Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.
The background to the election was not propitious. The economy had lurched out of crisis, but a large deficit that meant no party could offer much to a weary electorate. Politicians in general were held in low regard – the party leaders were regarded as tired and out of touch and populist alternatives were in fashion. The previous parliament, in which no party had an overall majority, had been buffeted by financial scandal. Despite a panicky policy U-turn by the government to try to head off the threat, Scottish nationalism was on the advance. The European issue was splitting the governing party, and the Prime Minister had managed to paper over the cracks with the formula of renegotiation followed by a referendum. There was an undercurrent of concern about the opposition leader, amid fears that his poor personal profile would undercut his ‘national unity’ theme; while the Prime Minister had higher poll ratings, he was widely regarded as untrustworthy and shallow. I am talking about the General Election of 10 October 1974. Of course.
My editor and I felt it was reasonable to have two 1974 columns in a single year, given that there were two elections. In my February column I wondered what might have happened had Edward Heath won a second term, and left the real world story with Harold Wilson re-crossing the doorstep of Number Ten. Having stumbled back into office in March, Labour regained the initiative. Wilson used government to craft a series of White Papers that would be a better guide to future policy than the unrealistically radical (and pre-oil crisis) manifesto of February 1974. When the February parliament went into recess nobody seriously expected it to reconvene.
The short parliament of 1974 was an eventful one. Some of its Acts are still features of British life, such as the Health and Safety at Work Act and the Consumer Credit Act. British politics was mired in scandal, with the aftershocks of the Poulson affair reverberating and Harold Wilson coming under attack over issues such as the ‘slag heaps’ land sale. The Sunningdale devolved government in Northern Ireland collapsed after a general strike. The world scene was dark, with leaders falling like ninepins (after Heath came Brandt and Nixon), and war and revolution in Cyprus and Portugal. There was a weird climate of paranoia in 1974, from Wilson’s suspicions about rogue intelligence agents and the Gothic intrigues of his court, to the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe desperately trying to suppress allegations of a homosexual affair with male model Norman Scott. ‘We don’t have Watergate politics in this country’, said the Labour General Secretary Ron Hayward at one point in 1974. But that year we came pretty close.
The Conservatives faced the perennial problem of parties just out of power – being blamed for the factors that cost them the election and not yet being taken seriously for new policy directions. But the Tories retained their real secret weapon, adaptability. While in February the theme had been confrontation and ‘Who Governs?’ in October the Conservatives were conciliatory and promised national unity and a very moderate agenda if they won, with the possibility of having Liberals and other non-Tories joining the government. Behind the scenes, there was talk of Heath making ‘the supreme sacrifice’ and not taking up the office of Prime Minister if he were an obstacle to unity, but this never became public. In comparison to February, the campaign was run of the mill, not helped by the paper shortage that inhibited leaflet production that year.
During the interval between the two 1974 elections, Scottish devolution burst into the front rank of political issues. The SNP had done well in February and were rising in the polls on the back of discontent with the perceived failures of both governing parties at Westminster and the possible rewards of ‘Scotland’s Oil’ which was about to come on stream. Labour’s February manifesto had not mentioned devolution, but creating a Scottish (and, as an afterthought, Welsh) Assembly became party policy in summer 1974. Ironically, the Scottish Labour executive had voted against devolution but was overruled by the UK Labour conference. The Conservatives were also influenced by Scottish nationalism and promised an indirectly elected body drawn from local government in Scotland, and more administrative devolution to the Secretary of State.
Labour’s sudden adoption of devolution was enough to save it from further losses of seats to the SNP; four more Conservative seats, however, fell to the Nationalists. October 1974 remains – although perhaps not for long – the SNP’s best ever performance in a Westminster general election (30.4 per cent and 11 MPs).
The initial exit polls in October 1974 were among the most inaccurate on record, although few now remember this because the headline result – a Labour victory – was correct. But the landslide win forecast at the start of the evening – a 10-point national lead and a parliamentary majority possibly as large as 140 – faded rapidly on contact with actual results which showed a much more modest change since the February election. Labour gains came in a trickle rather than a flood, and in the end only 17 seats switched from Conservative to Labour. The Liberals gained one (Truro) but lost two (Bodmin, Hazel Grove) to the Conservatives.
Despite the small scale of the change in seats, the swing to Labour was quite respectable (2.2 per cent) and its lead in the overall share of the vote was 3.4 percentage points, pretty much the same as the margins that delivered a safe majority to the Conservatives in 1955 and Labour in 2005. If uniform swing had applied, Labour’s majority in October 1974 would have been a workable 25, but the Conservatives put up spirited resistance in a number of highly marginal constituencies.
Five seats that would have fallen on even a tiny swing of less than 1 per cent stayed with the Tories (Northampton South, Norfolk North West, Brentford & Isleworth, Bosworth and Upminster). Another seven ‘should’ have gone on the national swing but failed to, compensated by only one (Birmingham Selly Oak) falling because of an above-average swing.
It seems that superior Conservative organisation and the appeal of Conservative promises on mortgages, abolishing the rates (the property tax that funded local authorities) and the general ‘national unity’ theme helped Heath’s Tories to hold the line. Although the Conservative share of the vote in October 1974 was, at the time, the lowest ever (35.8 per cent), a slaughter was decisively averted despite Wilson’s dominance of the political terrain. The Tory vote share bears comparison with 2010 (36.1 per cent) when everything seemed to be going the party’s way.
Labour’s overall majority when all the results were counted was an unimpressive three seats, 319-316. This was whittled away quickly, with the faked suicide of John Stonehouse on Miami Beach in November 1974, and the June 1975 by-election loss in Woolwich West (Eltham) at which Peter Bottomley became the first MP returned under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher.
However, the parliamentary situation was good enough for Labour to govern for a full term because its margin over the Conservatives was a relatively healthy 42 seats, the same as Heath had enjoyed over Labour in 1970. As long as the government could keep its own malcontents going through the right division lobby, and juggle the smaller parties, it could survive, in the inelegant fashion depicted in the recent play This House. The dogged Conservative defence of the marginals in October 1974 eventually paid dividends for Mrs Thatcher when she won the no-confidence motion by a single vote in March 1979.
October 1974 was a peculiar election; an appendix to the February contest rather than a decision in its own right. Although the Liberals slipped back compared to February, there was no return to two-party politics. October also unlocked the Pandora’s Box of Scotland; the parliament elected that month spent a lot of its time on devolution matters, and its termination in March 1979 owed its proximate cause to the insufficiently enthusiastic Scottish ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum on the Assembly. Wilson had successfully parked the divisive European issue during the October 1974 campaign, and then skilfully steered his way through a (fairly minor) renegotiation to a successful referendum in June 1975; but the Europe issue was not dead, and was one of the key causes of the breaking away of the SDP in 1981. For Labour, the parliament of 1974-79 was heavy going, battling against adverse economic circumstances, a tiny and dwindling majority and a significant group of their own MPs in the Tribune Group who formed an internal opposition. It will be up to the electorate, and historians, whether the Cameron government of 2010, or the Miliband government of 2015, has more echoes of October 1974, but the world of forty years ago this week is still surprisingly resonant.
Further reading and watching
David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh The British General Election of October 1974 (Macmillan, 1975)
The BBC’s 10-11 October 1974 election night coverage will be shown on BBC Parliament (http://www.bbc.co.uk/democracylive/bbc_parliament/) today starting at 9am.
This House by James Graham has finished its run at the National Theatre but will no doubt be revived before long.