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.
Fifty years ago this month, in March 1966, Britain went to the polls in a general election. The 1966 poll has not been remembered in history as one of the more interesting or important contests. It was seen as a foregone conclusion and the campaign was rather short of incident. It stands as rather an anomaly – the only decisive Labour majority elected between 1945 and 1997, and the only election between 1951 and 1987 in which the Labour vote, expressed as a share of the whole election, went up. It might have seemed at the time like the start of a long period of Labour ascendancy, but that future was cancelled. And the reason for that goes back, in part, to the campaign that was fought during that optimistic March fifty years ago.
The Labour government’s parliamentary position was precarious. Its majority 1964 had been only five seats, and that sank to three with the loss of Leyton in a by-election in January 1965. Several MPs from the party’s right (Woodrow Wyatt, Desmond Donnelly) and the left (William Warbey) were rebellious, and several others were in poor health; the death of Harry Solomons, who had gained the marginal seat of Hull North, caused a by-election at the end of that January. Labour’s popularity had been growing since the October of the previous year and, with the help of the promise of building the Humber Bridge, a confident Conservative campaign in Hull was heavily defeated. A month later, Harold Wilson called the election for 31 March 1966.
The 1966 election probably marked the peak of politicians’ faith in opinion polls, which had been broadly correct in the previous few elections and had not yet misfired. Labour was well ahead, and this sucked a lot of the suspense out of the election campaign – and also contributed to the shock that was felt when polling failed in 1970. The year was a peak of scientific optimism: the National Plan to grow the economy was one reflection, and rationality and planning were apparent in the form and content of the 1966 election campaign.
Both the Labour and Tory campaigns were disciplined and based on well-founded and researched strategies. Labour’s campaign centred around economic performance, general Government competence and the then popular figure of Wilson. The party’s principal slogan was ‘You know Labour government works’ – a shrewd assertion of the Government’s competence and an invitation to electors who had hesitated in 1964 for fear of change to go Labour this time. It was in this election, rather than in 1964, that the description ‘Thirteen Wasted Years’ was most used about the Conservative governments of 1951-64, with the contrast drawn between modernisation under Wilson and the stuffy, grouse-moor image that had overtaken the Tories in their later years of government.
The Conservatives faced the classic problem faced by a party after a first term in opposition – to what extent to defend their previous record in government, and to what extent to try to move the agenda onwards. Despite the short interval since the previous election, the 1966 Conservative campaign was boldly forward-looking. The party had developed new policies that promised radical change. A leading part of the agenda was Europe. The Conservatives’ determination to join was contrasted with Labour’s divisions and Wilson’s more conditional approach. Heath struck an idealistic note in his final party political broadcast:
“… there is a role for Britain to play which will take all we can give it for the rest of the century. That role is Europe. I want young people to be able to build in marble when my generation can only build in brick. I want them to see a strong economy and a United Europe as a starting point for their lives and ambitions. For us the exciting business of laying these foundations for a new society and a richer culture. For them the even more exhilarating thrill of building upon these foundations.”
Along with this commitment to European union, the Conservatives proposed to legislate for trade union reform, re-orienting the social security system towards targeted rather than universal benefits, and encouraging even faster housing construction. The trade union issue flared up early in the campaign, with allegations about ‘kangaroo courts’ in factories that fined workers for not participating in unofficial strikes, but interest was not sustained. The Labour Government already had a Royal Commission working on it, and had been concerned with the problem of unofficial strikes, so it did not seem crucial in the 1966 campaign. The Tories also campaigned against the Labour Government’s good news narrative on the economy, arguing that the good times could not be sustained and that a crisis was on its way by the autumn. ‘Action Not Words’ was the party’s slogan, and aimed to contrast Heath’s gruff determination to improve and modernise the country with Wilson’s fluent words and drifting pragmatism. On 1 March, the day the election was called, Iain Macleod described Wilson thus:
“John Fitzgerald Kennedy described himself, in a brilliant phrase, as an idealist without illusions. I would describe the Prime Minister as an illusionist without ideals.”
Contrary to some mythology, there was no connection between England’s World Cup football victory and the 1966 election, although an argument can be made that the disappointing 1970 campaign in Mexico cast a shadow over the results in the election of that year. But the 1966 election took place months before the World Cup began. The only story during the campaign related to the Cup was the theft of the Jules Rimet trophy from Central Hall in Westminster on 20 March and its subsequent recovery a week later in north Croydon (whose seats stayed marginally Conservatove) by Pickles the dog. The campaign was regarded as dull by politicians and journalists. Although the electorate did seem to take the contest seriously, turnout was down to 75.8 per cent, which was then regarded as at the low end.
Ultimately, the 1966 election was decided on the familiar territory of leadership and economic management. Wilson was vastly more popular than Heath, with his personal approval over 60 per cent and Heath’s in the mid-40s – a low level in those days. Real incomes were rising rapidly: the Conservatives tried in vain to make an issue of ‘9-5-1’, the argument that wages were rising by nine per cent, prices by five per cent and production by one per cent, but the gains for wage-earners were appreciated by the electorate. Any problems on the horizon were attributed more to the previous Conservative Government than blamed on Labour, who argued that the Government had made a good start in overcoming the dangerous legacy it inherited in 1964 and had ‘halved the [trade] deficit’.
The result was very close to expectations, with Wilson’s Labour winning a second term with a majority of 97 seats and a six-point lead over the Conservatives. Heath’s Tories were bruised and defeated, but far from routed. They still had 41.9 per cent of the vote (the same as John Major in 1992) and 253 seats. The Liberals increased their number of MPs to 12, their best showing since 1945, but the pattern of their gains offered little clue to where their support would pick up most strongly in future.
The 1966 election demonstrated that the old rules of the swing of the pendulum no longer quite applied. As in 1955, a new government increased its majority at the first election it faced as the incumbent. This had not happened in any previous election (Balfour gambitry put aside) but, since then, newly-elected Prime Ministers – Heath in February 1974 aside – have either improved their majorities (October 1974, 1983, 2015) or enjoyed a second landslide in a row (2001). The sense that a government needs a ‘fair go’ and that one term without a working parliamentary majority is not really enough was becoming part of British election folklore in 1966.
Labour gained several seats for the first time in 1966, many of which symbolised the inroads that Labour was making among the liberal professions, academics and students – Exeter, Oxford, Aberdeen South and Lancaster – but Hampstead was the stand-out result. Henry Brooke, the former Home Secretary, was defeated by Labour’s Ben Whitaker, and the cliché of the Hampstead liberal intellectual was born, or at least politicised, even though the seat returned to the Tories for Geoffrey Finsberg from 1970 to 1992. Labour generally did well in the big cities in 1966, an early indicator of the gap between metropolitan and small town and rural voting behaviour.
The Conservative class of 1966 was pretty small, given that the election followed fairly closely after 1964 and saw the party lose seats, but it included some notable figures who will appear on opposite sides of the EU referendum debate 50 years later. Among the pro-Remainer are Michael (Lord) Heseltine, the dashing young MP for Tavistock, who rose furthest among the new boys, and David (Lord) Howell (Guildford), who beat him for longevity in ministerial office. They were joined by John Nott (St Ives), elected in 1966 as the last new ‘National Liberal and Conservative’ MP, who will be on the Leave side of the argument. Returning to parliament after a gap were two other redoubtable anti-EU politicians, Sir Richard Body and Sir Peter Tapsell – who said in 2014 that ‘everything that has gone wrong in Britain dates from us joining the European Union’.
The Labour class of 1966 included two future party leaders, although not of the Labour Party – David Owen won Plymouth Sutton and, at the other end of the country, Robert MacLennan gained Caithness & Sutherland from the Liberals; both men later led the SDP and will be on opposite sides of the referendum this year. Donald Dewar (Aberdeen South) went on to become the first First Minister of Scotland, and Gerry Fitt (Belfast West) was leader of the SDLP, although neither man is still with us.
The Conservative campaign in 1966 cannot be appraised as a success: after all, the party lost quite badly. But neither was it a complete failure. Edward Heath’s personal standing was enhanced and his leadership not questioned; the campaign was disciplined and well-organised, and it also planted some important seeds for the future. The Tories’ warnings of economic troubles ahead were vindicated as early as July 1966; while England marched through the World Cup finals the economy was ‘blown off course’ ,and it was clear that there had been no escape from ‘stop-go’. Wilson’s European bid was turned down in 1967. Trade union reforms were proposed, and then withdrawn, in 1969. The Wilson Government of 1966-70 had one of the worst recorded cases of the mid-term blues amid public disillusion that culminated in a slump in turnout and a surprise election defeat in 1970.
Conservative warnings of economic trouble ahead were taken more seriously, despite Wilson’s efforts to reproduce the optimism of 1966 during that idyllic, calm June of 1970. Heath returned to office determined to do better than Wilson at reforming the unions, modernising the economy and getting into Europe. But that is another chapter.