Forty years ago, the nation’s political waters were particularly turbulent. In response to western support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, Opec had introduced an oil embargo, which was led to the quadrupling in the price of a barrel of oil. This in turn led not only to an energy crisis, but soaring inflation. On 12 November 1973, the National Union of Mineworkers introduced an overtime ban, and the next day, the Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, declared a state of emergency. In January 1974, the Heath government introduced the three-day working week to conserve energy.
On 4 February 1974, the NUM voted in favour of a strike. On 7 February 1974, Heath called a snap general election for 28 February, under the slogan ‘Who Governs Britain?’ The Labour leader, Harold Wilson, ran a campaign focusing on bringing the country together. In a party political broadcast on 23 January, he had set the tone, promising that Labour would ‘knit the nation into one’. In the 1970-74 parliament, Labour had been split on Europe; on membership of what was then called the Common Market. Wilson had maintained party unity throughout the election campaign around the policy of renegotiating terms of entry, then subsequently holding a referendum on membership.
The two main parties, Labour and the Conservatives, were said to under attack from an insurgent party: the Liberals, who increased their share of the popular vote by 11.3 per cent in the general election on 28 February. In his eve-of-poll address, the Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, concentrated on the Liberals making a major breakthrough: ‘Our years of constructive opposition have prepared us for office.’
In the event, Labour won 37.2 per cent of the popular vote, less than the Conservatives’ 37.9 per cent, but won more seats: 301 to 297. Wilson sat quietly as coalition talks between Thorpe and Heath broke down. On Monday 4 March 1974, The Times reported that, over the weekend: ‘Prominent Liberals … suggested that the Liberals could never support a Tory administration in any formal sense.’ That same day, Harold Wilson became prime minister for the second time.
Wilson’s new minority government set about its business quickly and effectively. On 6 March, Wilson settled the dispute with the miners, with an increased pay offer. Thus, on 7 March, Wilson gave notice of the end of the state of emergency declared by Heath. Five days later, Wilson set out the government’s plans in the Queen’s Speech. As Wilson’s biographer, Ben Pimlott, observed, it ‘made clear the government’s intention to deliver on its side of the social contract.’ Wilson’s ‘social contract’ promised assistance with the cost of living in exchange for wage restraint. Thus ‘There were undertakings to raise pensions, tighten price controls and provide food subsidies.’
Keen to capitalise on the government’s honeymoon, Wilson called a second general election for 10 October 1974. Labour took 39.2 per cent of the vote to 35.8 per cent for the Conservatives, and gained 18 seats, giving an overall majority of three, on a reduced turnout. The Liberals made a net loss of one seat, and the SNP gained four seats to hold a total of 11. Whilst the overall majority was to be lost through a series of by-election defeats, Labour was to remain in office until losing a vote of confidence in March 1979.
Reflecting on the 1974, there are undoubtedly contemporary features. The tough economic times have a modern resonance. The first general election of 1974 produced a hung parliament, as did the most recent general election of 2010. But the Labour party of 2014 can take great heart from 1974: for a Labour leader with a one-nation message emerged as the victor at the polls.
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