Britain decides: Elections at the Churchill Archives Centre

18th May 2017 in Archives Centre, Our Collections

Election display 1

While some members of the Archives Centre team might be tempted to agree with BBC interviewee Brenda from Bristol that “there is too much politics going on at the moment”, we also couldn’t let a good opportunity to put on an exhibition of documents from the archives go to waste.

We don’t specifically take in collections relating to the organisation of British political parties or MPs’ local constituency offices, but the Churchill Archives Centre is home to an array of archives for the study of parliamentary elections. The Churchill Papers (CHAR and CHUR), Churchill Press Cuttings (CHPC) and Press Photographs (CHPH), and the Broadwater albums (BRDW), document almost every aspect of the elections in which Winston Churchill stood as an MP (first for the Conservatives, then the Liberals, then unsuccessfully as an independent, and again for the Conservatives). The papers of Margaret Thatcher, Neil Kinnock, and their colleagues provide particularly extensive coverage of the build-up to the 1979, 1983, and 1987 general elections – the seismic effects of which are still shaping British political debate, economics, and society today. Meanwhile throughout this period, many politicians – such as Leo Amery and Julian Amery (AMEL and AMEJ), Tam Dalyell (TADA), and Lord Hailsham (HLSM) – were keeping collections of election leaflets and other campaign literature in their private papers, including letters from members of the public, which afford a glimpse of the more personal aspects to electioneering.

Archives relating to elections are often intriguing, not simply as a window into successful campaigns, but also for the light they can shed on historical contingency and the roads not taken in modern British politics. Unpublished speech notes; draft election manifestos; correspondence on electoral reform and cross-party alliances; and briefings on the policies of fringe campaign groups like the Green Party (KNNK 6/2/13), Militant (e.g. KNNK 2/5), or the Campaign for an Independent Britain (POLL 7/13 and 7/14) in the papers of Labour and Conservative politicians all help to illuminate the presence of alternatives to the two-party system.

Our display begins in 1899, with the then twenty-four year old Churchill’s first attempt to enter Parliament for the Conservatives in the Oldham by-election: a contest he was so confident he would win that he invited his mother and her friends to hear his opening address almost a fortnight before the polls opened (CHAR 28/26/22). It ends in 1994 with another unsuccessful by-election challenge: that of a young commodities trader named Nigel Farage, who asked (also unsuccessfully) for the support of ultra right-wing politician Enoch Powell when standing for the newly-formed UK Independence Party in Eastleigh (POLL 7/18; regular visitors to this blog may remember the appearance of this correspondence in last spring’s Referendum exhibition. Farage received 952 votes in this contest, narrowly beating the Monster Raving Loony Party into fourth place.

Election display 2

 Personal papers — full of carefully stage-managed photographs, satirical cartoons, and press briefings – can give historians a privileged insight into the different ways in which MPs and would-be MPs have crafted their public image over the course of the twentieth century. The arrival of universal suffrage would transform both the language and the substance of electioneering, as is illustrated in Leo Amery’s campaign material for the Conservatives in Birmingham Sparkbrook, a stronghold of working-class toryism, in the 1920s and 30s (AMEL 4/12 and also see our online resource on politics and social identity in the inter-war period).

From the 1930s, politicians at the Archives Centre also had to contend with modern forms of media and communication, alongside traditional forms of local constituency canvassing like outdoor stump speeches. Florence Horsbrugh’s stunning victory in the 1931 general election, in which she became the first woman and the first Conservative to represent the city of Dundee, saw the new MP become the subject of a documentary film, as well as a more conventional interview profile in the long-running suffragist journal The Vote (HSBR 2/2 and 2/3).

The Vote

 

Issue of The Vote from the papers of Florence Horsbrugh.

The rise of party political broadcasting on radio and television gave electioneering a new, national dimension, and stimulated an interest in the ways in which voters were consuming political messages. The archives hold an advice manual produced by Conservative Central Office in 1957 to help their prospective parliamentary candidates feel more comfortable communicating with the electorate at home from behind the television studio cameras:

“If you relax by sitting back in the chair, this gives a most unfortunate impression of superiority – the kind of person who can always tell others what they ought to do…” (Talking on Television and Radio, London: Conservative Central Office, ABMS 5/8).

As it became more vital to cultivate a media-friendly persona, the forms of political opinion research preserved in the archive gradually became more and more elaborate. In the era before mass opinion polling, betting habits were one window into the mind-set of the electorate, and the market for Stock Exchange election ‘Majorities’ (gamblers’ predictions of the likely number of seats to be won by the largest party) had been monitored closely by politicians for signs of changes in public opinion. Financial records in the Churchill Papers reveal Sir Winston to have been an experienced speculator – for example, he made a profit of £876 (worth over £30,000 in today’s money) from his investment in spread bets placed on the outcome of the 1931 general election (CHAR 1/226/75). Imprecise contemporary opinion data could give some surprising results – one poll on future Prime Ministers shown to Churchill a few days before the 1945 general election, in which Labour would claim a historic victory over the Conservatives, had Churchill polling at 48% and the soon-to-be Labour PM Clement Attlee on only 13%, with even Conservative Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden receiving a healthy 18% of this hypothetical vote (CHAR 2/548/218).

While door-to-door canvassing remained an important means of connecting with the electorate – the Eton-educated teacher Tam Dalyell kept a file of papers relating to his tour of the Scottish Borders in his unsuccessful bid to become a Labour MP in the 1959 general election, during which he travelled between villages on a bicycle, mostly wearing a boiler suit (TADA 4/5/1/1) – the 1950s and 60s saw Labour and the Conservatives start to draw on an increasingly sophisticated range of strategies for anticipating and responding to the demands of particular groups of voters.

Under new Opposition Leader Harold Wilson, Labour drafted in the socialist market research expert Mark Abrams to collaborate on a modern approach to the 1964 general election. Extensive working papers in the archive (in the process of being re-catalogued) document Abrams’s eclectic sources of inspiration for the slogan – which would later become ‘Let’s GO with Labour’ – and multi-media election campaign. While working for retailers, manufacturers, and Fleet Street newspaper editors on behalf of the London Press Exchange, one of Britain’s leading advertising agencies, Abrams had pioneered new social scientific surveying and sampling techniques for measuring the habits and opinions of specific ‘target’ groups, such as ‘Conservative-voting Guardian readers’ or ‘left-leaning City businessmen’: methods which would become central to the party’s attempt to capture floating voters, as well as those in ‘safe’ Labour seats, during the 1960s (ABMS 3).

While exploring election material in the archive can help to give a vivid sense of unpredictability in modern British politics, some election results were easier to call. Two days before the general election in June 1983, as Labour MP Neil Kinnock hastily drafted the notes for his famous ‘Bridgend Speech’ on his way to a rally in his South Wales constituency (“If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday, I warn you not to be ordinary, I warn you not to be young, I warn you not to fall ill, I warn you not to get old…”; KNNK 16/1/11), Conservative Chief Press Officer Bernard Ingham’s thoughts had already turned to a memorandum entitled ‘Post-Election Psychology’. Margaret Thatcher thoughtfully underlined the following passages in blue ink.

“After this rather dirty election the public will be looking for a rest from it all. The bigger your majority the more they will expect magnanimity from you… Nor should you under-estimate the British capacity to reject success. The more successful you are – i.e. the bigger your majority – the more the media will seek to bring you down to earth and humble you.” (THCR 1/11/15).

Finally, some Churchill College-related election trivia from the archives: after being among the first to demand student representation on Cambridge College committees, it was a group of Churchill undergraduates which led the campaign, which resulted in a high court ruling in 1970, to allow UK students to vote in parliamentary elections in their university’s constituency, instead of that of their family home.

The exhibition will be on display outside the Dining Hall from now until Thursday 8th June.

Don’t forget to register to vote, or to update your address on the electoral register, for the 2017 UK general election by the 22nd May.

— Heidi Egginton, Archives Assistant


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