A bunch of recent television programmes about Harold Wilson brings back to mind an experience I had in 1965, when I had a job between school and university with National Opinion Polls. In the 1964 General Election which brought Wilson to power, his preferred foreign minister, Patrick Gordon Walker, lost his seat. Wilson named him foreign minister nonetheless (unusual, but apparently not unconstitutional) and waited for the first by-election in a safe labour constituency, where he then put Gordon Walker in as the candidate. This turned out to be Leyton in East London in January 1965. NOP sent a whole bunch of us down there for a weekend’s interviewing.
I remember very clearly the scene in the hotel on Sunday afternoon when we all assembled to go through the results of our efforts. One by one we totted up the figures and they said Gordon Walker would win, yet one by one we looked at each other and said, ‘no, he won’t’. What had struck every one of us was the difference between what people said in answer to our questions, and the way they said it. This was indeed a solid Labour seat, but they didn’t like the way they had the candidate imposed on them, and what we registered on the doorstep was a hesitation in answering the questions which betrayed resentment. And what happened? Gordon Walker lost (although he would win it in the new general election the following year). This experience made a deep impression on me. I learnt to be sceptical.