Opinion: The Morning after the Night Before … February 1974

On Friday 19 February 2010 from 9am until midnight, the BBC Parliament channel gave us the chance to relive the February 1974 election by broadcasting the whole of Election Night 74, hosted by Alistair Burnett.

When I stumbled on the coverage at 6 pm, the programme was reaching 1.00 pm on Friday 1 March, the day after polling day.  By that stage, 600 results were in and the Conservatives were a dozen seats and a few thousand votes behind Labour.  The swingometer, operated by Robert McKenzie, showed a 2% swing to Labour from the Conservatives but this failed to register the real flow of votes which were from both those parties to the Liberals.  The swing was 5.9% from Labour and 8.5% from Prime Minister Ted Heath’s Conservatives to Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberals.

I was just in time to see Steve Ross being asked by Robin Day what would become of his 200 acre pig farm now he had been elected to Parliament with a 7,000 majority.  Thorpe down in Devon said he was conferring with senior colleagues about the result.  Later we saw him conducting his press conference from Devon by means of a strange green telephone handset held unnecessarily to his ear as he was speaking via a television connection to an assortment of bored journalists ranged about the National Liberal Club 300 miles away.  “This is the largest Liberal vote ever,” he affirmed the Eton educated descendent of descendant of Thomas Thorpe a C15th Speaker of the House.

Almost every seat in the country had a Liberal in second place, often with a third of the vote.   According to the excitable psephologist, David Butler, the total Liberal vote by then was above 5 million and registering 25%.  But the total of our MPs clocked up on a precarious but huge results board was a disappointing 7.  Oh no, it’s now 8 as Richard Wainwright has just won back Colne Valley by a whisker and  Robert Macclennan has increased his majority in Caithness … for the Labour Party!

By the end of the day the votes cast exceeded 6 million or 19% and our Parliamentary Party consisted of a meagre14.

I remember that morning well.  Down in Bodmin, we were enduring recount after recount before Paul Tyler was eventually declared the winner causing my father to ‘have nothing to do’ with me for over a year!

Back on Election Night ‘74, a 45 year old Cyril Smith is being interviewed by Day.  I close my eyes and swear I’m in the same room as Howard Sykes.  Cyril won’t reveal who he would rather ‘do a deal with’ but he admits he has a preference.

“What I can say is that we will work for moderation and do whatever is required in the circumstances to offer stability for the country. We must wait for someone to ring us, but I don’t think they will.”

“Surely, then, you should be contacting the other Parties,” suggests Day.

“No, it is not for us to do that.  The British Public has made its views known.  We’ll allow the party with the strongest mandate to make the running.”

Wait a minute, this sounds familiar.

It is at that very moment that the Tory vote-total moves ahead of Labour’s, but they have 8 fewer seats.

“Who has the strongest mandate now?”  But the connection with Smith has been lost.

Then it’s off to Belfast where Vincent Hanna is speaking to camera and it becomes obvious that the Unionists have had a good night. This is hugely significant because, although in this election the total votes cast for candidates supporting the Sunningdale agreement is greater than those opposing it, the pro-Sunningdale candidates have split their vote and the Unionists have won the seats.  There is no way that these Unionists are going to support a Party that set up that power sharing agreement even if it means helping to take power in Westminster a party that also supported the Sunningdale agreement. “That’s all from Ulster, Alistair” says Hanna, signing off.

In Smith Square, we see Harold Wilson struggling through crowds reminiscent those in Downing Street in ’97 to get to Transport House and a Labour Shadow Cabinet Meeting – significantly this is already referred to by journalists as a ‘Cabinet Meeting’.  “Are you holding the Cabinet Meeting here?”  “We are,” replies Wilson, ignoring the fact that he is actually still the Leader of HM’s Opposition.  (N.B. to everybody: in the world of an unwritten constitution you don’t even have to kiss hands to become PM, you need the journalists to say you are the PM and a partisan crowd around you for the cameras.)

At his own Press Conference following the meeting at Transport House, Wilson is asked, “Will you talk to the Liberals?” “No!” he replies vehemently, pipe in hand, and armed not only with the backing of his Cabinet, but also with his political antennae sensing that Ulster has spoken.

By 3 pm, Friday, AJP Taylor, friend neither of the Liberal Party nor of moderation, has joined other political journalists in the studio to express the commentariat’s certain conviction that we have a minority Labour Government whatever. “Wouldn’t it be cleaner for the Parties to meet in Parliament and for votes to be taken?” asks Burnett.  “No!” declares the little Don as vehemently as Wilson.

The lesson for Liberal Democrats today is striking: not a call has been made.  The Establishment has spoken.  6 million Liberal voters have been effectively disenfranchised. But neither they nor the leadership of their chosen party have any power to wield.  It is a brutal system.  300,000 votes for 10 successful Ulster Unionist and Vanguard candidates changed the course of history beyond measure.

You don’t even need a winner for someone to take all.  But what Wilson was able to take, as Prime Minister, was the power to contrive the date of the next election.  On the Queens Speech, the Tories abstained.  Within a month Healey presented a Labour budget.  I seem to remember fudges to reduce the price of staples like bread and milk, in order to make inflation look better and give the impression that the economy is back under control.  By October Wilson was ready to go back to the electorate on terms favourable to Labour.  The result was a slender and soon to be eroded majority. Labour had made 18 net gains. The Liberal tide subsided somewhat to 5.3 million votes and we lost a seat.  Critically, the path was clear for Thatcher to challenge Heath for the leadership of the Conservatives.

For us, it is important to remember that there is no point in getting angry on the Friday after the election.  The chance by then has gone.  We must get angry before and during the election.  As AJP Taylor told Robin Day, “All this talk of moderation (by the Liberals) is a sign of their ineffectiveness.”

Four years before, in 1970, the public had thrown out a Wilson Government that had failed economically.  Its replacement under Ted Heath had faired worse.  There was a mood throughout the country of ‘a plague on both your houses’.  Politics was still very much tribal with party loyalty generally ascribed at birth, but yet almost a quarter of the electorate determinedly voted in a radically different way. You can tell that something similar is happening again, thirty six years later.

The tragedy was that the party that those 6 million citizens voted for was not as angry or radical as they were.  As part of the Establishment, Thorpe could not express nor match the public’s anger.  He and Heath lacked the Wilson political nous that enabled him to direct the helter-skelter of events that day.  Externally smiling and sucking on his pipe, internally Wilson was manipulating with masterly skill the Establishment requirement for a clean transition, the commentariat’s need to appear to be able to predict outcomes and the media’s requirement for a result before the end of the programme.

Brought back to life so vividly by these pale coloured images, those events should make us think hard about what we are saying and planning to do now and in the forthcoming election.  What shocked me was the similarity of the line taken by the Liberal Leadership then and now.

Today we are saying, and I quote from the guidance recently given to MPs and other spokespersons by the Leader’s Office: “IF voters decide no party deserves an overall majority, then the party with the strongest mandate will have a moral right to be the first to seek to govern on its own or seek alliances with other parties … It will be abundantly clear after the election which party has the strongest mandate. It would be pointless to speculate at this point as to whether that means seats or votes – we are setting out a principle, not a mathematical formula.”

I am now certain, given the experience of February 1974, that, if we are passive and reactive, the decisions will be made for us by other parties, by the media and by pundits raised to a level of authority over the British public by that media and by deadlines that have more to do with programme making than the constitution.

Perhaps it is as simple as this; rather than campaigning for fairness we should be campaigning against injustice.  Rather than using the Summerfield supermarket colours of yellow and aqua we should be using the strident opposites of black and white which reflect the public mood and the narrative requirements of the media.  Rather than using marketeers to advise us on how to ‘sell’ our policies like toilet tissue we should be using our own tried, tested and effective skills of political campaigning. Our campaigners would never use the word ‘for’ in ‘Change that works for you’.  That is paternalism.  Our campaigners always work ‘with’ people.  That’s Liberalism.

Rather than a force for moderation and fairness, perhaps we should copy the Duke of Marlborough and place ourselves in the centre of the whirlwind, directing events.  And place ourselves there now before it is too late.

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  • Liberal Eye 23rd Feb '10 - 4:06pm

    A great penultimate paragraph. I particularly like the suggested emphasis on injustice as opposed the woolly nirvana of fairness.

  • Let’s have a look at some of the differences between Ferbuary 1974 and May 2010.

    (1) The Liberal Party is now the Liberal Democrats, having merged with the SDP in 1988. It has extensive experience of running local councils, unlike the pre-Alliacne Liberals.

    (2) The Liberal Democrats are led by Nick Clegg, a far cry from the flamboyant and deeply flawed Jeremy Thorpe.

    (3) The Liberal Democrats have a more professional team of candidates. Did the pre-Alliance Liberals have a Vince Cable or a Ming Campbell, or a Chris Huhne or a David Laws?

    (4) The Liberal Democrats learned from the local government wing of the Liberal Party and adopted targeting, giving us a base of 63 seats.

  • I read on the internet that it was on, and sat there from about 9 00pm to 12.30 am.
    It was so interesting to sit there and recall history, I lived at the time in Rochdale and knew how well liked Cyril Smith was in the area.
    I started to think was I looking at History, or looking at what we could be looking at in a few weeks time.

    What it did show that having at one time nearly 25% of the poll, the Liberal party were not getting a fair crack of the whip. I could not remember how it finished, would the Labour party ask the Liberal party to join them in power, or would Ted Heath jump into bed with them?

    I think we all had a lot to learn from that election.

  • I don’t suppose it might be possible for LDV to let us know the next time one of these things is on?

  • Bill le Breton 24th Feb '10 - 7:31am

    Thank you for reading this rather long piece. There is a typically flawed examination of the issues by Riddell in the Times today saying what the ‘constitutional position’ is but not understanding the realpolitiks revealed by that broadcast in ’74.

    Sesenco, may I just look at your points about the differences between now and then:

    (1) Our extensive experience of running local councils – yes.
    My first party job was in 1985 as the Alliance’s county council officer – aiding the many balanced County Councils elected that year. Those in the Parliamentary Party with relevant experience include David Health who was the then leader of our minority administration in Somerset, Mike Hancock our leader in Hampshire, Andrew Stunell our leader of a small group of 11 in Cheshire and Tony Greaves who was a member of ‘balanced’ Lancashire CC.
    Other pioneers included the late Maggie Clay who was the author of the brilliant first edition of *Life in the Balance*, a must read booklet for the Leadership, I suggest.
    But, it is difficult for those in a Parliamentary Party without experience of balanced councils to accept that there are lessons to learn from those experiences. In fact we facilitated a meeting of the Liberal PLP with the above Councillors in Hebden Bridge before the ’87 election. It lasted about 5 minutes before MPs dismissed the opportunity even to listen to them. They emphasized the differences rather than the similarities of the two types of institution.
    (2) The Liberal Democrats are led by Nick Clegg, a far cry from the flamboyant and deeply flawed Jeremy Thorpe – well I think there maybe similarities, though probably not in their sexual lives (Smiley Here!). Your excellent (dare I say penetrating) analysis of class on LDV recently suggests that you know how Clegg’s background and socialization may be as much a hindrance as a help in this situation. It was Wilson’s political experience, freedom from Westminster’s particular manners/predispositions and his bully-like assertiveness that forced the pace.
    I hope Clegg does reach out to Andrew, David, Mike and Tony and some from outside the Parliamentary Party. It’ll be a test of both him and those who he has selected to advise him. However, advisers don’t normally admit either their lack of experience or emphasize the importance of an issue in which they have no experience. That is not how they keep the attention of their leader.
    (3) The Liberal Democrats have a more professional team of candidates. Did the pre-Alliance Liberals have a Vince Cable or a Ming Campbell, or a Chris Huhne or a David Laws? They had very similarly experienced people, actually – and interestingly the names you mention have no local government experience, let alone experience of ‘Life in the Balance’.
    (4) The Liberal Democrats learned from the local government wing of the Liberal Party and adopted targeting, giving us a base of 63 seats. Yes. The Feb ’74 and 2005 vote totals are almost identical. Let me assure you that it was not an easy task getting Cowley Street and the PLP to accept the logic of targeting. It was yet another example of the ‘it is a completely different game here’ argument. In 1987, as a member of FE, I wrote a paper for the first FE meeting after ’87 (committee members did that kind of thing then) urging that we concentrate our resources into the South West where we then had just 4 or 5 MPs. It was not passed unanimously, although it did get through … just.

    Actually there are rare elections – very rare – when targeting is not the best strategy. I think that the 2010 may be just such an election; if, that is, we can connect with the public mood which is wonderfully anti-Establishment, anti-Westminster, anti-greed, anti-injustice and above all anti-politician.

  • Having watch more of the programme and from the start, it was intersteing to see the early predictions of big Liberal Gains rapidly tumble, something like 120 to 70, to 40,to 20, to 8 to 12, and the eventualy 14.

    As I understand it, there was a sort of targeting strategy (acccording to Thorpe’s book, “In my Own Time”
    but, these things were not as effective as they are now. Leaflets outside election time were a novelty
    (as they still were when Padyy started work in Yeovil in1977), printing was mostly words, with few photos,
    in 1974, there was (I am told) an old register, a paper shortage and lower expenses limits (which may have helped the Liberals)

    What I find tragic in the deeply flawed Clegg, is the nonsense statement

    “IF voters decide no party deserves an overall majority, then the party with the strongest mandate will have a moral right to be the first to seek to govern on its own or seek alliances with other parties … It will be abundantly clear after the election which party has the strongest mandate. It would be pointless to speculate at this point as to whether that means seats or votes – we are setting out a principle, not a mathematical formula.”

    No, No, No, – The voters won’t decide. My ineffective vote in a safe Tory seat will make no diofference to the outcome of the election. It’;s not a mandate for anyone.

    There is no option on the ballot paper “no party deserves an overall majority” votes can’t decide to choose that option – if it happens, it is by chance.

    “A moral right to seek to govern” – on 35% of the vote on a 50% turnout, this drives a coach and horses through 80 years of party policy in favour of electoral reform.

    The opposite is the case, they should accept that they do NOT ahve the right to Govern, that they need to work with other parties to secure democratic legitamacy and that we have already had enough of a arrogant Prime Minister with the support of about 20% of the electorate doingw hatever he wants , we don’t need another one.

  • Bill le Breton 25th Feb '10 - 9:33am

    Oranjepan you say “I would turn this statement around and say campaigning against injustice is campaigning for fairness.”

    Quite. The key difference is that the negativity provides the former with campaigning traction which the later doesn’t possess – especially where the public mood is as it is today.

    This traction chimes with the emotions of the electorate AND energies campaigners.

    The fact that those formatting our campaigns don’t get this is what worries me most.

    For instance, today, Osborne has admitted that his cuts will be worse than Thatcher’s. By six o’clock tonight this should be leading on every candidates website, have been emailed/texted to every contact and be splash on a piece of paper delivered to every door by Sunday night.

    That’s campaigning !

  • Bill le Breton 25th Feb '10 - 9:40am

    Forgive me for coming back so soon, but having written the above I went to
    to check Osborne’s actual wording, to find the BBC is leading with this headline:
    Osborne will be ‘tougher than Thatcher’
    Note the BBC’s use of quote marks – Osborne has pinned the Tory colours to the mast. It is time as Nelson said to ‘Engage the Enemy more Closely !’

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