Opinion Articles

The 2017 General Election in history

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For political historians – and politicians and journalists of the necessary experience or perspective – 1974 has long been the go-to year for misgovernment and electoral uncertainty. It's the year to which reliably we returned when the nadir of post-war Britain needed to be recalled: a year of two, inconclusive, general elections; of concerns about governmental overload and the governability of Britain; of focus on the rise of 'small parties' and on how the sudden prominence of some of them called into question the very idea of Britain. Based on the evidence so far, 2017 has a good chance of becoming our new historical lodestar.

Much in the recent topsy-turvy election recalls the 1970s – the governing party which increased its vote, and achieved a vote share (43%) which would have won every election since 1970, but does not win yet stays in power; the main opposition party which actually lost but claims a great moral victory. The decade even provided his enemies with a defamatory epithet for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour manifesto. And after years of our confidently speaking of its demise, two-party politics has returned: Conservative and Labour have their highest combined vote-share since 1979.

In 1974 and 2017 a Prime Minister leading a government with an absolute majority in the House of Commons went to the country well over a year before they had to in order to affirm their authority in the face of what they styled as existential threats. Both went on to win the popular vote, but in losing their majorities, relinquished not only that authority, but also the arithmetic of power.

In March 1974 Edward Heath entered into negotiations with Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberals to remain in office, a move of perfect constitutional propriety, but the sense of desperately clinging on became corrosive, as it would have been had Gordon Brown attempted something similar after the 2010 General Election. Theresa May, leading a party which has sixty more MPs than the official opposition, has merely the emasculation of her personal authority to be concerned with. Unlike May, Heath had at least been elected leader of his party – indeed, was the first to be elected – and had won the preceding general election. But he had also led his party to defeat in two others. That he was given the opportunity to lose a fourth is one of the most conspicuous ways in which 1974 differs from 2017. May need not fear such ignominy.

1974 also exhibited the most recent incident of another of the many quirks of the British system: the party that lost the popular vote becoming the government. In February 1974 the Conservatives won nearly a quarter of a million more votes than Labour, but won fewer seats. Demonstrating the even-handed quirkiness of the British system, in 1951 Labour won nearly a quarter of a million more votes than the Conservatives, but won fewer seats. The return of two-party politics has not brought with it greater conclusiveness, which is why the '2017 General Election' may come to be differentiated as the 'June 2017 General Election'.

The parliament that met on 22 October 1974 managed to survive virtually a full term. James Callaghan, who succeeded Harold Wilson in 1976, was another ‘unelected’ Prime Minister without a majority, and entered into a confidence and supply arrangement in 1977 with David Steel’s Liberals. Despite his travails, Callaghan managed to go into the subsequent general election with his authority intact, even if at the end of it he found himself Leader of the Opposition. A repeat of that is, to say the least, unlikely, but the eighteen-month Lib-Lab pact remains the model for the governing arrangements of the Conservatives and the Arlene Foster’s Democratic Unionists in 2017.

There is another year – unmentioned by politicians and journalists because it’s beyond recall – replete with both echoes and portents. 1910 was a year of two general elections and the result of each was similar, and similarly indeterminate. H. H. Asquith took the Liberal Party, which had won a landslide in 1906 under Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, into an election explicitly to affirm the government’s authority in the face of what it styled as an existential threat (to democracy itself, in the form of the House of Lords resisting the will of the House of Commons). The Liberals lost 123 seats but retained power with the support of minor parties. The sudden success of those minor parties betokened great change: 71 Irish nationalists heralded the fracturing of the union between Britain and Ireland; 40 socialists the forging of the bond between the Labour Party and the working classes. The Liberals were never a governing party again.

The greatest contextual contrast is in voters’ awareness of what’s actually going on in their name. In 1910 one would have to wait for the evening or morning newspaper to have the slightest idea of developments; in 1974 that tradition was supplemented by a periodic television or radio bulletin. In 2017, with print media ebbing, we can see in real time, if not necessarily any more clearly.

Six years after the Fixed Term Parliament act was supposed to have removed the politicisation around election timing, the Premier has once again to be assessed as a gambler. Both Callaghan in 1978 and Brown in 2007 chose not to call elections they might have won, to go on to be forced to fight elections that they would lose. Clement Attlee in 1951, Wilson in 1970 and Heath in 1974 called snap elections that they lost; Wilson in October 1974 one he only narrowly won. The increased majorities achieved by Wilson in 1966 and, most historically aptly, Ramsay MacDonald in 1931, were the precedents May – knowingly or not – sought to repeat.

While it certainly can’t be said of 1910, at least in 1974 the general disorientation was short-lived; there’s now been no clear verdict in a general election since 2001. In 2005 a majority government took office with 35% of the vote; in 2010 there was another hung parliament; in 2015 a majority government took office with 36% of the vote. Of the present pickle, given her repeated forebodings, it’s an irony undeniable even by the Prime Minister (though she would deny it) that at a time of great national uncertainly the disproportionate influence of a non-English party in a coalition closer to chaos than it is to constancy has indeed come to pass.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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