It had been seven years since Luton and South Beds went to the polls in a Parliamentary election – in that case for a by-election won by Liberal Cecil Harmsworth. The Harmsworth majority was just 613 over a Conservative opponent. Would the participation of the Labour Party and women voting for the first time have a dramatic effect over past elections on December 14, 1918, or would the Lib-Con Coalition vote swell the Harmsworth majority? The Luton News of December 19 reflected on what in the end turned out to be a disappointingly quiet day, with the result not due for two weeks – on December 28 – to allow time for for the receipt of absent votes from soldiers.
A few black and amber rosettes, a few motors with black and amber drapings or the flags of the Allies were the only outwards indication that Saturday was election day. There is general agreement that this Parliamentary election was the quietest on record in the history of South Beds, and to describe the cause of lack of enthusiasm is not difficult.
The Radical and Tory, not less the Socialist, likes to make his choice with colours flying and bands playing, but they had good reasons for curbing their exuberance. As the Chairman of the Conservative Association said a little while ago, it would be his first vote for a Liberal, hence the disinclination to enthuse; Liberals are dissatisfied with the manner in which the Coalition has been framed, hence their discontent and, in many cases, abstention from voting.
The Labour Party, on the other hand, had every reason to rejoice and be exceeding glad. They were making their initial attempt in this county to secure Parliamentary representation according to their views; they had the joy of welcoming malcontents from other parties, and with an accession of strength their confidence increased.
The distribution of literature was less extensive, and the agreement of the candidates to dispense with posters undoubtedly had an effect in the issue of leaflets. There was no need for denials and contradictions of flaring insinuations, pictorial or letterpress.
Then the fact that it was really a general election on one day, instead of spreading over weeks, was another factor in reducing the excitement. The weather was unfavourable, too, and affected many who would have taken a walk to the poll had the day been fine.
Electoral reform contributed new interest. The register in this division contained the names of 21,541 men, 15,411 women and 7,329 absent voters. Little can be said of the absent voters, because it will not be known until the counting of votes what justification there is for the allegation that that so many of these voters will not be able to poll.
The other new factor - the ladies – is a matter of speculation. In some districts it is stated that few women went to the poll, while others are stated to have polled in a proportion of three to one male voter. This was particularly the case at St Mary's Hall and Beech Hill School, while at Stopsley also there was a preponderance of women voters at the booths. At the latter village a lady 90 years old voted, another was over 80, and two men of the latter age also made their mark.
Generally, however, the officials at the polling stations had a dull time, and some waited as long as half an hour without registering a vote. The stations thus reflected the streets.
Speculation on the result is varied. The Labour Party feel that they have just secured the seat, while friends of Mr Harmsworth (Lib-Con Coalition) assert that it is only a question of majority, and they are estimating thousands – probably by reason of the combined Unionist and Liberal support.
It should be borne in mind, however, that on such a heavy register a majority of even three or four thousand is not a very large majority. The size of the majority depends on the number of voters, but the main fact is that the odd vote will carry a man to Parliament.
It is estimated that in the aggregate the poll was not much beyond 50 per cent of the electorate.