The collapse of the Cambridge Conservatives


They used to be a huge political institution, but today you will not find a single Conservative councillor within Cambridge’s city limits. How did this once mighty local party disappear from Cambridge’s local democracy?

The Cambridge Conservative Party dominated local politics ever since they were formally constituted. If you look at pre-war Cambridge, the Tories pretty much owned Cambridge – see Colin Rosenstiel’s chart here. Fast-forward to post-Millennium and with the exceptions of cllrs Barratt-Payton, Howell and Meftah, there is no Conservative presence. (See here). So how did Cambridge transition from being the aristocratic inheritance of the Conservative and Unionist Party to the People’s Republic of Cambridge?

Old technology

The first thing to remember when looking at history is to note that before the Millennium, there was no internet in society. The second thing to remember is that the local newspapers were not carrying TV guides until the 1960s. Furthermore, popular music wasn’t something you could switch on or switch off like a light switch – gramophones and records only becoming widely available in the latter part of the interwar period – if you were affluent enough to have electricity in your house. This was not always a given – even in the 1960s where one of the student guides to Cambridge from the time indicates that students needed permission before ‘installing’ electrical equipment in their rooms such as kettles and gramophones/record players. And even then, such installation ran the risk of blowing the circuits of entire corridors and halls. Therefore the incentive to get out of the house would have been significant across the political spectrum.

Political parties as a way of life

Despite its reputation for being a socialist hotbed, the Mill Road area of Cambridge (incorporating Romsey, St Matthew’s and later Petersfield wards) had a number of Conservative institutions, including the Salisbury Club (which still exists but doesn’t appear to wear its colours on its sleeves these days), and Beaconsfield Hall, which were just two of several institutions that the Conservatives either owned or leased. Beaconsfield Hall sat opposite the old Alexandra Arms – now The Alex (but still with a picture of Queen Alexandra – the Danish princess who married Edward VII).

270112 CambridgeToryHQ 1927 off Market SQ

Cambridge Conservative Club HQ, Market Passage, Cambridge. Via the Cambridgeshire Collection

The above is the old headquarters of the Conservative Club just before the First World War. In the mid 1920s the building caught fire and had to be rebuilt.

Above – the rebuilt Conservative Club in the mid-1920s.

I still struggle to get my bearings as to which way round the buildings are, but it seems that the rooftop terrace on the right is the terrace for Baroosh, the over-21s bar in Cambridge. The party also had social buildings on Cherry Hinton Road and also in East Chesterton. Chances are they will have had more elsewhere too.

“Oh the grand old MP for Cambridge, he had 10,000 Tories, he marched them up to the top of The Gogs and he marched them down again!”

In 1935 to be precise.

350727 Tory Rally Gogs photos

…which probably goes down as one of the biggest ever political rallies in Cambridge’s history.


It’s a bit of a walk to The Gogs – it would have been even longer in the days when the ward of Queen Edith’s didn’t exist and the ward of Coleridge was only half-built. So that would have been one incredible day out for the Conservatives of the town.

Full on media backing from one of the newspapers – the Cambridge Chronicle.

221115 Newton Front Page

Cambridge newspapers at the time didn’t really go for screaming front pages. Bizarrely to our generation, the front page was a list of classified adverts – ones that we normally find buried between the features and the sports pages. So having an overtly partisan front page like this was something of a novelty.

220325 Douglas Newton CChron Front Page

Conservatives identify the growing Labour party as a threat

They didn’t call them the Labour Party in those days – both opposing politicians and newspapers referred to Labour candidates as socialists. Labour’s main aim in the 1920s was to establish themselves as the main progressive opposition to the Conservatives in the place of the declining Liberal Party.

Labour throw an old Etonian at the Tories.

The idea that a Labour MP would have a former pupil of somewhere like Eton as a leading politician would seem like an anathema to many Labour activists today, but their candidate for Cambridge in 1922 was just that – and a Cambridge graduate to boot! He was a man who would go onto become Chancellor of the Exchequer under Clement Attlee’s 1945 government. His name was Hugh Dalton.

Reading the memoirs of Dalton, and also the first woman president of Cambridge Labour, Leah Manning (who would later become president of the National Union of Teachers and an MP herself in Attlee’s government), Cambridge Labour were absolutely skint financially, but managed to mobilise enough activists to beat the Liberals to second place – but still a good 4,000 votes behind George Douglas Newton for the Conservatives.

In his memoirs, Dalton speaks highly of Cambridge Labour and of his time in Cambridge – which in part explains why he was happy to accept the nomination in 1922, knowing it would be a hard struggle against the Conservatives. Yet when I look through the newspaper archives, it is clear that Dalton’s target is not to win the election but to vanquish the Liberals so as to put Labour within striking distance in a future election. It wasn’t a last minute decision to stand either. The British Newspaper Archive shows Dalton already campaigning in 1920. Locals of Cambridge will note that Morley School in the Queen Edith’s ward is mentioned as a meeting venue. In the interwar period, many political parties made use of school halls dotted across the city. With no TV or radio, the only way to find out about the candidates was through newspaper reports or to go and see them in person.

200528 Hugh Dalton Morley

Despite the prominent names in Cambridge progressive politics at the time, it was The Tories that ruled the roost

Then Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister

Conservative MP and historian Robert Rhodes James was the first MP I vaguely knew – being elected before I was born and sticking around until just after I started secondary school. He chose not to stand for re-election in 1992, a year that for popular music and the England football team is…probably best forgotten. Oh – and shell suits. And Timmy Mallett.

Children’s TV in 1992 – maybe our predecessors were better off without the telly.

It was in 1992 that the Tories lost Cambridge in Parliament to Anne Campbell, the first (and thus far only) woman to hold the seat. Mark Bishop, who replaced the retiring Rhodes James, was edged out by just 580 votes. This was also an election that saw the Natural Law Party gain fewer votes than Puffles the Dragon Fairy got in the city council elections in 2014 – and Puffles was only contesting the Coleridge Ward, not the entire city. In 1997 in the Blair Landslide, Campbell would thwack the Tories out of the park with a huge majority of over 14,000.

If we look at Colin Rosenstiel’s chart from the 1980s and 1990s, Cambridge Conservatives fell into single figures in terms of number of city councillors around the time of the 1992 elections – there were city council elections at the time too. The build up to the Labour landslide in 1997 didn’t happen quickly – it built up over a number of years as problems over the economy, Europe, and allegations into the private lives of Conservative MPs were seldom off of the front page. By the time the Millennium arrived, the number of Conservatives on the benches of Cambridge City Council was under five. By the time I returned to Cambridge following 3 years at university in Brighton, it was just Chris Howell and Graham Stuart – later MP and Chair of the Education Select Committee, who held the blue flag up in The Guildhall. By the time I joined the civil service in 2004, the Conservatives were reduced to just one councillor – Eric Barratt Payton. Labour finally vanquished the Conservatives in 2006 with Stuart Newbold winning Barratt Payton’s Cherry Hinton seat.

There was brief hope for the Conservatives when Chris Howell won back the otherwise ultra-safe Labour ward of Coleridge during the dark days of Gordon Brown’s malfunctioning administration, but it was snatched back by Labour’s George Owers in 2010. A year later and the decline of the Liberal Democrats allowed Conservative candidate Shapour Meftah to take the Trumpington seat in 2011 until Donald Adey won the seat back for the Liberal Democrats in 2015.

“Why were the Conservatives unable to recover their losses from the early 1990s?”

From the outside it’s difficult to say – other than perhaps demographic and social change in Cambridge town in particular. This comic sketch from Ali-G in 1999 reflects just how huge the generational divide was between the bedrock of backbench MPs even as late as the 1990s for the Conservatives, vs where youth culture was going.

Sir Rhodes Boyson – an arch-traditionalist MP and former head teacher, lost his seat Brent, London, in 1997 to former Mayor of Cambridge and Labour councillor for Romsey, Barry Gardiner. Mr Gardiner is still in Parliament and is now Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade. It would take over a decade for a new generation of Conservative MPs to get within striking distance of Labour in the House of Commons.

Part of the problem the Conservatives have had is an ageing party base locally, combined with fewer people willing or able to do the hard but essential street-pounding, knocking on doors and delivering leaflets. The lesson from the most recent general elections is that it is the candidate who is able to muster the most activists on the streets and organise them effectively. The other challenge they have had is that their support in Cambridge is spread too thin across the city. They polled just over 8,000 and 9,000 in the 2015 and 2017 general elections respectively – noting that in 2017 no UKIP candidate stood and that 15,000 people in Cambridge voted to leave the EU. (Just over 25% – just under 75% voted to remain in the EU).

Cambridge changed – and is still changing. But it is not unique in our town’s history

The video above reflects the massive cultural divide between young and old – but that was just one of the fault lines that Cambridge has faced over the years. The most obvious one being town vs gown. The more obvious one in Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire is the one around Brexit – with Cambridge and surrounding districts voting predominantly to remain in the EU. (In the north of the county it was the opposite – with Labour and the Liberal Democrats seldom seen in local government).

The point about changing not being unique was put succinctly by local historian Allan Brigham to a large gathering of concerned residents worried about the rapid growth of Cambridge.

As a proportion of the existing town, it was the 1800s that saw the quadrupling of Cambridge’s population. If that happened today, Cambridge would be on a 40 year timetable to becoming a city with over half a million people.

Eglantyne Jebb summarises the growth of Cambridge in the 1800s

That wonderful unsung hero of Cambridge, Save the Children founder Eglantyne Jebb, in her book: Cambridge – a brief study of social questions summarises the growth over the 19th Century:

“Perhaps it would be truer to say that side by side with the beautiful medieval city, another town has grown up, one with a population four times as great and covering a much larger area”

It was in those working class wards that the then new Labour Party was able to put down firm roots. They don’t call it Red Romsey for nothing.

“Can the Conservatives ever recover?”

Never say never. In part it depends on what the post-Brexit political landscape looks like. 8,000 core voters is not an insignificant number of people to work with. But what works against all political parties – ironically a result of Conservative economic policies from the 1980s to ‘free up labour markets’ – is the increasing rate of population turnover. Each of the main political parties in and around Cambridge – Labour, Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and The Greens – who have a seat on the city council – have all lost hard working activists who have moved away – activists who would do that unpopular but essential street canvassing in the past few years. For the Conservatives and The Greens in particular, these are activists they can ill-afford to lose.

The other issue is the culture within the national party itself and how it fits in with Conservative target areas in the city. There are some roads in Cambridge where house prices are in seven figures but where you’ll struggle to find a blue board in the sea of red and orange boards at election time. Just like old Etonian Hugh Dalton breaking the stereotype by not just joining, but standing for Labour at general elections starting in Cambridge, house price is not necessarily the best indicator of which way a local resident is likely to vote. In the 2017 county council elections, one of the most affluent wards/divisions in town with a very active Conservative candidate polled fewer votes than their ‘paper candidate’ in one of the most economically deprived areas.

Reorganisation of local government – a unitary authority for Cambridge?

It’s one of the options on the table in County Mayor James Palmer’s review of local government structures in the county. Because even he knows they are a mess. The current city boundaries are far too small for Cambridge to be a unitary council. It would have to absorb at least all of the wards that currently surround it – wards that have many Conservative councillors. This would also have the effect of incentivising Cambridge City Labour and Liberal Democrat activists to campaign outside existing city boundaries – something they are strangely reluctant to do at the moment, despite the best efforts of their counterparts outside of the city. It may also persuade Conservative activists currently outside of Cambridge City to start targeting wards inside the current city boundaries.

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2 thoughts on “The collapse of the Cambridge Conservatives

  1. I disagree with your analysis of when the Cambridge Tory decline started.
    There is, in my view, a body of evidence that the City Council led by John Powley that drove through the Grafton Centre development in the Kite from 1976 to 1983 was the turning point. His confrontational political style seems to have turned a substantial segment of the city’s business-oriented population away from the Tories, to the Liberal/SDP Alliance/Liberal Democrats, and to Labour. Compare the sorts of candidates the party put forward before and after than time.
    Powley lost his seat in 1979 and I have anecdotal evidence that his approach helped turn Castle voters against him to elect a Liberal there by a huge majority for the first time in 16 years.
    A fairly steady decline through the 80s was accelerated by national factors in 1993-1997. From 1996 they had just 1 city councillor, Graham Edwards who held his Queen Edith’s in a massive personal effort against the tide by just 18 votes. They rose to 3 with 2 gains in Cherry Hinton & Trumpington (Donald Douglas who you overlooked) on a post-1997 bounce in 1998 that wasn’t sustained. Graham Edwards retired in 2000 rather than face another huge personal effort to save his seat. The Lib Dem won easily. Although Chris Howell got a 2nd Cherry Hinton seat that year Labour later restored their organisation there and Graham Stuart moved on, leaving the Tories with just 1 seat at the 2004 all-up election with Eric Barrett-Payton defeating Chris Howell and Eric then losing in 2006.
    At each annual round of local elections the Tory vote share has continued to fall – see the party percentages at After a slight rise corresponding to Labour’s Brown nadir, the slight upward ticks for General Elections continue to get more feeble from the 1977 Tory vote share peak. In 2016, the last year without a General Election, they got their lowest share yet.


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