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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 April 2005, 09:30 GMT 10:30 UK
1974 Feb: Hung parliament looms
Ted Heath on the campaign trail
Con: 297 seats (37.8% share)
Lab: 301 seats (37.2% share)
Lib: 14 seats (19.3% share)

Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath's decision to call a snap election in February 1974 backfired.

His plea to the electors to "return a strong government with a firm mandate" was ignored as Britain was faced with its first hung parliament since 1929.

Although Labour won fewer votes than the Conservatives, the party took four more seats, 301 against 297. After four days of indecision that saw Heath unable to convince the Liberals to lend him their support he had no choice but to resign.

Labour leader Harold Wilson was back in Downing Street for the third time, but now he would have to deal with the fresh challenge of heading a minority administration which could fall at any time.


The run-up to the first election of 1974 was unusually stormy.

Industrial relations between the government and the unions turned sour as Heath's attempts to calm the economy's troubles with government-enforced pay freezes and calls for pay restraint failed.

To make things worse Heath's economic policy zig-zagged and he also reversed the party policy on nationalising the "lame ducks" of British industry when Rolls Royce and shipbuilding were taken into the public fold.

But not all the government's problems were of its own making. In 1973, war between the Arabs and the Israelis saw the price of oil rocket with predictable results for the UK's increasingly fragile economy.

As demand for coal increased the miners sensed an advantage and pressed their wage demands further.

As the government's prestige rested on its ability to manage the economy and make its pay restraint policy work, little common ground between the two sides could be hammered out.

With the miners rejecting a 13% pay rise, an overtime ban followed. By January 1974 a three-day working week followed, and a state of emergency was declared.

The following month 81% of the miners voted in favour of strike action and Heath's patience ran out.

Believing public sympathy would rest with the government he called an election three days after the miners announced their intentions.


The campaign in February 1974 may have been the shortest post-war but it was packed with drama.

The fact that it was conducted under the energy saving policy of the three-day working week made it unusual in itself, although controls were relaxed slightly to allow full TV coverage of the election campaign.

Heath's decision to ask the country whether the government or the miners should govern looked as if it could swing either way. With both Labour and Conservatives having far from illustrious recent records on the economy the voters showed their distaste by flirting with the nationalists and the Liberals.

This rejection of Wilson and Heath showed up most clearly when the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe defeated his two rivals when pollsters asked voters who they thought would make the best PM.

Thorpe's party also saw its popularity rocket during the month long campaign, reaching the 20% mark.

The Tory strategy of focusing the campaign on industrial relations proved unsustainable after the first week and a half.

As the campaign continued a string of bad news stories on the economy dealt the Tories blow after blow.

Price rises looked out of control, the balance of trade deficit was massive and inflation continued to rise.

To cap it all, the high-profile Tory MP Enoch Powell intervened in the campaign in the final few days asking people to vote Labour, and so have a choice to withdraw from the Common Market in a planned referendum.


The February election of 1974 saw Prime Minister Edward Heath involved in an unusual electoral battle.

Not only was he taking on Labour and the Liberals as usual, Heath was also pitting the office of prime minister against the 270,000 strong National Union of Mineworkers in a contest to see who would govern Britain.

As Heath put it himself: "To give way to wage demands which go beyond what the nation can afford and beyond the Stage 3 code would lead to a situation in which the economy would be damaged infinitely more [than the three-day week]."

It was a serious situation which the prime minister judged could be best be resolved only by having a firm mandate.

But Heath's decision to call the election was a high risk strategy. It was questioned by those in his own cabinet who pointed out he still had a reasonably healthy parliamentary majority and over 18 months to go before the end of the parliament.

The election also put Labour leader Harold Wilson in a difficult position.

With the unions causing much misery for ordinary householders he could not give the strikers his unqualified support, on the other hand the trade union movement was Labour's traditional bed rock of support whom he could not afford to offend.

Wilson had hoped the strike would be called off during the election but when it was not, he criticised the government for wasting time in attempting to deal with miners¿ wage claims which had first appeared in July 1973.

Rather than take the more aggressive stance adopted by Heath, Wilson attempted to take on the role of the mediator - by pointing to his "social contract" with the TUC he seemed to be offering partnership in government rather than confrontation.

All in all it was a difficult campaign for either of the main party leaders to fight - it was a situation that benefited the Liberals under Jeremy Thorpe who called for an end to politics dominated, on the one hand by the unions, and on the other by business.

Key issues

Although industrial relations and how best to manage the economy and the trade unions featured heavily in this election, there was also much talk of how to deal with the prospect of a hung parliament.

In their manifesto - Firm Action for a Fair Britain - the Conservatives pledged to amend their hated Industrial Relations Act, disapproved of by the unions and disowned by business.

While Labour attempted to get one up on the Conservatives by claiming that it could put in place a "social contract" with the unions and bring the seemingly endless strife to an end.

Labour's manifesto - which was not entirely finished when Heath called the poll - also presented the voters with an opportunity to vote in a referendum on the Ukase membership of the European Common Market.

Heath had taken the UK into Europe after a vote in parliament, leaving many people feeling they had not been properly consulted over what was a major change. Labour was responding to this feeling and to the deep splits within its own party on the issue.

The Liberals put forward a traditionally radical package.

As well as their focus on the constitution with the promise of a bill of rights, their manifesto, Change the Face of Britain, called for permanent prices and incomes policies, better pensions and a minimum earnings level.

February 1974 election night highlights from Radio 1


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