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The great Liberal comeback - York Membery

Blog | By York Membery | May 23, 2022

Sixty years ago, the Orpington by-election shook up British politics. By York Membery

Sixty years ago, on 14th March 1962, the Liberals overturned a near-15,000 Tory majority to win a sensational by-election in Orpington. Eric Lubbock (1928-2016), later Lord Avebury, won a 7,855 majority and held the seat until 1970, when it reverted to the Conservatives. It has remained Tory ever since.

The result sent shivers through the Conservative Party hierarchy. For a brief moment, it looked as if the Liberals might even replace Labour, which had lost three general elections in a row – 1951, 1955 and 1959 – as the main opposition party.

The Sunday Times argued that ‘the heady wine of Orpington’ was the Liberals’ ‘most exhilarating beverage since their finest hour of the landslide of 1906’. It suggested that, ‘in his wildest moments’, the party leader Jo Grimond might even ‘see himself driving to Buckingham Palace to form a Liberal administration’. A post-Orpington national opinion poll in the Daily Mail put the Liberals on 33.7 per cent, ahead of both Labour and the Conservatives.

The Liberal Party had become something of a music-hall joke by the mid-1950s, largely confined to the Celtic fringes – remote parts of Scotland, Wales and the West Country. But later in the decade the party showed new ‘fight’. The television broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy scored a strong second place for the party at the Rochdale by-election in 1958. Mark Bonham Carter won the Torrington by-election a few months later. The party’s telegenic new leader, Jo Grimond (1913-93), won converts to the cause.

Nonetheless, few observers suspected that leafy, true blue Orpington, in suburban south-east London, would return anything other than a Tory – as usual – when a by-election was called in early 1962 after its MP, Donald Sumner, resigned his seat to become a County Court judge.

Things did not get off to the best of starts for the Liberals when their existing candidate, Jack Galloway, turned out to be in a bigamous marriage and had to be asked to step aside. Meanwhile, a carelessly discarded cigarette butt led to the newly established Liberal campaign HQ going up in smoke – thankfully with no casualties. However, in Galloway’s last-minute replacement, Eric Lubbock, the Liberals chanced on a dashing, family-friendly candidate with strong local links, who would wear out five pairs of shoes on the campaign trail.

It quickly became a two-horse race between the Tories and Liberals. But the Tory candidate, Peter Goldman, a brilliant party backroom boy turned would-be MP, lacked the common touch and couldn’t match Lubbock’s ‘local man’ credentials. To add to his woes, Harold Macmillan’s government had begun to lose its way – economic problems were mounting, ‘Supermac’ was looking past his sell-by date and a growing number of people thought it was time for a change after a decade of Tory rule.

By the time Grimond, with his flair for publicity, hit the streets of Orpington in a gas-guzzling Chevrolet on election day in a bid to get out the vote (imagine the furore if Ed Davey did the same thing today), the Liberals were on course to achieving a political upset of the first order.

The by-election win was widely credited with starting a revival in Liberal fortunes. The party went on to win hundreds of seats in that year’s local elections. Still, it did not result in Grimond’s getting a summons from the Palace to form a Liberal administration (a pretty far-fetched scenario anyway).

The Liberals’ successor party, the Lib Dems – still a shadow of its former self following the post-coalition hammering it took in the 2015 election – should look for more Lubbock-like figures if it wants to make further by-election gains in the future.