Opinion: What if ?

In February 1974 Edward Heath called  a snap General Election in response to a second miners’ strike in three years. Heath famously posed the election as a decision on ‘Who Runs Britain’.

Despite opinion polls suggesting he would be returned to office and polling the highest number of votes, the vagaries of our electoral system meant Heath’s Tories not only failed to win a majority of seats, but actually got less than Labour. Historians suggest that the miners’ peaceful pursuit of their pay claim and an independent inquiry finding that there was justification for their dispute, dealt Heath a devastating blow.

The other big story of the election was the surge in the Liberal vote. From just over 11% in 1970, the party increased its share to nearly 20%, but again because of FPTP they only won a few more seats.

We all know what followed.

A weak attempt by Heath to remain in office, followed by a minority Labour government, and then another election which returned Wilson a small majority, the Winter of Discontent, Thatcherism, and all that followed.

The election of February 1974 was the first in a generation to indicate a large section of the electorate were fed up with the extremes of left and right, preferring the moderation offered by the centre ground Liberal party of Jeremy Thorpe.

What if that vote for the Liberal cause had yielded a few more MPs at the expense of the Tories? That would have meant no prospect of Heath remaining in office and the possibility of a stable Lib/Lab coalition. Instead of talking to Ted, Thorpe could have been negotiating with Harold.

A Liberal Party more left of centre than right would have been likely to be much more disposed to this kind of arrangement and Wilson concerned about the left in his own party might have jumped at the chance to form a more moderate coalition administration. That arrangement may well have led to electoral reform and a long period of Lib/Lab government with Liberal ministers in key departments. Jeremy Thorpe at the Home Office perhaps.

With proportionate representation the Labour left might have broken away rather than take over the party as they did in the period following Callaghan’s defeat in 1979. Roy Jenkins might have succeeded Wilson meaning no SDP and better still no Prime Minister Thatcher.

If the February 1974 General Election and the days that followed had turned out just that little bit different Britain could well have avoided the confrontational politics that the Tories championed in the 1980’s and the country could have have moved forward by consensus.

* David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats

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9 Comments

  • Tony Greaves 8th Jun '15 - 2:58pm

    Thorpe at the Home Office? Seems we were rescued by the electoral system, then.

    Tony Greaves

  • I recommend the recent biography of Jeremy Thorpe, partly because it’s a jaw-dropping read, but also because it lays out all the reasons why this would not have happened: for example, enough people in power knew about Thorpe’s rattling cupboard full of skeletons (Wilson certainly did) that there’s no way he could have had a ministerial post; Thorpe had a hard enough time managing the tiny parliamentary party he did have (who seem to have been even more fractious than the current lot, with some practically Tories and others left of Labour), making committing them to a coalition difficult; adding yet more voices to the mix would have turned it into a nigh-on impossible task; and in fact Thorpe did raise the possibility of electoral reform with both Heath and Wilson at the time, and in both cases was told in no uncertain terms that their parties would not stand for it.

    Electoral reform was simply not on the agenda in the ’70s. Both major parties were against it and a bigger Liberal breakthrough, far from making them more sympathetic, would likely have only hardened their opposition as it would have shown the threat to their own positions.

  • Steve Comer 8th Jun '15 - 4:46pm

    “Britain could well have avoided the confrontational politics that the Tories championed in the 1980’s” I don’t see how.
    The Tory Party moved right after it ditched Heath (who many in his party never like or trusted anyway). An arrangement with Labour after February 1974 would not have been a coalition, more likely a longer version of the Lib-Lab pact. (Don’t forget the Tribune Group of left leaning Labour MPs was a strong force back then, and they were not only statist but hostile to Europe and PR).
    The Parliamentary arithmetic would have been tight, Heath would have gone a few months earlier, Thatcher would still have replaced him and I suspect the Tories would still have won in 1979.

  • David Allen 8th Jun '15 - 5:21pm

    “What if that vote for the Liberal cause had yielded a few more MPs at the expense of the Tories? …. Instead of talking to Ted, Thorpe could have been negotiating with Harold.”

    But Labour did in fact finish a few seats ahead of the Tories. So if Harold and Jeremy had actually wanted to talk, they could have done that anyway – it wouldn’t have required any more Liberal seats.

  • em>”…a large section of the electorate were fed up with the extremes of left and right, preferring the moderation offered by the centre ground Liberal party …”

    I don’t think so. Earlier post-war governments had followed the ‘Butskellite’ consensus, an accommodation between the two main parties with the Conservatives ceding much ground to Labour’s desire for more social security, health care etc. By the 1970s this programme for government was beginning to visibly fray and it finally came apart in the 1978-79 ‘Winter of Discontent’. Labour’s notion of how the country could and should be run had successfully addressed many pre-war problems but when that initial programme was largely delivered it ran out of road. That left it fatally weakened and it’s never recovered.

    Thatcher offered a new paradigm, now usually known as neo-liberalism, but even in the Conservative Party not everyone signed up for this initially. So with Labour’s paradigm broken and Thatcher’s winning Tory converts but far from universal support there were lots of votes flying loose and many of these inevitably finished up in the most convenient ‘none-of-the-above’ camp – the Liberals. It probably helped that because the Liberals were such a diverse bunch (as Dav notes above) almost anyone could convince themselves that they were on their page. It wasn’t a search for the mythical centre so much as casting around for a new path.

    As history records, Thatcher was politically successful and to their discredit the other main parties have all adopted her paradigm to a greater or lesser extent. Now neo-liberalism has in turn collapsed, drowning in scandal and economic failure (except of course for a favoured few) and the public is again casting around for a new paradigm. I see it as like the charge in a thunder cloud looking for a conductor to run down to earth. Voters don’t want a position equidistant between two versions of a failed programme for government, they want something different, better.

    This time of course there are more alternatives and Lib Dems suffered accordingly having lazily come to rely on the protest vote to a dangerous degree. The SNP, the best run alternative, has shown just how great the surge of power from the thunder cloud can be. My belief is that liberalism contains the seed of a new paradigm but not when it’s the strongly neo-liberal flavoured corporatist version favoured by Clegg.

    For me the interesting question is what if the next leader can put a truly liberal paradigm together by crowdsourcing it from the membership. I think they know – sort of – but to date the Lib Dems have fought shy of offering political leadership – and consequently haven’t been asked to provide it by the voters.

  • Little Jackie Paper 8th Jun '15 - 6:55pm

    My guess is that Thatcher would still have become Conservative leader and would almost certainly have won the 1979 election regardless. I don’t see that PR would really have made much difference to the internal politics of Labour.

    I also imagine that there would have been the pit closures come what may.

    Would Thatcher or Regan have bailed out banks – there’s a what if!

  • 11% in 1970, thought it was 7% with 332 candidates.

  • David Warren 9th Jun '15 - 10:14am

    Yes the Tribune group was quite powerful in the 1970s but it was not a majority in the PLP.

    Callaghan not Foot ended up being Wilson’s successor and the former was definitely firmly associated with the right wing manifesto group.

    More Liberal MPs would have meant less Tories, so as in 2010 only one deal would have been possible.

    Anyway it is a ‘What If’.

    I had a lot of fun writing it and appreciate the comments.

  • Simon Banks 9th Jun '15 - 11:18am

    Whatever you’ve been reading has given you a rather odd picture, Dav. I was around at that time, fighting Plymouth Sutton for the cause. Yes, Thorpe had dangerous secrets, but Wilson would have been quite happy to give him a post and hold him by the, er, things. Why on earth do you think the current parliamentary party is “fractious”? In the last parliament, the Tories often admitted our MPs were more disciplined than theirs. We should have been a bit more “fractious”.

    There was a right-left tension in the party in the mid-seventies, but no more than now and rather less than in the Labour Party of the time. We were Liberals.

    Whether a taste of power at that time would have been good for us, I’m less sure.

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