Looking back: Croydon’s local elections, 1968

By - Thursday 7th June, 2018

How the destruction of the Labour party in Croydon sowed the seeds of its eventual resurrection

Fifty years ago, Croydon’s Labour Party was reeling from the London borough’s first set of local elections following its creation in 1965. A relatively balanced set had been returned to the first council in 1964: twenty-one Labour, fifteen Residents or Independents (including six ‘Conservative-Residents’) and twenty-four out-and-out Conservatives.

By 9th May 1968, however, things had taken a turn for the Labour Party. In 1967 Labour’s presence on the Greater London Council had been reduced from sixty-four to eighteen. Locally, J.T. Bell – councillor for Woodside for fifteen years – resigned from the Labour Party in protest at prescription charges and other government policies.

The Advertiser‘s letters pages abounded with appeals for supporters to rally behind the government and fraught exchanges between Labour members and sceptics from both the left and right. In January, local figures suggested only Broad Green and New Addington would be retained. On the eve of the poll, a prominent member was running a sweepstake “for light relief in the gloom” – many put money on keeping just fourteen councillors.

The Labour party saw success in just one seat

As it turns out, those predictions were optimistic. Conservatives and Residents/Independents took fifty-eight seats. Labour, which only managed to stand fifty-nine candidates, saw success for just one: Arthur Edwards, newly elected in New Addington. A Liberal candidate, Ted Lovejoy, snuck through in Coulsdon East after a debacle between the Conservatives and Independents – the first and only Liberal on the council until Ian Atkins was elected to the same seat in 1998. Both the Liberal and Labour councillors were elected following recounts. What had gone wrong?

The obvious explanation is national. Across London, Labour lost control of fifteen of its eighteen boroughs – holding on to Barking, Tower Hamlets and Southwark. Harold Wilson blamed the government’s “stringency on family incomes” – echoed at Croydon North East CLP’s dance by Peter Shore, Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, who said it was “unnatural that we should have suffered such a loss of public confidence”. Even the South Suburban Co-operative Society’s political committee – hardly a den of subversives – lamented it was “increasingly difficult to support a government which after three years in office has taken the country hardly a single step towards a socialist and co-operative Britain”. One member complained to the Advertiser that “the vast majority of electors still cling to the idea that local elections are more strongly tied to national policies than is the case” and hence “it was by mass abstentions that the Tories won; it was no righteous victory”.

The government’s unpopularity undermined Labour’s record locally. In January, a Croydon North West CLP resolution called for cheaper public transport fares for pensioners – receiving the council’s qualified support. Waddon’s councillor Vit Burgos seemed on a one-man crusade, highlighting concerns about the flyover and cuts to welfare grants, securing the closure of the much-criticised Walmer House homelessness centre and the building of quality council homes. Yet this work wasn’t enough. Burgos was defeated along with the other sitting Labour councillors: winning concessions from the council just seemed to make voting Conservative more palatable!

Not all Labour’s councillors basked in popularity

To compound matters, at least a third of Labour’s sitting councillors were retiring – including Lucy Overton and A.G. Wright in Broad Green. But not all Labour’s councillors basked in popularity: one letter to the Advertiser signed ‘Formerly Labour’ was scathing about “our hectoring Ulsterman”, “our Brum trade unionist” and “our Labour schoolmasters”. Though Jim Twitchett was thanked for his work with Waddon’s tenants’ association, a Labour meeting in the ward during the election only attracted seven members of the public. In New Addington, the defeated councillors had faced months of opposition from their tenants’ association because they weren’t able to attend meetings which clashed with council committees – exacerbated by the association’s treasurer standing for the Conservatives.

After the election, Labour unsurprisingly searched for answers. South Norwood members pointed to an ageing voter base and low turnout – although, at 36%, it wasn’t markedly lower than previously. In October, their resolution blamed “apathy and expense” – calling for borough and GLC elections to be held on the same day, and for councils’ lifetimes to match Parliament’s. This was rejected by the CLP but worries about apathy spoke to a concern across the party about Tories’ advantages. Albert Streeter wrote to the Advertiser to complain about “a constant war of abuse and misrepresentation which seeps into every home”. Wendy Holt, standing in Broad Green, suggested it was “a reflection on years of dreary Tory control in Croydon that so much apathy exists about local government”.

But it’d be wrong to assume that the elections were uneventful – they took place within a climate of intense racism. Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech was made only a few weeks before; Wilson’s May Day speech in Birmingham openly criticised it. A meeting of Croydon’s Young Socialists, Young Liberals and Young Communist Leagues condemned Powell’s speech as “inflammatory and racist”, calling for a “united white and coloured working-class movement”.

Croydon had a growing problem with racism

National rhetoric inflamed a growing problem within Croydon. In autumn 1967, Croydon made headlines after neighbours in South Norwood bought a house to prevent it being purchased from the owner (a Woodside Labour councillor) by a Jamaican family. In 1968, Sislin Fay Allen, the first policewoman of colour in the Met began work in Croydon – facing a torrent of abuse which almost forced her to quit. The Advertiser‘s report of a Croydon Federation of Townswomen’s Guilds meeting carried the headline-quote “I’d stop at nothing short of murder to stop my daughter marrying an African”. The National Front stood its first two candidates in the borough – both in Waddon – and one of their canvassers reportedly called Labour supporter Alan Brett “a nigger lover”. Whilst the Conservatives didn’t necessarily campaign openly on race or immigration – it was, after all, a local election – they benefited from the opprobrium attached to the Labour Party by racists. Shortly after the election, Bernard Weatherill claimed the Race Relations Bill made “the immigrant population in effect a privileged minority”.

Opposition from racists didn’t mean that Labour was winning over anti-racists and ethnic minority voters – who had every reason to be sceptical. To his credit, David Winnick voted against the Commonwealth Immigrants Act (which placated racist opinion by barring entry to Kenyan Asians) but the Labour government’s attitude was clear. Whilst Croydon Labour did have prominent ethnic minority activists (including South Norwood’s candidate Errol Neckles and Croydon South’s secretary/organiser Said Z. Shah), getting out the vote rested predominantly upon their shoulders. Members expressed disappointment: “In spite of a great deal of effort by Mr Neckles, the coloured vote remained disinterested”. They hadn’t grasped that it would take more than one man to mobilise whole communities.

Before the election, even Conservative candidates were worried about an electoral “massacre” of the Labour Party. Despite the Labour Group’s three members – led by alderman Frank Cole – forming an alliance with Lovejoy, effective opposition proved ephemeral. Croydon North East CLP pushed for the creation of a ‘shadow group’ of members rather than councillors.

A full council meeting was finished in only twenty-seven minutes

Attempts by this opposition to ensure council policy was determined by councillors (rather than aldermen) were described as mere “impertinence”. Edwards, who’d previously declared willingness “to take on the whole council on my own if necessary”, made a feeble protest vote against council leader Digby Weightman’s election as alderman. By July, with Edwards on holiday, a full council meeting was finished in twenty-seven minutes – Burgos, ever a public servant, was dismayed when he turned up a quarter of an hour in and found the business almost complete! Croydon suffered. In 1969, slashing grants to voluntary organisations in half led to an outpouring of protest. A report found Croydon’s library service the worst in London but was covered up until published by a Labour member in 1973.

For Labour in the short term, the consequences exposed the party’s fault-lines; soon afterwards, Croydon North West withheld funds from Labour’s Local Government Committee. In the longer term, however, the defeat was transformative. As Peter Saunders discussed in his book Urban Politics, losing so many councillors posed a problem for “mutually satisfying back-scratching” between the council and the Labour Group.

At the next election, twenty-two out of Labour’s twenty-nine councillors had no prior experience in local government. The 1971 councillors brought radical ideas, and an irreverence about council tradition – using meetings to raise publicity for their campaigns, rather than signalling respectability. Some of those elected – like Reginald Page, Peter Walker or Stan Eaton – remained councillors for many years. Others, like Croydon’s first Asian councillor – Amrit Devesar, in Bensham Manor – might not have been elected if it wasn’t for opportunities provided by 1968.

Ostensibly, the 1968 elections were a disaster for Labour as well as for Croydon. Watching elections mired in racism, blamed for a right-wing Labour government, and with Conservative councillors consolidating control – Labour supporters were understandably glum. But if the elections showed Croydon at its worst, there was also something better: activists coming together to challenge racism and fascism. From the ashes came the hopes of renewal, and the growth of the left in Croydon which was to mark the 1970s.

Daniel Frost

Daniel Frost

Dan spent his younger years in Croydon before moving away, only to return to Addiscombe in 2014. He is a Labour Party and Momentum activist, and a member of the club committee at Ruskin House. Dan is currently studying towards a PhD in History at the University of Reading, and receives funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council via the South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership. His research focuses upon left-wing activism in Croydon from the 1950s until the 1990s, and he is always keen to hear another story or two from those who were there.

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  • Robert Ward

    Thank you for an interesting read. The 1968 election is the first of which I have some memory, although not in Croydon, in the West Midlands.

    Where I would beg to differ is in seeing the election so much through a racism lens. My town had a very small West Indian Community in the 1950s descended from soldiers who had fought in the First World War but was apart from that almost entirely white. The early 1960s saw a large influx from the Indian sub-continent. Whole shopping streets near the centre of the town were within a short space of time entirely taken up with shops where the owner was Indian – Accountants, clothes, grocers. A section of the town became entirely Asian.

    It was disorienting to a community which to that point had been 99% white. There was certainly tension, and suspicion, yet within little more than twenty years the newcomers had integrated and moved out of the downtown area and the town elected its first Indian Mayor. Yes, Smethwick where race was a big issue, was not far away, but that was seen as a distant and unrepresentative place. Not that there wasn’t prejudice, but to portray the election as mired in racism is in my view an overstatement. It is just not who we are, and I don’t think ever was.

  • Mark Johnson

    What a fascinating article. Would love to see a whole series like this from different political perspectives.