1974 was the year of two general elections. The first, in February, gave Britain its first hung parliament since 1929. It was the closest of results. Whilst the Conservatives won the popular vote by a mere 193,000, but Labour had four more seats: 301 to 297.
It was not meant to be so. In 1970, Harold Wilson had expected to win, only to see a late surge of support see Ted Heath’s Conservatives win a majority of 31. Faced with an imminent second miners’ strike in three days time, Heath called a snap election on February 7th for three weeks hence, the minimum length of campaign possible. Famously, Heath posed the question ‘who governs Britain?’ perhaps thinking of the violence and upheavals associated with the miners’ strike of 1972. As it was, the miners were, in Jim Prior’s words, ‘as quiet as mice’. Thus, it was the economy that took centre stage, and the Heath government’s record was actually pretty poor at best. In addition, the three-day week that was brought in to preserve fuel supplies looked more like a consequence of government rather than the fault of the miners.
It was a pretty lacklustre campaign. Heath was never a natural campaigner, and the drive he had shown in 1970 gave way to the pose of statesman.
In truth, the Conservatives ran a largely negative campaign, focussing on the threat of the Labour left. And, in truth, it did show signs of working. Throughout the campaign, almost all the polls gave the Tories a lead of something between one to seven percentage points, some by more.
Labour’s campaign was pretty confused. They ran on a pretty left-wing, if studiedly vague, manifesto which many of the party’s leaders thought was at best ill-advised and at worst something of a shambles. Wilson seemed detached and even unwell, and the lead was taken as much by the likes of Jim Callaghan or rising stars like Shirley Williams, shown here leading a Labour election broadcast.
Opinion polls showed Labour at anything from around 40% to the low thirties. It didn’t seem to be working.
Instead, the star turn of the campaign was Jeremy Thorpe.
Through 1972 and 1973 the Liberals won five by-elections. One, Cyril Smith, took a seat from Labour. The other four were won from the Conservatives. Opinion polls showed the Liberal vote at anything from 11 to 25%. The real story is perhaps evident in the polls in the week before polling day, which showed the Liberals pooling at anything between 21 and 25%.
As it was the national result had Labour and the Tories neck and neck: Labour polling 37.9% and the Tories 37.2%. The polls had, in the end, overestimated Liberal support, but they still polled 19%. In terms of seats, it did them little good: gaining eight, 14 in all. However, the Liberal surge did have a decisive effect on the outcome. Both parties lost votes to the Liberals. The Labour vote fell from 43% in 1970. Some votes were lost to nationalists in Wales and Scotland, but most to the Liberals. However, the big losers were the Conservatives, whose popular vote had been 46% in 1970.
In February 1974, Labour gained 20 seats (they also lost some). Judging precise swings in most of those seats is hard to do accurately: many were fought on new constituency boundaries. However, the story of the night becomes easily clear when we look at the pattern in those seats. 9 of the seats Labour gained that night from the Conservatives had no Liberal candidate in 1970. In February 1974, the Liberals averaged 16.5% in those seats; the Conservative vote fell by an average of 16 percentage points.
Furthermore, Labour won two new seats in Luton, the old one had been Conservative; in those two seats the Liberals polled 22 and 23%. Labour also won both the new Northampton seats narrowly; the Liberals polled 21 and 22%. In the new Coventry South West seat, Labour won four new seats with narrow majorities, with an average Liberal vote share of 20%
A further 11 gains for Labour saw the Liberal vote more than double, an average increase of 11.3 percentage points. The Conservative vote fell by an average of 10.7 percentage points. Two Paddington seats were merged: the Liberal vote doubled and Labour took the seat.
The national result was so close that just few marginals were decisive. Bar two marginal wins over nationalists (one, in Carmarthen, by three votes), Labour’s marginal wins in February 1974 were against the Conservatives. Of the 16 Labour/Tory marginals Labour won with a majority of 2% of the electorate or below, the Liberal vote averaged 20.26% (the lowest was 14% in Plymouth Devonport, the highest 27% in the most marginal of them all, Sowerby).
In short, it’s the Liberals that won it for Labour. It is a pattern we have seen before. The last hung parliament, in 1929, saw a substantial revival in the Liberal vote. A Liberal collapse in 1951 saw the Conservatives win a majority. A small-scale Liberal revival gave Harold Wilson his tiny majority in 1964. Once more, a Liberal revival had scuppered the Tories. Heath had lost his majority.
The next question was what sort of government would emerge, and could it last.
And, here’s a not very pleasant reminder of very different times. There are two leads of this Liberal 1974 election broadcast, aiming to get the Liberal vote out. There are two leads, and the second was Cyril Smith, who had taken Rochdale from Labour in a by-election in 1972. We now know Smith was a serial child abuser. And who endorsed the Liberals in this broadcast? Jimmy Saville.