So here’s the scenario – a conservative prime minister faced with problems over Europe, continuing and growing economic difficulties, opposed by Labour in disarray and Liberals reduced to a taxicab-full calls a snap election. The commentariate and the opinion polls predict an easy conservative win.
Sounds familiar ? – the year is 1974.
The UK had joined the European Economic Community (the EEC or Common Market as it was known until 1993 when it became the EU) a little over a year earlier (Jan 1st 1973). This was a contentious move seen by many as undermining The Commonwealth and with major problems in the Common Agricultural Policy (remember butter mountains and wine lakes?). Membership of the EEC was achieved without a popular vote or even a clear electoral mandate – the first UK referendum on membership did not happen until 1975.
Economically the country was in turmoil with workers using their industrial muscle to express dissatisfaction with an unpopular and divisive Tory government. A three-day working week was in force, strikes were commonplace and retail price inflation in February was running at 20% per year.
Ted Heath went to the country asking “Do you want a strong Government which has clear authority for the future to take decisions which will be needed? ” and the main Tory slogan was “Who Governs Britain?”.
The Conservatives attempted to smear Labour as moving to the far left; “committed to a left-wing programme more dangerous and more extreme than ever before in its history.” (it is worth remembering that at this time the Conservative position was itself considerably to the left economically, and less authoritarian than Labour’s position today).
Labour’s official manifesto titled “Lets Work Together” was notably radical. It promised “a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families” and held out a programme of nationalisation and state control over industry. This caused tremendous tensions within the party with senior figures like Tony Crosland and David Owen more or less disowning it.
The opinion polls remained convinced of a clear Tory win throughout the campaign – in mid campaign they were 9 points clear which would have delivered an increased majority for Ted Heath. Even on election day the opinion polls showed a Tory lead of between 2% and 5%.
The media were nearly solidly behind the Tories. The Sun switched from Labour in 1970 to Tory in ’74. Only The Mirror came out clearly for Labour, The Guardian remained on the fence saying that neither party was fit to govern.
In broad terms, and in many details, all this sounds very much like the situation today in 2017. So what happened:
The Conservatives failed to gain an overall majority winning 297 out of 623 and attempted to form a coalition with Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberal Party who held 14 seats. This would have given them 311 seats with the addition of 7 Ulster Unionists, most of whom would support the Conservatives, allowing them to govern as a majority coalition. The Liberals demanded electoral reform as a pre-condition for their support. In those days the Liberals had principles and when Heath refuse to agree they walked away from the chance to be in power. This allowed Labour under Harold Wilson as the largest single party with 301 seats to form a minority government.
A second election later in the year delivered a majority for Labour.
Is history about to replay itself 43 years later? It certainly could happen.
Incidentally Feb’74 was the first election in which an ecological party stood in the UK. PEOPLE led by Tony Whittaker had just formed and fielded six candidates. You can read more about that on the Green-History.uk site.
This time we know that the Liberal Democrats will have no principles about going into coalition with the Tories – their leader has already ruled out a partnership with Labour, so a Liberal vote where they could regain seats lost last time will in effect be a vote for a Conservative government. As greens the only choice outside of Brighton Pavilion and Bristol West (and possibly 2 or 3 more – Isle of Wight?) is to vote Labour. A Labour government will be no good from an ecological point of view, but they would be much better than Tory or Liberal from a social point of view.
There is no pure ecological option in this election – maybe I’ll end up voting the same way as in ’74…