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31 March 1966

Labour won the 1966 election with the second largest majority in its history. Prime Minister Harold Wilson's skillful management of the country since 1964 paid Labour dividends. The Conservative leader, Edward Heath, could not compete with Wilson's popularity and failed to disturb the Prime Minister's forward march as Labour coasted to a landslide victory.

Harold Wilson on the steps of Number Ten

Party Votes Seats Change UK Vote Share (%) GB Vote Share (%)
Labour 13,096,629 364 + 47 48.0 48.9
Conservative 11,418,455 253 - 51 41.9 41.4
Liberal 2,327,457 12 + 3 8.6 8.6
Others 422,206 1 + 1 1.5 1.1

The Campaign   The Result

Labour campaign poster
For the first time since 1951, Labour was able to campaign on its record
After his narrow victory in the general election of 1964, Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson needed to call another election as soon as possible in the hope of increasing his majority from five to a figure substantial enough to govern. Wilson soon chose 1966 as the year for the next general election, believing he needed to wait while the country's appetite grew ready for a second political battle.

However, the Government ran into trouble in the House. It only barely survived a debate on the future of the Territorial Army and Labour backbenchers were becoming increasingly uneasy over the Government's support for American intervention in the Vietnam war.

Edward Heath had replaced Sir Alec Douglas-Home as leader of the Conservative Party in 1965. And although the polls suggested he was not as popular as Wilson, he did manage to heal some of the party rifts generated by his predecessor.

After Labour's crucial and unexpected by-election victory in Hull North in January 1966, a general election could never be far away. Tory hopes of winning the seat were dashed by a 4.5% swing to Labour. On 28 February, after returning from a trip to the Soviet Union, Wilson called the general election for 31 March 1966.

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All the signs indicated a victory for Labour. Opinion polls in early March gave the Government an 11-point lead over the Conservatives. Labour's manifesto, Time for Decision, skillfully emphasised Labour's achievements during the previous 18 months. A national transport plan was envisaged to integrate road and rail transport, investment was to be carefully targeted and an ambitious house building programme was unveiled. Even a touch of socialism managed to peep out of the manifesto, under the guise of the re-nationalisation of the steel industry.

Above all, the Labour campaign emphasised Wilson himself. One journalist remarked, "Harold Wilson is the Prime Minister's most potent weapon". Labour bullishly entered the campaign under the slogan "You know Labour works".

The Conservatives, who dubbed themselves the "party of peacemakers", had 131 action points in their manifesto, Action not Words. These included the old staples of low inflation, curbing the power of the trade unions and reform of the welfare state. The Conservatives were, on the whole, unsettled throughout the campaign, which ran flawlessly for Labour. They struggled hard to come to grips with the twin problems of fighting the election as the opposition under the direction of a new and untried leader.

For the first time since 1955, the House of Commons continued to sit even though an election had been called. On 1 March, Labour unveiled a "little Budget". Jim Callaghan, the Chancellor, announced a scheme of tax rebates for mortgage holders and he also promised the decimalisation of sterling by February 1971.

During the campaign's early stages, Heath ruffled Labour's feathers by raising the possibility of Britain joining the Common Market. Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart said the Government would not enter the Common Market until after its agricultural policy had changed. Callaghan said Britain was willing to join but needed to negotiate. The two party leaders then traded blows over the subject, with Wilson accusing Heath of "rolling on his back like a spaniel at any kind gesture from the French".

Wilson was determined to keep the peace within the Labour Party over Europe. He needed to make some encouraging noises about the Common Market, but he couldn't afford to risk angering his own backbenchers. Wilson wanted to employ what one of his campaign managers, Richard Crossman, called a "deliberately boring approach". Wilson wanted a quiet campaign and was unwilling to raise any issues.

On 10 March, Heath, in the most memorable phrase of the campaign, described Britain's shaky economic position as "9-5-1". Heath referred to the 9% rise in wages, 5% increase in prices and a 1% rise in production. These figures, he claimed, contained the sad truth about Britain's economic ills. Labour dismissed Heath's accusations, which in any case had failed to make any impact on the voters.

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The Result

Labour voter
Wilson was returned with the second largest majority in Labour's history
When the results came in, it became clear that Wilson had achieved the difficult task of increasing a Government majority. Not only that, he had given the Labour Party one of the most impressive victories in its history, second only to that scored by Clement Attlee in 1945.

Labour gained 48 seats, taking them up to 363. The Conservatives lost 51 seats, leaving them with 253. The Liberals, despite seeing their share of the vote fall, gained two seats, taking them to a total of 12. The national swing to Labour was 2.7%. Wilson now had a majority of 96. He could look forward to governing for a full Parliament and working towards his ambition of making Labour the natural party of government.

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