In February 1975, Margaret Thatcher took over the leadership of the Conservative Party from Edward Heath. The West Woolwich by-election later that year was, therefore, the first time the attitude of voters to the new leader could be gauged. Richard West followed the Tory candidate, Peter Bottomley, around the borough as he sought to drum up support. What he heard was praise for Heath and little enthusiasm for Thatcher. An unscientific poll found Heath “sincere”, “stern” and “eloquent” while she was “not a natural lady”, “lacking natural appeal” and someone who “sounds cold”. Few seemed to be optimistic about her political longevity.
Next Thursday’s West Woolwich by-election could be important because it is marginal and reflects the mood of the country; because the Conservatives may win and remove Wilson’s majority; and because it gives one a chance to hear what Tory supporters think of the change in their leadership from Edward Heath to Margaret Thatcher. According to EFE Jefferies’s book The Woolwich Story, the victory of the Tories in the 1950 general election “was regarded as a manifestation of the general ‘fed-upedness’ with unnecessary industrial unrest, high prices and frustrating controls”, which is not a bad description of feelings today. Although the Labour candidate, Joe Stanyer, supported the Common Market and does not stand on the left of the party, he must be worried both by inflation and the resulting pay demands, especially the threatened rail strike, since West Woolwich has many train commuters.
The Conservative candidate Peter Bottomley talks like a Times leading article of the threat posed by extremists and Marxists to the “moderates” in the Labour movement. The electors, even, talk of this coming monstrous battle between the Moderates and the Extremists, a kind of Lion and Unicorn except that the town took sides over those fabulous beasts, and everyone in Woolwich seems to support the Moderates. One former Labour supporter, who now will be voting Conservative, had been rendered incoherent by anxiety over the contest, for he told me: “I’m not an extremist, but I’m not a mealy-mouthed moderate either!” The moderate versus extremist argument put by the Times and rejected by such as Bottomley may well be gibberish but it seems to be taking effect, for the Tory canvass was well received in the Tory part of West Woolwich and may result in a good turn-out.
Although an agreeable and intelligent candidate, Mr Bottomley did not explain what his party would do to check inflation that it had not tried and failed to do when in office. He refused to say whether he favoured Sir Keith Joseph’s remedies, or even to admit that these are quite at variance with official Conservative policy. He wisely does not pronounce on the political and personal feuds within the Tory Party, feuds perhaps more serious than those in the Labour Party. Following Mr Bottomley on his canvass through a middle-class area, I asked each avowed Conservative voter what he or she thought of the change of leadership in the party. Without exception all praised Heath, with qualifications expressed by two that he did not get on with the ladies and the media. This latter criticism was far outweighed by the spontaneous praise for Heath’s part in the Common Market debate, especially his televised speech to the Oxford Union. “Heath could stand up and speak for hours without notes,” said one man, a health officer, implying that he would like to listen. “He was second to none in sincerity,” said one housewife, who wished that Heath was still leader. “We need a forceful leader,” a pensioner said, “and Heath was that, he was stern.”
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Of course Heath comes from Broadstairs along the north Kent coast and he sits for the nextdoor constituency of Bexley and Sidcup. One of the volunteer party workers comes from there and talks of Heath as a warm personality, which is certainly not how he strikes most of us. She went on: “My mother, who’s 83, thinks he’s one of the greatest men that’s ever lived, the greatest statesman since Churchill.” A former Sidcup resident said of her former MP: “I thought he was a wonderfully sincere man. I don’t think Margaret Thatcher is a natural lady and I don’t think she’ll stay.”
Local loyalty may explain why Heath is popular but it hardly explains why Mrs Thatcher is unpopular, for it was always said that south-east, middle-class England like this part of Woolwich would be her stronghold and compensate for unpopularity in the Midlands and the north. Yet with one exception, a woman who thought her “honest and intelligent”, she got only faint praise and some outright abuse from those who intend to vote for the party she leads. “She’s middle class and middle aged and she doesn’t have a natural appeal,” said a lady who was herself middle class and middle aged. There seems to be some confusion about Mrs Thatcher’s class. “She pretends to be of the people but she obviously isn’t” was one comment.
A former Liberal voter said, on the other hand: “She’s very intelligent – she must be to have got where she’s got – but as a personality she gets up my nose.” The implication that Thatcher has fought her way to the top by her own endeavours was contradicted by one woman of north country working-class origin: “She’s too good, she’s too sweet and politics aren’t sweet. I think we wanted somebody stronger than Mrs Thatcher. We need someone who fought her way to the top like Mrs Gandhi” – who is the rich Brahmin daughter of India’s first prime minister.
I heard Mrs Thatcher accused of “losing ground”, of “not speaking out enough”; yet another woman disliked her speaking – “it’s that precise manner, that voice. She sounds cold.” “I just don’t like her” said one woman who really could not explain why. I do not pretend that these quoted remarks represent a serious analysis of Conservative attitudes to Mrs Thatcher. I can only say that never before have I heard such disdain expressed for a party leader by solid party supporters – and certainly not during a by-election when people disguise such disloyalty from the newspapers.
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