A by-election was called for the constituency of Middleton and Prestwich to be held on the 22nd May 1940 following the death of the incumbent Nairne Stewart Sandeman on the 23rd April 1940. In the circumstances, given that the nation was at war, the Conservative, Labour and Liberal parties had all agreed not to contest by-elections, and therefore when the local Conservative Association selected Lieutenant Ernest Everard Gates no serious opposition was expected to his election.
However, as was to prove the case throughout the war, other minor parties did not feel bound by this agreement and indeed were often keen to take advantage of the opportunity provided. The Independent Labour Party duly nominated one D Carradice, an official of the Municipal and General Workers Union as their candidate, but he later decided to withdraw "in view of the present tension". Therefore when nominations closed on the 13th May 1940 the only opposition faced by the Conservative candidate Ernest Everard Gates was that of one Frederick Haslam, a former army captain and a holder of the Military Medal, who was the candidate for the British Union of Fascists (BUF).
Of course, when the erstwhile ILP candidate was referring to the "present tension", he was no doubt alluding to the fact that the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had been obliged to stand down after the conclusion of the Norway Debate on the 10th May, and replaced by Winston Churchill at the head of a re-configured coalition government that now included all the major political parties, whilst on the 9th May Germany had invaded France and brought the Phoney War to an abrupt end. In the circumstances, it might be said that it was a bit of a cheek for the decidedly pro-German BUF to be putting forward a candidate, as well as a testament to the British sense of fair play to allow them to do so. Unsurprisingly the new Prime Minister called on the electors of Middleton and Prestwich to return the Conservative candidate "with an overwhelming majority, and so demonstrate their united and unflinching support of a Government resolved to wage war with all the might and resources of the nation until victory is won".
Nevertheless the British Union of Fascists persisted with their campaign largely based on their call for a negotiated peace with Germany, and on the 19th May 1940 the BUF leader Oswald Mosley put in an appearance at an open-air election meeting to put his case. Sadly as soon as he approached the microphone which was mounted on the back of a lorry, the crowd surged forward and prevented him from speaking. Fighting broke out amongst the spectators, the police drew their truncheons to quell the disturbance, and there were three arrests. Mosley was escorted to his car by police as the crowd then rushed the lorry and tore down the loudspeakers before the lorry drove off. There was a later outbreak of fighting outside the local BUF committee rooms which involved a crowd "several thousand strong" and resulted in some stone throwing and two broken windows.
As it was, the local electors took note of Churchill's words and duly returned Ernest Everard Gates with 32,036 votes or 98.7% of the electorate, whilst Frederick Haslam could only muster 418 votes on behalf of the British Union of Fascists and so lost his deposit. That same day the Government decided to amend the details of Defence Regulation 18B to widen the scope of its detention powers, and on the following day the police raided the offices of the British Union of Fascists, arrested Mosley at his home, and also arrested a number of other prominent BUF members. Frederick Haslam was one of those arrested, being subsequently interned in the Isle of Man.
Nevertheless, the Middleton and Prestwich holds the record for being the most one-sided contested by-election in British political history.
- Sean Lightbown, Marginal Seats Standard Note: SN/SG/3373, 29 January 2009
- Z Yaakov Wise, Fascism in Manchester, Centre for Jewish Studies
- Colin Holmes, 1939-1945 Traitors - Fascism in World War II, Searchlight Magazine
- Middleton By-election Nominations from The Times, Tuesday, May 14, 1940
- Mr Churchill's Message to Electors from The Times, Saturday, May 18, 1940
- Disturbances at Fascist Meeting from The Times, Monday, May 20, 1940