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.
Several years ago, I started one of my earlier history columns for this website by imagining what it was like in 2014 in an alternate universe in which the February 1974 election had taken place three weeks earlier and been won by the Conservatives.
I’m going to adopt a slightly different approach for this essay, for reasons which I’ll come to later, and imagine that a section from a popular history book had floated through from the universe next door…
By the autumn of 1978 the turbulence of the past few years seemed to have come to an end and Jim Callaghan, the Prime Minister, called the widely-expected general election for 5 October, with Labour starting in a narrow lead over the Conservatives.
There were many among his entourage and in Cabinet who thought that it would have been better to postpone the election into 1979 and capitalise on the improving economic outlook, and that the electorate’s verdict in 1970 suggested that voters were cynical about governments that went for an election as soon as there was a gap in the clouds. In his memoirs, Callaghan expressed his regret at being persuaded, against his instincts, to go to the country in October, and his belief that Labour would have won an overall majority in a 1979 election.
…If one is at all interested in thinking about counterfactual history, Callaghan’s decision not to call the election in October 1978 is a moment to conjure with. He gave the decision a lot of thought over the summer and mused publicly if cryptically about whether to do it – ‘there was I, waiting at the church’, as he sang to the TUC Congress in September.
Alec Douglas-Home had done something similar, without the musical element, in 1964, before deciding for delay. Callaghan thought about the precedents of 1970 and 1950, and the gruelling experience of governing without an overall majority since April 1976, and he felt the idea of another parliament like that would be bad for the country and for the ability of governments to act. Better to take the risk of going on, and either lose or win properly, than to continue in that sort of half-life…
The 1978 campaign was the first to be fought with the dubious benefit of professional advertising agencies. The Conservatives had employed Saatchi & Saatchi, who produced an iconic poster with the slogan ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ whose summer launch had probably helped them recover some political momentum. Labour had less formal but still effective advice from Tim Delaney (now Lord Delaney of Stanmore), although it was hampered by political disputes within the National Executive Committee.
The manifestos of both parties were moderate and optimistic, reflecting the calm temper of the time, although there had been discussion among the Conservatives about a harder line on trade union law and incomes policy, and Margaret Thatcher herself was unhappy with the manifesto wording. On the other side of Smith Square, Callaghan got his way and the cautious manifesto – another echo of 1970 – was dismissed by Tom Litterick, a defeated left-wing MP, as a ‘fatuous, vacuous document.’
(It is a matter of record, in Thatcher’s memoirs, that a 1978 manifesto would have been considerably less sharp-edged than the document produced in 1979, which was still a compromise in which only the vaguest outline of ‘Thatcherism’ was visible. The collapse of the Labour Government’s incomes policy, and the strike wave of winter 1979, enabled her to move the party closer to her positions on the grounds that public opinion was ready for stronger measures.)
The Conservatives started well, with Thatcher – whose poll ratings were poor compared to the Prime Minister’s – benefiting from a well-planned campaign that put her in a more human light and made the most of the opportunities of television. However, the campaign team might have become over-confident and later photo-opportunities, like the infamous ‘calf cuddle’, probably backfired. The deficit compared to Callaghan was too great to make up during a few weeks, and she also had to cope with the attention given to David Steel, tne Liberal leader, whose party’s ratings rose consistently throughout the campaign.
Labour’s campaign concentrated around Callaghan and the message that Britain had got through a rough patch but was back on track. Towards the end of the campaign, as there was no sign of either party breaking out of the polling deadlock, the messages became heavily negative: it became, as Callaghan commented later with regret, an aggressive ‘broken bottle’ election. Labour accused the Conservatives of preparing a hidden agenda of VAT rises and cuts in public services to pay for tax cuts for the rich, and the Conservatives predicted that Labour’s incomes policy was about to collapse and that Callaghan would be replaced by a far-left leader.
In the end, Labour’s argument that the Conservatives and their experiments had led the country to ruin in 1970-74, and that life was better now, seemed to resonate, although there was no doubt that many skilled working-class voters were discontented with pay restraint and wanted a tougher ‘law and order’ policy, and this was reflected in the pattern of the election results.
(Public attitudes had indeed shifted to the right in the late 1970s on questions of public ownership, taxation and spending, and law and order. At the time of the 1979 election, 32 per cent of Labour voters wanted to see cuts in the welfare state, for instance. But Jim Callaghan himself was quite an effective exponent of small-c conservative attitudes, arguably more so than the 1979-vintage Thatcher, and it is notable that Labour managed to get 37 per cent of the vote even after the winter of discontent and with a rightward shift in public attitudes. If the Conservatives could win in 1992 with a mild-manned leader after a recession and with public attitudes heading leftwards, it is far from inconceivable that Labour could have won in 1978 on class loyalty, respect for the Prime Minister and a sense that things were back on an even keel.)
The 1978 election produced another finely-balanced parliament. Labour won 306 seats, a loss of 13 since the October 1974 election, and the Conservatives ended up on 296 seats – although they polled slightly more of the popular vote than Labour.
It was a result that delighted nobody; the pound suffered on the international markets, and Callaghan began the weary task of coming to confidence and supply agreements with the Liberals and the depleted band of five SNP MPs, who were looking ahead to the March 1979 devolution referendum. He was dealt an unexpected blow by the decision of Tony Benn to stay out of the new Cabinet and join his Tribune Group allies in internal opposition.
Thatcher, as we know from her memoirs, had expected ‘only one chance’ at electoral victory and considered resigning immediately. However, her combative instincts and the support of allies such as Airey Neave emboldened her to stay and, despite some grumbling, a leadership challenge failed to appear.
My imaginary outcome to the 1978 election is along the same lines as the speculations of other authors. Thatcher herself thought the best that the Conservatives could have done was a tiny overall majority and that any slip-ups in the campaign would have jeopardised even that. Callaghan’s bit of amateur psephology, involving perusal of the October 1974 Times Guide to the House of Commons, came up with a figure of 304 for Labour. As David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh noted in their definitive study of the 1979 election, ‘the winter of discontent must have been worth more than the 21 seats that gave Mrs Thatcher her clear margin over all the other parties.’
What would have happened afterwards is harder to track, somehow, than it was for my imaginary renewed Heath government in 1974. The forward view in 1978 was confusing; in the middle distance there was the possibility that North Sea Oil receipts could allow Britain at last to feel Harold Wilson’s white heat of the technological revolution, but the short term passage looked very choppy even before the tanker drivers went on strike, the Shah of Iran was toppled, or Paul Volcker raised interest rates.
Callaghan’s Downing Street had seen predictions of two million unemployed during 1978-83 even on existing policies. The rebellious left in parliament would have been strengthened by new MPs and the leadership of Tony Benn, and would have baulked at the likely fiscal policies of Callaghan and the Chancellor (I’ll imagine that Denis Healey and David Owen swapped jobs after the 1978 election). There would also have been further wrangling with the SNP. The chances of getting safely through to 1983 without an overall majority were dim; the best outcome for Labour would probably have been for Denis Healey, as new Prime Minister, to call an election immediately on taking office in 1980 or 1981.
Callaghan’s pessimism about the prospects in 1979 was represented by his famous, much quoted comment about a sea change:
“You know there are times, perhaps once every thirty years, when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea change and it is for Mrs Thatcher.”
This fatalism set in after the winter of 1978/79, and was responsible for his unwillingness to go ‘broken bottle’ in the real 1979 election when in his heart of hearts he knew that the best he could do was deprive Thatcher of an overall majority. But an offhand remark is not an infallible guide to the politics of an era, and one has to recognise that a result would have been very different in October 1978 and probably, given the ebbing of memories of the winter of discontent, if the Labour whips had pulled out the stops and gone on until October 1979. I’ll go back to the source of the sea change metaphor, with Brutus in Julius Caesar:
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
It is actually about having the courage to seize one’s opportunities when they present themselves, rather than waiting for better moments to come along and being disappointed, or indeed waiting fatalistically to be washed up. Callaghan, with the courage of Brutus, would have gone for it in October 1978, but in my alternative history he would have probably been dashed against the same rocks but a couple of years later.