One of the more boring aspects of this blog (to some) or the most interesting (for a few anoraks) is the odd look back at past elections. This week saw the anniversary, forty years on this week, of the first of the two 1974 general elections. The first was at the end of February, which as Barbara Dickson said a few years later "always comes around".
It was the dull dreary year that Abba’s Waterloo won the Eurovision song contest; Suzi Quatro, Alvin Stardust and the Osmonds topped the charts; and Rising Damp, It Ain't Half Hot Mum and Selwyn Froggart first appeared in the telly. But on the news, the monochrome images of February 1974 – millions of homes still only had a black and white set – was of a country gripped by industrial turmoil.
Late the previous year, the NUM had demanded a 35 per cent pay increase, in clear defiance of the Conservative government’s anti-inflation wage policy. Fearing that the massive oil price increases of October 1973 were already placing his government’s efforts to bring down inflation in mortal danger, prime minister Ted Heath resisted the miners’ claim. Rebuffed, the NUM led by Joe Gormley, ordered an overtime ban. The government responded by declaring a "state of emergency".
Newspaper advertisements requested drivers to ‘leave your car at home this weekend’. On new year’s eve, the government’s three-day week to preserve coal stocks and reduce the risk of power cuts came into force. But they surpassed even that by introducing a renewed and more thorough going "State of Emergency" in the penultimate sitting of the Commons, and having to having Heath scuttling to the Palace that very afternoon to get the Queen's assent.
With inflation and unemployment soaring and an emergency budget in December 1973 introducing swingeing cuts in public expenditure, an atmosphere of chaos and foreboding ensued: one cabinet minister reportedly told friends over dinner that the country was on the same course as the Weimar republic, while the editor of the Financial Times predicted a rightwing authoritarian government would soon be in power.
This, then, was how the curtain rose on 1974 – a time when governments attempted to control inflation by introducing wage policies, the prime minister often negotiated into the early hours with union leaders in Downing Street, and, when he finally asked the country 'Who Rules" the answer was "anyone but you, chum".
This would be the third time that Heath and Harold Wilson had jousted at the polls. To date, each had beaten, and lost to, the other. On this occasion, however, Heath, supposedly playing the stronger hand, was no match for Wilson. Despite the strike being the cause of the election, the Tory leader proved poor on TV and in the papers. . Instead, the Labour leader, in the words of Ben Pimlott’s (himself then a junior academic at Newcastle Uni and Labour's candidate later that same year in Cleveland and Whitby) biography, depicted himself as ‘a Labour Baldwin – a long-established national leader whom the voters could trust’. Aided by the three-day week. wide spread power outages and panic rises in the costs of household essentials, Wilson deftly turned the focus of the campaign away from the miners’ strike to the government’s poor economic record, painting Heath as ‘Mr Rising Price’.
Heath was a bad TV performer and his strangled upper middle class accent grated across the UK, Wilson, as normal, tried to portray himself as the nation's avuncular bank manager - and succeeded. In retrospect, looking at his interviews, it was noticeable with the advantage of hindsight to see his frequent small memory losses in front of the cameras, which he always quickly covered up by puffing on his pipe, I feel that this was, although we were not to know then, the very first signs of the onset of dementia that his own doctors had already warned him of, and which led to his shock resignation the following year..
Labour's manifesto was drafted largely by Tony Benn and Stuart Holland - both firmly on the left - but the process of taking the manifesto through the NEC and the joint liaison committee with the party's affiliated Trade Unions produced a document which was remarkably centrist . There were commitments on price controls, but also an acceptance of government regulation on wages The Miners strike would be settled and the only new nationalization promised was that of shipbuilding
The local campaigns were low key. Sure, the miners enjoyed support on Teesside, but people working for BSC and parts of the chemical industry still needed coal to power processes, blast furnaces and in-house power stations. Given this, solidarity with the miners was there, but so was an anxiety about local jobs. On that basis, Labour's commitment to settle the dispute quickly and honoutably struck a chord.
Most of our candidates, Arthur Bottomley in Middlesbrough, Jim Tinn in the newly created Redcar seat, Bill Rodgers in Stockton and the very odd Ted Leadbitter in Hartlepool were ageing, colourless, warhorses of the old Labour Right. Ian Wrigglesworth in the new Thornaby seat shared their views, but was a bit younger and slightly more dynamic. The colours of the left were only worn by two candidates - Gaye Hewitson (now Johnstone) in Cleveland and Whitby and the elderly, highly voluble, but comradely and approachable Spanish Civil War veteran of the ILP Brigade, Ted Fletcher.
Of polling day, all I can remember is that it was both nitheringly cold and sleety. I was new to Teesside then, and really didn't know the territory or the local nuances all that well. I recall being assigned by the late Charlie Shopland,, Labour's agent for Middlesbrough, to loud speakering in a union car driven by a taciturn T&G full time officer who, because he had a weak bladder, had to drive via the area's public wc's (at least I hope it was a weak bladder !) We covered Redcar and the East Cleveland part of the Cleveland and Whitby seat, with me squawking for Jim Tinn and Gaye, and using Radio 1 on the car radio as a musical interlude, so allowing Mud's "Tiger Feet", Sweet's "Teenage Rampage" and Golden Earring's "Radar Love" to be pressed into the struggle for socialism.
It wasn't helped by an unscheduled early evening black-out in Eston and Grangetown which led the people at bus stops to shout at us to "F off and get the lights back on". I don't suppose, however, if we had stopped to say that was, in fact, what we were trying to do, it would have cut that much ice.
The cold weather and dark early evening was anathema to turn out, and in East Cleveland, at least, it seemed that the whole population had cabined themselves up. The joint count was at the Coatham Bowl, and with a crowd mainly made up, than as now, with party members who had not done a hands turn, but liked to come to what they saw as some kind of local soiree or levee for the local great and good. The business job of overseeing the count was, I recall, in the hands of the late Claude Christie for Redcar (known as the "Old Estonion" because of his painfully acquired upper class accent) and the indestructible Harry Tout (still with us at the age of 94) for Cleveland and Whitby.
The colorful and diverse faces of Teesside Labour '74 (clockwise from above left) Bill Rodgers, Arthur Bottomley, Jim Tinn and Ted Leadbitter (centre of group)
All our candidates save Gaye Hewitson won their seats, Gaye narrowly missing out in a newly created and heterogeneous constituency and failing to keep out a younger Tory rising star, barrister, Leon Brittain
Only seven years later Rodgers and Wrigglesworth would rat on the people who worked for them by going over to SDP.
Despite polls indicating that the Tories would win comfortably, Wilson managed to fight them to a virtual draw: when the results was counted, Heath led by 0.7 per cent in the popular vote, while Labour, by four seats, was the largest party. The country had its first hung parliament since 1929, and one of only five in the 20th century.
For a few days, the country witnessed a situation similar, albeit by no means identical, to that of May 2010. Wilson assumed that, as the leader of the largest party, the Queen would call upon him to form a government. Heath, however, believed that as the incumbent prime minister he had the right to first see whether he could form a government. Although toying with threats to issue ‘a denunciation of constitutional impropriety’, Wilson stayed his hand while Heath, still squatting in Downing Street, tried, in vain, to negotiate a coalition deal with Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, talks which foundered on Tory unwillingness to grant electoral reform, and the reluctance of many traditional Liberals to support a government headed by a Tory leader.
Back where we belong - Harold and Mary
In the end Heath grumpily relinquished the key of the door. Wilson and Labour were back in power. But it was clear that a new election could not be long delayed - and that came in the October of that same year.
Walshy (the anorak in the blue snorkel anorak at the back of the Coatham Bowl for those of you with colour TV)
EPILOGUE: AN ELECTION AFTERMATH - HAROLD'S MINORITY MARCH OF THE MODS - THE QUEENS SPEECH FOR A NEW LABOUR GOVERNMENT
After getting back into the comfortable seat at the head of the Cabinet table, Harold Wilson acted quickly to resolve the Miners strike and then get down to constructing a programme that could be accommodated within the confines of being a minority government and in an environment where a new election was inevitably not going to be far away. He stressed the moderate (what we would now call "one nation" nature of his programme, but looking at the Queen's speech in early March, it now seems - in today'running s context with a Labour shadow administration scared of its own shadow, incredibly full of red meat - retail price controls, the boosting of regional development, big advances for the disabled, equal pay for women, the establishment of ACAS and the bringing about of the end of rent racketeering - all of which could be seen as being capable of being implemented in a short yearly term. In the event most of that which could be implemented, was - and in seven months rather than a year
Here is the speech in full
HC Deb 12 March 1974 vol 870 cc43-7
I have to acquaint the House that this House has this day attended Her Majesty in the House of Peers, and Her Majesty was pleased to make a Most Gracious Speech from the Throne to both Houses of Parliament, of which I have, for greater accuracy, obtained a copy, which is as follows:
My Lords and Members of the House of Commons:
My Husband and I look forward with pleasure to our visits to Indonesia and Japan and to the State Visit which Her Majesty Queen Margrethe of Denmark will pay to this country.
My Government will work for the strengthening of international institutions and of co-operation between all countries concerned to promote peace and to achieve prosperity in the face of world-wide inflation and far-reaching monetary disturbance. They will attach particular importance to the work of the United Nations and its agencies and to co-operation within the Commonwealth.
My Government will seek a fundamental renegotiation of the terms of entry to the European Economic Community. After these negotiations have been completed, the results will be put to the British people.
Recognising the economic problems concerning the developing countries My Government will seek to increase the provision of aid and to establish a more liberal pattern of world trade.
My Government will give their support to the search for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East, based on the implementation of Security Council Resolutions 242 of 1967 and 338 of 1973.
Recognising that the availability and the price of oil is a problem for the whole world, My Government will cooperate with consumer and producer countries in seeking to establish arrangements which will be in the interests of all.
My Government will oppose all forms of racial discrimination at home and abroad. In Rhodesia they will agree to no settlement which is not supported by the African majority.
My Government will give full support to the maintenance of the North Atlantic Alliance. They will regard the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation as an instrument of détente no less than of defence. In consultation with their allies they will pursue a policy directed to maintaining a modern and effective defence system while reducing its cost as a proportion of our national resources.
My Ministers will contribute fully to the negotiations for force reductions in Central Europe and to the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe.
My Ministers will give their support to the constitutional arrangements which now offer to Northern Ireland the prospect of healing its political and social divisions and of achieving prosperity and security for all its people. They will play their part, together with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Government of the Republic of Ireland, in developing co-operation in matters of mutual interest and in bringing violence to an end.
Members of the House of Commons:
Estimates for the public service will be laid before you.
My Lords and Members of the House of Commons:
In home affairs, My Government will first seek to ensure a return to full-time working in industry. I have been able to end the State of Emergency, occasioned by the coal mining dispute, which had existed since 13 November 451973 and which I had renewed by Proclamation on 6 March 1974 before the dispute was settled.
My Government will give the highest priority to overcoming the economic difficulties created by rising prices, the balance of payments deficit and the recent dislocation of production.
Measures will be laid before you to establish fair prices for certain key foods, with the use of subsidies where appropriate; and to restrain price inflation.
Legislation will be introduced to reform and extend the law relating to consumer credit; and a measure will be laid before you to require goods, where appropriate, to be labelled with the price at which they are to be sold, and to provide for unit pricing.
My Government is taking immediate steps to halt the increases in rents due in 1974. They will bring forward comprehensive proposals, which will require the repeal of the Housing Finance Acts, to reform the law relating to rents and housing subsidies in England, Wales and Scotland. Urgent measures will be taken to reverse the fall in house-building, to protect furnished tenants from eviction and to encourage municipal ownership. Proposals will be prepared for bringing land required for development into public possession and for encouraging home ownership. Proposals will be brought forward to eliminate the abuses arising from the lump.
My Ministers will work for a greater measure of social justice as a pre-requisite of national unity at this difficult time. A Bill will be introduced to increase pensions and other social security benefits. Proposals will be put before you for the redistribution of wealth, the protection of the lower paid and the disadvantaged, and for better methods of meeting the needs of the disabled.
In the light of these measures, My Ministers will discuss urgently with the Trades Union Congress, the Confederation of British Industry and the others concerned, methods of securing the orderly growth of incomes on a voluntary basis.
My Ministers will hold urgent consultations on measures to encourage he development and re-equipment of industry. A Bill will be laid before you to consolidate and develop existing legislation to promote national industrial expansion. High priority will be given to the stimulation of regional development and employment. They will develop an active manpower policy, and bring forward legislation for protecting the health and safety of people at work.
My Government will encourage the maximum economic production of food by the farming and fishing industries of the United Kingdom in the interests of the national economy.
My Ministers will set in hand urgent action to improve energy supplies, to secure their efficient use and to ensure that oil and gas from the Continental Shelf are exploited in ways and on terms which will confer maximum benefit on the community, and particularly in Scotland and the regions elsewhere in need of development. An urgent examination will be carried out of the future of the coal industry.
Measures will be introduced to repeal the industrial Relations Act and to replace it by new legislation which will include the establishment of a new conciliation and arbitration service.
Comprehensive proposals will be brought forward to reform the law relating to the adoption, guardianship and fostering of children on the basis of the recommendations of the Interdepartmental Committee on the Adoption of Children.
Within available resources, My Government will progressively improve and expand the National Health Service and the personal social services. They will review the working of the reorganised National Health Service.
My Government will give priority to improving educational facilities for children in need of special help, and will prepare plans for the nation-wide provision of nursery education and for the development of a fully comprehensive system of secondary education. A major review will be made of the particular needs of handicapped children.
The museum charges recently introduced will be abolished.
My Ministers will work for the protection and improvement of the environment including the improvement of public transport, and will reappraise accordingly the value of certain major development projects.
My Ministers will initiate discussions in Scotland and Wales on the Report of the Royal Commission on the Constitution, and will bring forward proposals for consideration.
My Ministers will make proposals for securing equal status for women.
My Ministers will consider the provision of financial assistance to enable Opposition parties more effectively to fulfil their Parliamentary functions.
Measures will be introduced to make further reforms in the law and improvements in the administration of justice.
Other measures will be laid before you.
My Lords and Members of the House of Commons: I pray that the blessing of Almighty God may rest upon your counsels.