The Red in Blue territory: when Labour won the Scarborough constituency

Lawrie Quinn, left, and then transport minister Alan Johnson, right, visit Transbus Plaxton in Scarborough in 2002.
Lawrie Quinn, left, and then transport minister Alan Johnson, right, visit Transbus Plaxton in Scarborough in 2002.

by Dr Jack Binns

Something quite extraordinary and entirely unprecedented happened on May 1, 1997, at Scarborough’s polling booths: after nearly 80 years the Conservatives lost their parliamentary seat there and for the first time ever it was won by a Labour party candidate. What had been one of the softest and safest Tory nests had, overnight, become a Labour gain. A chartered civil engineer with a degree from Hatfield Polytechnic, Lawrie Quinn, won more than 45 per cent of the 54,321 votes cast in the Scarborough and Whitby constituency, a swing of nearly 15 per cent from the occupying Tory MP, John Sykes. The prediction of Labour’s first candidate for the seat in 1918 had finally come true.

Though a branch of the Independent Labour Party had been originally founded in Scarborough as early as 1895, it was not until the post-war Coupon Election of 1918 that it found a parliamentary hopeful for what had by then become a combined Scarborough and Whitby division. John Watson Rowntree, a Scarborian by birth, was senior partner in the local grocery business started by his great grandfather in 1778. By 1918 he had been a Liberal borough councillor and 
alderman for nearly 30 years and had served as mayor in 1906-7. As a Quaker pacifist, however, he could not support Asquith’s declaration of war in August 1914 and had joined the infant Labour party.

Rowntree’s opponents were formidable. The Hon WG Beckett had been Whitby’s Conservative Unionist MP since 1906. Against strong Liberal campaigners there he had held narrowly on to the seat in both 1910 elections. As a wealthy banker and proprietor of the Saturday Review, he was well-connected 
locally and nationally.

Scarborough’s own Liberal MP since 1906, Walter Rea, had transferred his parliamentary loyalty to Dewsbury and the party now placed its hopes in Captain Osbert Sitwell of Wood End, eldest son of Sir George. Given that Osbert had such prominent support, not least that of Alderman Meredith Whittaker, owner of the Evening News, and that he was a Grenadier Guards officer and veteran of the Western Front, he was expected to give Beckett a run for his money. But a homosexual, who wrote anti-war poetry and entertained the discredited Asquith at Wood End, was no match for a jingoist Tory. And during an election when “Hang the Kaiser” was a popular slogan, a Quaker pacifist had no chance at all. Even more damning, Rowntree pledged a long list of socialist panaceas – nationalisation, minimum wages, gender equality and an effective peace-making League of Nations – which were totally out of tune with a revengeful public. Beckett won easily by nearly 4,000 votes and having failed to secure even an eighth of the poll, Rowntree forfeited his £150 deposit.

In 1922 Beckett preferred a place at Leeds and at Scarborough he was succeeded by Sir Sidney Herbert, who had impeccable upper-class credentials – Eton, Balliol College, Oxford and the Royal Horse Guards. His victory in 1922 was inevitable and at each of the next general elections in 1923, 1924 and 1929 his vote increased. Regardless of the rest of the nation, Scarborough and Whitby had become one of the most secure Conservative sanctuaries in the country.

Herbert retired in May 1931 and at the ensuing by-election another young army officer, Paul Latham, Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, took his place. Despite his inexperience, Latham managed to get the better of J Ramsay Muir, a distinguished Liberal, but the Conservative majority was reduced to 2,000. Later that same year, at the general election, he had virtually a walk-over when the Liberals could not find or agree on a candidate. Against a “Socialist” Sir Paul won by more than 25,000! Socialist has never been a welcome word in Scarborough or Whitby.

Ten years later, another resignation forced another by-election. In September 1941, Sir Paul was found guilty of disgraceful conduct and attempting to commit suicide and sentenced by court martial to two years in prison. Yet nothing, it seemed, could sully the Tory reputation. Alexander Spearman, Repton and Hertford College, Oxford, had been rejected elsewhere in 1935 and 1937, but Scarborough not only welcomed him but then did so six more times until 1964. Even in years of Labour victories, 1945 and 1950, there was no unseating him: he was invincible.

Nevertheless, even Spearman’s record of seven successes in a row was equalled by the next incumbent, Michael Shaw. Though his adoption in 1966 was fiercely resisted in Huntriss Row by those who much preferred the local and independent Meredith Whittaker to a Central Office nominee, it appeared to the voters of Scarborough that anyone would do as long as he was Blue.

Sir Michael Shaw’s reign at Scarborough lasted 26 years from 1966 until 1992 and he was then followed by John Sykes. Though Sykes had to contend with the first Green and the first Liberal Democrat, he still reaped a majority of nearly 12,000 and half the votes cast. So it was not until 1997 that Scarborough at last re-entered the national political and electioneering debate. The news of Harold Wilson’s four victories in the 1960s and 1970s had never reached the North Sea coast, but John Major’s massive defeat at the hands of Tony Blair’s New Labour was fully reflected locally in Lawrie Quinn’s 5,000 margin over Sykes. And just to prove that the 1997 result was not merely an aberration, Quinn repeated it in 2001. His majority fell by 2,000 but there was an ominous decline in turnout from 71 per cent to 63 per cent four years later.

After nearly a century of Tory hegemony, by 2005 it had become evident that Scarborough and Whitby was a marginal seat. The Conservative party’s new man, Robert Goodwill, a farmer and rentier from Terrington in the rich countryside of the Howardian Hills, ousted Quinn by 1,250 votes. He had received no more support than Sykes in 1997, but in 2005 the success of the Liberal Democrats had been at Labour’s expense.

In May 2010, in a field of eight, five of them female, Goodwill came top of the poll of nearly 50,000 and a turnout of 65 per cent. Compared with the result of five years earlier, the Conservatives had added fewer than 2,000, but again the intervention of the revived Liberal Democrats had taken nearly twice that number from Labour’s new candidate.

Last week, the Blues 
restored the traditional status quo, with Goodwill securing a third term. The relative promotion of the Liberal Democrats in 2005 and 2010 had been a flash in the pan – their vote collapsed from 11,093 in 2010 to 2,159. Labour’s 1997 and 2001 victories seem a distant memory, while UKIP’s emergence gave them third place.