After the recent terrorist attacks in London and Manchester, many cited the second 1974 General Election (when IRA bombings took place less than a week before polls opened) as a precedent to continue with 2017’s election campaign. These tragic events will ensure that both these elections are etched on popular memory, but Thursday’s results suggest that the 2017 Election has far more in common with the first general election of 1974, when Ted Heath suffered a shock election defeat.
Much like Theresa May, Heath went to the polls in a snap election, in a bid to strengthen his position in dealing with a national political issue, in his case the trade unions rather than Europe. Opinion polls in the build-up to both elections supported the wisdom of such an idea, although Heath would never have dreamt of the 200-seat majority some suggested May could command. But ultimately, although May continues as Prime Minister unlike Heath in 1974, both campaigns were regarded as failures. So what were the similarities that contributed to their shared fates? What lessons can be learnt from them?
In many ways, May’s election campaign represented an intensified version of the problems Heath experienced during the last two years of his incumbency. May’s decision to call an election was a u-turn in itself, having repeatedly ruled out a snap election. More significantly, her decision to revise the controversial ‘dementia tax’ manifesto pledge within days, in another u-turn, was virtually unprecedented and perceived as a major error of judgement.
A look at 1974 would have told Theresa May what damage u-turns can do to positions of authority. Heath’s decision in 1972 to pursue a radically different form of economic policy, after initial criticism for his autocratic style, prompted an explosion in the popularity of ‘u-turn’ in media circles and the phrase became synonymous with his premiership. Defeating the miners in 1972 was a major problem for Heath but his change in political course damaged his reputation inside his own party. Both Heath and May went to the polls hoping to bolster their leadership at times of national anxiety, and 2017 suggests that a popular belief in personal failings continues to be toxic for such ambitions.
Theresa May’s media engagement was another prominent part of recent events. Whereas Jeremy Corbyn greatly improved his public image during the campaign, May’s political opponents accused her of ‘lacking guts’ and ‘running away’ when she refused to attend television debates. The Daily Telegraph’s description of May as ‘unavailable and aloof’ resonates greatly with impressions of Ted Heath, who regarded media interviews as ‘fripperies’, according to one biographer. Like May, Heath faced a more enthusiastic opponent at a time when television appearances and interviews were rising in popularity, and many grew frustrated with his cold attitude to media. Neither Theresa May’s ‘strong and stable government’ catchphrase, nor Ted Heath’s ‘Who Governs Britain?’ slogan, were enough to cover for their deficiencies in public engagement, in an era of so-called personality politics.
Of course, Theresa May has clung onto power, unlike Ted Heath in 1974. But both elections have resulted in a minority government and history suggests that these are notoriously difficult to manage, particularly now that Britain has edged back towards traditional two-party politics. The Wilson government, beneficiaries of Heath’s demise, managed to limp along until they could claim a marginal parliamentary majority in the following October.
May’s position is arguably more difficult as the leader of a wounded and embarrassed party, with her opposition enjoying the momentum. And the many parallels with 1974 suggest an uncertain future and a probable return to the polls. Could May’s agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party further damage her public image and turn out to be the infamous ‘coalition of chaos’ after all?
Lucy Bell is a WRoCAH funded PhD student in the Sheffield University History Department. Her research explores the British media’s representation of trade unionism between 1945 and 1979.
Image: PM arrives at EU Council, December 2016. Credit: Jay Allen. © Crown Copyright [via Flickr].