Political Croydon: The Seventies

By - Wednesday 4th June, 2014

David White continues his decade-by-decade look at Croydon’s politics by taking us into the era of Heath, the Winter of Discontent, and the last time we had a referendum on Europe

Clockwise, from top-left: Edward Heath and the Queen meet the Nixons in 1970; the Croydon flyover in the 1970s; Margaret Thatcher mere months after entering Number 10; the proposed ‘Ringways’ scheme that was killed after Labour opposition in the 1970s; Harold Wilson sits glumly at Labour conference as his party votes against EEC membership; the headquarters of the GLC. All images public domain.

The ’70s are often thought of as a period of political conflict and lack of progress. It was a decade which saw four general elections and four prime ministers.

However, there was more to the ’70s than industrial strife, flared trousers and silly haircuts. In Croydon and nationally, the ’70s saw a lot of improvement in people’s living standards.

Ideologically, both Labour and the Conservatives developed their political philosophies so that they were very different entities at the end of the decade, compared with the beginning.

In 1970 Edward Heath, Leader of the Conservative Party and then Leader of the Opposition, paid two important visits to Croydon. The first, in January, was at the Selsdon Park Hotel where he led his Shadow Cabinet in a brainstorming policy session. The results of this session motivated the free market agenda of the 1970 Conservative manifesto, which Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson publicly condemned as the work of ‘Selsdon Man’. A place in Croydon had entered the national political lexicon.

For almost the whole of the decade, Croydon had Conservative MPs in all four constituencies

Then, immediately prior to the June 1970 general election, Heath spoke at Heath Clark School in Waddon to a large local audience. The chairman of the meeting was a young Tory councillor, Peter Bowness (now Lord Bowness). He went on to become leader of the council, and was a dominant force in Croydon politics for the next 25 years or more.

Heath and the Conservatives won the 1970 general election, though he lost power four years later after a bruising battle with the miners. For the whole of the decade after June 1970, Croydon had Conservative MPs in all four constituencies, and the Tories also controlled the council.

However, the ideas of other parties were not entirely shut out. In May 1973, there were elections to the Greater London Council (GLC), which then controlled strategic policy matters such as transport and planning for the whole of Greater London. Elections were on the basis of the Parliamentary constituencies. Labour won 3 of the 4 seats (though one of these, Croydon North-East, reverted to the Conservatives after a court case concerning disputed ‘unperforated’ ballot papers – a sort of precursor to Florida’s later “hanging chads” dispute!).

The Labour GLC saw things very differently to the Tories in a number of areas

I was one of the newly-elected Labour GLC councillors, representing Croydon Central. Ken Livingstone was first elected to the GLC at the same elections and represented neighbouring Norwood.

The Labour GLC saw things very differently to the Tories in a number of areas. The GLC Tories had supported major road-building in London– the so-called Ringways. Labour was opposed to these and preferred a transport policy based on public transport, cycling and walking. Labour worked closely with a number of “Homes before Roads” groups all over London and the Ringways were killed off.

I often think when I walk through Covent Garden these days that areas like that would simply not exist if the Ringway plans had gone ahead – the plans involved wholesale demolition.

Council meetings were interesting, unlike the present rather pointless gatherings

Croydon Council also had its own plans for major road-building. It had already built the flyover and Roman Way. It had plans to widen many other roads, including Southbridge Road, Sumner Road and St James’s Road, which would have led to the destruction of hundreds of houses. At about this time responsibility for these roads passed from Croydon Council to the GLC and these schemes were also killed.

The Croydon flyover under construction in the late 1960s. The council made much of it in the following decade. Image public domain.

As part of Labour’s pro-public transport policies, the GLC brought in the first major scheme of free travel for pensioners (what is now the Freedom Pass). This was not supported by the Conservatives.

I lost my seat on the GLC in the 1977 election, but in 1978 was privileged to become a Croydon councillor for Fieldway Ward (the other councillor for the ward being Mary Walker). There were 11 Labour councillors in total, against 59 Tories. It’s interesting that several wards that now return large Labour majorities, such as Upper Norwood and Bensham Manor, were then Tory seats.

Croydon Council was very different in the ’70s compared to what it is today. The committee system meant that all councillors were much more involved in decision-making. Important or contentious issues were referred up to full council, which made for interesting council meetings, unlike the present rather pointless gatherings.

1979 saw Margaret Thatcher march into Downing Street. Readers will no doubt have their own views on what happened next

There was no internet of course, so all of the Council’s work was done at meetings or by post and telephone. In fact, the Leader of the Labour Group in the early ’70s, Alderman Frank Cole, didn’t even have a telephone. When the Croydon Advertiser wanted a comment from him, they had to go round in person to his home in Lebanon Road.

In 1973, the Heath government had ‘taken Britain into Europe’ by joining the European Economic Community (now the EU.) When Labour returned to power in 1974, Harold Wilson promised a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EEC. This became a big national issue and the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns sent leaflets and pamphlets to all voters. It was rather one-sided as all the national press, except the Morning Star, supported the ‘Yes’ campaign and the ‘Yes’ campaign had enormous funding from banks and big business.

Rather like Cameron’s position today, Harold Wilson had attempted to ‘renegotiate the terms’ of EEC membership prior to the referendum. I think it’s generally agreed that the changes he secured were minor.

Margaret Thatcher campaigning for Britain to remain in the EEC in 1975 – and wearing ‘that’ jumper.
Image public domain.

I and other Croydon Central Labour Party members went out on the day of the vote in a car with a megaphone urging people to vote ‘No’. I remember when we arrived in Fieldway we met a group of Labour Party members who had just voted and they told us they’d voted ‘Yes’. It was fairly clear from that point on that the ‘No’ campaign had lost!

I mentioned that Croydon had four Tory MPs throughout the ’70s. Prominent among these were Bernard Weatherill (Croydon North-East), who later became Speaker of the House of Commons, and John Moore (Croydon Central) who later became Secretary of State for Health and Social Security under Thatcher.

There were a lot of important developments in Croydon outside the ambit of council and parliament in the 1970s. The decade saw the foundation of the Warehouse Theatre and the Croydon Society.

At the end of the decade, the Labour government of Jim Callaghan got into difficulties with incomes policy, and we had the ‘Winter of Discontent’. The 1979 General Election saw Margaret Thatcher march into Downing Street. Readers will no doubt have their own views on what happened next, but what is undeniable is that we had a very different Conservative Party leadership that day to the one which met at the Selsdon Park Hotel nine years earlier.

David White

David White

David lives in Park Hill, Croydon. Until his recent retirement he was a solicitor specialising in elderly client matters. He is a member of the Labour Party.

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  • toonie

    Are there no photos of Harold Wilson visiting Fairfield Hall in 1974?