United Kingdom general election, February 1974
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The United Kingdom's general election of February 1974 was held on the 28th of that month. It was the first of two United Kingdom general elections held that year, and the first election since the Second World War not to produce an overall majority in the House of Commons for the winning party. Instead there was a hung parliament, even though many people had expected a Conservative victory for Edward Heath. Labour won the most seats (301, which was 17 seats short of an overall majority) with the Conservatives on 297 seats, although the Conservatives had a larger share of the popular vote.
This election saw Northern Ireland diverging heavily from the rest of the United Kingdom, with all twelve MPs elected being from local parties (eleven of them representing unionist parties), following the decision of the Ulster Unionists to withdraw support from the Conservative Party in protest over the Sunningdale Agreement. In contrast the Scottish National Party achieved significant success in this election. They increased their share of the popular vote in Scotland from 11% to 22% and their number of MPs rose from 1 to 7. There were also the first Plaid Cymru MPs to be elected in a general election in Wales (they had previously won a by-election).
Although the incumbent Conservative government of Edward Heath polled the most votes by a small margin, the Conservatives were overtaken in terms of Commons seats by Harold Wilson's Labour Party due to a more efficiently-distributed Labour vote, and the decision by Ulster Unionist MPs not to take the Conservative whip.
The two largest parties both lost a considerable share of the popular vote, largely to the Liberals under Jeremy Thorpe who polled two and a half times the share of the national vote that they had achieved in the previous election. But even with over six million votes, only 14 Liberal MPs were elected, polling the most votes (~432,823) ever collected by a party for each MP elected in a general election. There had been some media expectation that the Liberals could take twice as many seats.
Heath did not resign immediately as Prime Minister. Assuming that Northern Ireland's Unionist MPs could be persuaded to support a Conservative government on confidence matters over one led by Wilson, he entered into negotiations with Thorpe to form a coalition government. Thorpe, never enthusiastic about supporting the Conservatives, demanded major electoral reforms in exchange for such an agreement. Unwilling to accept such terms, Heath resigned and Wilson returned for his second spell as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
The Liberals did not have enough seats to combine with another party to achieve an overall majority. This made the formation of a stable government in this Parliament a practical impossibility. Wilson called another election in October of the same year.
- 1 Campaign
- 2 Economic background
- 3 Timeline
- 4 Results
- 5 Incumbents defeated
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 Further reading
- 9 Manifestos
On Thursday 7 February it was announced that Prime Minister Edward Heath had asked the Queen, who was in New Zealand at the time, to dissolve parliament, in order for a general election to take place on 28 February. The severe economic circumstances in which the election was held promoted both The Sun and the Daily Mirror to characterise it as a ‘Crisis Election’.
On 10 February the National Union of Mineworkers, as expected, went on strike; however, it was more of a low-key affair than the high-profile clashes of 1972, with no violence and only six men on each picket line. Jim Prior later wrote that the miners had been "as quiet and well-behaved as mice". The three-day week continued throughout the election; however, Heath did allow the late-night television curfew to be lifted to allow more coverage of the campaign. The low profile of the miners' strike allowed worries over inflation to dominate the election. On 15 February it was announced that the Retail Price Index showed a 20% increase in prices over the previous year.
On 21 February the Pay Board released a report on miners' pay, which unexpectedly revealed that they were paid less in comaprison with other manufacturing workers, contrary to the claims of the National Coal Board. This came as a severe blow to the Conservative position. Four days later there was further bad news for Heath and his party, with the latest trade figures showing that the current account deficit for the previous month had been £383 million — the worst in recorded history. Heath claimed the figures confirmed "the gravity of the situation" and the need for a new mandate, prompting Roy Jenkins to quip, "He [Heath] presumably thinks a still worse result would have given him a still stronger claim".
One of the most unexpected and explosive events of the campaign was when the outspoken Conservative MP Enoch Powell, who had already announced that he could not stand for re-election on the Conservative manifesto, urged people to vote against Heath, because of the latter's policy toward the European Economic Community. In a speech in Birmingham on 23 February, Powell claimed the main issue in the campaign was whether Britain was to "remain a democratic nation ... or whether it will become one province in a new Europe super-state"; he said it was people's "national duty" to oppose those who had deprived Parliament of "its sole right to make the laws and impose the taxes of the country". This speech promoted The Sun to run the headline "Enoch puts the boot in". A few days later he said he hoped for victory by "the party which is committed to a fundamental renegotiation of the Treaty of Brussels and to submitting to the British People ... the outcome of that renegotiation". These were the explicit manifesto promises of the Labour party.
Heath addressed the country on television on the evening of 7 February, and asked:
Do you want a strong Government which has clear authority for the future to take decisions which will be needed? Do you want Parliament and the elected Government to continue to fight strenuously against inflation? Or do you want them to abandon the struggle against rising prices under pressure from one particularly powerful group of workers...
This time of strife has got to stop. Only you can stop it. It’s time for you to speak — with your vote. It’s time for your voice to be heard — the voice of the moderate and reasonable people of Britain: the voice of the majority. It’s time for you to say to the extremists, the militants, and the plain and simply misguided: we’ve had enough. There’s a lot to be done. For heaven’s sake, let’s get on with it.
The Conservative campaign was, thus, encapsulated by the now famous phrase ‘Who governs Britain?’
The party's manifesto, which was largely written by the future chancellor Nigel Lawson, was entitled Firm Action for a Fair Britain, and was characterised by what historian Dominic Sandbrook has called "strident rhetoric". It claimed the Labour opposition had been taken over by "a small group of power-hungry trade union leaders", who were "committed to a left-wing programme more dangerous and more extreme than ever before in its history". It went on to assert that a Labour victory would be a "major national disaster". Sandbrook has attacked the manifesto as "very vague and woolly", and lacking in "detailed policies or [a] sense of direction".
Edward Heath played a dominant and crucial role in the campaign. In public he appeared calm and in control; David Watt, in the Financial Times, called him "statesmanlike" and "relaxed". In his party's final broadcast of the campaign he said, "I'll do all that I can for this country.... We've started a job together. With your will, we shall go on and finish the job."
One Conservative party political broadcast attracted controversy for its ferocity. In the film the narrator warned that Labour would confiscate "your bank account, your mortgage and your wage packet", while pictures of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan dissolved into those of Michael Foot and Tony Benn. It went on to claim that Labour would not have to move much further to left before "you could find yourself not even owning your own home". Wilson was reportedly furious, and Lord Carrington, the Secretary of State for Energy, was forced to make a formal apology.
The Labour manifesto was notably radical. It had been greatly influenced by the economist Stuart Holland, and Shadow Industry Secretary Tony Benn. In it, Labour promised ‘a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families’. It advocated compulsory planning agreements with industry and the creation of a ‘National Enterprise Board’. This section attracted strong criticism from figures within the party, with Tony Crosland privately calling the nationalisation programme ‘half-baked’ and ‘idiotic’. The manifesto also committed the party to renegotiating the terms of Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community, and holding a national referendum on the issue.
The Labour campaign attempted to present the party’s leadership as competent negotiators, who could restore peace with the unions. Unlike in previous elections Wilson took somewhat of a backseat, allowing James Callaghan, Denis Healey and Shirley Williams to play equal, if not greater, roles in the campaign. In their final broadcast of the campaign a series of leading figures claimed Labour could put Britain ‘on the road to recovery’. In the film Wilson asserted ‘Trades unionists are people. Employers are people. We can’t go on setting one against the other except at the cost of damage to the nation itself.’ David Owen would later call the campaign the ‘shabbiest’ he’d ever been associated with.
The Liberal Party had undergone a revival under the leadership of Jeremy Thorpe, winning a string of by-elections in 1972 and 1973. It had begun to appeal to disaffected Conservative voters, and continued to do so throughout the campaign. Thorpe came across as young and charismatic, often attempting to appear above the two-party fray. Their manifesto promised voting reform and devolution, although Sandbrook has described their economic policy as ‘impossibly vague’.
Position of the press
Historian Dominic Sandbrook describes the 'level of partisanship' amongst the national newspapers during the election as 'unprecedented' in post-war Britain. The Daily Mirror was one of the few national newspapers to support Labour, with many others urging their readers to re-elect Heath. There was fierce condemnation of Wilson and his party. The Sun, which had supported Labour in 1970, claimed a Labour victory would result in 'galloping inflation', while an editorial in the Daily Telegraph said a Labour government would be 'complete ruin public and private', and condemned Wilson's 'craven subservience to trade union power'. The Evening Standard published a piece by Kingsley Amis calling Labour politician Tony Benn, who would be appointed Secretary of State for Industry after the election, 'the most dangerous man in Britain', while in the Daily Express cartoonist Cummings depicted miner's leader Joe Gormley, Wilson and other Labour figures as French Revolutionaries guillotining Heath. The Daily Mail, in the words of Sandbrook, 'directed much of its fire at the unions'; it accused the National Union of Mineworkers, which was affiliated with the Labour Party, of 'producing the worst inflation in our history'. The Guardian, in contrast, chose not to openly support any party. Its columnist Peter Jenkins claimed the last ten years had proved that 'neither party' had the ability to deal with the country's problems.
It was the first general election in the United Kingdom to be held during an economic crisis since the 1931 election, which had been held in the depths of the Great Depression.
As the Queen was in New Zealand on 7 February the Prime Minister notified her of his intentions by telegram rather than by the usual protocol of visiting Buckingham Palace. The key dates were as follows:
|Friday 8 February||Dissolution of the 45th parliament and campaigning officially begins|
|Monday 18 February||Last day to file nomination papers; 2,135 candidates enter to contest 635 seats|
|Wednesday 27 February||Campaigning officially ends|
|Thursday 28 February||Polling day|
|Friday 1 March||Election results in a hung parliament with Labour narrowly ahead as the largest single party but short of a majority|
|Sunday 3 March||Edward Heath begins meetings with Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe to discuss the terms of a potential coalition|
|Monday 4 March||Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath resigns shortly after the Liberals reject his coalition terms, allowing Harold Wilson to return to power as leader of a Labour minority government|
|Wednesday 6 March||46th parliament assembles|
|Tuesday 12 March||State Opening of Parliament|
This election was fought on new constituency boundaries with five more seats added to the 630 used in 1970. This led to many seats changing hands on the new notional boundaries.
For the first time since 1929 the two largest political parties had received less than a combined share of 80% of the vote, and the Liberals had also won more than 10% of the vote.
|United Kingdom general election February 1974|
|Party||Standing||Elected||Gained||Unseated||Net||% of total||%||No.||Net %|
|Conservative||623||297||5||42||- 37||46.771||37.9||11,872,180||- 8.5|
|Labour||623||301||34||14||+ 20||47.401||37.2||11,645,616||- 5.9|
|Liberal||517||14||8||0||+ 8||2.204||19.3||6,059,519||+ 11.8|
|SNP||70||7||6||0||+ 6||1.102||2.0||633,180||+ 0.9|
|Plaid Cymru||36||2||2||0||+ 2||0.314||0.5||171,374||- 0.1|
|National Front||54||0||0||0||0||0.2||76,865||+ 0.1|
|Independent Liberal||8||0||0||0||0||0.2||38,437||+ 0.2|
|Unity||2||0||0||2||- 2||0.0||17,593||- 0.4|
|Democratic Labour||1||1||1||0||+ 1||0.0||14,780||N/A|
|Independent Conservative||18||0||0||0||0||0.0||11,451||- 0.1|
|National Democratic||1||0||0||0||0||0.0||1,161||- 0.1|
|Ind. Labour Party||1||0||0||0||0||0.0||991||0.0|
|Independent Social Democrat||1||0||0||0||0||0.0||661||N/A|
|More Prosperous Britain||1||0||0||0||0||0.0||234||N/A|
|John Hampden New Freedom||1||0||0||0||0||0.0||203||N/A|
All parties are shown.
|Government's new majority||- 33|
|Total votes cast||31,321,982|
Results based on the notional 1970 results on the boundaries which came into force in 1974. The seats won by the Ulster Unionists are compared with those won by Unionist MPs in the 1970 election. The Protestant Unionist Party became the core of the Democratic Unionist Party and their candidates are compared with the result of the Protestant Unionist in 1970. The sole Republican Labour Party MP elected in 1970 subsequently left that party to co-found the Social Democrat and Labour Party in 1970 and the remains of the party disintegrated by 1974.
- Dame Patricia Hornsby-Smith (Aldridge-Brownhills)
- Michael Noble (Argyll)
- Patrick Wolrige-Gordon (East Aberdeenshire)
- Wilfred Baker (Banff)
- Eric Cockeram (Bebington)
- Geoffrey Stewart-Smith (Belper)
- Sydney Chapman (Birmingham Handsworth)
- Joseph Kinsey (Birmingham Perry Barr)
- Derek Coombs (Birmingham Yardley)
- Laurance Reed (Bolton East)
- John Wilkinson (Bradford West)
- Fergus Montgomery (Brierley Hill)
- Wilf Proudfoot (Brighouse and Spenborough)
- Constance Monks (Chorley)
- Peter Trew (Dartford)
- Joan Vickers (Plymouth Devonport)
- Roger White (Gravesend)
- Albert Cooper (Ilford South)
- Mark Woodnutt (Isle of Wight)
- John Gummer (Lewisham West)
- Charles Simeons (Luton)
- Frank Taylor (Manchester Moss Side)
- Keith Speed ((Meriden)
- John Sutcliffe (Middlesbrough West)
- Gordon Campbell (Moray and Nairn) - Secretary of State for Scotland
- Thomas Stuttaford (Norwich South)
- Harold Soref (Ormskirk)
- Mary Holt (Preston North)
- Alan Green (Preston South)
- Ronald Bray (Rossendale)
- Anthony Trafford (The Wrekin)
- Nigel Spearing (Acton)
- Terry Davis (Bromsgrove)
- Ivor Richard (Barons Court)
- John Mackintosh (Berwick and East Lothian)
- Michael Barnes (Brentford and Chiswick)
- Goronwy Roberts (Caernarvon)
- Elystan Morgan (Cardiganshire) - Chairman of Welsh Labour
- Dick Douglas (Clackmannan & East Stirlingshire)
- David Clark (Colne Valley)
- William Edwards (Merionethshire)
- George Machin (Dundee East)
- Richard Leonard (Romford)
- BBC Feb '74 Election coverage
- Dominic Sandbrook. State of Emergency – The Way We Were: Britain 1970-1974. Allen Lane. pp. 611–645. ISBN 9781846140310.
- BBC News http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/special/politics97/background/pastelec/ge74feb.shtml
|url=missing title (help).
- David Boothroyd's United Kingdom General Election Results
- Butler, David E. et al. The British General Election of February 1974 (1975) the standard scholarly study
- F. W. S. Craig, British Electoral Facts: 1832-1987
- United Kingdom election results - summary results 1885-1979
- Firm action for a fair Britain - February 1974 Conservative manifesto
- Let us work together - Labour's way out of the crisis - February 1974 Labour Party manifesto
- Change the face of Britain - Liberal Party manifesto