – as it has been so often since. A tabloid newspaper produced by the campaign was effective propaganda. But the brilliance of the young agent Pratap Chitnis was perhaps best illustrated by the way in which he wandered round Fleet Street very late on the eve of poll in the days when the main papers were all written and printed there.

The Daily Mail was actually the most confident of the papers in forecasting a Liberal gain. The Liberal agent bought 9,000 of them wholesale and volunteers gave them out at the railway stations early in the morning in a constituency dominated by commuters. Most of the recipients probably thought that it was a marketing exercise by the Daily Mail. But they read that a Liberal would win – and they had confidence in voting for the party when they returned home.

Some aspects of the campaign were unique. Some people thought that the mysterious burning down of the Liberal by-election HQ may have been foul play by opponents. The Liberal team chose not to talk about the chain smoking habits of one of their team who tended to throw still lit cigarette ends into the bin as he lit up another one.

The fire caused some embarrassment as the HQ was sealed by police. Only the charm of the young and recently elected Liberal MP Jeremy Thorpe (who was a major driving force in the campaign) enabled access to be granted to retrieve crucial by-election documents in plastic bags that were removed to his car. I have never confirmed rumours that there was actually a large bonfire of captured Tory posters somewhere in his North Devon constituency that afternoon.

Chris Rennard was a key figure in Liberal, Alliance and Liberal Democrat by-election wins for nearly 30 years, beginning with Liverpool Edge Hill in 1979.

* Chris Rennard is a former Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrats. He has led for the Party in the House of Lords on the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill

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4 Comments

  • Duncan Borrowman 15th Mar '12 - 9:21pm

    The chain smoker who threw the cigarette in the bin was Pratap himself. He told me that 25 years ago this week.

  • Chris Rennard 16th Mar '12 - 11:00am
  • Richard Underhill 15th Feb '16 - 3:46pm

    A slim volume by Douglas Hurd, Political Secretary to Edward Heath, reports on the Tory party of the times,” the larger the Tory majority the more likely it was to fall.”

  • I still find it funny how things turn out.If Ludovic Kennedy had won in either of his two attempts at Rochdale , we would never have had the hideous Cyril Smith .If he had been in parliament I do not believe we would have ever had Jeremy Thorpe as leader.Having said that , knowing how worried people were about Thorpe , I wonder why Eric Lubbock was not chosen as leader ?!He would have been a marvellous one!

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