John Barnes, Historian

Skipton By-election 1944

Skipton was a largely rural parliamentary constituency of some 700 square miles, the fifth largest in the country. G.W Rickards had won it as a Conservative in the 1935 General Election by a majority of 5059, polling 22,847 to his labour opponent’s 17,788 votes. Rickards died on 27 November 1943. Since the Labour party was adhering to the electoral truce between the main parties, there was no Labour candidate in the by-election which followed his death but Common Wealth, the socialist party founded by Sir Richard Acland, was quick to announce that it would fight the seat. Its candidate was Hugh Lawson, an engineer in civilian life, but currently serving as a Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers. He was 31 and before joining Common Wealth he had worked for the Nottingham Corporation. However he was known to have been associated with socialist organisations. His candidature was announced in The Times on 9 December 1943.

The writ was moved on 15 December and Acland objected on the ground that the campaign would take place in the Christmas period. Eden, leading the House, thought the objection unreasonable as the Returning Officer had a wide discretion and would no doubt allow sufficient latitude for the campaign. The motion was agreed without division. In fact 7 January was set as polling day.

The Conservative candidate chosen was a clothing manufacturer, Harry Riddiough (1883-1947) of Oakfield, Rothersdale, Skipton. He had begun his working life at the age of 13 as a full-timer in a local mill and had worked his way up to become managing director and chairman of a Bradford firm of worsted spinners and manufacturers. He was quickly into the field addressing many village meetings and travelling several hundred miles in this far flung division. On the 18th he spoke in Sedbergh and Dent and on the 20th in Skipton itself. Lawson had the support of Acland at six meetings over the weekend of 18-19 December. A third candidate, a former Lord Mayor of Manchester, Alderman Joe Toole had decided to enter the fray as an independent, but was not immediately active. It was reported that his candidature was the result of dissatisfaction on the part of a number of Labour supporters in the constituency who were dismayed at the progress Common Wealth was making at the expense of their own party.

Toole’s candidature should have played to the advantage of the Conservative party as he was the former Labour MP for South Salford, a member of the Manchester City Council and a lifelong member of the labour party. He had served twice on its National Executive.

Campaigning was suspended from 23 to 28 December, nomination day for the candidates, but after the break Riddiough and Lawson were quickly back in action. Toole, however, did not address his first meeting until Sunday 2 January.

Although there had been differences between local farmers and the Ministry of Agriculture over the additional ploughing of grassland, they were thought likely to continue their support for the Conservative party. It seems likely that observers underestimated the resentment felt against the Minister of Agriculture over the latest price review. Since the farmers were thought to represent a fifth of the vote this was clearly important to Riddiough. He in turn was making much of the fact that he was the only local candidate.

Churchill’s message to Riddiough stressed the importance of Skipton sending a signal to the United nations and the world that the nation was united behind the Government in its unflinching determination to organise its total resources for victory. It was confidently expected that Skipton would respond positively to his plea. Churchill also send a personal message of support to Riddiough himself, which was made public on 4 January.

After the Christmas break the campaign hotted up and there were signs that the candidates had managed to whip up a considerable amount of interest. Auction mart meetings for farmers and insistent messages to the passer-by through loudspeaker vans marked a vigorous campaign to get the voters to the 79 polling stations. Even with that number, however, it was expected that a considerable number of electors would have to walk a mile or two to vote.

The Times sensed that here, as at Darwen, where the Conservatives had scraped home on 15 December 1943, there was a tendency in the electorate to dwell on dissatisfaction with certain aspects of domestic Government policy and discontents rather than on the direction of the war. No doubt that was why Riddiough insisted that the “dominating question of the day is to win the war and at the earliest possible moment.” Nevertheless its specialist correspondent expected him to win: “he has a long record of public service in the division; and he is the candidate endorsed by the men who are directing the war effort and leading the country to victory.”1 But for Toole’s intervention, he argued it could have been a different story. In 1929 the Liberal and labour candidates together had outpolled the Conservative, although he had had a comfortable majority and the “facile super-Socialist appeal” of Common Wealth might have evoked a considerable response. That was why Toole had run, and his intervention must surely see Riddiough home.

It was not to be. Hugh Lawson had the advantage of being a young, vigorous serving officer2 and Common Wealth managed to tap into the feelings both of war fatigue and the perceived need for change once the war was over. Lawson, an enthusiast for the League of Nations, endorsed the full Common Wealth programme, which included land nationalisation. However, while the ethical base for collectivism which was at the heart of its creed may have struck a chord in this essentially middle class constituency, it is probable that more of its support came from those dissatisfied with the Government’s reluctance to accept the Beveridge Report and its apparent lack of enthusiasm for postwar reconstruction rather than an endorsement of full-out socialism. Although its Parliamentary Correspondent thought in retrospect that the Skipton result was a verdict in favour of a much younger House of Commons, The Times editorially thought it the result of growing impatience with the Government’s refusal to discuss domestic reforms3; it may have been no accident that on the day Lawson took his seat, it was announced that the White Paper on Social Security was soon to be published. Nevertheless a good deal of Lawson’s support must have come from the working class of the constituency, mainly working in the woollen industry. “The hard core of the vote for Lawson came from Labour”, Kitty Wintringham wrote in the march number of the Common Wealth Review. Helpfully, on 5 January, Acland who was helping in Lawson’s campaign, made it clear that Common Wealth would not contest any seats at the next General Election which socialists could reasonably hope to win. The Labour vote would not be split.

That may have been all Lawson needed. Common Wealth had sent in their well organised election team, nicknamed by the press ‘Acland’s circus’, and they were joined by perhaps another 200 volunteers, many of them, it was thought, teachers working during their school holiday.4 The Conservative share of the vote was down from 56.2% to 44%, which was a good deal better than their result in 1919 (38.3%) and Lawson won by 200 votes. The turnout was 54.9%.

Neither Lawson nor Riddiough fought the seat again5, and the new Conservative candidate, Captain Burnaby Drayson retook it for the Conservative party in a three-cornered fight by 2,200 votes. It remained a Conservative held seat until its boundaries were redrawn before the 1983 General Election.

1 The Times 5 January 1944

2 It should be noted that all his election literature showed him in uniform.

3 The Times 20 January 1944.

4 Manchester Guardian 10 January 1944.

5 In accordance with his pledge not to oppose the Labour Party in Skipton, Lawson fought Harrow West unsuccessfully in 1945 and, rejoining the Labour party, was equally unsuccessful at Rushcliffe in 1950 and at Kings Lynn in 1955.