Polls suggest this is the closest election since 1974. Historian Martin Johnes looks at the parallels
General elections inevitably turn eyes to the past in search of clues for what might happen this time round or, sometimes, just a few nostalgic stories of when things were ‘better’. Historians tend to be suspicious of both nostalgia and the idea that the past offers much indication of the future but for those seeking such inspiration 1974 is the most obvious recent parallel to 2015. That year there were two closely-fought general elections, and they took place against a backdrop of constitutional questions, economic turmoil and threats to the two-party hegemony.
The February 1974 election left Labour the biggest party but 17 seats short of an overall majority, the first time no party had won a majority at a general election since 1929. Popular disillusionment with Labour and the Conservatives contributed to the Liberals’ share of the vote rising from 7.5% in 1970 to 19%, while Plaid Cymru and the SNP won 2.6% of the UK vote, double their 1970 share. The geographical concentrations in the nationalist vote saw them win 9 seats (up from 1 in 1970), whereas as the Liberals’ widespread but dispersed support meant they secured just 14 seats, an echo of the situation that will probably undermine UKIP in 2015. Having claimed the biggest share of the vote, the Conservatives tried to hold on to power but failed to reach a coalition agreement with another party. Labour refused to consider a coalition and instead formed a minority government.
In 1974, as now, there was a huge balance of payments deficit but the economic parallels are misleading. In 1974 the annual budget deficit stood roughly at £4,000m. At today’s prices that would be around £36.4billion. Today’s annual deficit is significantly higher at around £105billion. Yet this blackhole in the nation’s finances is better managed than in 1974, with both low interest rates and inflation ensuring relative economic stability. In 1974, in contrast, interest rates stood at 9.5% and inflation was 19% by the end of the year, both of which created unease and pessimism. Average earnings were rising faster than prices but that was partly down to industrial disputes that in themselves furthered a sense of economic crisis. In the early 1970s, the primary victim of the economic problems was thus the ordinary taxpayer. Today, it is public spending. This probably concentrates the consequent pain amongst the weakest in society, with the result that economic issues are not to the fore in 2015 electoral concerns in the way they were in 1974.
In both 1974 and 2015, the London parties showed little enthusiasm over demands for devolution. A commission on the constitution had recommended devolution to Wales and Scotland in October 1973 but neither Labour nor the Tories had paid much attention to the issue at the February election. The resulting nationalists’ success forced a change at the October election but the commitments made by both parties had little impact in Scotland where the SNP saw its share of the vote rise from 22% to 30%, which gave it 11 seats. Plaid Cymru were far less successful, winning in October 10.8% of the Welsh vote and just three seats, all in its Welsh-speaking heartland. As in 2015, it might be suspected that such votes were often rooted in statements of identity and objection to the status quo that would be difficult to fight off whatever constitutional settlements London offered.
The size of the Liberal vote was evidence of how the disillusionment with mainstream politics extended to England and it is important not to think that the current apathy and anger is anything new. There was at least a rise in turnout at the February election to 79% from 72% in 1970. This was probably thanks not so much to the uncertainty of the final result but rather the question of whether the government or Nation Union of Mineworkers ran the country. This was how prime minister Edward Heath had framed the election after a miners’ strike brought about a state of emergency and national electricity shortages.
By the October election turnout had fallen to 73% again and in Cardiff West it even dipped below 70%. During that campaign The Sun published a cartoon that depicted spectators asleep as Labour and Tories plodded slowly to the finishing line. Thus, unless one party can make the 2015 campaign an issue of principle, the parallels of 1974 suggest that the uncertainties over the final result will not lead to a significant upturn in voting numbers given the context where so many have lost faith in all the main competitors.
A final parallel is the European question. In 1974 Labour was split on whether remaining in Europe was a good idea but after February the issue faded somewhat within the party’s ranks, as the costs and economic implications of withdrawal became more apparent. There was also little to suggest that it was an issue that deeply concerned the electorate. As in 2015, the question of Europe was actually a mask for deeper tensions over sovereignty, bureaucracy and the decline of what people perceived as traditional British culture.
As Europe subsided as an internal rift within Labour, and despite having no majority and the scale of the economic problems it faced, the government elected in February 1974 was actually relatively successful. It ended the miners’ strike, state of emergency and three-day week. It raised taxes and pensions, reduced the deficit a little, helped limit inflation, continued the shift to comprehensive education and encouraged the building of council houses, whilst discouraging their sale. It did put off action on some issues, while the opposition was able to enact changes to a few of the 38 bills that were passed, but 1974 showed that minority government can work.
Another election was called in October because no one in Parliament was enamoured with the unfamiliar position. They and commentators worried that the situation threatened instability and constant changes in policy direction. Yet the fear of a reprisal from the electorate meant none of the opposition parties were keen to bring down the government over any trivial issue or simply because they could. Thus the October election was brought about by the choices of the governing party and not the destabilising attempts of its opposition.
The success of both the minority government of 1974 and the insecure Labour administration that followed it was helped by the fact that the gap between Labour and Conservatives was not as wide as might be imagined. Indeed, Labour was actually beginning a process of controlling public expenditure and the trade unions that is more commonly credited to or blamed on Margaret Thatcher.
Nonetheless, whatever present-day party hacks might think, the actual ideological distance between Labour and Conservatives then was surely wider and deeper than it is today. This means that, assuming the other behaves responsibly, either party could form a minority government without falling at the first hurdle. If the lack of profound ideological differences between Labour and Conservatives reflects popular opinion then nor should the public worry too much about a period of minority governments that fail to see out their full terms. In economic policy at least, this is unlikely to bring about any destabilising swings and reverses. If the 1970s offers any lesson, then it is the fact that economic instability is good for no one beyond a few speculators.
As in February 1974, the unfamiliarity of minority government means it would probably be amongst politicians that the idea is most unpopular. But they exist across Europe and such situations force co-operation. Far more unites than divides all the major UK parties and their supporters. A situation that forced co-operation for the greater good, and which encouraged people to think about issues and outcomes, is surely a good thing.
The three biggest challenges the UK faced in the twentieth century – the two world wars and the interwar depression – all produced coalition governments. None were unqualified successes but they all showed that partnerships do not have to be with ‘minor’ parties. The results of the 2015 general election are unlikely to put any party in a position to govern with a majority but they could encourage the informal co-operation and arrangements that put the national interests above party games. If that happens then politicians might just start to win back some respect.