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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 April 2005, 09:30 GMT 10:30 UK
1974 Oct: Wilson makes it four
Harold Wilson
Con: 277 seats (35.7% share)
Lab: 319 seats (39.3% share)
Lib: 13 seats (18.3% share)

The second of 1974's two elections again saw Labour leader Harold Wilson win. It was his fourth success in a general election, but it proved far from the decisive landslide he had pulled off in 1966.

Wilson had only succeeded in turning his minority government, elected in February, into a tiny three-seat majority in the October poll.

But Wilson's triumph inevitably meant Heath's days as Tory leader were numbered. With three defeats out of four elections as leader, his party would soon send him packing, whether he liked it or not.

The Liberals had seen their share of the vote fall only slightly since the last election, while the Scottish National Party continued making progress, taking 11 seats.


In the brief period between elections on 28 February and 10 October Labour could point to steady progress.

Inflation may have been running at around 20%, but the miners' strike had been resolved and the state of emergency imposed by Heath had ended.

In the hope of extracting some of the thorns from the now perennial problem of industrial relations the Pay Board was abolished and the Tories' Industrial Relations Act was scrapped

Chancellor Denis Healey put through two steady budgets which saw an increase in pensions, but also an increase in the basic rate of income tax and top rate income tax.

Tory leader Edward Heath kept a relatively low profile after his defeat in February. It had been a massive blow to his position, but the Tory party stayed his political execution, fearing a change of leadership with an election imminent.


The second election in less than a year was bound to be greeted with mixed feelings by the voters.

Predictable election fatigue was reflected by the decision of some broadcasters to cut back heavily on their amount of election coverage compared with February.

Interest was also muted by the opinion polls - the knife edge election contest which had taken place earlier in the year looked much more predictable with Labour opening up a strong lead.

Edward Heath attempted to catch the national mood by floating the idea of a government of "national unity". But it was an idea that failed to take off as no Labour politician would serve under him and Heath seemed unprepared to make the supreme sacrifice and give up the premiership should he win.

The former Conservative MP Enoch Powell made his by now customary intervention in the election campaign. He called on his supporters to vote Labour - in order to win the chance to vote in a referendum on the UK's membership of the EEC - while standing for the Ulster Unionists in South Down.

By the time the campaign had creaked to a halt a working Labour majority looked a good bet.


This election campaign was the fourth between Edward Heath and Harold Wilson.

And it was a mark of the lack of voter interest in the leadership on offer that the two parties' vote had slumped considerably from its highs in the 1950s and 1960s.

Heath's future rested on the outcome of this election. Should he fail he was all too aware that his political career would almost certainly be that of a backbencher, and yet his party failed to rally round.

Several key figures from his cabinet, including former prime minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home stepped down from frontline politics in the interregnum between elections.

And the future arch-Thatcherite Keith Joseph attacked the whole thrust of Heath's approach to the economy.

For Labour Harold Wilson's position appeared much stronger. And his cabinet contained strong and well known figures such as Denis Healey, Jim Callaghan and Roy Jenkins. But not all was well.

Personalities in the government clashed over Europe. The strength of the anti-European bloc of Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Barbara Castle and Peter Shore led to rumblings from such pro-Europeans as Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins that they might quit politics altogether should the planned referendum go against membership of the Common Market.

Key issues

At the head of all the parties' lists was - understandably - tackling the runaway inflation plaguing the economy.

But there were also the stock in trade pledges to deal with rising prices and bring harmony to the acrimonious field of industrial relations. The issue of devolution also featured strongly in this election.

Devolution had long been a Liberal policy while, understandably, the Scottish National Party merely saw it as a step on the road to independence.

But by now Labour had signed up, promising to grant a significant degree of autonomy to Scotland and Wales - while the Conservatives also made concessions in the same direction.

The Liberal leadership, in the shape of both Jeremy Thorpe and David Steel, made noises signalling they would be willing to work with Labour, but with a hung parliament less than likely Labour showed little interest.

Labour's manifesto - Britain Will Win - also carried commitments to nationalising ship and aircraft building.

The Conservative manifesto - with its plan for national government - was leaked before the election had even been called. And the Liberals simply re-published the manifesto they had issued in February.



Alistair Burnet signs off in the early hours in 1974


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