When every vote counted: what minority government in the 1970s meant for MPs

With Parliament back and Theresa May’s government trying to pass controversial legislation, Emmeline Ledgerwood, one of our oral history project volunteers and PhD student at the British Library/University of Leicester, blogs on the periods of minority government during the 1970s, using excerpts from our oral history project archive…

As Westminster returns to work after the summer recess, MPs must become accustomed to an environment which few living parliamentarians have experienced—a House of Commons with a minority government.

There have been limited instances of minority government in the UK Parliament since WWII. When John Major lost his majority in 1997 he only had three months to survive until it was time to fight a general election.

It was during the period 1974-79 that the tensions and challenges posed by the lack of a governing majority became routine for those MPs who belonged to the House of Commons at that time.

Heath failed to form a coalition after the election in February 1974, leaving Labour to snatch their opportunity to take power, albeit by forming a minority government. Harold Wilson then called a second election in October 1974 which returned a majority of three.

However by April 1976—shortly after Callaghan had replaced Wilson as Labour party leader—any minimal advantage had slipped out of Labour’s grasp through a combination of by-election defeats and the defection of backbenchers to other parties.

Callaghan’s government survived due to the failure of opposition parties to unite against them, and the formation of a Lib-Lab pact in March 1977 that effectively saw off a vote of no confidence and lasted until speculation in mid-1978 suggested that a general election would soon be called.

A recent report from the Hansard Society outlines how our current Parliament may operate in the context of a minority government.

  • Bills may be presented in skeleton form, leaving the details to be filled in through delegated or secondary legislation which is barely scrutinised by Parliament.
  • The conduct and character of Select Committees in this situation is uncharted territory, as the system only developed after 1979.
  • The usual channels may come under increasing strain and the business managers—particularly the Chief Whip—will be key figures in the government, needing to take greater account of the needs and demands of the smaller parties upon whose votes they may need to rely.

That was exactly the case in 1974-79. When the margins are tight, every vote on every side counts and securing those votes is the job of the whips.

Ann Taylor by Emmeline Ledgerwood

MPs who served in the 1974-79 Parliament and have been interviewed for our oral history project remember it as a testing yet exciting period, giving an indication of what minority government could mean for our current crop of parliamentarians.

Ann Taylor (Labour) relished the challenges of her job at that time in the Government’s Whips’ Office, describing the atmosphere as tense, exhilarating and one of great camaraderie.

Fred Silvester by Emmeline Ledgerwood

Fred Silvester (Conservative) was an Opposition Whip and relates how his office kept track of information about MPs that they might need to use when persuading MPs to vote.

It was when the pairing system broke down in May 1976 that life became very difficult for the Whips and MPs. Helene Hayman (Labour) recalls what sparked the crisis.

The night before Whitsun recess was that much disputed vote when the Labour Whips were accused—this is all in This House—of fiddling the vote and Michael Heseltine was so enraged that he picked up the mace and swung it round and all hell broke out.

What it meant for MPs was that they were tied to the House unless there were exceptional circumstances such as when Hayman, six months pregnant at the time, was paired with Margaret Thatcher to the great displeasure of the whips (as reflected in the language used in this clip!)

Roger Sims (Conservative) recounts how as a new MP he was introduced to the whipping system by the Chief Whip and what happened when he missed a vote by a matter of seconds.

Robert Hughes (Labour) remembers staying ridiculously late into the early hours, at a time when all-night sittings were not unusual and tiredness made him operate on autopilot:

We lived in Hampstead, and I always had to take the dog for a walk when I came home, and I came home about half past three one morning, took the dog for a walk, got back and my wife said “Where the hell have you been?” I said, “walking the dog”. She said: “you walked the dog’s lead, you left the dog at home!”

MPs were also constrained from voting how they wished, as Labour’s Ken Weetch described:

When we won in October ‘74, I mean it was very, very thin indeed, I’ve forgot the actual number but I know we weren’t at all safe. We were very shaky […] you had to have tight discipline and there were things that I should have done which I didn’t do. For example we passed docks legislation and we gave the dockers’ trade unions a monopoly of dock work. I should have resisted that because it was a bad piece of legislation – but we were told we either supported it or we fell. You know I mean it was literally that.

Their role as an MP became reduced to their ability to pass through the division lobby, as Bruce Grocott (Labour) found.

Halfway through that Parliament I got peritonitis and was sort of whipped into hospital in the middle of the night and never has the media shown, prior or since, remotely comparable levels of interest in my health or my availability to turn up in Parliament. I mean that was the main thing, I mean I was a vote that couldn’t take place.

Frank White (Labour), an Opposition Whip, describes Callaghan’s decision in 1979 not to call the critically-ill Doc Broughton to Westminster, resulting in the loss of the vote of no confidence which forced the general election.

In the subsequent election defeat Frank Judd (Labour) lost his ministerial office and his constituency yet his immediate reaction among friends was one of joy. “They all looked at me with their jaws open [because] I started singing. And I sang and sang and sang. And what was this? It was somehow a feeling of relief that an impossible situation had gone.”


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