Election 2017: Snap elections, memories of 1974

Last week Theresa May shocked the political establishment by calling a snap election. In the first in our 2017 election campaign series, we take a look back at the two elections of 1974 through the memories of our oral history project interviewees…

Modern political wisdom has urged caution on Prime Ministers considering calling early elections, in part thanks to memories of 1974. There were two elections in this unusual political year: the first itself a snap election in February by Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath in response to the energy crisis, three-day-week and industrial action from miners; the second by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in a bid to gain a parliamentary majority after winning in February, but only with enough seats to govern as a minority.

Heath’s decision to call the February election was seen as a gamble at a time of crisis. The economy was crippled by high levels of inflation and the oil crisis that followed the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, and the government’s attempts to control rising prices by capping wages were hampered by industrial action called by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). This led to a state of emergency and the government heavily restricting energy supplies, including industry operating on a ‘three day week’. Heath hoped that an election victory would give him a stronger hand when dealing with the NUM who were threatening further strikes rather than accepting the government’s pay deal. Heath famously went to the polls asking “who governs Britain?”

According to the former MPs interviewed for our oral history project, Heath’s decision was controversial to both parties. Sir David Madel told us that he was one of many at the party’s backbench 1922 Committee to argue against the election; whereas Laurence Reed instead remembered that the meeting’s overall mood was that Heath “couldn’t back down now”. For Labour, the issue was complicated due to their close ties to the Unions. Many MPs did not fully back the NUM: Alan Lee Williams felt his failure to do so cost him Labour votes in his constituency of Hornchurch; whereas David Stoddart argued that the calling the election was “silly” as the public had sympathy for the miners, and that it gave the unions “a sense of power which a) they didn’t deserve and b) they shouldn’t have”.

Conservative Sir Terrence Higgins argued that Heath in fact called the election too late, by the time he did so the electorate were “basically upset” with the state of the country. Our interviewees certainly remembered a miserable campaign, in bad weather, short broadcast hours and “in the dark” due to restrictions on lighting, such as in this clip from Labour’s Edmund Marshall:

Unfortunately for Heath, early in the campaign a Pay Board official report was published demonstrating that the miners were in fact right to argue that they had been paid less than others in similar sectors. Sir John Hannam remembers the impact this had on the campaign:

Although Heath won the popular vote his gamble had failed: Labour won more seats (if only enough for a minority government). This was a “surprise” to many Conservatives, and to Heath himself, whose last minute efforts to form a government with Jeremy Thorpe’s resurgent Liberal party were described as “half-hearted” by Patrick Jenkin. The minority government meant that everyone in Westminster expected another election quickly. Labour candidates who lost out in February continued to campaign. Frank White, who lost by 300 votes the first time round, let his agent continue to organise “not a campaign” but an active canvassing and door-knocking plan throughout 1974.

When the election came round as expected in October, one crucial factor in the primary battle between Conservatives and Labour was the appeal of minority parties. Labour’s Jim Sillars, who went on to join the SNP, remembered noticing increased support for the nationalists on the doorstep (the SNP went on to win 11 seats – a record for them at the time), and in England the crucial factor for many was the Liberals. They had increased their vote share in February, but fell back in October, causing unpredictability (and sleepless nights!) for a number of candidates, as remembered here by Janet Fookes:

Yet for Helene Hayman, first elected in October having lost out in February, the key was Wilson’s appeal to the electorate:

Wilson did indeed get his majority, but it was a small one of just three. Labour’s Ann Taylor, one of the new MPs elected in October, remarked in her interview that four new Labour MPs elected in the North West would often say “we are the majority”. The result led to a difficult parliament in 1974-9 with the Labour government just managing to stay in power, but saw the end of Edward Heath, who was removed as Conservative leader in 1975 – too late, in the opinion of many of our Conservative interviewees, who argued his leadership was extended by the expected second election and his “stubbornness”. Margaret Thatcher became the new Conservative leader, and ushered in quite a change in government in 1979.


For more on our oral history project, visit our website or you can listen to the recordings in the British Library. Watch this space for more election 2017 themed blogposts…

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