Solidarity of Labour

1986: the year of Chernobyl, US bombings in Libya and the election of Chorlton’s very first Labour councillor. Andrew Simpson was there

The councillor’s name was David Black and his election marked a turning point for Labour in South Manchester: the following year, Keith Bradley (now Baron Bradley) took his seat in the House as Manchester Withington’s first Labour MP.

Today, such results may seem the norm, but prior to 1986, Chorlton had returned only Conservative councillors since the years prior to the second world war. At one point, even the Ratepayer’s Party secured more votes!

The 1980s saw things start to change, however: the Conservative election machine was past its best, while the Labour Party mounted a succession of campaigns which out-canvassed, out-leafleted and out-postered the opposition. By the turn of 1980, the Conservative majority was slashed and although it had a brief resurgence between 1982 and 1986, it seemed to many that the writing was on the wall.

There were, and are, many theories why this should have been the case. Conservative rule had proved increasingly divisive in south Manchester in the 1980s. There were demographic changes too, with many younger people moving to the area, taking advantage of cheap, unmodernised housing. They seemed more supportive of Labour and in particular of the policies of the City Council.

David Black’s 1986 victory was not repeated the following year, and while Labour has been returned each year since 1988, the party did lose seats to the Liberal Democrats for a short spell at the turn of this century.

This all makes me think about 1928, the first year Labour put forward a local election candidate here. This election had the lot. Fought against a backdrop of worsening unemployment, there was an expectation that this might be the year that Labour became the largest group on the City Council.

The Manchester Guardian did not rate Conservative chances in the city as a whole, and speculated that they might lose eight of the 16 seats they were defending.

The Liberals were reckoned to be safe in four of their five seats, but it was Labour ‘with fewer seats to defend and a greater number of more vulnerable positions [to] attack,’ who were making an ‘audacious bid to secure a clear majority …. and although the attempt is hardly likely to succeed on the present occasion it is by no means a forlorn one. The Labour representation has been steadily increasing and at the moment only requires nine additional seats to give it the preponderance it desires.’ (Manchester Guardian October 1 1928)

Chorlton found itself the centre of attention: the Guardian told its readers the Conservatives were defending a slim majority here and one that looked all the more vulnerable because the Liberals had won a seat the year before, with near-2,500 majority.

But as the paper went on to warn: “it must be borne in mind that at the present occasion Mr Wicks, the Liberal candidate, is opposed by a serious Labour candidate in addition to the retiring Conservative.”

That Labour candidate was Alice McIlwrick, who had stood the year before in Didsbury, winning 10% of the vote. She had lived in various parts of south Manchester, married at the age of 20 and was confident enough to issue a challenge to her Liberal rival to ‘speak for a quarter of an hour in response to a challenge.’

Moreover, the Labour Party also saw her as a serious candidate, sending the MP, R J Davies and Cllr Wright Robinson to speak on the same platform.

The result was not, I suspect, what many had expected. The Conservatives retained the seat with 4,788 votes. The Liberals polled 3,955, while Labour picked up a creditable 1,457 – 14% of the vote.

Things would only get better…..

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