Sarah Green’s magnificent win in the Chesham and Amersham by-election prompts thoughts in ageing liberals like me of the Orpington by-election of 1962.
I first started taking an interest in politics in 1960 with the US Presidential contest between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. It was glamorous (or JFK was) and played out , for the first time, under the glare of the television lights. The winner was as much “made” like a consumer brand as he was elected. Contrast this with the British General Election of 1959 when my parents and the rest of our conservative and supine electorate elected another Victorian born Tory into Number 10.
But in 1962 things began to change and it happened, of all places, in my home town of Orpington. Now Orpington was, and no doubt still is, a sleepy commuter suburb devoid of any merit except it’s good rail connection to London. My parents only lived there, and I had only been born there as a post war baby boomer, because of its commuter convenience.
In March 1962 Orpington had a by-election which was confidently expected to elect another Conservative MP in this quintessentially middle class West Kent town. But in Harold Macmillan’s government there was a nasty whiff of mendacity and corruption exemplified by the “Profumo Affair” in 1961. “Supermac” was losing his allure and beginning to look what he was – a figure from another age. Born in 1894 he was only a few years younger than my Grandparents. Other factors played a part. Interest rates has been rising and home ownership was becoming a challenge for younger voters.
The first time voters in 1962 had been born in 1940 and many were struggling to get their feet on the property ladder. Their political expectations were more likely to be formed by the youthful John Kennedy than the aging Tory in a three piece suit in Downing Street especially as there was a bit of a nasty smell about him.
The beneficiary of this moment of disgruntlement was the thirty-four year old Eric Lubbock the Liberal Party’s candidate. A likeable sociable man Lubbock was hardly a revolutionary. He was the heir to a peerage and had been educated at Harrow and Balliol. He was the right man in the right place at the right time. The Liberals from the nadir of the 1959 election when they won only six seats (on six percent of the vote) were showing national signs of recovery. Lubbock in a seat where the Labour vote was there to be squeezed did just that, as well as winning over thousands of disgruntled Tory voters.
Lubbock’s win was seen as a first post-war challenge to the two party system – a system which was underpinned by the undemocratic First Past the Post electoral method. To some extent it was a false dawn, though Eric Lubbock held his seat until the 1970 election it was to be a while before any third party revival happened. Stymied as ever by FPTP. But they were heady days back in 1962 and it’s good to remember them.