A General Election over fifty years ago, on the face of it, might not appear to have much relevance to this year’s important vote, but political activists in North Norfolk have helped uncover some artefacts which show a number of similarities between the 1964 election and the 2015 election.
While political pundits have described the 2015 as unpredictable, the result in 1964 equally uncertain across the country, and even more so in the constituency of North Norfolk after its long-standing MP passed away weeks before. The count between Bert Hazell and Frank Easton went down to a nail-biting count.
For the first time an insight into the 1964 General Election has been made available after a series of tapes made about the winner were digitalised. This comes as a result of agreement from Bert Hazell CBE’s family, the organisation of North Norfolk Labour Party archivist David Russell, and the expertise at the Norfolk Record Office.
Bert Hazell, who was born in Attleborough in Norfolk, had been a key activist in Norfolk having been an organiser for the party, a constituency secretary in East Norfolk in 1933, and an agent in the 1935 election too.
On tape Mr Hazell talks fondly about his time working for the East Norfolk Labour Party – a constituency which is now defunct due to many boundary reforms. He explains in the tapes how he was approached while working in a barley field in 1933 by a deputation to become the party secretary. It was through the good work that he did with the East Norfolk Labour Party that led to him becoming an agent for Norman Tillett in the 1935 General Election for the constituency, a former Liberal candidate now supporting Labour.
It was during the Autumn in 1964, however, that Mr Hazell was really boosted into the public spotlight in Norfolk.
Mr Hazell recalls the last days of Edwin Gooch, union president for 30 years and MP for North Norfolk, who was taken ill weeks before the election. In one audio file Hazell recalled visiting Wymondham to see Mr Gooch. He recounted only getting a few words from Mr Gooch in the hour he spent with him and that his health was rapidly deteriorating. He explained it was the Eastern Daily Press that broke the news to him a few days later that the MP had sadly passed away: “Naturally I made a tribute to the work that Edwin had done during his 19 years as Member of Parliament and also as President of the National Union of Agriculture and Allied Workers… His sound knowledge, gained through years of experience, served the people of Norfolk and over a wider area extremely well.”
Hazell’s campaign began when the announcement of the election was made in September. He recalls in the recordings having six meetings a day. “It was a strenuous task, nevertheless an enjoyable one.” It was set to be a tough one as Edwin Gooch only had a small majority in 1959, and the nature of the constituency he explains was rapidly changing. “In the past years, farm workers and those association with the agricultural industry formed a large percentage of the overall number constituents. But all of that was changing.”
The Conservative candidate – his only opposition – was Frank Easton, a farmer and wholesale milk provider. Hazell surmises: “It was obvious, as he had so many contacts with farmers in North Norfolk, as to who the farmers would vote for. True, I was Norfolk born, but I had been away from the county over a number of years, although I had participated in General Elections from 1950 to the 1964 election in North Norfolk giving full support to Edwin Gooch.”
Pundits believed that the seat was to be a Tory gain, and Mr Hazell explained that “from the very beginning of the opening of the boxes” it was clear “that it was going to be a neck-and-neck finish. Such proved to be the case”. In the end Mr Hazell managed to hold the seat for the Labour Party. “I had a majority of only 53. My opponent, quite naturally, demanded a recount. But the recount produced exactly the same figures, and I wondered whether he might call again because the majority was so narrow. But he came across to me and said ‘that’s it Mr Hazell, I accept to defeat and wish you well as the new Member of Parliament for North Norfolk’.”
This was cited as one of the 135 smallest majorities in modern day history, on a turnout of 79.75%. The Labour hold was, however, crucial for ensuring a Labour government was elected putting Harold Wilson into Number 10.
On the tapes Hazell recounts the shouts and cheers from those outside Cromer Secondary School who had been waiting for the result. A photograph recently uncovered by one local Labour activist showed a triumphant Hazell outside Cromer High School (now Cromer Academy) on 16 October 1964 with close friends and family. The count of the last General Election in 2010 was the last to be held at the school, with the count now to be held in North Walsham.
David Russell, North Norfolk Labour Party’s archivist, explains: “Family members and supporters recall Bert visiting all of the polling stations during the election, and attending the nail-biting count. The marginal North Norfolk seat held by Labour was expected to be lost to the Tories, but was retained for Labour by 53 votes. Mr Hazell, however, went on to win the 1966 election with a much bigger majority.
A picture uncovered by Vi Bensley of Ludham shows the jubilant Labour supporters holding Bert Hazell aloft. Hours after this Hazell toured North Norfolk by car with a megaphone thanking those who helped elect him as their MP.”
In the recordings Mr Hazell goes on to describe the days following his appointment to the House of Commons. His first Commons engagement was with the Parliamentary Labour Party on 26 October. He described there being an “enthusiastic gallery”, but that when details had been revealed about the “final position was between the parties” they “were a little apprehensive as to how long the Labour government could last.” He explained how the “Tories [were] anxious to trip up the government in every opportunity… to call a vote of confidence when you least expected it.” With a small majority, they realised they could not deliver every piece of legislation they were intending to implement.
His first appearance in the House of Commons was for the speaker’s appointment – somewhat a humourous affair which he described as leaving him “astonished, amused, bewildered, confused” yet thrilled to witness in person. The former farm worker and Trade Union officer was then sworn in on oath. Days later he attended the opening of Parliament and the Queen’s Speech, and this was followed by his Maiden Speech which touched upon some of the issues North Norfolk people faced.
“This created for me a landmark in my life. For the first time I was on my feet on the floor of the House making my maiden speech. It’s a nerve-racking experience but I had prepared myself… One cannot read from speeches, one can only refer to notes, although I think in the course of debates there were occasions where it comes very close to reading one’s contribution. But I was nervous and I had no intention at that stage of attempting to violate any rules.”
Many of the concerns that affected North Norfolk voters back in 1964, and throughout Mr Hazell’s six years as MP, are very similar to the issues the Labour Party in North Norfolk has campaigned on in recent years. Some of those feature on this series of tapes. The problems surrounding our coastline, transport, affordable housing, falling wages, and healthcare.
In his thirty-minute maiden speech in 1964, Mr Hazell described his frustration that there was now only one train line between North Norfolk and Norwich, which left local people “virtually isolated”. An issue, again, some consider still prevalent today. He explained: “All of the other lines had been closed, and this created a good deal of economic hardship for those lived along the coast.”
Some of the tapes have now been released on to North Norfolk Labour Party’s website as part of the media release, with the hope that more can be uploaded soon.
David Russell adds: “These 11 hours of frank recordings from Mr Hazell, along with a number of his papers and documents, provide an insight into the life of a humble farm worker from Norfolk who went on to become President of the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers Union, Chairman of York Health Authority magistrate, and a Labour MP for North Norfolk. Through permission of the family, and the great work of the Norfolk Record Office, we have them in a digital format that will be stored for future generations to access for the purposes of nostalgia, education, and research.”
Listen to Bert Hazell’s recollection of the 1964 election