The Conservative Party pulls off a surprise victory in a general election in which the opinion polls were massively wrong. That victory came with the help of Labour Party still hobbled by past economic crisis and which, in the face of defeat, swung sharply to the left.
The Conservative government, determined to leave the compromises of the past behind, sets off with a series of controversial, high profile policies, rapidly running into political crisis and u-turns leaving the immediate post-election talk of a new era of Tory political dominance looking rather premature.
Sounds familiar? I’m talking, of course, about the 1970 general election, Ted Heath’s ascent to 10 Downing Street – despite a profusion of Ted Heaths on the ballot paper – and the way it then all went horribly wrong for the Conservatives.
That descent into sort-of defeat at the February 1974 general election, which resulted in a hung Parliament where the Tories got the most votes but Labour just won more seats, was then followed by another marginal but decisive defeat in October 1974, where Labour again only just edged it but this time got an overall majority.
The story of these two elections was told in the 1970s by Britain at the polls: The Parliamentary elections of 1974, edited by Howard R. Penniman.
It is still a very interesting and readable account, not only for the uncanny echoes with contemporary politics but also for the account of the struggles of the polling industry, which had a bad run in elections in the early 1970s. The debates about whether to try to turn vote shares into projected seat numbers – and if so, how – are still very relevant today, for example, even if the coverage of the newspapers seems from another world. In 1970 The Sun backed Labour (they lost). In February 1974 it switched to the Tories. They lost again. That is a Sun very different from today’s. But even those differences are interesting, making this still a good read for anyone interested in British elections.
If you like this, you might also be interested in The British General Election of 1955 by David Butler.
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