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Backwords: Electioneering 1955-Style

The little man in the homburg hat and black overcoat did not seem to inspire an audience who stood in the drizzle on a dark Saturday afternoon in a Yorkshire mill town.

The little man was Clem Atlee, formerly Prime Minister, now leader of the Labour Party.

Retired journalist Mike Shaw recalls electioneering 1955-style.

The little man in the homburg and black overcoat struggled to make himself heard through the crackling microphone.

It was a dark Saturday afternoon and a few hundred people had gathered in the open air near the centre of Elland.

The speaker was the then leader of the Labour party, Clem Attlee, and this was electioneering 1955 style.

Clem, not surprisingly, hardly seemed to inspire his audience as they stood in the drizzle.

But at least he made the effort. Not only there, but in hundreds of other locations during the whistle-stop tours which brought top politicians to the people.

By train and car - no planes or helicopters - they toured the country without the attendant TV camera crews, spin-doctors and minders of today.

And it was not just a case of a quick walkabout and a few handshakes at each stopping place along the way.. People who turned out to see the top brass expected a speech. And they got it.

While Clem and the other party leaders were stumping the length and breadth of the land, every candidate in these parts was holding one, two or even three public meetings a night. Not to mention factory gate meetings during the workers’ lunch-break.

In a constituency as scattered as the Colne Valley - which then stretched from Denby Dale in the east to the outskirts of Oldham on the west - it was enough to test the constitution of an ox.

During that campaign of May, 1955, a journalistic colleague and I caught up with the perspiring Tory candidate, Stanley Cheetham, taking a few minutes’ break.

Sitting on a grassy bank at the roadside in Meltham, he wiped the sweat from his brow as he bemoaned the demands placed on would-be MPs in rural areas compared with those in the inner cities.

Then he took to the road again in his jalopy as it criss-crossed the constituency from Scholes to Slaithwaite, from Golcar to Greenfield.

It’s true there wasn’t always a big turn-out at meetings. In some tiny church halls barely a handful of voters turned up and those were almost certain to be among the party faithful anyway.

But many did attract fair-sized audiences. And when they included a witty heckler or an awkward questioner it produced fireworks which make today’s campaigns look like damp squibs.

What’s probably more important, they let people know what the candidate was like under fire.

Did he or she shoot back, ignore the verbal bullets or beat a hasty retreat, sometimes through the back door, pleading that another audience was waiting many miles away?

On such reactions did voters weigh up a candidate’s personal qualities before deciding how to vote.

Mind you, not all politicians were as adept at dealing with hecklers as the redoubtable Edith Summerskill, a fierce opponent of boxing but an expert at verbal fisticuffs.

Top-of-the-bill at a Labour eve of poll meeting in Slaithwaite, she patiently dealt with persistent interruptions from a male heckler.

After refusing her invitation to move from near the back of the hall to the front row, he crossed the Rubicon when he threatened to take over the meeting.

“Enough’s enough,’’ said Edith with stern authority. “If I’ve any more trouble with you, I’ll send you straight home to do the washing up!’’

It was indeed enough. The humbled heckler sat in silence for the rest of the meeting…and wasn’t the candidate glad.

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