The Conservative Party is institutionally racist.
While we can call for investigations into that institutional racism or call on the Tories to speak out about Islamophobia, black oppression or minority rights, we know that such an investigation would either be a whitewash or merely put what we already know into official writing. The inherent racism of the Tories, however, is not something that needs such an inquiry, the evidence being right there in front of our own eyes. From the Victorian birth of the party and decades of institutional and profound antisemitism and colonialism, through the anti-black and anti-immigrant rhetoric of Powell and the Monday Club to this era of modern Islamophobia and bigotry, the Conservatives have always been racist.
Yet what happened in Smethwick in 1964 was still shocking.
After the end of World War Two, Smethwick was the scene of a large amount of immigration from the Commonwealth, the new arrivals coinciding with the closures of traditional trades in the town and a growing waiting list for social accommodation with the local council. The situation in Smethwick was not unusual as successive post-war governments recognised the need for immigration to reconstruct the British economy and way of life after the devastation of the war, the Royal Commission on Population stating that immigrants of ‘good stock’ would be welcomed ‘without reserve’ in 1949.
Just a year previously in 1948, the symbolic beginning of this new dawn for Britain had got underway with the journey of the SS Empire Windrush from Kingston, Jamaica, to Tilbury, Essex, containing 500 new migrants from the Caribbean.
During the 1950s, in particular, there was a huge influx of immigrants from Caribbean and Asian countries who, due to economic circumstances, were forced into the already poor areas of the country. These areas mainly consisted of slum housing that was suffering the lasting effects of the war and the dissolving of dying industries. The new communities soon saw themselves vying for jobs and housing with white communities, creating flashpoints that were ripe for exploitation by the far-right.
The immigration situation was hugely contested in parliament with the Conservative Party Monday Club pushing the issue to the top of the Tory agenda. In response, the Conservative Party tightened restrictions on immigration with the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962. Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell called the act “cruel and brutal anti-colour legislation.”
Despite the clear and present racial tensions that existed both in parliament and society as a whole, the 1964 election in Smethwick took them to a whole new level.
The election campaign fought by the Conservative Party has been described as “the most racist election campaign ever fought in Britain” and “utterly squalid” by victorious Prime Minister Harold Wilson. The campaign resulted in Labour’s shadow home secretary Patrick Gordon Walker being defeated on a 7.2% swing to the Tories. The swing defied the national picture where voters rejected the Conservatives with a swing against of 3.5%.
Walker was a perhaps misguided attempt by Labour to broaden its appeal and was what today would be known as a parachute candidate. He was seemingly on the fast track in the party and was quickly made Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations in 1950. With an Oxford education behind him and seen as upper class, Walker was portrayed as out of touch and was criticised for living in Hampstead Garden Suburb, well away from his constituents.
The Conservative challenger was Peter Griffiths, a local councillor and headteacher. In a strategy that would be seen time and again over the next fifty years, Griffiths successfully subverted white dissatisfaction at the poor quality of housing, jobs and economic prospects and turned it against local BAME communities and their supporters such as Walker who had opposed the Commonwealth Immigrants Act.
Griffiths was aided and abetted by the local newspaper The Smethwick Telephone who had devoted an astounding 1,650 column inches to negative stories about the new immigrant communities. The Telephone and other local papers ran numerous stories on alleged criminality by members of the communities, including allegations of white girls and women being victims of sexual assault and rape by immigrants. The press would go on to claim that the communities had huge rates of VD, TB and leprosy and lived in unsanitary conditions.
The newspaper would significantly contribute to the negative and racially charged atmosphere in the town and its campaign of abuse, racism and fake news would later be compared to publications coming out of the American Deep South and the Klu-Klux-Klan. False reports that featured in the newspaper include claims that Walker had travelled to the West Indies to “recruit” immigrants to fill industry, that he’d sold his house to immigrants and that he or his daughters had married black immigrants.
“My mother was from Jamaica – she was a white Jamaican. People went around whispering that my father had married a Jamaican, without mentioning her race, just letting the thought lie. And of course, people thought she was whispering in his ear, saying, ‘Let all my compatriots in’. [Gordon Walker] thought that was absolutely below the belt.”Robin Walker, Gordon Walker’s son
There is some disagreement over who coined the most infamous slogan of the campaign, the shocking “if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.”
Prominent neo-Nazi Colin Jordan, who at the time was the leader of the National Socialist Movement, has claimed responsibility for the slogan and the distribution of offensive posters and leaflets with the phrase, a claim that seemingly let the Conservative Party off the hook for the phrase. However, in the 2015 documentary Britain’s Racist Election broadcast by Channel 4, it was revealed that it was, in fact, the 9-year-old daughter of election agent Charles Dickens who had coined the phrase at a meeting involving Peter Griffiths, Enoch Powell and Donald Finney.
“I was sitting on a load of old leaflets. I’d been at school that morning and we’d been singing nursery rhymes, one of which was ‘eeny, meeny, miny, moe’. I was playing with words and just came up with it. I was just playing with it, nothing more. Just whispering, writing things down… It was on billboards the next day. That was my fault as an innocent naive kid.”Cressida Dickens
Dickens insists that the phrase wasn’t sanctioned by the Conservative Party, even if the leaflets were printed in a fetching shade of Tory blue. Whether or not the Tories were responsible for the initial creation of the slogan, Peter Griffiths certainly refused to condemn it.
“I should think that is a manifestation of the popular feeling. I would not condemn anyone who said that. I would say that is how people see the situation in Smethwick. I fully understand the feelings of the people who say it. I would say it is exasperation, not fascism.”Peter Griffiths
Griffiths would buck the national trend and win the seat, defeating Patrick Walker with 47.6% of the vote (16,690 votes) to 42.6% of the vote (14,916 votes. As Walker left the town hall in defeat, the shouts of the triumphant Tory supporters rang loud and clear.
“Where are your niggers now, Walker? Take your niggers away!”Tory supporters, Smethwick
Newly elected Prime Minister Harold Wilson condemned the campaign of Griffiths in Smethwick, pointing out the real issues faced by the constituency were social problems such as a shortage of council housing. Wilson caused an uproar in the House when he said: “until a further general election restores him to oblivion, he will serve his term here as a parliamentary leper.”
Just a year after the election and having also taken over the local council, Griffiths and the Conservatives launched a campaign to purchases houses on Marshall Street in the town, intending to prevent immigrants from buying them. Labour blocked the move by refusing to allow the council to borrow the money to buy the houses, pointing out the racist motivation behind the move.
“Surely if more houses can be built they should go to British people first. … In any case, would more houses end the nuisance and filth? Would more houses end the knife fights? Would more houses make the streets safe for young women and girls?”Peter Griffiths, 1964 election manifesto
It was also following the election that a British branch of the Klu-Klux-Klan was formed in Birmingham, black and Asian residents having burning crosses pushed through their letterboxes alongside offensive literature that claimed the KKK would not allow Britain to “become a dumping ground of Afro-Asian filth.” The Klan threatened public cross burnings in the area amidst an increase in intimidation and vandalism, all of which made headlines throughout 1965.
Having heard of the housing plans and the previous campaign in the town, American civil rights activist Malcolm X made a detour stop in the town following a speaking engagement at the London School of Economics. X was invited by the Indian Workers Association to also speak at Birmingham University and to visit Smethwick.
“I have heard that the blacks in Smethwick are being treated… like Hitler treated Jews. The people of Smethwick shouldn’t wait for the fascist elements in the towns to erect gas ovens.”Malcolm X
Nine days after his visit, Malcolm X would be tragically assassinated in Manhattan, cutting short the life of one of the most influential activists and minds of his generation.
Labour would go on to select the actor and anti-racist campaigner Andrew Faulds as its challenger and the Liberals stood down from contesting the seat. Labour won the seat in 1966 with a majority of over 4000 amidst a much more well-fought contest. The seat has remained with Labour ever since with Faulds retaining in 1970. The seat was dissolved and replaced with the new constituency of Warley East, which Andrew Faulds would hold until 1992. It was replaced again for the 1997 election which has been held by John Spellar ever since. Whether we can consider John Spellar to be a Labour MP is a debate for another day.
The “success” of the Smethwick election of 1964 would become a template for Conservative and far-right ambitions in working-class areas until the present day. Far-right agitators would rile up the local communities and ensure that BAME communities were the ones that were blamed for issues beyond their control, issues that mostly originate with the government and lack of care for those suffering from poverty, no matter their colour. Labour and allied entities would be portrayed as “out of touch” “liberal elites” that were concerned only with the wellbeing of the BAME communities and not the poor working-class white community.
It is a tactic that has sadly worked time and again both locally and as a national strategy by the Tories, Brexit Party and other historic parties of the far-right.