UK General Elections 1960-1979

1964: Wilson's white hot heat

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When asked what he feared the most, Harold Macmillan replied 'events dear boy, events'. In the early 1960s, several 'events' had led to the decline in popularity of the incumbent Conservative government. By 1961, the economy had begun to turn and Britain's application to join the European Economic Community was rejected by Charles De Gaulle in 1963. The government's difficulties were furthered when John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, was forced to resign after admitting that he had lied to Parliament about his involvement with Christine Keeler. Macmillan resigned as Prime Minister and party leader in October 1963 and was replaced by Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Home was a member of the House of Lords and was forced to renounce his peerage. In order to lead the Conservatives from the House of Commons, Douglas-Home replaced the Unionist candidate, George Younger, to fight the Kinross and West Perthshire by-election. Home won the by-election with a 9,328 majority and took up his seat in the House of Commons. The whole process compounded the image that the Conservative Party were out-of-touch but the government saw a revival in support as the election grew closer. Harold Wilson replaced Hugh Gaitskell on 14th February 1963 following Gaitskell's sudden death. In contrast to Home, Wilson was a smooth political operator and Labour's campaign was centred around positioning him as a man of the people. Wilson used the Profumo Affair to attack the Conservatives and heavily exploited Home's inexperience when he commented that he 'used matchsticks' to help him understand economic problems. Labour achieved a swing of 3.1 percent from the Conservatives, gaining 59 seats. Labour's share of the vote, however, only increased by 0.2 percentage points and the swing was largely down to the 6 percentage point decrease in the Conservative share. The Liberals gained 3 seats and almost doubled their vote share to 11.2 percent. In Smethwick, the Conservative candidate, Peter Griffiths, gained the seat from Labour against the national trend unseating the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Patrick Gordon Walker. The campaign in Smethwick drew national attention as the Conservatives ran racist anti-Labour material and Wilson described Peter Griffiths as a 'parliamentary leper'. In England and Northern Ireland, the Conservative and Unionist allies won both the most seats and the popular vote whilst in Wales and Scotland, Labour won the most seats and most votes. All of the 630 constituencies were won by representatives of the Conservative and Unionist, Labour and Liberal parties. Harold Wilson became the first Labour Prime Minister in 13 years but his overall majority of 4 meant that he was unable to put forward any major legislation to the House of Commons due to the fear of rebellion and defeat.

1966: Labour romps home

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Labour's small parliamentary majority from 1964 was unsustainable for a full term. Two backbenchers, Woodrow Wyatt and Desmond Donnelly, were opposed to the nationalisation of the steel industry and thus, Wilson was unable to get the policy through parliament. On 27th January 1966, Labour held the seat of Hull North in a by-election with a vastly increased share of the vote. Shortly after the by-election, Harold Wilson called a general election for 31st March with the aim of increasing his overall majority. In 1965, the Conservatives had replaced Sir Alec Douglas Home with Edward Heath and had hoped that in him, they had found their answer to Wilson. Heath struggled, however, with media performances, appearing cold to many voters. Once again, Labour focused their campaign around Wilson and their record in government since 1964; heavy use was made of the slogan 'you know Labour government works'. As the election approached, the opinion polls pointed to an increased Labour majority and some gave Wilson a double-digit lead. Although Labour were slightly overstated, the polls proved close to reality and Wilson's gamble paid off. Labour made 47 net gains, increasing its overall majority from 4 to 98. Labour's vote share rose from 44.1 to 47.9 percent, there was a swing of 2.7 percent from Conservative to Labour. The Conservatives lost 52 seats, including that of future chancellor, Geoffrey Howe and of former chancellor, Peter Thorneycroft. Despite gaining 3 seats, the Liberal Party saw its vote share drop by 2.7 percent. The Liberals did manage to take Colne Valley from Labour but their dream of replacing Labour as the alternative to the Conservatives was badly dented by the result of the election. In Belfast West, Gerry Fitt was elected under the banner of 'Republican Labour', becoming the only MP to be elected from a party other than the Conservative and Unionist, Labour or Liberal parties. The 2.7 percent swing, 47 net gains and 3.9 percentage point increase in Labour's vote share remains the best performance of an incumbent government at a UK general election in the post-war era; Wilson succeeded in the difficult task of increasing a government majority and turned his attention to making Labour the natural party of government. 

1970: Shock win for Ted

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Following Labour's victory in 1966, Wilson's popularity took a nosedive. In 1967, the government was forced to devalue the pound. In an extraordinary error of judgement, Wilson made one of the worst political decisions of his career and suggested that the devaluation did not matter. James Callaghan offered his resignation as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Wilson was forced to accept it. Edward Heath accused the government of failing in one of its foremost duties, safeguarding the value of the country's money. Despite enacting several social reforms to be proud of, Wilson was damaged by the devaluation crisis with Labour's economic record in tatters as a result. Many Labour supporters were also disappointed with Wilson for his failure to denounce the Vietnam War and with his handling of industrial relations with 'In Place of Strife'. The Conservatives performed well in local elections and by-elections (Labour lost 16 seats between 1966 and 1970) throughout the parliament and Heath was confident of victory at the next general election. Enoch Powell was, however, a constant source of controversy for the Conservatives and Heath was forced to dismiss him from the Shadow Cabinet following the 'Rivers of Blood' speech in 1968. From the summer of 1969, the economy began to improve and the government experienced a change of fortunes in the opinion polls. Labour's significant improvement at the 1970 local elections convinced Wilson that Labour could win an early general election. The campaign focused heavily on Wilson and Heath with the Conservatives attacking Labour on their handling of the economy and Labour hitting back by defending the social reforms enacted during Labour's period of office. The Conservatives were concerned that their campaign was not taking off and Labour's standing in the opinion polls seemed to suggest that Wilson's message was cutting through. Although Labour's lead in the opinion polls began to shrink as the election got closer, most pollsters (and senior figures in both parties) predicted that Labour would win a comfortable victory. Heath shocked the pollsters and left Wilson stunned when he pulled off a surprise victory. There was a swing of 4.7 percent from Labour to Conservative and consequently, the Conservatives gained 77 seats. This put Heath over the winning line with 330 seats and an overall majority of 30. Labour suffered 76 net losses, including the seat of deputy leader, George Brown. The Liberal Party saw its vote share decline by 1 percentage point and lost half of its seats. In North Devon, Jeremy Thorpe's majority was cut to 369 votes. The Scottish National Party gained the Western Isles from Labour, achieving their first seat at a general election (the party had previously won seats at by-elections). The result of the election proved to be a personal triumph for Heath and with a relatively comfortable overall majority, he was expected to govern for a full term. This is currently the earliest election from which MPs elected remain in the House of Commons and was the first in which people aged 18-21 were able to vote.

February 1974: Who governs Britain?



LAB short by 17

CON short by 21

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The combination of the oil crisis that followed the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the miners going on strike after being refused a substantial pay increase provided the background for Edward Heath’s decision to go to call an early general election in February 1974. Heath had been forced to introduce a three-day week and hoped that an election victory would give him a mandate when dealing with the trade unions. In an address to the nation on television, Heath asserted "It is time for you to say to the extremists, the militants, and to the plain and simple misguided. We have had enough." The Conservatives entered the campaign well ahead of Labour but the gap began to close when the Liberals began to surge in support. The Conservatives suffered a major embarrassment when Enoch Powell urged his supporters to vote Labour and Wilson’s team used this to their advantage. As the election campaign came to an end, the opinion polls showed the Conservatives ahead of Labour by a whisker but well down on their lead a few weeks earlier. The result of the election could hardly have been closer. Labour finished marginally behind Heath in the popular vote but won 301 seats to the Conservatives’ 297; no single party had managed to reach the 318-seats required for an overall majority. Both major parties saw their vote share significantly drop whilst the Liberals encountered a surge from 7.5 to 19.3 percent. Despite this, the Liberals won a disappointing 14 seats with an outraged Jeremy Thorpe commenting ‘I think there will be millions of angry people who will feel they have been cheated of parliamentary representation by an iniquitous electoral system.’ Days of intense haggling followed as the parties attempted to form a government. The Liberals held the balance of power but alone were still not enough to make the numbers for parliamentary majority with either major party; a third partner would be required. Over the weekend, Heath remained in Downing Street and attempted to form a government. In Northern Ireland, the Ulster Unionists had withdrawn from their alliance with the Conservatives in protest at the Sunningdale Agreement in 1973, Heath offered them the Conservative whip but the United Ulster Council said that the whip would have to be offered to all 11 of its members. Heath was unable to pursue this option as it would mean giving the whip to Democratic Unionist Ian Paisley, who was opposed to the power-sharing executive that the government had established in January 1974. Heath also invited the Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, for coalition talks. Thorpe was keen to avoid the press and left his North Devon constituency in theatrical style. He sent his car to a neighbouring farm, donned wellington boots and a country coat on top of his suit and then walked across three wet fields before being driven to Taunton station where he boarded a train to London. Thorpe and Heath negotiated over the weekend. Senior figures in both parties warned their leaders that a coalition would go down badly with activists. In the end, the Conservative-Liberal talks failed as Heath was unable to offer the Liberals the major electoral reforms that Thorpe demanded. Wilson remained silent as the negotiations wore on over what he famously referred to as the ‘the longest dirty weekend’ and on the Monday following the election, Heath resigned as Prime Minister. Wilson was then invited to the palace and returned for his second stint as Prime Minister, albeit at the head of a minority Labour government. With parliament on a knife edge, it was widely expected that a second election would quickly follow.

October 1974: Labour scrape a working majority



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Less than eight months after the previous general election in February 1974, Harold Wilson used a ministerial broadcast on 28th September to announce that he would be going to the country on 11th October. As a minority government, Labour had suffered several defeats in the House of Commons and Wilson was keen to try and improve his government’s position and secure an overall majority. Immediately after the February election, Labour’s position in the opinion polls improved with some giving the party leads of 10 percent over the Conservatives. Wilson was concerned about voter fatigue as a result of holding two elections in one year and consequently, the election campaign lasted for just 22 days from the announcement of dissolution to polling day. In Wilson’s first address of the campaign, he apologised for forcing another election upon the country but asked voters to give him a mandate for his plans after the uncertainty of the previous eight months. Edward Heath remained out of the public view following his electoral defeat. The Conservatives chose not to oppose purely for opposition’s sake and often put down amendments but did not divide on them. Heath believed that defeating the government in the division lobbies would give Wilson an excuse to call an election. This technique proved unpopular with Conservative backbenchers and after a meeting of the 1922 committee, it was abandoned. The Conservative share of the vote fell to 35.8 percent and the party lost 20 seats. There was an overall swing of 2 percent from Conservative to Labour and this allowed Labour to make the required gains for an overall majority. Labour squeaked across the finishing line with 319 seats, an overall majority of 3. With 39.3 percent of the vote, Labour became the first party to win an election outright with a share lower than 40 percent. The Liberal party saw their share decline by 1 percent and they were left with one fewer seat than in February. In Scotland, the Scottish National Party polled 30 percent of the vote and won 11 seats (a record for the SNP until 2015). Plaid Cymru made one gain, Carmarthen. With an overall majority of 3, Harold Wilson stayed in 10 Downing Street but with such finely balanced parliamentary arithmetic, it would only take two by-election defeats or defections for the government to return to a minority position. 

1979: Thatcher makes history



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Harold Wilson shocked the nation when he resigned as Prime Minister in 1976 and the Labour party replaced him as leader and Prime Minister with James Callaghan. Callaghan was highly experienced, viewed by many as a 'safe pair of hands'. Margaret Thatcher successfully ousted Edward Heath as leader of the Conservative Party in February 1975 and became the first female leader of one of the two major parties. By April 1976, the government had lost its parliamentary majority and for the remainder of its time in office, was forced to rely on ad-hoc deals and arrangements to get its business done. The most famous of these arrangements came about in March 1977 in the form of a confidence and supply agreement with the Liberal Party, the Lib-Lab pact lasted until September 1978 when Callaghan was expected to call a general election. Despite the polls moving in Labour's direction, Callaghan was concerned that whilst Labour were ahead, his party may still have failed to secure an overall majority. At the conference of the Trade Union Congress in 1978, Callaghan ruled out an election before the end of the year. He had hoped that imminent tax cuts and economic improvement would be enough to bring about an increase in support for the government. Consequently, he relied on deals with the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists and Ulster Unionists to remain in office. Over the winter of 1978-1979 there were widespread strikes by public sector workers over Labour's attempts to control inflation through a cap of 5 percent on pay rises. The winter was the coldest in 16 years and was dubbed the 'Winter of Discontent'. On returning from a conference in Guadeloupe, Callaghan commented that he didn't think there was 'mounting chaos' within the country; the next day, The Sun painted him as out of touch with the headline 'Crisis, What Crisis?' On 1st March 1979, devolution referendums were held in Scotland and Wales. Wales voted 'no' to devolution but Scotland voted narrowly in favour. The 'yes' campaign failed, however, to attract 40 percent of the registered electorate and as a result the referendum was non-binding. The Scottish National Party withdrew their support from Callaghan's government and on 28h March 1979, Margaret Thatcher tabled a motion of no confidence in government. The government were defeated by 1 vote (311-310) and an election was called for 3rd May with Callaghan declaring 'we shall take our case to the country'. The Conservative campaign was famously slick with the party employing advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi to present Margaret Thatcher to the nation. With the 'Winter of Discontent' fresh on the memory of the nation, the Conservatives focused their campaign on Labour's failure to control the trade union; this was backed up with the slogan 'Labour isn't working'. The Conservatives achieved a swing of 5.2 percent from Labour and made a net gain of 62 seats and an increase in vote share of 8.1 percentage points. The Labour vote held up relatively well, dropping by just 2.3 percentage points; Labour actually polled slightly more raw votes in 1979 than they did in October 1974. Despite this, the large swing to the Conservatives led to Labour losing 50 seats. The Liberals lost 2 seats and 4.5 percentage points of vote share. The Scottish National Party were punished heavily, losing 9 of their 11 seats. Although she was less popular than Callaghan in terms of favourability, Margaret Thatcher was brought to power as Britain's first female Prime Minister and with a comfortable overall majority of 43. 1979 marked the first of four consecutive general election defeats and the beginning of 18 years of opposition for the Labour Party.

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