Labour won the 1964 election by a hair’s breadth, with a majority of just 5 seats. To gain a majority, it was thought Labour would need a swing from the Conservatives of around 5%, as Robert McKenzie’s famous swingometer showed here on the night itself. In reality, the picture was much more complex, and has as much to do with the Liberals as it did Labour.
Labour’s win in 1964 is often attributed to the leadership of Harold Wilson. The Wilson of 1964 was one of the most effective opposition leaders of the century. He was formidably intelligent, a brilliant Commons performer, good on television, had the popular touch, and fought an upbeat, optimistic campaign we all remember for ‘the white heat of technology’.
Labour made a net gain of 59 seats, the Conservatives having a net loss of 62. The popular vote tells an interesting story. In 1959, Labour had polled 12,171,796 votes (43.69%); in 1964, they actually polled fewer votes, 12,104,853 (43.76%). In that sense, for all Wilson’s successes, he won no more votes than Labour had won in a far less well-starred campaign under the allegedly less popular Gaitskell in 1959.
What then of the Conservatives? The Conservative majority of 100 in 1959 was won with 49% of the popular vote. In 1964, that fell to 43%. Thus, it is clear that the Tories did lose some votes. Why that might have been, it seems easy to explain: economic problems, spy scandals and Profumo. Macmillan was gone, but the Tories were lead by Sir Alec Douglas Home: of Grouse Moors, Eton and the same old Tory order.
In truth, that the Tory vote held up so well is as noteworthy as its votes lost. Home did well, and perhaps their campaign won some votes. Discreditably in the case of South Lambeth, perhaps.
More thoughtfully, the young Margaret Thatcher in Finchley.
In understanding why Labour won a majority though, as so often with the British electoral system, it pays to dig a little deeper. Of Labour’s 59 gains, 33 can be attributed directly to a swing from the Conservatives to Labour, averaging 5%. However, that was clearly not enough to put Labour into government, perhaps leaving the Conservatives with a majority of twenty-odd.In 1959, the continuing decline of the Liberals saw them poll 5.9% (actually an improvement on 1955), fielding only 256 candidates across the whole country. When they lost a by-election, they were reduced to just 5 MPs. The years that followed saw a Liberal revival manifest in a new leader, Jo Grimmond, and in the spectacular Orpington by-election victory, which saw them win a safe Tory seat on a swing on 30%. The 1964 election saw the Liberals field 365 candidates, and win 11% of the popular vote; though still just a miserable 9 seats.
Another 20 gains can be directly attributed to one simple phenomenon. In each of these seats, no Liberal stood in 1959: a Liberal did stand in 1964. In those 20 seats, the Liberals averaged 14.5% of the popular vote (nationally, they averaged 18% in seats they contested). Especially notable was an area of Lancashire and Yorkshire with a long-lived Liberal tradition: Bolton East, Bradford North, Bury and Radcliffe, Halifax, Keighley, Wythenshawe, Stockport North and South. In Bolton West, no Tory stood in 1959; in 1964, the Liberal-Tory vote split down the middle, allowing Labour in. In some other seats, such as Baron’s Court in London, a small increase in the Liberal vote gave Labour their chance.
Wilson went on to win big in 1966, on a swing of under 3% to Labour from the Conservatives, and a fall in the Liberal vote (they fielded fewer candidates). But, in 1964, the Liberal vote was instrumental in delivering Labour their majority, just as the collapse in the Liberal vote had dome much to give the Tories their small majority in 1951.
Here is a documentary about Wilson. From 11.01 minutes covers 1964:
And here is Home after his defeat:
Thanks to Jacob Baxter for a BBC radio programme on the same election: