What happened the last time the Tories called a snap election? They lost

Edward Heath On TV in 1974

‘Do you want a strong government, which has a clear authority for the future, to take the decisions which will be needed?’

PM Ted Heath, Feb 1974

Who Governs?

The last time Britain went to the polls in a snap ‘Crisis Election’ was 1974. Tory PM Ted Heath attempted to portray himself as the strong and stable father of the nation, needing a stronger mandate to crush the saboteurs.

Back then, the saboteurs were the trade unions. With an insurmountable poll lead and a divided left wing Labour party staring back at him, Heath intended to fight them on a single issue – leadership.

But it didn’t work out as planned, and although Heath led in the polls throughout the campaign, it was Labour who would be back in power. It was one of the greatest shocks in modern political history. And nobody, not the opinion polls, the stock markets, even Wilson himself, had seen it coming.


If you think 2017 has been a gloomy for Britain, think back to 1974. In addition to two general elections there was the three-day week, an ongoing financial crisis, and the ever present threat of IRA bombings on British soil.

Then there were the saboteurs from within. 1973 had ended with a Christmas message from Heath declaring it will be ‘the toughest we have known since the war’. 1974 began with a strike by the miners, whose bargaining position became even stronger because of the steep rise in the oil price. In order to preserve fuel supplies Heath imposed a three-day working week.

By creating the sense of ‘all pulling together’, Heath hoped the public would back him against the militant trade unionists.  Heath dithered about calling an election though. He had been making plans to call the ‘crisis election’ for at least two years, and had missed numerous opportunities to call it.

He eventually called it for February 28 and the intention was to seek a further mandate, and strengthen his hand in negotiations with the unions.

‘Who Governs?’ asked the Conservatives, a question which would become more ambiguous than they intended. The election began against the dark backdrop of terrorism. On day 1 of the campaign, the IRA exploded a bomb on board a coach carrying British soldiers and their families. The bombing killed 12 and wounded 38 others.

The ‘M62 bombing’ seemed to symbolise the epidemic crisis facing a Nation in steep decline. A survey showed that 9 in 10 Britons thought that ‘Britain was doing badly’. After the election, The Nuffield election study noted that it was an ‘unpopularity contest’ between two people ‘widely seen as incompetent on the major issues’.

The Conservatives embodied this depressive state in the opening remarks of their manifesto. It began with a stark warning about Britain’s future:

Today we face great dangers both from within our own country and from outside. The problems are formidable, but there is no reason why they should overwhelm us.

The assets of the British people are great. Not simply our technical skills and our natural resources, but also, more important than these, the strength and stability of our institutions and the determination of our people in moments of crisis to ensure that good sense and moderation prevail. If we are to make the best use of those assets it is essential that the affairs of this country are in the hands of a strong government, able to take firm measures in defence of the national interest.

This means a Conservative Government with a renewed mandate from the people and with a full five years in which to guide the nation safely through the difficult period that lies ahead.

On the threat of a Labour Government they declared:

The Labour Party today faces the nation committed to a left-wing programme more dangerous and more extreme than ever before in its history. Labour is committed to an irresponsible programme of public expenditure, costing on its own admission some & 6 billion a year, over and above the huge cost of its nationalisation plans. This was far in excess of what the national economy could afford even before the present crisis.

The total effect of Labour’s present policies would be to wreck the economy, undermine the free society, and accelerate the present inflation beyond the point of no return

Labour were beset by their own internal divisions. For the Bennite left, the crisis presented itself as a once in a lifetime opportunity for a Marxist revolution. Benn played a leading role in drafting Labour’s election manifesto, which called for wide-scale nationalisation, a wealth tax and worker control in industry.


Barbara Castle noted in her diary ‘no one wants this election’. Even Dennis Healey, once the bastion of the Labour right, had moved to the left, urging a luxury goods tax on ‘’Fur coats, wine and brandy’.

Benn saw the manifesto as the most radical Labour had ever fought on. It proposed to:

‘Repeal the Industrial Relations Act as a matter of extreme urgency and then bring in an Employment Protection Act and an Industrial Democracy Act, as agreed in our discussions with the TUC, to increase the control of industry by the people. However, more will be needed if we are to create a new spirit in industry. The British people, both as workers and consumers, must have more control over the powerful private forces that at present dominate our economic life.

 ‘In addition to our plans set out for taking into common ownership land required for development, we shall substantially extend Public Enterprise by taking mineral rights. We shall also take shipbuilding, ship repairing and marine engineering, ports, the manufacture of airframes and aero-engines into public ownership and control. But we shall not confine the extension of the public sector to the loss-making and subsidised industries.

‘We shall also take over profitable sections or individual firms in those industries where a public holding is essential to enable the Government to control prices, stimulate investment, encourage exports, create employment, protect workers and consumers from the activities of irresponsible multi-national companies, and to plan the national economy in the national interest.

‘We shall therefore include in this operation, sections of pharmaceuticals, road haulage, construction, machine tools, in addition to our proposals for North Sea and Celtic Sea oil and gas. Our decision in the field of banking, insurance and building societies is still under consideration. We shall return to public ownership assets and licences hived-off by the present Government, and we shall create a powerful National Enterprise Board with the structure and functions set out in Labour’s Programme 1973.

‘We intend to socialise existing nationalised industries. In consultation with the unions, we shall take steps to make the management of existing nationalised industries more responsible to the workers in the industry and more responsive to their consumers’ needs.

Even Labour supporters seemed to be disillusioned with the Bennite shift. Polls showed that only 37% of Labour voters supported greater public ownership, and a miserly 6% supported Benn’s interventionist National Enterprise Board.


At the start of the campaign the Conservatives seemed to be well ahead. The BBC election guru, and a fabulous new addition to Twitter, David Butler, declared to his good friend Tony Benn that a Tory landslide was likely and he feared that the Labour Party could not survive.

However, much like Theresa May with Brexit, the Conservatives found it impossible to sustain the focus on the single issue of ‘Who Governs?’ Harold Wilson on the advice of his pollsters, fought an astutely negative campaign, stressing Heath’s poor record on inflation.

Two weeks into the campaign, the public attitude towards the trade unions had changed, with concern dropping from 40% to 24%.  Inflation became the bigger issue, and Heath was forced to defend his economic record. The Tory campaign began to unravel.

This continued when one of the most popular MPs in Britain, Enoch Powell, turned his back on the party. Predominantly because of their policy on the EEC, he advocated a vote for Labour, who had promised a referendum on entry to the Common Market. He described the need for an ‘Crisis Election’ as ‘fraudulent’.


Nevertheless with 5 days to go before the election, Heath maintained a 5 point lead in the opinion polls. The only doubt, was centered around the size of his majority. For Wilson, the vultures began to circle. Roy Jenkins began to prepare his aides for a leadership bid. The media were weighing up a titanic battle to the death between Foot, Benn and Callaghan. Then the media started to attack Wilson’s health, and rumours emerged about a dodgy deal Wilson had made, involving a slag heap in Wigan.

As the last week began, the tide began to turn against the government. Three key events happened. Firstly, the pay board claimed that the miners were actually being underpaid, and were paid 8% less than other manual workers in nationalised industries. Secondly, the monthly trade figures were released. They showed a £383 million deficit for January 1974 – the worst performance in history. Then the day before the election, the director general of the CBI declared Heath’s ‘Industrial Relations Bill’ a disaster.

As the end approached, Wilson made one more play for national unity. He declared; ‘Trade unionists are people. Employers are people. We can’t go on setting one another against each other’. Heath struck are more combative tone – asking for that mandate for negotiation and asking for the tools to ‘finish the job’.

On polling day, the media called it for Heath by 5%. Wilson was subdued. He had written his resignation speech and planned to be whisked away via helicopter after his count, in order to avoid the indignity of a second defeat in a row.

But the pollsters had got it wrong. The election results were complex.  Labour won the most seats (301, still 17 seats short of an overall majority) with the Conservatives on 297 seats. The Conservatives had a larger share of the popular vote.

Turnout (78.7%) was the highest since 1959 and has not been bettered since.

The combined Tory and Labour share of the vote fell from 89.4% in 1970 to 75% in 1974. Despite this, the smaller parties received few seats, with only 14 Liberals elected on 19.3% of the vote.


Labour’s narrow victory and the turbulent economic circumstances ahead meant that it was impossible to implement their radical manifesto, even if Wilson had wanted to.

The state of the economy that Denis Healey inherited as Chancellor, has since been described as ‘on the brink of collapse’ with inflation running at 23%.

Benn and the left, including a young Jeremy Corbyn saw it as the ultimate act of betrayal. There were bitter recriminations that tore the party apart, and would keep Labour out of office for 18 years. With hindsight, it was an election that no one should have wanted to win, and the Conservatives benefited from being in opposition when the crisis finally came.

As we approach the end of our own crisis election, Corbyn and May have yet to acknowledge the disaster that could await them. Perhaps the victor will rue the day their party won.


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