One of the many projects that I am working on is a paper on the Labour Party and the issue of ‘race’ and immigration during the 2010 UK election, and the fact that many (from within Labour) claimed that part of the reason why Labour lost the election was their apparent ‘softness’ on immigration issues. This has been called Labour’s ‘Smethwick problem’ after the defeat of Patrick Gordon Walker by the Conservative Peter Griffiths in the seat of Smethwick (in the Midlands) in the 1964 election, which saw a substantial swing against Labour and contradictory to the general voting trends towards Labour. It has long been claimed that Griffiths won against Labour by making Gordon Walker and Labour look ‘soft’ on immigration – this being two years after the Conservatives introduced the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962, which was actually opposed by Labour under Hugh Gaitskell. One of the infamous aspects of this episode is the phrase, ‘if you want a n*****r neighbour, vote Labour’, which was used by supporters of Griffiths and not condemned by the Tory candidate.
In my research, I have tried to trace where this slogan came from. I have managed to find reference to it in The Times, which on 9 March, 1964 had this excerpt in an article titled, ‘Immigrants Main Election Issue at Smethwick’ (p. 6):
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 that say it. I would say it is exasperation, not fascism.”
But this seems to suggest that the slogan was widely known (at least in the Smethwick area) at this time. Paul Foot traced its origins back further in his book Immigration and Race in British Politics (Penguin, 1965, p. 44) to the 1963 local elections, writing:
In July 1963, Gordon Walker announced that at the municipal elections in May…, gangs of children had been organized to chant, ‘If you want a n*****r neighbour, vote Labour.’ Griffiths wrote, in reply:
We can’t stop children reflecting the views of their parents. The people of Smethwick certainly don’t want integration.
A 1993 article in The Independent about Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X (who came to the Midlands in early 1965 and talked about ‘fascists’ in Smethwick) says that this exchange between Gordon Walker and Griffiths occurred in the local paper, the Smethwick Telephone.
So I guess my next place to look in the Smethwick Telephone. From what I can gather, the paper doesn’t exist anymore. I am travelling to the UK next month, so I hope it is available in the British Library newspaper archive. Otherwise I may be off to the Midlands!
Can anyone offer any further insight into this slogan’s origins? Has anyone else found reference to it elsewhere earlier than May 1963? Does anyone know where I could get hold of copies of the Smethwick Telephone from this era?