The Conservatives unexpectedly gain Smethwick, 1964

Warning - there is one instance of racially offensive language in this article.

The 1964 election night coverage was slick and exhaustive – probably the most complex programme the BBC had done for five years. But one brief moment of television stood out as unusually dramatic: the results coming in from the West Midlands constituency of Smethwick.

There’d been a hugely controversial campaign in Smethwick. Early on, the Labour candidate, Patrick Gordon Walker, had been expected to win. But a campaign slogan was then circulated, which used highly derogatory language: “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour”. It was a slogan that his Conservative opponent, Peter Griffiths, had refused to disown. When the polls closed nationwide, there was a swing towards Labour across most of the country, but in Smethwick there’d been a dramatic swing in the opposite direction, towards the Conservatives. Peter Griffiths took the seat.

When the defeated Walker appeared on screen soon after the results were announced, a sense of shock was written on his face for all to see.

Written by Professor David Hendy, University of Sussex

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