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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 April 2005, 09:28 GMT 10:28 UK
1964: Labour scrapes through
Harold Wilson at the doorway of Downing Street
Con: 304 seats (43.3% share)
Lab: 317 seats (44.1% share)
Lib: 9 seats (11.2% share)

Labour finally returned to office in 1964 after nearly a generation in the political wilderness.

But the party's grip on power looked far from secure. The new Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, had a Commons majority of just five seats, leaving a second election in the near future a necessity.

Although they had lost, the Conservatives had proved remarkably resilient.

Since the last election in 1959 their government had been rocked by scandals, resignations and a change of leadership yet they only just lost out on winning a fourth election in a row.


The Conservative political ascendancy over Labour continued for nearly two years after Harold Macmillan's poll triumph.

But as the economy took a downturn, bad by-election results followed, with both Labour and the Liberals benefiting from a drop in Conservative support.

Macmillan took radical and widely criticised action when he wielded the knife on his own ministers embarking on one of the biggest cabinet re-shuffles ever known - the so-called "night of the long knives".

Sir Alec Douglas-Home
Sir Alec Douglas-Home was seen as out of touch
But the move cut no ice with the voters and the credibility of the government fell further in 1963 when John Profumo, the minister for war, was forced to resign after lying in Parliament about having had sexual relations with a reputed call girl.

Dogged by illness and the aftermath of the scandal a tired Macmillan stepped down in October 1963.

Surprisingly the party choose Sir Alec Douglas-Home - a 14th Earl - as its new leader. Although not seen by many as the Conservatives' strongest figure, it was felt he could command a consensus around his leadership.

But the aristocrat's shortcomings as a national leader in 1960s Britain were ruthlessly exposed by the new and emphatically modern Labour leader, Harold Wilson, who had replaced Hugh Gaitskell after his untimely death in early 1963.

Feeling themselves on the run from a likely Labour victory, the Conservatives waited until the last moment before calling an election.


As the campaign got underway in September, the polls were not giving any party a clear lead.

Harold Wilson himself was the focus of Labour's campaign, which seemed lacking in any other strong theme when it moved away from promoting the leader.

Christine Keeler
Macmillan's government was rocked by the Profumo scandal
For the Tories, Sir Alec Douglas-Home attempted to win voters by standing on the government's record and by highlighting his expertise in foreign affairs.

But Wilson was able cunningly to undermine Sir Alec's attempts to win over the voters when he cruelly highlighted an admission by the prime minister that he used match sticks to help him think through economic problems.

But although he often appeared awkward on television, Sir Alec showed he was able to defend himself from Wilson's biting wit.

As the month-long campaign moved towards its climax the Tories could sense that things were not going their way.


After Macmillan stepped down the Conservatives once again turned to an Eton and Oxford educated leader in the shape of Sir Alec Douglas-Home.

With the Tories on the back foot he had less than a year to turn their fortunes around before facing the voters.

But he struggled from the outset. His selection as leader proved unpopular with some Tories and two cabinet ministers resigned rather than serve under him.

Perhaps just as important for the electorate - 90% of whom now had access to television - Home appeared like a figure from the past, even more anachronistic than the Edwardian personality adopted by Macmillan.

The new Labour leader also had an Oxford education under his belt, but the grammar school boy from Yorkshire seemed the embodiment of a meritocracy, in contrast to Sir Alec.

Wilson had led something of a brilliant career, entering parliament very young and taking a position in the cabinet by the time he was 30.

Winning the leadership on Gaitskell's death, he found the party much more united than for some years - and it was this unity and the pursuit of office that Wilson seemed to prize above all else.

Key issues

Although Labour had pulled back from changing its name or from revoking its commitment to nationalisation after its third successive election defeat in 1959, the party did have a new set of proposals to offer to the voters this time out.

Its manifesto, The New Britain, offered a national plan on the economy as well as a more traditional pitch to core voters with offers of increased workers' rights and union representation.

Labour MP Tony Benn also used his presentational skills to aid the party's efforts to plug its policies.

Commitments to build up to 400,000 new houses a year were given but the party opened itself to charges from the Tory chancellor that its spending plans were a "menu without prices" that would cost the public 1bn.

The Conservative appeal - Prosperity with a Purpose - placed a large amount of emphasis on maintaining the nation's defences in an uncertain world. If events had followed a slightly different path it could have reaped them large dividends.

But as it turned out two key events - the toppling of Khrushchev from power and the explosion by communist China of its first nuclear weapon - took place as the polls closed.

With Europe beginning to figure more and more in British politics a confident Liberal party offered a picture of a federal Britain in a federal Europe. But despite its gains in by-elections and local government the party was painfully aware it could not hope to form the next government.

Richard Dimbleby takes time for a snack in 1964


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