The recent election result for Dulwich and West Norwood resulted in a large majority for Helen Hayes, the Labour candidate, in excess of 16,000 votes or 31.4% over the Conservative. In the previous election of 2010, Tessa Jowell, Labour, had a majority of 9,365 votes or 19.4% over the Liberal Democrat. The increase is largely the result of votes being transferred from the Liberal Democrat to Labour. Helen Hayes’ majority is almost as large as Tessa Jowell’s over the Conservative in the first election for the new constituency of Dulwich and West Norwood in 1997 (16,769 votes or 36.8%). This was the largest majority returned for the present constituency, although not as great as the Conservative, Sir Frederick Hall, gained in 1931 (17,000 votes, 71%) for the previous Dulwich seat.
Looking back over 130 years, two long term trends stand out: the growth of the electorate from 16,500 in 1910, 30,000 in 1918, 55,000 in 1990 to 71,500 today; and the swing in Dulwich from one of the safest Conservative seats in the country to one of the safest Labour, with a period of very close elections between 1945 (211 vote majority) and 1979 (122 vote majority).
The Dulwich constituency was created in 1885 from the former Eastern Division of Surrey. It followed the 1884 Reform Act which gave most adult men the vote and the 1885 Redistribution of Seats Act which provided better representation for urban areas. From 1885 to 1945, the seat was held continuously by the Conservatives. There was only one really close election in February 1906 when the Liberals gained a landslide victory in Parliament, but the Dulwich MP just held his seat by 300 votes. Boundaries were altered to reflect population changes but these made no difference to the outcome. In 1885, Penge was included and the constituency stretched as far north as Camberwell Church Street; after 1918 the northern section was transferred to Peckham and the borough boundaries were more closely followed.
The Conservative MPs were generally successful businessmen. Sir John Blundell Maple held the seat from 1883 until his death in 1903. He had transformed his father’s small furniture shop in Tottenham Court Road into the well-known brand, Maples, a highly profitable company at the time. A bye-election was held in 1906 when his successor, Frederick Harris returned to South Africa. This was won by the future Prime Minister, Andrew Bonar Law, a wealthy iron merchant, who had lost his seat in the general election earlier that year and was looking for a safer one. His name is on the plaque marking the laying of the foundation stone for St Barnabas Parish Hall in 1910. Bonar Law was succeeded by his personal friend, Sir Frederick Hall, a company director and member of Lloyds, who served until his death in 1932. Hall was regarded as a local hero for raising and commanding the troops for the Camberwell Gun Brigade during the First World War. He was followed by Sir Bracewell Smith, who made his fortune in property development, building the Park Lane Hotel, his family owning the Ritz. He was also Lord Mayor of London.
The position of the main parties changed significantly between 1945 and 1997 with all elections close compared to the previous sixty years; there were five changes in representation and the MPs generally came from professional and public service backgrounds rather than business. Boundary changes were more frequent and made more of a difference. In 1950, Camberwell’s four constituencies were reduced to two and the Peckham wards of Nunhead, Rye Lane and The Rye, where two-thirds of the electors were Labour supporters, were brought into Dulwich. This was partly compensated by the transfer in 1983 of the safest Labour ward, Barset, from Dulwich to Peckham. Post-war Dulwich was also transformed by the loss of many large houses, which proved difficult to sell, to be replaced by smaller houses and flats, with the consequent increase in population. The Boundary Commission aimed to take the new estates into account and keep the electorate within a higher band of between 50,000 and 70,000 voters.
The first Labour MP for Dulwich was Wilfred Vernon, a major in the WW1 Royal Flying Corps whose majority in 1945, when Labour swept to power after the war, was just 211. He managed to retain the seat with a slightly increased majority in 1950, and still following the national trend lost it the following year to the Conservative, Robert Jenkins, who trained as a barrister. Jenkins majority was 691, but he gradually increased it to 2,250 in 1959 before losing the seat to the Labour candidate, Samuel Silkin in 1964, the year when Harold Wilson formed the first Labour government since 1951. Son of Lewis Silkin, MP for Peckham, Samuel was educated at Dulwich College and became a distinguished lawyer who served as Attorney-General under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. He lived in Alleyn Road and was one of the architects of the Leasehold Reform Act which enabled leaseholders on the Dulwich Estate and elsewhere, to acquire their freeholds. He retained his seat in all five elections which followed, although his majority against the impresario and founder of the Miss World contest, Eric Morley in 1979, when Mrs Thatcher came to power, was only 122.
Gerald Bowden, barrister, chartered surveyor, academic and member of Lloyds gained the seat back for the Conservatives in 1983. He just held it against Labour’s Kate Hoey throughout the Thatcher years, but the small national swing to Labour in 1992, not enough to defeat John Major, was sufficient for social worker and director of a mental health charity, Tessa Jowell, to win the seat from Bowden with a 5% majority. Since then the Labour vote has been consistently high at between 45 and 61%. Boundary changes in 1997 probably account for the Labour Party’s ability locally to withstand national fluctuations in voting patterns. Changes that year to reduce the number of MPs in the area created the new constituency of Dulwich and West Norwood. Others, ten years later, to include more of Lambeth and less of Southwark meant that there are now only three Southwark wards, College, Village and East Dulwich, and five from Lambeth.
The draft proposals made by the Boundary Commission in 2011 to reduce the number of London MPs and secure a larger electorate of between 73,000 and 80,500 voters would alter the constituency still more. A Dulwich and Sydenham seat would be formed by taking in Peckham Rye and part of Lewisham and transferring out the Lambeth wards. The three Dulwich wards would represent less than half of the constituency. The national scheme was blocked by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition government but could be revived by the new Conservative administration. If implemented, will we return to the more marginal results of earlier times?