In many ways the 1955 general election was about as unexceptional, free of surprises and predictable as a general election can be, even including the occasional close poll that looked like it might, but didn’t, upset expectations. That, however, makes it a good one to read about if you are looking for a flavour of how general elections used to be in mid-twentieth century Britain and the 1955 version of David Butler’s excellent general election series is a good guide to read.
Some themes are familiar to modern eyes, such as arguments over the impact of redrawing Parliamentary constituency boundaries and Labour’s heavy reliance on trade union funding, which supplied just under two-thirds of its election monies.
Others much less so. TV was still new, indeed the very idea that TV or radio might cover contemporary political controversies was still novel. In 1955 the BBC still cleared its coverage of all controversial election matters, once again leaving the general election for the radio and TV election broadcasts by the parties.
Political campaigning was, nominally at least, about few leaflets and lots of canvassing, though the detailed constituency studies in the book show how the golden age of mass canvassing never was universal. Leafleting was certainly rare by modern standards, with even marginal seat campaigns often seeing only two or three leaflets put out locally by a party. There was, however, some reliance on nationally produced literature which partly supplemented this. Even so, leafleting was very sparse compared to the sorts of campaigning first popularised by the Liberal Party in the 1970s.
As for public meetings, they too have have a rosy glow in golden age of politics recollections, and again the detail in Butler’s book puts them in a different light. The biggest of names got big audiences. The others? Small audiences. The total audiences? Not much of the electorate. The 1955 campaign in Banbury did have one unusual twist on this pattern of meetings:
The Labour candidate wrote to the local press complaining that Conservative headquarters had ordered their hecklers to say at home so that public interest in the election might not be excited.
A very different world from 21st century elections in many ways, and David Butler’s book is an excellent guide to it.