WHEN author JB Priestley stood to address Skiptoners at the Plaza cinema in January 1944, the building was packed to the rafters and many disappointed fans were unable to get a seat and instead mooched about Sackville Street in the gloaming waiting for him to appear.

Jack Priestley was possibly the most successful author of the early to mid 20th century, already boasting bestsellers and a plethora of stage plays.

His Yorkshire tones had growled out across the BBC radio airwaves for some time, stirring the morale of the nation during World War Two. The Bradford-born lad's popularity was next only to Winston Churchill.

But, at the Plaza, the author was not commanding attention to a lecture on "Good Companions" or "Angel Pavement", two of his most popular novels. No, he was in Skipton on political business speaking from the hustings.

And that political business was to make Mr Winston Churchill and his National Conservative government sit up to attention. Priestley was speaking in support of the newly-formed Common Wealth party, a radical socialist movement which among its manifesto was the common ownership of land.

A couple of short winter days later, the unbelievable happened. A young 31-year-old soldier, Lieutenant Hugh Lawson, beat off the Conservative National candidate in a by-election, snatching Skipton by just 221 votes and returning a candidate for the Common Wealth contingent. He had polled 12,222 votes to Harry Riddiough's 12,001.

It was the first time anyone could remember that a Tory had not been returned to represent the constituency at Westminster and came despite an appeal from Mr Churchill himself in which he said a vote for Lawson was a vote of no confidence in the government.

This new socialist group, of which Priestley had been president for a short while, now had three seats in Parliament, the other two being Eddisbury and Chelmsford.

Had Priestley's fame, his "celebrity" to use modern terminology, won over his Skipton audience? His address on that evening could have swung the vote in favour of the young soldier, a trained civil engineer.

Priestley was actually speaking for the very first time on a CW platform, telling his audience that Hugh Lawson was the type of man he wanted to see in the House of Commons.

"Today's Members of Parliament are much too old and the present House of Commons is the oldest we have ever had in this country. Most MPs have pre-war minds and will be no good after the war," he claimed.

If people thought the war effort had been tough, then they were in for a shock because they would have to fight equally as hard during peace time in order to give life to the economy, he continued.

"The total resources of the country will have to be used for the benefit of all not a select few," he warned.

"Revolution is coming. We can have it the easy way by voting like this or we can wait ten years and have it the hard way," he added.

Lawson had earlier told voters that he "distrusted" the old gang in parliament who were not planning for the future.

The Common Wealth group - it never used the term party - was founded in 1942 and Priestley became its first chairman supported by Spanish Civil War veteran Tom Wintringham. Its manifesto was the common ownership of land, morality in politics and "vital" democracy. One of its aims was to have an upper limit of salaries.

It set about sponsoring independent candidates in by-elections where it rejected state-dominated forms of socialism. Members wanted to radicalise the electorate to return socialist candidates in Conservative heartlands.

Lawson's win in Skipton was a real shocker even though it was regarded in many respects as only a protest vote, a sign to parliamentarians that things would need to change once the war was over.

His win stuck a skewer though the establishment and they proceeded to get their own back on Lawson almost immediately.

Some days after his remarkable victory, he was invited to speak at a meeting in Edinburgh where, as he was about to mount the podium, the authorities issued him with a ban citing War Office regulations which stated that Members of Parliament were barred from speaking in public outside their constituencies.

So his wife stepped up to the podium to speak on his behalf and accused the government of gagging her husband's right to free speech. Needless to say the gag stayed put.

On returning to Skipton, Lawson was interviewed by a Craven Herald reporter and said that his ban had come as a big surprise and he hit out at claims by the War Office that he had sought permission to speak in Edinburgh.

"That is quiet untrue," he said. "For me to have asked if I could speak might be taken by some people as an admission that the War Office has the right to deny me freedom of speech and I do not admit that it has the right to do any such thing."

JB Priestley was born in Manningham Lane, Bradford, in 1894 and died in 1984 when his ashes were scattered in the burial ground of the Norman church St Michael and All Angels; in Hubberholme, which Priestley loved and visited regularly.

He was a prolific author, writing 27 novels, numerous plays, essays and social and political works and was a popular broadcaster.

He volunteered and spent four years in the army in the First World War, rejected a Knighthood and peerage but accepted an Order of Merit which had no political connections.