John Barnes, Historian


When the author was adopted as PPC for Walsall North in 1963, he was despatched on his first canvass with a blue rosette. He was immediately greeted by a lady in the street who rushed over, kissed him, and said I've waited thirty years (a slight exaggeration) to see a Liberal candidate in Walsall. Returning to the office, I asked the obvious question and was told that traditionally the Conservatives had used red, the Liberals blue and Labour yellow or latterly yellow and red. We immediately determined on a red, white and blue rosette, with blue and white on the manifesto cover. But in the committee rooms, the boards recording the canvassing returns, which were then used to record who had voted in preparation for "knocking up", were still marked off red for Conservatives and blue for all others.

It was a salutary reminder that, although the National Union had decided to standardise on blue on 17 March 1949, they had no way in which to enforce their decision.

In fact red has considerable claims to be the colour of the Tory party. This was said to be because the racing colour of Lord Derby, who led the party, initially in the Lords only, from 1844 until February 1868. That would certainly appear top be the reason why it was so widely used in the north-west. However, as Geoffrey Block observes, the use of the colour red can be traced to the 17th century, and during the exclusion crisis it was the colour of those who supported the Crown against the Whigs, who used blue.

When Gladstone stood as a Conservative at Newark in 1832, he had a Red Club enthusiastically working for him. He was presented with a banner of red silk and an address from the ladies, who expressed "their conviction that the good old Red cause was the salvation of their ancient borough."[1] There were large tea parties to enlist the support of "Red Ladies", while Red inns dispensed rather more intoxicating beverages to Red voters and a Red band was paid 15/- a day to play.

When H.G.Wells wrote The New Machiavelli in 1910, he recalled the election four years earlier when the Liberals had swept the board: "The London World reeked with the General Election; it had invaded the nurseries. All the children of one's friends had got big maps of England divided up into squares to represent constituencies, and were busy sticking gummed blue labels over the conquered red of Unionism that had hitherto submerged the country. And there were also orange labels, if I remember rightly, to represent the new Labour party, and green for the Irish."[2]

In 1927 an extant Central Office record suggests that red remained the colour of at least sixty three English and Welsh seats. Red was the colour in Northumberland, County Durham, in much of Cheshire, in Liverpool and in Birkenhead. But it was also the colour in at least two seats in Staffordshire and three in Worcestershire and it was also to be found in West Wales. Seven of the ten divisions in Middlesex also used red. As late as 1964, red remained the colour of choice for many of the constituencies north of the Tees. Geoffrey Block identified 37 constituencies in all that continued to use it.[3]

When, in March 1961, the Bromley Association resolved to change its colours from orange and purple to royal blue, a survey of the associations in Kent revealed that seven used orange and purple, ten blue, one blue and white, and one red, white and blue. From knowledge of Royal Tunbridge Wells, it is probable that what the survey took to be orange was in fact gold and that these were the Abergavenny colours of purple and gold. In 1927 these were the Conservative colours in virtually all the Kent and Surrey constituencies, and they could be found also in two divisions in Sussex and three in Hampshire. Many of the south London boroughs like Lewisham and Lambeth were also sailing under those colours. About forty constituencies in all appeared to be using them.

In Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Rutland, the Isle of Ely and parts of Norfolk in the 1920s pink was the dominant colour, although in Cambridgeshire it was coupled with white, in three of the Norfolk divisions with purple and in Grantham with red. The use of pink was still evident in the 1960s, although by then North Norfolk had moved to blue and Grantham to blue and gold. Pink and white were also Disraeli's colours when he first stood for parliament at Wycombe in 1832.

Yellow, in general not a Conservative colour - Trollope used it when contesting Beverley as a Liberal in 1868, was, however, the colour of the Lowther family and it is no surprise to find that Cumberland and Westmoreland Conservatives followed suit, leaving blue to the Liberals. That remained the case into the 1960s. Further north in Scotland, where colours were reported, they were predominantly red, white and blue.

There were also some unusual combinations to be found in 1927. The two divisions in Lambeth used orange and Rugby was still doing so as late as 1959. Camborne coupled black and yellow and Brighton purple and primrose.

When Gladstone fought Greenwich as a Liberal in 1874, the two Conservative candidates used crimson and Gladstone blue, while the Radical in compliment to his Home Rule supporters adopted Green. In the course of the next half century, Labour took over red while the Conservatives moved to scarlet and white. However, perhaps as a result of the appearance of a Communist candidate at the 1931 election, Labour shifted to red and yellow and the Conservatives decided, in the absence of a Liberal candidate, to use blue in 1935. Interestingly, where, as a result of the National Government, Conservative and liberal Associations joined forces, they often adopted blue and yellow as their colours and in 1959, eleven constituencies retained what historically had been the personal colours of Charles James Fox.

In the course of the 20th century the general trend was towards the use of blue, hence no doubt the decision of the Central Council in 1949. That may well have been a mistake. Blue is not a good colour for a poster and the arrival of 'Day-Glo' confirmed that orange, and to a lesser extent, red were far better. But it was not possible to backtrack. Figures collected in 1959 showed how far standardisation had gone. Out of the 547 constituencies in England, 368 were using blue, 31 blue and white and a further 13 'royal blue'. Add in the blue and yellows (11) and over three quarters were broadly in conformity to the party's will. Preston was already using the currently fashionable combination of blue and orange and Gower coupled green with blue and white. The number using red, white and blue had declined slightly to 35, while 37 continued to adhere to the traditional red. In Scotland, conformity had gone still further. No less than 55 constituencies adhered to blue, five to the traditional red, white and blue and three national Liberal or Liberal Unionist Associations returned their colours as blue and yellow.

For the remainder of the century and beyond, blue has continued to be the norm, with orange on blue used almost universally for posters. The once varied range of constituency colours has passed into history and the suggestion that red was once the colour of the Tory party today meets with incredulity or incomprehension.

[1] G.D.M.Block: A Source Book of Conservatism. CPC, 1964. p.78

[2] Odhams collected edition p.176

[3] Ibid.