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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 April 2005, 09:28 GMT 10:28 UK
1970: Heath's surprise victory
Ted Heath celebrates on the steps of Number 10
Con: 330 seats (46.4% share)
Lab: 288 seats (43% share)
Lib: 6 seats (7.5% share)

Edward Heath, to Labour's deep surprise, rolled into Number 10 with a respectable majority in the summer of 1970, despite the polls, the press and most of the public all firm in the conviction that Labour would be returned to power.

Ironically the dramatic Conservative victory followed one of the least memorable post-war election campaigns.

The month long battle was called by its less than enthused chroniclers an "unpopularity" contest with the public showing a much keener interest in the England football team's attempts to win the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.

Few people apart from, perhaps, Edward Heath himself expected to see the Conservatives back in office, with a sudden swing at the end of the campaign enough to see him carry the day.


In retrospect Labour may have lost this election before the 1970 campaign began.

Economic crises had dogged the government, forcing the devaluation of sterling in 1967, industrial relations were consistently poor and the government upset many of its own supporters by backing the American war in Vietnam.

Prime Minster Harold Wilson was humiliated by the UK's rejected application for membership of the European Economic Community and the unpopularity of the government was shown in a record number of by-election defeats during the parliament - totalling 15.

Labour's attempt at trade union reform, Barbara Castle's In Place of Strife plan, also failed.

But by 1969 a turn round in the economy also saw a rise in Labour's fortunes and the polls soon began forecasting that the government could get another chance.

As it turned out the Conservatives were underestimated by observers. They had effectively re-jigged the party machine and had a strong and well organised grassroots network in place.

And according to some insiders Labour's HQ was in fact wrong footed by Wilson's decision to go to the polls in the summer.

The Liberals' campaign suffered somewhat as they struggled to break in a new leader, as Jo Grimond had been succeeded by Jeremy Thorpe.


Harold Wilson's attempts to retain power in 1970 have been described as complacent and low key. His timing, praised in 1966, also seemed at fault.

With the election set for 18 June many voters would be on holiday and the World Cup would always grab more confidently at the public's imagination, especially when the England team were among the tournament's favourites.

Following the trend of recent elections the politicians pitched their campaigns and press conferences with TV and radio in mind, and the relatively new innovation of phone-in programmes also made an impression.

The public, for its part, was well used to both main party leaders by now and showed little interest in getting to know them better.

The Liberals found out just how difficult it was to promote their new leader when the renegade Conservative politician Enoch Powell's outbursts secured more of the media's attention than their new leader, Jeremy Thorpe.

Powell's inflammatory speeches on immigration lead Heath, during the campaign, to rule out including him in any future Conservative cabinet.

Up until the last few days everything looked set for a gentle Labour victory but then events seemed to turn the public mood suddenly.

England were dumped out of the World Cup by - of all teams - the West Germans and freak balance of trade figures drove a coach and horses through Wilson's claims that Labour could run the economy.


Although the public had probably seen sufficient media exposure of Heath and Wilson in the past, the two main parties placed their leaders at the heart of their campaigns.

The 1970 election was the most presidential and personality based the public had yet seen.

Harold Wilson led many of Labour's press conferences himself, and the Conservatives ignored the polls showing how little Heath was liked personally and made their campaign and manifesto very much a reflection of his views.

Although the election did see a rare glimpse of humour from Heath when, in the wake of a protester throwing an egg at Wilson, he joked that many ordinary people carried eggs around with them just in case they came across the Labour leader.

The new Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe was leading his party in his first campaign after replacing Jo Grimond.

But unluckily for Thorpe, he found himself faced by a party on a downward swing.

By-election successes - usually a Liberal staple - failed to materialise, with the party losing many deposits during the span of the parliament. Activity in the constituencies also slumped as the Liberals failed to capitalise on Labour's woes as the nation moved to the right.

Key issues

With the state of the economy at the fore of the most people's minds, the Tories made it the focus of their manifesto. Labour's "short termism" was attacked, and the need for "deliberate and thorough" planning and efficient management was stressed.

Rising prices and high unemployment were attacked as was the increasing tax burden. Among Heath's positive proposals for turning things round were tax cuts and a reform of relations with the unions as well as an increase in police numbers.

In similar vein, Labour's offering - Now Britain's Strong Let's Make it Great to Live In - also focused on the economy, as well as planning.

The party promised to replace the Tory "free for all" with rising prosperity, by increasing productivity, fighting inflation all to enable the government to afford better social provision for those in need.

Labour also promised to reform pensions, work on improving care for the disabled and tackle the poverty felt by low paid families.

The Liberal Manifesto - What a Life - painted a picture of a country brought to a shambolic state after 12 years of Labour rule and 13 years of the Tories.

Unemployment and homelessness, poor hospitals and pensioner poverty were all in need of action said the Liberals, who declared themselves the only party able to deal with the economy properly.



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