The seats where Tories weren’t blue and Labour wasn’t red

A green Liberal poster, a yellow Labour one, and a red Conservative one Image copyright LSE Library Archives / Bodleian Library

The UK's political parties are closely identified with particular colours - but in some parts of the country they traditionally fought under quite different shades.

Three candidates gather on a podium. Each wears a coloured rosette. So far, so humdrum.

Except that here it's the Conservative wearing red, Labour's candidate in green and the victorious Liberal in blue and orange.

This is the general election of February 1974 and the constituency is Berwick-upon-Tweed - one of a number of UK seats where candidates traditionally fought elections in colours other than those typically linked with their parties today.

Image caption Liberal Alan Beith flanked by Labour's Gordon Adam and Tory John Hardie in 1974

Just as the US depiction of Republicans as red and Democrats as blue has only been commonly accepted since 2000, the UK's political map was a veritable kaleidoscope until fairly recently.

Before the advent of the mass media and colour television, the colours favoured by prominent local families often became synonymous with the candidates they endorsed, and this passed into local custom.

Until relatively recently, the Conservatives were pink and blue in parts of East Anglia. The Liberals were blue in west Wales and red in parts of Cheshire. Labour's Tony Benn, that most red-hot of socialists, wore yellow in Bristol South East.

Image caption Labour's Tony Benn in yellow

It's a quirk that's become less widespread with time as political parties have become increasingly centralised and campaigns more uniform.

But there are still some areas where old traditions persist. On election night 2010, north-west Conservative Rory Stewart (who was elected MP for Penrith and the Border) and Gareth McKeever (defeated in Westmorland and Lonsdale) wore yellow as well as blue in their rosettes.

Image caption Conservative Gareth McKeever and his yellow and blue rosette in 2010

They were following a long-standing association between the Conservatives and the colour in what is now called Cumbria - probably because of Hugh Lowther, the 6th Earl of Lonsdale, who was known as the "Yellow Earl".

William Whitelaw (later Viscount Whitelaw), Stewart's predecessor as MP for Penrith, always wore yellow when his result was declared.

Across the Pennines, Labour was green in its north-east heartland until well into the 1970s. Edward Short, the party's deputy leader from 1972-6, wore a green rosette in his Newcastle-upon-Tyne Central constituency.

It's not entirely clear why this was the case, says Chris Burgess, curator at the People's History Museum, where Labour's archives are stored. Notwithstanding the row over its pink bus, in most other parts of the UK, Labour "has been associated with red going right back to the start", he says. Its anthem was The Red Flag. After red became associated the French Revolution, the colour was adopted by socialist movements across Europe in the 19th Century.

In some parts of the UK, however, other parties had claimed red first. So for a time Labour was yellow in Walsall and also in Runcorn, where Joel Barnett published a leaflet in the colour in 1959. The same year, John Baird campaigned in orange for the party in North East Wolverhampton. In 1974, Ernest Perry wore a combination of red and green in his Labour rosette in Battersea South.

Some say the north-east party's adoption of green may have had something to do with the area's Irish Catholic community. Or it may have been a tribute to the Chartists, who were sometimes linked with the colour. Others have suggested that Durham miners disliked red because it was the racing colour of a local aristocrat.

Whichever is true, the region's distinctive political colour scheme persisted into the 1970s. Sir Alan Beith, the victor in Berwick in 1974, recalls meeting Conservative leader Edward Heath during the 1960s as he was leaving London. Heath was wearing a red rosette - because, he said, he was on his way to the north-east to campaign.

Image copyright Bodleian Library
Image caption Courtesy of Bodleian Library Conservative Party Archive

During the 1973 by-election in which he won his seat, Beith remembers being urged by one elderly woman to "get the reds out" - the reds being the Conservatives, who had previously held the constituency.

The late Conservative historian Ewen Green wrote that it was "not blue in Disraeli's time, nor in Salisbury's" and that there were references to Tories wearing yellow in 1900. He suspected that blue came to prominence after 1918.

But this was far from uniform. In the first half of the 20th Century, posters for the Conservative, Unionist and National tickets - all of which Tory candidates would fight under - were printed in red, yellow and orange as well as blue. A combination of red, white and blue - to represent the union flag - was commonplace.

Image copyright Bodleian Library
Image caption Pictures courtesy of Bodleian Library Conservative Party Archive

In March 1949 the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations voted to "regularise" their image and recommend "the adoption of Blue as the official Conservative Party Colour". A letter from the party's deputy chief organisation officer dated 7 March 1950 said there had been "a considerable variety of Party colours in different parts of the country, although blue is the colour in the majority of constituencies".

This wasn't the end of the matter. "Despite the 1949 resolution, it took some time for the colour blue to be adopted unanimously by the local Conservative associations which, until 1998, were autonomous of Conservative Central Office," says Jeremy McIlwaine of the Conservative Party Archive. Local and regional difference persisted after 1949.

In Norwich, for instance, the traditional colours of the Tories had been orange and purple, and this persisted into the middle of the 20th Century. A conservative Orange and Purple party had existed on the city's corporation since the 18th Century, opposed by the Blue and White party.

Image copyright People’s History Museum

According to Henry Stooks Smith's The Parliaments of England, a collection of House of Commons election results from 1715 to 1847, the Tories were orange in Birmingham, pink in Whitby and red in east Worcestershire. Though the Whigs were often associated with buff, they were blue in Kendal, purple in Marlborough and orange in Wakefield.

This meant the Liberals - successors of the Whigs - had an entire patchwork quilt of local colours, too. A 1964 article in the Times quoted a supplier of rosettes, Harold Webb, who stocked eight colours or colour combinations to meet demand from Liberal candidates around the country, despite efforts by the central party to standardise orange.

Image copyright LSE Library Archives
Image caption Jean Henderson was the Liberal candidate in Lincoln in 1950

In the 1958 Torrington by-election, Mark Bonham Carter won the seat for the party wearing purple and yellow - the colours of the Robartes family, who had supported the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War, according to an article in the Journal of Liberal History. Eric Lubbock was in green when he took Orpington for the Liberals in 1962.

Jeremy Thorpe's purple and yellow attire at the 1974 Devon North count would today would today mark him down as a UKIP supporter. By contrast, David Steel, his successor as Liberal leader, wore a green and yellow rosette when he was returned by the people of Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles in 1979.

Liberal Geraint Wyn Howells wore blue in 1974 when he fought Cardigan for the Liberals. In 1970 the seat was contested by Conservative David George, who wore red.

Image caption Liberals David Steel, Jeremy Thorpe and Geraint Wyn Howells

Younger parties have had time to revamp their colour scheme, too - even if the Green Party's branding is somewhat circumscribed by its name. Plaid Cymru revamped its colours in 2006, replacing its red, white and green "triban" emblem with a yellow poppy. Its rosettes have adapted accordingly.

Image copyright other
Image caption Leanne Wood's rosette in 2015 contains yellow, unlike one worn by Dafydd Wigley in 1999

The Scottish National Party has traditionally used yellow and black, but in 2002 it announced it was adding heather alongside them. This shade appeared on billboards in the run-up to the 2003 Holyrood elections.

There was a precedent for its use - the party had previously used various purples for campaigning material and Margo MacDonald wore a lilac sticker on her rosette on the night of the February 1974 election.

Image caption Margo MacDonald in 1974
Image copyright LSE Library Archives

New Labour also flirted with purple under Tony Blair - hence the title of the Purple Book, a collection of essays by party members associated with the Blairite wing. but today the colour is widely seen as the property of The United Kingdom Independence Party. In the party's early days, however, UKIP used a variety of red, blue, yellow and white on its branding.

Image copyright (C) British Broadcasting Corporation
Image caption Nigel Farage in multicoloured UKIP rosette

Notwithstanding the recent innovations of Lord Glasman's socially conservative Blue Labour and Phillip Blond's communitarian Red Tory movement, it's rare in modern British politics to see candidates in non-standard colours.

The advance of colour television and the growing importance of national, rather than local campaigning meant candidates were unable to stick to local customs without running the risk of baffling their constituents. "I pretty much had to conform," says Sir Alan, who stood down this year. As the 1970s progressed, blue was edged out in his campaign material in favour of Liberal orange, Alliance gold and then Lib Dem yellow.

But he always ensured the ribbons of his rosette reflected the old traditions. "I always had a bit of blue in mine," he says. "I kept some in for luck."

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