Smethwick. 1964. The original ‘Project Fear’ campaign, inspired the most evocative election slogan in British political history. It saw an insurgent right-wing exploit local anger towards a ‘swarm’ of migrants – who were blamed for adding pressure to a severe housing crisis. It pitched an out of touch liberal elite, accused of facilitating a race to the bottom, against a local candidate who claimed to speak the truth. The parallels with today’s discourse are eerily stark. So what really happened in Smethwick over 50 years ago?
At the October 1964 General Election, held 53 years ago today, Labour returned to power for the first time in thirteen years. On a national swing of 3.5%, a slim majority of four put Harold Wilson in Downing Street. The Tory establishment had no answer to Wilson, who, taking inspiration from JFK, had formulated a winning campaign based on new and modern campaigning techniques.
Yet as he looked to formulate his new cabinet, he was rocked by the news that the man earmarked to be the next foreign secretary had dramatically lost his seat. Against the tide of the country and on the back of most evocative slogan in British political history, Peter Griffiths had taken the seat of Smethwick for the Tories with a stunning 7.2% swing.
It took an opportunistic politician, a rampant and dishonest right-wing press, and deep dissatisfaction at the poor quality housing and economic conditions to propel Griffiths to victory. It triggered one of the worst chapters in the history of British race relations, culminating in the creation of a branch of the British Ku Klux Klan who took Birmingham to the brink of racial segregation.
Project Fear: A Dumping Ground
The small town of Smethwick in the West Midlands, would become a key battleground for rising racial and political tension. Since the mid 1950’s, the town had attracted a large influx of migrants from the Commonwealth, and by 1964 the migrant population had reached 5000.
In their guide to the 1964 Election, Butler and King argued that the local newspaper The Smethwick Telephone had consciously stoked immigration fears into a key issue. In the year 1963 for example, the paper devoted 1,650 column inches to negative stories about the new Indian and West Indian population. In their guide, Butler and King assert that “the paper’s activities helped substantially create a highly charged political atmosphere.” Rather than being a month-long campaign issue, immigration fear had been years in the making.
In 1961, the first organised protest emerged when 136 residents of a council owned tower block organised a rent strike. It was triggered by the allocation of housing to a Pakistani family, who had been fast tracked into a new property following the demolition of their previous home. Fueled by the press, the local community reacted by banning immigrants and people of colour from some public places. Even the local Smethwick Labour club, operated a colour bar – something which would be strongly condemned by the Labour leadership.
Local papers ran numerous stories about young white women being assaulted or molested by Jamaicans, Indians and Pakistanis. Both victim and perpetrator were defined by their colour and origin like never before. It led to one local councillor developing a ‘vigilante patrol’ – in order to keep local girls safe at night .They were seen as a drain on the dwindling local resources, as the press claimed the newcomers had abnormally high rates of venereal disease, tuberculosis and leprosy. It was argued that the disease would spread amongst the local population, particularly young girls – further burdening the ailing NHS and welfare services.
Yet the area remained in Labour control. The local MP Patrick Gordon Walker had been a former secretary of state for commonwealth relations under Attlee. But the increased tension meant that he was a key target for the Tories in the next election. Peter Griffiths, a local headteacher and councillor first stood for election in 1959, but had lost by 3,500 votes. He used the intervening period to campaign for the removal of the Labour council, which he did spectacularly in 1961. During the local elections, Gordon Walker used the columns of the Smethwick Telephone to accuse the Tories of organising gangs of children to chant racist slogans. Griffiths wrote a reply: ‘We can’t stop children reflecting the views of their parents. The people of Smethwick certainly don’t want integration.’
Griffiths placed significant emphasis on his strong local roots, in contrast to the established figure of Gordon Walker – who was the shadow foreign secretary, and widely tipped to enter the cabinet. Griffiths bemoaned the closure of factories and the decline of the town since the end of war. He proposed a complete ban on immigrants for five years, and the deportation of any immigrant who was unemployed or involved in crime. When he faced the Conservative local party for his selection, he warned that the area will become “a dumping ground for criminals, the chronic sick and those who have no intention of working.” Griffiths also looked to protect the ‘local’ constituents, by proposing a ban on access to local authority housing for people who had lived in the area for less than ten years.
Project Fear: The Campaign
The scene was set for a pitched battle between the two candidates, making race and immigration an electoral issue in a manner unmatched until the 2016 EU referendum. Butler and King assert that Griffiths’ personal charm as a lower middle class conservative brought respectability to an argument that had traditionally been associated with the National Front.
Griffiths had the local media on his side, who executed a severe and pertinent attack of Gordon Walker’s ‘ulterior motives’. Rex and Moore reaffirmed this in their seminal 1967 study of Birmingham, that “the sentiments expressed by those (newspapers)…smacked of the Deep South in the United States.” Various reports claimed that ‘Gordon Walker had sold his house in Smethwick to the blacks; He’d gone to the West Indies to recruit blacks for Smethwick industry; That his wife was black and that his daughters married black men. They also reported that Labour had planned to build two secret leper hospitals in the town.
The Birmingham Post referred to Gordon Walker as a ‘pipe smoking don turned politician’ who did not understand the public anger towards race. In a public debate, Gordon Walker was attacked for living in Hampstead, and not understanding the true effect of immigration on the town. Griffiths had sneered at his rival. “How easy to support uncontrolled immigration when one lives in a garden suburb.”
For Peter Griffiths, the timing was ripe for his anti-immigrant platform. At an early campaign meeting, Griffiths assembled his closest supporters, including Enoch Powell to discuss strategy. According to a 2015 Channel 4 Documentary on the election, It was Cressida Dickens, the 9-year-old daughter of Griffiths election agent, who coined the infamous slogan: “If you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour.” She says the slogan popped into her head after chanting the rhyme, made famous again by Jeremy Clarkson in 2014, “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a n***** by the toe.”
Dickens admitted that “It was on billboards the next day. That was my fault as an innocent naive kid.” Whilst no one within the Tory party took personal responsibility for the slogan, it was plastered over brick walls in white paint the following day. During the campaign, The Times attributed the following quote to Griffiths in an article entitled ‘Immigrants Main Election Issue at Smethwick’:
“About the slogan, “If you want a n*****r neighbour, vote Labour” Mr. Griffiths said: “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.”
Griffiths’ argument was laid out in his own manifesto ‘Ten Points on Colour’. He successfully linked the poor housing conditions in Smethwick to the immigrant influx, promising to rid them of the ‘dirty conditions’. Griffiths argued, but ‘[s]urely 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?’
Griffiths lamented an out of touch political class, that refused to say what was really going on in Britain. He claimed: “Immigrants have overcrowded their houses, and I have been the only political leader in the town who has been prepared to face up to the problem.” Making himself the voice of the disposed saw him returned as the new MP with a stunning victory. In his victory speech, he attacked the experts, the pollsters and the establishment;
“Once the Hysteria of the election has died down, we will see that Smethwick was a beacon of hope.. Smethwick made up its own mind, took no notice of the opinion polls and the surveys, made up its own mind on the issues and chose regardless of gratuitous advice from outside”
As Gordon Walker left his count, Griffiths’ supporters are reported to have shouted “Where are your n****** now Walker?”
Project Fear: The Fallout
The new PM, Harold Wilson was quick to condemn the campaign. On the opening of parliament in November, he asked the Tory leader Sir Alex Douglas-Home to condemn the victor, arguing “until a further general election restores him to oblivion, he will serve his term here as a parliamentary leper.” Wilson remained resolute in his defence of Gordon Walker. On election night, he sent him a telegram to assure him of a role in the foreign office, reassuring him “the whole country knows why you lost and all honour to you.”
During the campaign, Wilson had faced his own hecklers over calls to “send them home” – arguing “Whom should we send home? The nurses in our hospitals? The people who drive our buses. Where would our health service be without the black workers who keep it going?”
Yet in the aftermath, buoyed by their stunning victory, a British branch of the Ku Klux Klan established itself in Birmingham. It was followed by a controversial decision from Smethwick Council to buy empty properties on Marshall Street, with the expressed purpose of renting them to white families. Alice Groves had successfully petitioned the Tory council to agree to the proposal, and the new MP Griffiths, in his role as a council alderman, had arranged for the authority to buy the houses. However, Richard Crossman, Labour’s housing minister, foiled the plan – refusing to allow the council to borrow the money, claiming that it was a racially motivated plan.
Yet Crossman recognised that Griffiths’ campaign had hit the national consciousness, noting in his diary that “immigration can be the biggest potential vote loser for the party, if we are seen to be permitting a flood of immigrants to come in.” The controversial proposal had put the world’s spotlight on Birmingham. Malcolm X paid an unlikely visit to Smethwick, after being told of the proposal. He urged the residents to take action; “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.”
The local newspaper, the Smethwick Telephone and Warley Courier, called Malcolm X “an unexpected and largely unwelcome guest,” while Griffiths, called for him to be banned from entering Smethwick. Sadly It would be one of Malcolm X’s last interventions. Nine days later, on the 21 February, 1965, he was hit by 16 bullets as he rose to address a New York meeting. A year later, Griffiths would lose his own seat in the snap election, after Labour put together a much stronger campaign . Nevertheless Griffiths enjoyed an 18 year career in Parliament, as the MP for Portsmouth South. He was finally toppled in the landslide Labour victory of 1997, when he was defeated on a 13.9% swing in the vote.