50 years on: Lessons from the February 1974 election

On this day half a century ago, Britain went to the polls. The political script today isn’t the same today, but lessons can still be learnt.  Back then the Tories had governed through a period of crisis. Industrial strife led to the three-day week and regular power cuts left homes dark and cold. The question then was who governed Britain, the government, or the unions? The voter’s answer was ambiguous. 
Labour won four more seats than the incumbent Tory government led by the rather remote and cold Edward Heath, but Harold Wilson couldn’t form any kind of stable administration, and called a second election eight months later.  Then Labour performed slightly better but still with no overall majority, and so the Lib/Lab pact was born but with little life or energy.  The government stumbled on until 1979 and Thatcher’s first but decisive victory.  The country has never been the same again. 
Other than Tory chaos what really chimes all these years later is the sense of a country at a turning point.  Then it was the long post war settlement that was floundering, as rising inflation and unemployment seemed to many to negate the idea of big interventionist government. After Wilson stepped down quickly from Office, the Jim Callahan years cleared the path for neoliberalism with their acceptance that governments can’t spend their way out of recession. He didn’t say ‘max out the credit card’ but the spirit was the same. 
Today the country feels like it’s at another turning point. The neoliberal settlement has in turn been found wanting both morally and evidentially. The 2008 crash was a consequence of a state that was too remote but mostly markets that were too strong.  The crises of climate, COVID and now the cost of living mean the big state is back but its nature is contested. There will be a new settlement but will it be democratic and egalitarian or populist and authoritarian?
The polls currently point to an unambiguous result. But who really knows when events and voters are so volatile.  A recent internal Labour polling presentation by party strategist Deborah Mattinson quietly reported to suggest Labour’s real lead is around 14% and soft.  The Tories continue to shoot themselves in every foot, but a recovering economy and Labour brittleness suggest a less than clear outcome is still possible. 
Fifty years ago Labour responded to such uncertainty by calling a second election and then jumping into bed with the Liberals. Today it’s highly unlikely that Labour will do any such deal. Its temperament is extremely tribal externally and voraciously factional internally.  If they fail to win a majority the most likely Labour response will be to try to run the country on a minority basis and dare the Liberal Democrats and the SNP to bring them down and chance the blame of a Tory win. But this is a recipe for legislative stasis. If there is no deal, not even one of basic confidence and supply, which ensures budgets are passed and regular knife edge votes to bring down the government avoided, then the Commons just witnesses daily hand to hand fights to squeeze any limited legislation through.  This is what Wilson sought to avoid after the October 1974 election.
But counter pressures will come into play. Everything about Labour’s promised programme is based on economic growth, and what business dislike most, if they are to invest, is uncertainty. Minority governments with no Commons deals to govern are a recipe for such economic uncertainty. If Starmer can’t get a clear victory after the most incompetent years of Tory rule, from Johnson’s party gate, to Truss’s economic meltdown and Sunak’s ham fisted incompetence, then he might have to stick with the first hand the electorate deals him.  But this requires willing and able suitors.
The SNP will be viewed as a bridge too far, as their singular big demand for an independence referendum is too risky for Labour’s cautious high command to countenance.  But in rejecting such a deal more trouble is soon stored up. In May 2025 a new Scottish Government is elected. If Labour is governing in an unstable and chaotic way, and refuses to cooperate with the SNP, there could be a big backlash north of the border. Who said governing was easy?
Much more likely is some kind of arrangement with the Liberal Democrats. But this isn’t plain sailing either. The Lib Dems were badly burnt by the 2010 coalition, and there is almost no way that they will re-enter any such deal again.  But there is a wide range of options between day-to-day deals on every vote hammered out by the Whip’s offices and a full governing coalition. Scotland, Wales and New Zealand have shown how other arrangements can be conducted. These involve smaller party’s taking on the leadership of one or two ministries but not being subjected to collective cabinet responsibility.  In this way they can claim some victories while avoiding the opprobrium of the voters for everything that goes wrong.
Labour feels like it is an odd place, mixing aggression internally and externally with a deep sense of anxiety. They keep saying there is no room for complacency, but refuse to plan for a non-complacent outcome, such as a hung parliament.  Whatever the result, the meta-crisis world we live in won’t be successfully managed by one faction of one party, governing on a minority slice of the vote.  It’s going to take a bigger boat and a longer journey to get us out of this mess.

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