Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[48] ‘The Number of votes cast …’


  [48] ‘The Number of votes cast …’


In the current run up to a General Election I need something to take my mind off the wall-to-wall political discussion that is flooding television, radio, the press and what we now know as ‘Social Media.’

The only way out of it is to do a blog about … Politics. I will time this to give you some light reading on Election Day!

As for everything else, it was different then, very different.

Quick Review


I will start with a brief whizz through Prime Ministers and General Elections that I remember (dimly). If you go back before the fifties, I had vague memories of Neville Chamberlain and earlier Prime Ministers (up to 1940) from old pictures and television clips showing men in very formal suits with wing collars, as noted in [40] ‘Dear Sir or Madam …’. If you look for pictures of these men now, you still just get these very formally dressed views.

I do remember Winston Churchill, as Prime Minister and his successors. (I don’t claim to have followed politics avidly when at school – or later!) Churchill resigned in 1955 and Anthony Eden became Prime Minister by an invisible process. A General Election later in the year confirmed the Conservatives in power.

In 1957, after the embarrassment of Suez, Eden resigned. Harold Macmillan was chosen to succeed him, although many had expected Rab Butler to be the next Prime Minister. The 1959 General Election further increased the Conservative majority.

In 1963, Macmillan resigned unexpectedly. Two of the three likely candidates were in the House of Lords and resigned their peerages. Rab Butler again lost out. Sir Alec Douglas-Hume (formerly the Earl of Home) emerged as the new leader.

In 1964, the Conservatives narrowly lost the General Election. (Rab Butler gave up politics at this point and became Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.) Harold Wilson led the new Labour government. An Election in 1966 increased the Labour majority to a more workable figure.

That takes us to the end of the sixties. It was 1970 when another general Election saw the Conservatives back in power under Edward Heath. But several threads about politics in the fifties have already emerged.

caroline-lucas-4 PlaidCymru SNP

(Pictured above are the current leaders of the SNP, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru.)

Politicians were not Women

You have read all about attitudes to women in  [20] Vive La Différence

My first point should not come as a surprise. Women in any non-menial jobs were unusual in the fifties and sixties. Politics was not for women. Women could be MPs and a very, very small number of MPs were women but you did not see them as Cabinet Ministers. The first to emerge into the world of politics was Barbara Castle in 1968, under Harold Wilson. It would be a while later, in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister – I don’t have to comment on her as she came after the sixties.

Party Leaders were not Elected

When Churchill resigned in 1955 and Anthony Eden became Prime Minister, there was no visible method of choosing party leaders. Senior Conservative politicians, presumably including Churchill, made the decision and somehow informed the Queen who to ask next. None of this was ever publicized. It was accepted – it was up to the Conservative politicians to decide on their leader.

Leaders of all political parties then somehow managed their succession without involving MPs, party members or the general public. That was the way it was done. You stayed leader until you decided to resign. In our constitution, the Queen invites someone to form a government, so she needs to know who to ask. (Her job is a bit more difficult with a hung parliament. She has to wait for a coalition to emerge.)

You can see some of the culture behind this if you look at: [13] Don’t Even Ask!

Politicians were Old

Churchill was 70 at the end of the War but kept going as Prime Minister until he was 80; Anthony Eden was 60 and in poor health when he resigned; Macmillan was almost 70 when he resigned; Alec Douglas-Hume was 60 when he was persuaded to become Prime Minister. When Harold Wilson was elected at just under 50, he was seen as a relative youngster. (Our last four Prime Ministers have just about made it to their fifties.)

This made the post dependent a bit on ‘dead man’s shoes’ and senior politicians used to be much older. It was unheard of for a politician to resign except on grounds of age or ill-health. They kept going on and on. We should perhaps also consider the economics of the times. Prime Ministers and Cabinet Ministers were relatively highly paid. They did not have the option to retire and move to higher paid jobs in business, or as University Vice Chancellors – or to make vast sums by giving after dinner speeches!

Prime Ministers were Experienced

In the long years of working the way up the ladder, it was expected that any potential leader would first serve as Home Secretary, Minister of Defence, Foreign Secretary or Chancellor of the Exchequer – perhaps more than one of these. I always find it difficult to comment about attitudes but I would say that, in general, we respected age and experience more. We talked of people as being ‘older and wiser.’


(Nick Clegg from the recent coalition government.)

It was a Two Party System

Governments were Conservative or Labour and we expected it to continue that way. Sometimes the leader of the Liberal Party (Jo Grimond until 1967, then Jeremy Thorpe) would be mentioned in the news but not as a serious contender for prime Minister. The Liberals only contested a few seats at each General Election. There were no coalitions (even in 1964, when the Labour majority was just four seats). You knew that a vote for anyone other than Labour or Conservative was more or less a wasted vote.

(It was in the eighties that a new short-lived political party, the Social Democrats, led to the Liberals becoming Liberal Democrats.)

Other parties were pretty insignificant and were often lumped together as ‘Others.’


Trade Unions were Significant

In the sixties, the General Secretaries of the TUC – George Woodcock and Vic Feather were as well known as politicians, and were seen more often on television. (They were probably more well-known than the Secretary General of the United Nations, U Thant.)

I think it’s true that throughout the sixties unions and strikes were just about always in the news. Strikes affecting major areas of employment used to last for weeks or even months. Legislation since then has restricted the circumstances in which unions can call strikes, so they are relatively rare. They have virtually disappeared from the news.


Trade Unions also used to have a strong link with the Labour Party and its annual conferences. The Internet is failing me on this topic. Wikipedia provides a wealth of information about the TUC and the Labour Party from about 2000 but not much about earlier links. (Hence the lack of meaningful graphs – Two for illustration only.) Fees for membership of Trade Unions have always including a payment to the Labour Party and this used to give them a strong influence on Labour policies. This influence seems to have disappeared now with the decline of Trade Union membership in general.

[Even I am not pedantic enough to think that the plural of Trade Union is Trades Unions. Everyone calls them Trade Unions.]

david-cameron edMiliband4_2361850b

(Current leaders of the Conservative and Labour Parties)

The Two Main Political Parties were Different

(Here – and, of course, elsewhere – you can accuse a grumpy old man of being a bit cynical.)

There were major differences then between Labour and Conservative – so fundamental that families voted the same way for generations. With so much run by government (telephones, television, gas, electricity, coal, railways, Post Office Savings, etc.) any talk of Denationalization led to a two-way split in the parties. Now these have all been denationalized and no one talks of reversing the decisions. (They did at the time. The Opposition party often opposes change and says that they will reverse it when re-elected, but this never seems to happen. The Labour Party had ‘Clause Four’ in its constitution, which seemed to demand the nationalization of everything.) Nuclear disarmament was another subject which polarized opinion.

Now I find it almost impossible to see the differences, especially at elections. Both say, “We will make life wonderful; rapidly restore full employment; repair the ailing economic situation; dramatically improve education and health services and suddenly find enough money to do this.” Both sides manage to find new policies that they had never considered during a five-year government (which, by amazing coincidence will do nice things for the electorate). Both are a bit vague about how they will fund everything. And both sides also say, “Don’t believe the other party; their past record is appalling and you can’t trust them to do what they promise.” (I suppose it has always been a bit like that!)


The Annual Budget was Important

Unlike today, the Chancellor made all his changes in this single all-encompassing speech on Budget Day. You knew that Income Tax rates and allowances would change; taxes on petrol, alcohol and cigarettes would change; rates for everything else would change – all in this one speech. You just didn’t know by how much. Now changes are announced at points through the fiscal year.

(In the early days, this was done without computers or calculators so forecasts and estimates relied on a lot of guesswork. There were figures that were unknown or ignored, such as Civil Service pay rises and pensions. Now every sub-account for every government department is fixed in advance and cannot be exceeded. Then, if a department overspent by £1,234,567 18s 9½d in the financial year, it would take about a year to collate the final figure, then Parliament would vote the £1,234,567 18s 9½d through retrospectively!)

PlaidCymru SNP

(Leaders of Plaid Cymru and the SNP)

It was Before Devolution

I think I may look at this in another post. But, back in the sixties we had no Welsh Assembly and no Scottish Parliament. The SNP and Plaid Cymru did exist, but had no MPs. (I cannot speak about what people in Scotland and Wales thought about politics.) In England, we knew virtually nothing about these two parties.

Until the late sixties, we also knew nothing about Northern Ireland, except that their MPs were always listed as ‘Other.’ In Party Political Broadcasts, the Conservatives always appeared as the ‘Conservative and Unionist Party,’ but most English people had no knowledge or interest in Northern Ireland.


(The Green Party leader)

It was Before Green Issues

The Ecology Party, later to become the Green Party, was not formed until the early seventies. I always date my awareness of green issues to the book, The Biological Timebomb by Gordon Rattray Taylor, which appeared in 1968. In the fifties and sixties none of these issues ever came into politics. (Perhaps another topic for a blog posts later.)


(The UKIP leader)

It was before the EU

The EEC, which later became the EU, was founded in 1957 but the UK did not enter it until the seventies, under Edward Heath. Europe was not an issue. (It was long before the Euro as a currency.) So we had no UKIP.

Voters were Over 21

The age of majority was 21 up to the end of the sixties. 1970 was the first General Election to extend voting from over-21 to over-18.

If you put all of these together, you can see how politicians could concentrate on directing themselves to working men (not working women). Less people went to university and the school leaving age was lower – so almost everyone worked before they could vote. The number of retired voters (over 65 for men) was much lower – as people died earlier. (In 1950, life expectancy was under 70. Now it is 80 and rising.) Unemployment figures were much lower. And, of course, women were ignored. (I suspect that many men told their wives how to vote and some wives did what they were told! But it was a secret ballot.)


Election Campaigns

I can’t put it off any longer. I have to do my memories of General Elections long ago. I will look at the campaigns first, then Election night and the results.

As you can see from what I have said so far, most constituencies were straight fights between Conservative and Labour candidates. (There were very few Liberal MPs and a few other constituencies had significant Liberal voters. Most didn’t even have a Liberal candidate. No other parties produced MPs.)

In the run up to a General Election, candidates would hold meetings at various locations in their constituencies, just speaking to an audience in a hall. There would be no radio or television coverage, just one or two local reporters who might report salient facts in the local newspaper. The Ilford Recorder only came out once a week!

Candidates and their supporters would do door-to-door canvassing and they had two other ways of gaining votes. Just as now, some voters would put ‘VOTE BLOGGS’ posters up in their windows. I’m never quite sure of what this achieves. Perhaps if you see lots more ‘VOTE BLOGGS’ than ‘VOTE J. SMITH’ you see less point in wasting a walk to the polling booth in the vain hope of getting Smith in. (Perhaps it makes you realize that your vote for Smith is really needed, or that you don’t have to bother for Bloggs.)

In the last few days, candidates would be driven round the streets in a special car with a megaphone device sticking out of the top. They would keep talking about their policies. This was unlikely to have much effect. At best, you might hear a couple of sentences as it drove past – if you could interpret the poor quality sound. This method could be used to advertise a public meeting in the evening.

The national campaign did not have much more that it could do. Leaders and leading cabinet ministers could travel round the country and make speeches in Town Halls, much as for the local candidate. They would aim at marginal seats and their speeches would be reported (the next day) in national newspapers.

There only other media were radio and television but the programme schedules were not changed much for an election. Serious programmes would concentrate on the Election and it would receive coverage in news bulletins but the general entertainment programmes continued as normal. (Without fixed term parliaments, no one knew an election was coming until it was called – about six weeks ahead.)

We did have Party Political Broadcasts on television. When it was just two or three channels (equivalent to BBC One, BBC Two and ITV) they had to adjust timings so that the Party Political Broadcasts were shown simultaneously. You couldn’t miss them by switching channels.

Election Night

What you have to remember was that in the fifties television was still very primitive. See [27] ’Normal Service will be Resumed …’

Outside broadcasts (any television from outside the studios) were almost impossible. We might have seen brief pictures of the leading politicians from news camera but the whole all-night presentation was done in the studio. We did not see any ballot papers being counted and we did not see the announcements. (Now the announcement is made to cameras as soon as the numbers are known. It used to be done from a public location outside, such as the outside of Ilford town Hall.)

Also, without the modern technology we associate with television, there were no graphical visual aids, no computer generated pictures.


And we did not have mobile telephony, not much in the way of telephony at all, as shown in [35] ‘Valentine 3456’. You may find it hard to believe but the BBC paid local reporters at each constituency to note the result, go to a nearby phone box and phone into the studio! Not quite the instant results we get today.

All you would see by staying up all night would be reporters and pundits in the studio talking to each other about the results coming in. As the numbers were received, they would be typed in and could be displayed on the screen. Gradually trends would emerge.

Counting was relatively slow and by the following morning, there would still be many to come in. Results from Scotland and Northern Ireland normally came last – some did not even start counting until the next day.

I remember having to look at the paper the next day to find our local result. There was no other way to get it. The television would not show them all – and we had no Internet and no mobile phones.

The pace of life was slower!


Politicians knew nothing about Economics

One final difference with politicians and economics. In any economic situation then, some would say increase Income Tax rates, some would say reduce rates. The same was true for tax allowances, VAT rates, alcohol taxes, bank interest rates and just about everything else, … (In those days the government controlled the Bank of England and the Bank of England more or less fixed interest rates. No, we didn’t have VAT, but some things had Purchase Tax.) Some would predict that inflation was coming or that deflation was coming. Any suggested measure would put unemployment rates up or down, and would move the cost of living up or down. Different economic theories suggested opposite remedies. Forecasting was not much more than guesswork.

Sorry, my mistake – nothing new on this one. Politicians – and Economists – still haven’t a clue what they are doing.

Postscript – The Current Election

Ilford Constituencies

Ilford is still split into two constituencies – Ilford North and Ilford South as it was back in the fifties and earlier.

Where I used to live is Ilford South. It used to be Conservative in 1950 and has changes five times since then – so it’s Labour now. Ilford North was Conservative throughout the fifties and sixties and has changed four times since then – now Conservative. At the last election, neither seat was marginal. (To be honest I can’t remember that well whether we were North or South but Wikipedia does not suggest any significant boundary changes.)

Chalk Horwood

(Liberal and Conservative candidates for Cheltenham.)


I mention Cheltenham because this has been where I have lived since the end of the sixties. It was June 1970 before I could vote in a general Election and by then I had left Ilford. (Before that, 21 was the voting age, so I just missed the 1966 election.) It was Conservative until 1992 and has been Liberal since then – sorry, have to call them Liberal Democrat now. None of the other parties ever gets a significant vote.

I note that Cheltenham is now a target seat for the Conservatives. They need it to gain a stable majority.

When I vote, I have a choice of six candidates now – Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green, UKIP and an Independent. My choice illustrates a few things about politics that have not changed.

  • Voting for four of these candidates would be a wasted vote. Without any form of proportional representation, there are only two candidates with any chance of success – Conservative and Liberal Democrat. This makes life very difficult for the Greens and UKIP, as it has always done for Liberals.
  • Tactical voting is significant here as in many constituencies. If I support Labour but hate the Conservatives, I could choose to vote Liberal Democrat, just to keep the Tories out. (This makes the news media important, particularly opinion polls. How I vote may depend on what I see as the possible outcomes from these polls. And, of course, any talk of possible coalitions may also be an influence.)
  • Sometimes the vote is affected by the particular candidate. The existing MP may have a record of local successes and help with constituents’ problems. He may even be personally known to the voters. Sometimes being nice to this particular person is more important than who will run the country. (This is more significant in by-elections, when it will not affect the government.) I know Martin Horwood I have met him. I follow him on Twitter. I have never heard of Alex Chalk until today.

I will not tell you about my vote – but you can guess. I have not decided yet but I will do by the time you read this. (My cynical comments above may lead you to believe that I will not vote.) I will keep you posted on the result.

This has been a very long post to give you some light reading through the night! Don’t worry, the next one will be short.

Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

2 thoughts on “[48] ‘The Number of votes cast …’

  1. Ilford North has been one of very few Labour gains, with a very small majority.
    Ilford South remains Labour.
    Cheltenham has lost its Liberal MP to Conservatives with a majority over 6000.
    Two things happened that are becoming usual – polls in the Election were spectacularly wrong – and the exit poll taken on the day looks like being very accurate.
    (Written at 6 a.m. on the day after the election with full results not yet in.)


  2. Pingback: [49] ‘… You can call me Al’ | Remembrance of Things Past

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