Britain’s Racist Election: how one 1964 battle for voters turned toxic

Events in 1960s suburban Birmingham prompted a visit from Malcolm X – as Channel 4 recap a poisonous election campaign , Patrick Foster takes a look back at the controversial period

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Nine days before his assassination in New York in February 1965, American civil rights radical Malcolm X paid an unlikely visit to Smethwick, a town in Birmingham’s suburban sprawl. He had been told of a plan afoot to permit the compulsory purchase by the local council of houses on one entire road, Marshall Street, to rent to white families only.

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He was enraged. “I have heard that the blacks in Smethwick are being treated… like Hitler treated Jews,” he declared. “The people of Smethwick shouldn’t wait for the fascist elements in the towns to erect gas ovens.”

If the language seems ugly and inflammatory today, it was what passed for debate in Smethwick 50 years ago. As a new Channel 4 documentary, Britain’s Racist Election, reminds us, the town was still convulsing after one of the most hate-filled election campaigns this country has ever witnessed. At the heart of the invective was a slogan dreamt up – innocently, she insists – by the nine-year-old daughter of the local Conservative Party election agent.

Though the party insisted that it never used the slogan, it typified the abuse that was being directed at the area’s black and Asian incomers. It remains grossly offensive, but in order to understand the toxic atmosphere in Smethwick, it’s necessary to repeat it: “If you want a n***** for your neighbour, vote Labour”.

Cressida Dickens, the daughter of Tory election agent Charles Dickens, recalls the incendiary mood in the town in the build-up to the 1964 general election, in which the Conservative candidate, Peter Griffiths (below), fought on a fiercely anti-immigration ticket to oust Smethwick’s sitting Labour MP, Patrick Gordon Walker, who was expected to become Foreign Secretary.

“There was a lot of conflict,” she says. “The Government didn’t tell the local people what was going to happen with immigration, and how things were going to change. No one knew how to deal with it. We were all struggling in the dark.”

As preparations for the October election got underway, a meeting was held at Dickens’s home. Peter Griffiths was present, as were Enoch Powell and Donald Finney, a local councillor and prominent anti-immigration campaigner. Cressida had also wandered in. “I was sitting on a load of old leaflets,” she says. “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 [the slogan]. I was just playing with it, nothing more. Just whispering, writing things down.”

The meeting concluded, and it was soon obvious that the slogan – which few there that day had actually heard – was spreading around the town and daubed on buses and walls. It was rapidly becoming a rallying cry for all those opposed to the immigrant population. 

Election leaflets were printed in Tory blue, carrying variations of the slogan, although Cressida insists that the party didn’t sanction its use. “The meeting’s minutes make it clear that it was a phrase that was never to be taken on by anyone else,” she says.

Gordon Walker’s son Robin, then 18, was campaigning for Labour in the constituency, on his father’s behalf. “My mother was from Jamaica – she was a white Jamaican,” he says. “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’. He thought that was absolutely below the belt.”

Cressida Dickens today

The general election of 15 October 1964 was won by Labour, ousting the Conservatives after 13 years in power. But while much of the rest of the country had swung to Labour, Griffiths overturned Gordon Walker’s majority of 3,500 and took the seat for the Tories. Prime Minister Harold Wilson branded the new MP for Smethwick a “parliamentary leper”, but Griffiths was unbowed, going on to fight unsuccessfully for the right – opposed by Malcolm X – of the council to rent houses on Marshall Street exclusively to white families.

The race row eventually calmed and, in March 1966, Labour candidate Andrew Faulds, an actor who had appeared in Jason and the Argonauts, defeated Griffiths to win the seat. Today, Smethwick forms part of the Warley constituency, and it has been a safe Labour seat ever since. Two-thirds of the residents of the Marshall Street area are now non-white.

Cressida Dickens has moved away from Smethwick, but not from the Conservative Party – although she says she is still “on the fence” as to how she’ll vote at the general election in May. Can she see herself casting her vote for Nigel Farage’s party?

“Oh God, no,” she recoils. “They’re far too extreme. It was the extremists that took over in Smethwick in 1964. And in the same way, Ukip are far, far too extreme now.” 

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Britain’s Racist Election is on Channel 4 tonight (Sunday 15th March) at 10.00pm