Lewis Baston describes one of the most turbulent years in British politics, which saw two closely-fought elections delivering a blow from which the two-party system has never recovered. Originally published 4th April 2005
1974 was arguably the most dramatic year in modern British politics. As well as two elections there was the three-day week, corruption scandals, shadowy plots against the prime minister, a financial crisis, IRA bombings in England and a general strike in Northern Ireland. It began with a strike by the powerful National Union of Mineworkers, whose bargaining position had become even stronger because of the steep rise in the oil price; in order to preserve fuel supplies the Conservative government of Edward Heath imposed a three-day working week. After some hesitation (many Conservatives believe that they could have won an election in early February), Heath called an election for February 28 with the intention of strengthening his hand against the unions. ‘Who Governs?’ asked the Conservatives, a question whose implications were more ambiguous than they intended.
The Conservatives found it impossible to sustain the focus on the ‘Who Governs?’ issue throughout the campaign. Harold Wilson, working closely with pollster Bob Worcester of Mori, fought an astutely negative campaign, stressing the Heath government’s poor record on inflation, housing and pensions. At the start of the campaign the Conservatives seemed well ahead but the gap narrowed and the luck of the campaign was against them. Trade figures many times worse than those of 1970 were published. Their industrial relations policy was undermined by the director of the CBI and new evidence on miners’ pay. The worst blow was when Enoch Powell advised voters to support Labour and announced that he had cast his own vote for the party because of its commitment to a referendum on Europe. It seems that many voters in the West Midlands followed his advice, as the pro-Labour swing there was particularly strong.
The election results were complex. Turnout (78.7%) was the highest since 1959 and has not been bettered since. The votes for both the Conservatives and Labour slumped while the Liberals, Scottish National party, Plaid Cymru and even Independents did well (winning Lincoln and Blyth). The combined Tory and Labour share of the vote fell from 89.4% in 1970 to 75% in 1974; in votes at least, the two-party system suffered a blow from which it has not recovered. Despite this, the smaller parties received few seats, with only 14 Liberals elected on 19.3% of the vote. Proportional representation was much discussed after the elections of 1974.
The February election was a disaster in Northern Ireland. The unionist opponents of the power-sharing executive that governed under the Sunningdale agreement won 11 out of the 12 parliamentary seats, although with only 51% of the vote. They regarded this as legitimising the overthrow of Sunningdale, which took place with a general strike in May 1974. It took another 24 years to restore devolved government in the province.
The February 1974 election produced the first (and so far only) “hung parliament” since 1929. It was not clear until late on in the count that Labour were just ahead with 301 seats to 297 for the Tories (who had actually polled rather more votes). Edward Heath stayed in Downing Street over the weekend and attempted to come to an agreement with Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, but the negotiations were not successful and on Monday evening Heath resigned and Wilson formed a minority government.
The February parliament could not last for long, and there was a short and turbulent sitting of parliament (among other business, the Register of Members’ Interests was established by a resolution of May 1974). The Labour government published a succession of white papers, essentially advertising the policies it hoped to implement once it had a majority. It was no surprise when Wilson announced in September 1974 that parliament would be dissolved and there would be a second election.
The October election was, like many sequels, rather disappointing. The extended campaign was much less interesting than February’s short burst, and was enlivened mainly by Thorpe’s hovercraft trip along the south coast in search of votes in marginal seaside resorts. But the wind and the rain spoiled the photo opportunities and grounded Thorpe’s hovercraft. It was an irresistible metaphor for the deflation of Liberal hopes after the excitement of February. Labour stressed the competence of their leadership and the “social contract” with the trade unions, while the Conservatives struck a new note by offering to create a “government of national unity” even if they had an overall majority.
The result was also disappointing for almost everyone. Only the Scottish Nationalists had cause for much celebration, their 11 seats and 30.4% of the Scottish vote being their high water mark. However, Labour’s U-turn on devolution between the two elections was enough to protect most of the Labour heartland in the central belt from Nationalist incursions. The devolution project used up inordinate amounts of parliamentary time in the late 1970s but came to nothing with the referendums in March 1979. The Liberals ended up winning one more seat but losing two. Labour had won their overall majority, but by a tiny margin of three seats and with less than 40% of the vote. The Conservatives managed to cling on in many of their vulnerable marginals such as Northampton South: a uniform swing in England and Wales would have given Wilson a majority of perhaps 25. Heath’s achievement in minimising Tory losses won him little thanks. He was ousted from the leadership four months later. His 277-strong Tory parliamentary delegation was the platform his successor, Margaret Thatcher, used to bring down the Labour government in the March 1979 confidence vote.
Labour’s narrow victory and the turbulent economic circumstances meant that it was impossible to implement the radical manifesto, even if Wilson had wanted to. This was seen by many on the left as betrayal, and there were bitter recriminations that tore the party apart until Neil Kinnock imposed peace after 1983. Perhaps 1974 was, in hindsight, a good election for the Conservatives to lose and an unlucky victory for Labour. However, the most lasting legacy of the 1974 elections has been the eclipse of the two-party system; since then, voters disenchanted with either of the major parties do not necessarily flock to the arms of the principal opposition.