Heritage: Riot at a 1955 Havering school mock election
PUBLISHED: 15:00 21 December 2019
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Following last week's general election, Prof Ged Martin recalls pretend polls at a Havering school.
Over the years, some schools have held mock general elections, to teach students about politics and citizenship. At Gidea Park's Royal Liberty School for boys, the first recorded contest was in 1929. The local council even supplied official ballot boxes.
Although Stanley Baldwin's Conservative government was defeated nationally, his party easily won the school election.
The victorious candidate, teenager Ralph Bennett, later became a Cambridge don. In the Second World War he worked with the code-breakers at Bletchley Park.
There are legends about Royal Liberty elections in the 1950s. (Legends aren't always true.) At one contest, the popularity of the Communist candidate among younger boys worried the headmaster.
It was the time of the Cold War against Stalin's Russia. A Communist victory, even in a pretend election, might become a Soviet propaganda coup, terrible publicity for the school. Luckily, Year 7 and 8 boys rioted at an election rally. The headmaster decreed that they were too young to understand politics, and banned them from voting.
Another tale concerns a Tory Boy Conservative candidate, a natty dresser who wore a waistcoat under his school blazer. A prefect, his devotion to enforcing school rules made him unpopular with Royal Liberty's less studious inmates, whose attitude to discipline was relaxed.
But the well-attired teenager formed an unexpected alliance which carried him to victory. Smoking was a serious offence. In the era of corporal punishment, it had painful consequences. When the Conservative standard-bearer caught a habitual malefactor puffing an illicit fag, the two struck a deal. In return for not being reported, the offender mobilised his friends to vote Conservative. A persuasive youth, he organised a Tory majority.
Royal Liberty's 1955 mock general election took place almost two months after Sir Anthony Eden's Tories had defeated Labour under Clement Attlee. It was an end-of-term festivity, with polling on 19 July.
There were four candidates - Communist, Conservative, Labour and Liberal. A fifth had withdrawn. He'd planned to campaign as a Yeti Nationalist, supporting the legendary Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas. Somehow the support just wasn't there.
The campaign was lively. Candidates, Year 13 students, perched on shed roofs to address rowdy meetings, their supporters yelling at one another through loudspeakers.
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One veteran remembers Conservative lads denouncing Labour's lavish spending plans. "Where are you going to get the money from?"
The socialists (as Labour supporters were called in those days) replied: "From you Tories; you've been keeping all the money for yourselves. That's where!"
In the real general election, the Liberals (forerunners of today's Lib Dems) had elected just six MPs. But their schoolboy candidate rallied support with a lively campaign song.
Popular vocalist Alma Cogan had a hit song about an expectant mother looking forward to her new arrival. The lyrics were very slightly naughty (for 1955).
"On the baby's knuckle, on the baby's knee / Where will the baby's dimple be?"
The Liberal strategy targeted low Labour morale after Mr Attlee's defeat, aiming to squeeze their vote. Liberals sang:
"Where will the Labour Party be / In nineteen-ninety-three?"
A physics lab was fitted up as the polling station, complete with polling booths and voting lists. There was a heavy turn-out. Voting was held at lunchtime, so the result should have been clear that afternoon.
But the three parties were so close that a recount was required. Not until next morning's school assembly could the returning officer announce the surprise result, a Liberal majority of just five votes.
The figures were Liberal 189, Conservative 184, Labour 151. The Communist candidate was recorded as 22 votes (official), 38 (unofficial). It's whispered that there were attempts at fraud.
Later, the victorious Liberal actually stood for Westminster, contesting a Midlands seat in 1964. His magic touch didn't work, but he managed to save his deposit - in third place.
Brilliant educational devices or silly stunts? It's hard to say, but those mock elections were obviously fun.