Smethwick in the 1964 general election
The West Midlands constituency of Smethwick gained national media coverage in the 1964 general election when Peter Griffiths of the Conservative Party gained the seat against the national trend amidst allegations of racism.
After the Second World War, Smethwick attracted a significant number of immigrants from Commonwealth countries, the largest ethnic group being Sikhs from the Punjab in India. There was also a background of factory closures and a growing waiting list for local council accommodation. Griffiths ran a campaign critical of the opposition's, and the government's, immigration policies.
The Conservatives were widely reported as using the slogan "if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour." Though the Conservatives claimed that these posters were the work of far right groups, Griffiths was quoted as saying "I should think that is a manifestation of popular feeling. I would not condemn anyone who said that."
The 1964 General Election had involved a nationwide swing to the Labour Party which had resulted in the party gaining a narrow five seat majority. However, in Smethwick, the Conservative candidate, Peter Griffiths gained the seat and unseated the sitting Labour MP, Patrick Gordon Walker, who had been the Shadow Foreign Secretary for a year and a half before the election. Griffiths did, however, poll 436 votes less in 1964 than when he stood unsuccessfully for the Smethwick seat in 1959:
|General Election 1964: Smethwick|
|Labour||Patrick Gordon Walker||14,916||42.6||−12.1|
|Independent||Dudley Trevor Davies||262||0.8||N/A|
|Conservative gain from Labour||Swing||−7.2|
Figures nevertheless show that votes for Labour's Patrick Gordon Walker had been in decline from the 1950 General Election onwards, culminating in this 1964 defeat by Peter Griffiths. See Smethwick (UK Parliament constituency) for details.
Following the election result, a British sect of the Ku Klux Klan was formed, and Black and Minority Ethnic residents in the area had burning crosses shoved through their letterboxes. Peter Griffiths was declared "a parliamentary leper" by Harold Wilson, the new Prime Minister. Griffiths, in his maiden speech to the Commons, pointed out what he believed were the real problems the constituency faced, including factory closures and over 4,000 families awaiting council accommodation. Patrick Gordon Walker subsequently lost the Leyton by-election, 1965, in a usually safe Labour seat, and the election result meant that Malcolm X would visit Smethwick to show solidarity with the black and minority ethnic communities in the area (in particular, the black and Asian community). Nine days after he visited Marshall Street, Malcolm X was shot dead in New York.
An official policy of racial segregation was also put into place in Smethwick's housing allocation, with houses on Marshall Street in Smethwick being let only to white British residents. The Tory-led and fully white British council decided to buy vacant houses to prevent "coloureds" from buying the houses, claiming the area had been "completely taken over by immigrants".
The actions taken have been described as "ugly Tory racism" which "killed rational debate about immigration". However, colour bars were then common preventing non-whites from using facilities. The Labour club in Smethwick operated one, as did the local Sandwell Youth Club, which was run by one of the town's Labour councillors.
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