It was sixty years ago today… Orpington falls to the Liberals

By-elections can have a dramatic impact on the political scene. The Orpington by-election, the 60th Anniversary of which is today, was the first and therefore biggest to rock a Government. The 26% swing to the Liberals saw them leap frog Labour and replace the Conservatives who had represented the area since universal suffrage was introduced.

The ingredients to build the winning campaign was not dissimilar to the factors at play in Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire in 2021. The Liberals had a fledgling local government base, there was an unpopular Conservative Government, matched with an arrogant and complacent attitude to the campaign by the Tories. The Liberals found the issues and had an army of dedicated activists to win over support.

The Orpington story started in the mid 1950’s when a small dedicated team of activists decided to start fighting local council elections seriously. Their first breakthrough came with a by-election win in 1959 in Biggin Hill ward. Each year they grew the Council group, winning over many young families new to the area by highlighting a lack of infrastructure and new housing to meet the needs of the growing population. By 1961, there were twelve Liberals on the Council and, in September of that year, a County Council by-election saw the first Liberal elected to Kent County Council. Within 12 days of this victory, it was announced Donald Sumner, the Tory MP, was being appointed a County Court Judge and there would be a parliamentary by-election.

It was assumed the respected candidate from the previous General Election would stand but a “personal issue” emerged and it was clear he would need to stand down. The local party acted quickly and the popular Eric Lubbock, who had been elected as councillor for his home village of Downe earlier in the year, stepped up to be the parliamentary candidate.

The Conservatives were slow to react, selecting a Central Office researcher who had no intention of ever moving to the area and delayed moving the writ until after Christmas. That gave the Liberals time to galvanise support, launching a petition with over 3,500 signatures complaining that the town was left unrepresented. They were canvassing and campaigning throughout the autumn. All the small Liberal parliamentary team were out campaigning door to door and speaking to crowded village meetings, whilst the Tories sent a few Cabinet members to speak at poorly attended public meetings. It was a cold winter, Peter Goldman, the Tory, sat in a caravan next to a heater while flunkies went around to houses urging residents to venture out in the snow to meet the Conservative candidate at the end of the road. Eric and the growing team went to door to door.

It was clear the Liberals would overtake Labour and were heading for a good result but few commentators saw what was happening, except the Daily Mail. On polling day the Mail’s headline was “Liberals set to win Orpington”. Having some advance notice of this the night before, Pratrap Chitnis, the Liberal Agent, acquired thousands of copies and teams of Liberal supporters handed out free copies to commuters heading to work in London – the perfect squeeze message. On polling day the Liberals flooded the constituency with a thousand activists from around the country, neither the Conservatives nor Labour could compete.

The result was televised and millions heard the declaration –

Goldman (Conservative) 14,991 votes, Jinkinson (Labour) 5,350 votes, Lubbock (Liberal) 22,846 votes

The Liberal vote had increased by over 30% since the 1959 General Election. The BBC described the result as the biggest by-election upset in British political history.

The result sent shock waves around the world as the British Government were humiliated and the Liberal Party seen to be relevant again. Political commentators and academics analysed, dissected and wrote heavily on what had happened. The response from the then Conservative Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was to blame his Chancellor (the PM was MP for the neighbouring seat of Bromley). He sacked seven members of the Cabinet in what became known as the Night of Long Knives – the main victim was the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Conservatives believed they lost ground to the Liberals as the public were expressing disapproval of their economic policies. Jo Grimond summed up the result differently “Orpington was won as a result of seven years’ hard work.” A letter to the local paper speculated the “the Conservatives were “trying to sell a stranger” against the popular local Liberal.

The by-election did not result in the dawning of a new Liberal era, in the way many commentators predicted, but it did launch a long and distinguished parliamentary career for Eric Lubbock. He represented Orpington until 1970 with a fresh, energetic approach not seen before. In 1971 he entered the House of Lords as the 4th Baron Avebury. For 54 years, Lord Avebury campaigned tirelessly for the rights of all, winning plaudits and awards for his fight to protect human rights, a voice for minorities across the World. He died on 14th February 2016.

* Chris Maines is a former Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate for Orpington.

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5 Comments

  • Great days.

    I remember it well, and what a considerable person and great Liberal Eric was.

  • Mick Taylor 14th Mar '22 - 3:14pm

    I was 12 in 1962 and this by-election saw my first involvement with the party’s campaigning efforts. My mother used me to go across snowy fields and remove (expensive) Tory posters which were placed in the boot of the car and made a splendid Nov 5th bonfire. Thus was a lifetime’s commitment to the party born.
    Eric was indeed a great Liberal and was a friend of my parents up to their deaths in 2013/4. I corresponded frequently with Eric over the years. I met Jeremy Corbyn at Eric’s memorial and he spoke movingly of Eric’s devotion to causes, quite unlike the Corbyn portrayed in the press and often in this blog.
    By the way, it’s not true to say the by-election had no impact. In the May elections just weeks after the by-election hundreds of Liberals were elected to local councils, taking control wholly unexpectedly in some cases, including my father and one Navnit Delokia in Brighton. Of course, the effect faded, but it was a glorious few months for the party.

  • I remember watching the count on television. The cameras showed the votes piling up, with Eric out in front from a early stage. In my mind the enthusiasm generated made a huge difference to the party.
    The issue we need to address is how we build up enthusiasm and how we maintain it.
    This of course has to be done while the winning of council seats means that many activists are struggling to keep up their work as councillors.
    Of course if we had money coming in from the very rich then that would solve many problems.
    However there is a saying about who pays the piper calls the tune.
    So we have a problem that has existed for all of recorded history.

  • Steve Comer 15th Mar '22 - 3:33pm

    Mick’s story about posters reminds me of an incident from a by-election some 25 years later, in March 1987.
    I went to help in the by election following the sad death of David Penhaligon, and spent several evenings canvassing in St Austell town and the clay villages around it, and getting a very positive response. However I was fed up with seeing loads of Tory posters in fields along the A390 every time I went.

    One dark cloudy night after canvassing in the town I decided some ‘direct action’ was needed! So armed with a Stanley knife and scissors I removed a large quantity of the offending posters and bunged them in my Vauxhall Cavalier. After I’d acquired a boot full I heard a voice from behind shouting “oy whaddya doin!” I ran back to the car, jumped in the drivers seat and drove quickly back to the Committee Room to hand in the night’s canvass returns.

    Once there I was given a coffee and biscuits, and got talking to a couple of local Liberals We were discussing how things were going, when one of them said, “D’ya know someone was cutting down Tory posters on the by pass. We nearly caught him, but he drove off pretty fast!”

    To this day I don’t know how I kept a straight face……but I was pleased I had parked the car in the next street!

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