UK Politics

The difficulty of ruling with a slim majority

Harold Wilson Image copyright Hulton archive
Image caption Wilson won two elections in 1974 but resigned two years later.

Three days after the first general election in 1974, which led to Harold Wilson unexpectedly taking office as prime minister of a minority Labour government, his friend and colleague Barbara Castle sat down in her bolthole, Hell Corner Farm, in the Buckinghamshire countryside to update her diary.

"So here we go for a bumpy ride," she wrote.

It was, if anything, something of an underestimate of the five years that lay ahead.

It was already obvious that day, that a second election would have to be held.

After a difficult few months, Wilson went to the country in October and was rewarded with an overall majority of just three seats in the House of Commons.

Yet during that spring and summer, despite numerous parliamentary defeats, the government took steps to control inflation, keep mortgage rates down, and reduce VAT.

It also introduced legislation on sharing the revenues of North Sea oil more fairly than before, and established a social contract with the trade unions to try to limit strike action through agreed controls on pay rises.

Once he had a majority government, the limits that were imposed on Wilson's subsequent ability to manage a competent administration, were more often to come from political problems within his own party than from his slender overall command of the Commons.

So it may also prove for David Cameron, recently re-installed as prime minister, but now for the first time as a man with a mandate.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption How long will David Cameron's electoral honeymoon last?

He has an overall majority in the House of 12 seats, considerably less than the 76 he could count on in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

But as Wilson and his successor, James Callaghan, found in the 1970s there will be many occasions when some of the smaller parties may willingly pitch in to support the government.


1974 elections in numbers

February:

Labour: Seats won: 301, up 20. Share of vote: 37.2%

Conservative: Seats won: 297, down 37. Share of vote: 37.9%

Liberal: Seats won: 14, up eight. Share of vote: 19.3%

Turnout: 78.8%

October:

Labour: Seats won: 319, up 18. Share of vote: 39.2%

Conservative: Seats won: 277, down 20. Share of vote: 35.8%

Liberal: Seats won: 13, down 1. Share of vote: 18.3%

Turnout: 72.8%

Uncanny political parallels with 1974


Plotting and manoeuvring

It was, as Castle predicted, a bumpy ride, but it was also an immensely exciting one.

I had already worked at Westminster for three years at the time but I became a lobby correspondent in 1974 and therefore had access to the inside track of the political circuit.

It was in the bars and lobbies and restaurants that the planning and plotting and political manoeuvring took place.

But the chamber of the Commons itself was also one of the most rewarding places to observe the spectacle of government.

Image copyright Hulton archive
Image caption Barbara Castle, pictured here with Tony Benn, knew that it wouldn't be smooth sailing for Labour in 1974.

Time and time again I can recall sliding into my seat in the Press Gallery, wondering how on earth Wilson was going to get out of whatever the latest crisis was to engulf him.

Summoning up the spirit of those fevered times is not difficult in the context of the following:

  • the hugely controversial referendum on the UK membership of the then Common Market
  • direct elections to Europe
  • an economy in crisis that had to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund
  • the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland and an IRA bombing campaign on mainland Britain
  • continuing industrial problems with a powerful trade union movement in the ascendancy
  • workers' co-operatives
  • Concorde
  • banning pay beds in NHS hospitals
  • a nationalisation programme
  • Rhodesia and Scottish devolution

It was perhaps scarcely surprising, as Bernard Donoughue, head of the Number 10 Policy Unit, noted repeatedly in his Downing Street Diaries, that Wilson was cracking open the brandy bottle at noon and knocking it back until late at night.

Surprise resignation

Wilson was a superb operator with a mastery of the House of Commons but the strains took their toll.

He became increasingly paranoid about leaks and the press and the security services, about his warring party and supposed colleagues and the fact - yes, Barbara! - that so many of them were keeping diaries with a view to publication.

He hated Question Time and needed those brandies just to get through the twice weekly 15-minute sessions.

His decision to resign in 1976 astonished the political world at the time but maybe in retrospect it should not have been such a surprise.

Image copyright Hulton archive
Image caption James Callaghan succeeded Wilson as prime minister on 5 April 1976.

The Labour government had by then achieved a great deal without the necessity to compromise, except occasionally with its own supporters, but it was hard fought.

Four nights a week there would be crucial votes, sometimes a series of votes lasting a couple of hours, from 10pm. It was an administration run by a necessarily powerful Whips' Office and what was to follow under Callaghan would prove even more tense.

'Winter of discontent'

In early 1977 the Callaghan government lost its overall majority, which had been whittled away in by-elections, and the new leader of the Opposition, Margaret Thatcher, put down a vote of no confidence.

It led to negotiations with the Liberal leader, David Steel, at the head of a group of 13 MPs, for the formation of the Lib-Lab Pact.

It was an agreement under which the Liberals supported the government in return for policy consultation, and lasted until the autumn of 1978.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The "winter of discontent" spelt the end for Callaghan's government.

The Liberals got little from it, apart from a tweak at the black petticoat of power, but by then it was anticipated that Callaghan would shortly call an election.

His failure to do so and the subsequent industrial "winter of discontent" would lead to Labour being out of government for 18 years.

David Cameron is on an electoral honeymoon at the moment but the forthcoming Queen's Speech will give the new Commons a taste of what lies ahead.

It will also serve notice to the Conservative government's opponents in the House of Lords, where it is heavily outnumbered by the current composition of the upper House.

And then there is, as ever, the question of Europe.

The prime minister and his chief whip, Mark Harper, might both find a study of the 1970s quite helpful over the next few days.

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