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10 October 1974

Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was forced to call the second general election of 1974 in a bid to turn his minority in Parliament into a solid working majority. He was up against Conservative leader Edward Heath once more and the opinion polls predicted a Labour victory. In the event Labour won, but only just. With a majority of only three seats there would be tough times ahead for Labour.

Mr Wilson was relieved at the result...

Party Votes Seats Change UK Vote Share (%) GB Vote Share (%)
Labour 11,457,079 319 + 18 39.2 40.2
Conservative 10,462,565 277 - 20 35.8 36.7
Liberal 5,346,704 13 - 1 18.3 18.8
Others 1,922,756 26 + 3 6.7 4.3

The Campaign   The Result


Harold Wilson
Wilson, returned as Prime Minister for the fourth time
The election of October 1974 was the second general election fought in the space of eight months. In February, Edward Heath's Conservative Government proved unable to take control of a hung Parliament, leaving the Labour Party to form the first minority government since 1929.

Harold Wilson, now Prime Minister for the third time, successfully took action to end the miners' strike that had helped to bring Heath's government down. Labour attempted to work with the unions to end the perennial industrial disputes that had made Britain an unstable and divided nation, but it was clear that Wilson needed to call a second general election if the Government was to remain in office.

Britain's continuing instability and the deterioration of living standards in comparison to the rest of Europe provided the backdrop for the election campaign. Inflation, which was climbing partly due to the Government's pay settlement with the miners, was high as were balance of trade deficits.

The Labour Party, however, remained confident of victory, hoping that the country would give it longer than eight months to solve the nation's problems. Wilson also assumed that he could blame the previous Tory administration and the prevailing global economic trends for Britain's unhappy state. In September Wilson called the election for 10 October.

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Most pundits expected the Labour Government to be returned with a solid majority of 20 to 30 MPs. Opinion polls showed Labour running 10 points clear of the Tories. But throughout the lacklustre campaign, Heath remained confident that victory was possible. This election was the fourth fought with Wilson and Heath as the leaders of the main parties; as such it failed to inspire the public.

Labour entered the campaign with strong attacks on the record of Heath's previous government (1970-1974) under the slogan "Labour keeps its promises". Wilson never tired of reminding voters of Heath's three-day week, which Labour labelled the "dark ages". But although Labour was strong on the offensive, its campaign was not without the occasional jitter.

Despite Wilson's attempts to keep the Cabinet silent on the issue of the Common Market, Shirley Williams reminded the voters that Labour was divided on Europe when she announced she would quit politics if Britain were to withdraw from the EEC. Persistent rumours about Wilson's health dogged Labour's campaign.

The Conservatives got off to an early start when copies of the Tory manifesto were leaked to the press, forcing them to publish it before Wilson called the election. Heath ran under the banner of national unity. In the final days of the campaign he proposed a government of national unity even if the Conservatives won a majority.

Heath's ideas worried Labour despite Wilson's firm rebuff. "Coalition would mean Con policies, Con leadership by a Con party for a Con trick." Labour continued to play up the success of the social contract in getting the miners back to work where Heath had failed.

As well as national unity, Heath also tried to lure the voters by promising to hold down the mortage interest rate to 9.5%. But even this didn't seem to work. On the eve of the election, opinion polls showed Labour nearly 15 points ahead. However, the polls were to be proved wrong, just as they had been earlier in the year.

The Liberals under Jeremy Thorpe capitalised on the disillusionment of the floating voter with the two main parties in the February election, polling an impressive six million votes. Thorpe's problem was how to hold on to these first-time Liberal voters.

Thorpe, like Heath, talked of a Government of National Unity, believing that the country faced problems of such magnitude that they were above party allegiances. Thorpe hoped a Liberal breakthrough in this election would break, "the stranglehold of the present class-ridden two-party system".

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The Result

Margaret Thatcher
Heath's third electoral defeat paved the way for Margaret Thatcher's election as Tory leader in 1975
Even though the polls had shown a Labour lead of 5-10%, Wilson ended up with a majority of just three MPs. Heath had now lost three out of four general elections. He was criticised by The Economist for putting in a "soggy performance", and his days as Tory leader were numbered. Wilson had now become Prime Minister for the fourth time, equalling Gladstone's record.

The October election contained more women candidates, more Liberals, more Welsh and Scottish nationalists and more National Front than ever before. Margaret Beckett and Bryan Gould were among those new members brought into the House on the back of Wilson's victory.

The Labour share of the vote increased by 2%, the Tory vote dropped by the same amount. The Liberals made a strong showing of 18% but this was, disappointingly, 1% lower than in February. Labour had 42 seats more than the Tories and would be able to govern comfortably, at least for the moment.

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