Memories of the Chester-le-Street By-election

Reading of the death of Giles Radice reminded me of the 1973 Chester-le-Street by-election, the first time I ever canvassed.  The constituency put the rotten into borough.  It was run by Andrew Cunningham, father of Jack, effectively a Soprano to the main Labour mafia family led by T Dan Smith in Newcastle.  Cunningham went to jail in 1974 for his role in the Poulson affair, former Labour MP Eddie Milne wrote a graphic account of his experiences in Blyth in his book ‘No Shining Armour’.

I have to say that Winchester-educated Giles was in no way associated with this.  He was a charming and intelligent man whom I got to know much later.  In 1973 he had been parachuted into Chester-le-Street  as Labour candidate by the GMB union where he was head of research.  The Tories had Neil Balfour who campaigned with his wife Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, who later married Richard Burton – you couldn’t make it up.  The Liberal candidate was George Suggett, an antiques dealer from Berkshire who had at least been born in the constituency and was a miner’s son.  He became ‘Geordie Suggett’ for the campaign.

The Labour council owned all the property.  Initially they refused to let any premises to the other parties to use as headquarters.  The Tories ended up in a caravan parked in a lay-by on the edge of town.  Labour had the ground floor of a redundant library building.  There was an empty upper floor accessed by a separate stair and Andy Ellis as campaign manager demanded that we be allowed to let it.  As soon as we moved in, a banner across the front proclaimed ‘Liberals are on top’.

George was always ‘Geordie’ in our canvassing spiel.  We were told to exaggerate the Italian pronunciation of Radice when mentioning him – so ‘Ra-a-a-deechy’ – even better if we waved our hands while saying it.  Labour pronounced him ‘Mr Ray-dice’.  I don’t remember much about our literature but I’m sure that death stalked the crossroads.  And while we campaigned in orange, the other parties did not use their later national colours, Labour using green (locally red was the racing colour of the hated Duke of Newcastle) and from memory it was the Tories  who used red.

When I started canvassing, I knocked at the front doors and was confused by hearing furniture being moved, chisels being taken to painted-up door frames and theatrical creaks from the hinges as the doors opened.  After a few such experiences someone shouted ‘Come round the front!’  ‘I am at the front!’ I shouted back.  ‘No round the back, stupid.’  So I learned that the front doors were for funerals.

In the end Geordie lost by seven thousand votes – remarkably close in a constituency the Liberals had not contested since 1929.  We went on to win Ripon and the Isle of Ely later that year and then Berwick-on-Tweed in February 1974 by a whisker.  Great days.

* Sandy Walkington is a Hertfordshire County Councillor for St Albans South and a previous parliamentary candidate for St Albans.

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8 Comments

  • Micik Taylor 28th Aug '22 - 6:31am

    Good heavens. Was I only 23 when this by-election happened! One of great Trevor Jones first outings in a parliamentary by-election run my my schoolfriend Andrew Ellis. The tales we heard about sex with the chair of the housing committee being the price of getting a council house. Looking back our somewhat pathetic attempts to make Mr Radice seem like an Italian were borderline racist and didn’t go down well anyway. Of course, if we had known then what we know now, we might even have won the day, but we had no access to cheap colour printing and no computers. I think I must have stayed at my sisters. Still, by-elections in those days were fun and you always met up with old friends.

  • Sandy Walkington 28th Aug '22 - 10:55am

    I never heard that story Mick. But I do recall that the one place where Labour support was rock solid was in a small number of brand new council estates.

  • William Wallace 28th Aug '22 - 11:06am

    And in the Manchester Exchange by-election in 1973, Labour Councillors were going round to council houses with Liberal posters up to say ‘I see you’re on the transfer list, but you’ve got a Liberal poster up…’. They thought they owned the Council estate in Hulme, and we were invading their territory.

  • I remember telling at a polling station which was a caravan in the middle of a field. The weather wasn’t too good and a very kind woman brought some food.

  • David Langshaw 29th Aug '22 - 8:35am

    I *love* reading these old war stories! More, please.

  • Knocking-up one afternoon years ago, a lady answered the door:

    Good afternoon, have you voted yet?
    I shall be voting shortly.
    What about . . .?
    That’s my son, he will be coming with me.
    What about . . .?
    That’s my husband, he’s at work, He’s a Tory, but I have him sorted. After dinner, I’ll make him take me to Sainsbury’s, and by the time we have finished shopping, the polling station will have closed!

  • Richard Acland’s Party was actually Common Wealth. They had won a couple of seats at by-elections during the Second World War and were, according to McCallum and Readman’s book on the 1945 General Election, further to the left than the Communist Party standing for full socialism and common ownership. They lost their seats at the General Election.

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