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.

Smethwick council chamber, where the result was announced


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.[1]

The Conservatives were widely reported as using the slogan "if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour."[2] 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."[3][4]

Election result

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[5] 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
Party Candidate Votes % ±
Conservative Peter Griffiths 16,690 47.6 +2.3
Labour Patrick Gordon Walker 14,916 42.6 12.1
Liberal David Hugill 3,172 9.0 N/A
Independent Dudley Trevor Davies 262 0.8 N/A
Majority 1,774 5.1
Turnout 35,040 74.1 1.8
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.[1] 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[3] 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.[6]

The Labour Party regained the seat at the 1966 general election when Andrew Faulds became the constituency's member of parliament.

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".[7]

The actions taken have been described as "ugly Tory racism" which "killed rational debate about immigration".[5] 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.[8]


  1. 1 2 "Britain's Racist Election". Retrieved 17 March 2015.
  2. Edwards, Kathryn (18 April 2008). "Powell's "rivers of blood" legacy". BBC News. BBC. Retrieved 17 March 2015.
  3. 1 2 Arnot, Chris (3 March 1993). "Malcolm X in the Black Country: Chris Arnot revisits Smethwick, where the Black Power leader claimed coloured people were being treated "like the Jews under Hitler"". The Independent. Retrieved 17 March 2015.
  4. Bleich, Erik (2003). Race: Politics in Britain and France: Ideas and Policymaking Since the 1960s. Cambridges, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 48. ISBN 0521811015.
  5. 1 2 Stanley, Tim (28 November 2013). "Peter Griffiths and the ugly Tory racism of the 1960s killed rational debate about immigration". The Telegraph. Retrieved 17 March 2015.
  6. "Malcolm X visits Smethwick". Midlands Today. Retrieved 21 March 2015.
  7. "Smethwick council buying vacant homes to prevent more coloured people moving in on Marshall Street". Retrieved 17 March 2015.
  8. Jeffries, Stuart (15 October 2014). "Britain's most racist election: the story of Smethwick, 50 years on". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 May 2016.
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