February 1974 United Kingdom general election

On 28 February 1974, the United Kingdom held a general election. The Labour Party, led by former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, made moderate gains, but was short of an overall majority. The Conservative Party, led by incumbent Edward Heath, lost 28 seats, but achieved a slightly higher share of the vote than Labour. This resulted in a hung parliament; Heath resigned when he refused to a key term of a possible coalition, and Wilson became Prime Minister for a second time. Labour won 301 seats, 17 short of a majority.

February 1974 United Kingdom general election

28 February 1974

All 635 seats in the House of Commons
318 seats needed for a majority
Turnout78.8%, 6.8%
  First party Second party
Leader Harold Wilson Edward Heath
Party Labour Conservative
Leader since 14 February 1963 28 July 1965
Leader's seat Huyton Sidcup
Last election 288 seats, 43.1% 330 seats, 46.4%
Seats before 287 325
Seats won 301 297
Seat change 14 28
Popular vote 11,645,616 11,872,180
Percentage 37.2% 37.9%
Swing 5.9% 8.5%

  Third party Fourth party
Leader Jeremy Thorpe William Wolfe
Party Liberal SNP
Leader since 18 January 1967 1 June 1969
Leader's seat North Devon Ran in West Lothian (lost)
Last election 6 seats, 7.5% 1 seat, 1.1%
Seats before 11 2
Seats won 14 7
Seat change 3 5
Popular vote 6,059,519 633,180
Percentage 19.3% 2.0%
Swing 11.8% 0.9%

Colours denote the winning party—as shown in § Results

Prime Minister before election

Edward Heath

Appointed Prime Minister

Harold Wilson

This election saw Northern Ireland diverging heavily from the rest of the United Kingdom, with all twelve candidates elected being from local parties (eleven of them representing unionist parties), following the decision of the Ulster Unionists to withdraw support from the Conservative Party in protest over the Sunningdale Agreement. The Scottish National Party achieved significant success in this election; it increased its share of the popular vote in Scotland from 11% to 22%, and its number of MPs rose from 1 to 7. Plaid Cymru also succeeded for the first time in getting candidates elected in a general election in Wales (it had previously won a by-election).

Although Heath's incumbent Conservative government polled the most votes by a small margin, the Conservatives were overtaken in terms of seats by Wilson's Labour Party, due to a more efficiently-distributed Labour vote and to the decision by Ulster Unionist MPs not to take the Conservative whip.

Both Labour and Conservative lost a considerable share of the popular vote, largely to the Liberal Party under Jeremy Thorpe, which polled two-and-a-half times its last share of the vote. However, even with over six million votes, only 14 Liberal MPs were elected. There had been some media projections that the Liberals could take twice as many seats.[1]

Heath did not resign immediately as Prime Minister. Assuming that Northern Ireland's Unionist MPs could be persuaded to support a Conservative government on confidence matters over one led by Wilson, he entered into negotiations with Thorpe to form a coalition government. Thorpe, never enthusiastic about supporting the Conservatives, demanded major electoral reforms in exchange for such an agreement. Unwilling to accept such terms, Heath resigned and Wilson returned for his second stint as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Labour did not have enough seats to combine with another party to achieve an overall majority. This made the formation of a stable government in this Parliament a practical impossibility. Wilson was widely expected from the outset to call another general election before long, and did so in September that year.

The election night was covered live on the BBC, and was presented by Alastair Burnet, David Butler, Robert McKenzie and Robin Day.[1][2]

Prominent members of Parliament who retired or were defeated at this election included Gordon Campbell, Bernadette McAliskey, Enoch Powell, Richard Crossman, Tom Driberg and Patrick Gordon Walker. It was the first of two United Kingdom general elections held that year, the first to take place after the United Kingdom became a member of the European Communities on 1 January 1973 and the first since 1929 not to produce an overall majority in the House of Commons for the poll-topping party.


On Thursday 7 February it was announced that Prime Minister Edward Heath had asked the Queen, who was in New Zealand for the 1974 British Commonwealth Games at the time, to dissolve Parliament, in order for a general election to take place on 28 February. The severe economic circumstances in which the election was held promoted both The Sun and the Daily Mirror to characterise it as a "crisis election".[3]

On 10 February the National Union of Mineworkers, as expected, went on strike; however, it was more of a low-key affair than the high-profile clashes of 1972, with no violence and only six men on each picket line. Jim Prior later wrote that the miners had been "as quiet and well-behaved as mice".[3] The three-day week continued throughout the election; however, Heath did allow the late-night television curfew to be lifted to allow more coverage of the campaign. The low profile of the miners' strike allowed worries over inflation to dominate the election. On 15 February it was announced that the Retail Price Index showed a 20% increase in prices over the previous year.[3]

On 21 February the Pay Board released a report on miners' pay, which unexpectedly revealed that they were paid less in comparison with other manufacturing workers, contrary to the claims of the National Coal Board. This came as a severe blow to the Conservative position, and led to accusations that the National Coal Board did not understand its own pay system and the strike was unnecessary.[4] Four days later there was further bad news for Heath and his party, with the latest trade figures showing that the current account deficit for the previous month had been £383 million—the worst in recorded history. Heath claimed the figures confirmed "the gravity of the situation" and the need for a new mandate, prompting Roy Jenkins to quip: "He [Heath] presumably thinks a still worse result would have given him a still stronger claim."[3]

One of the most unexpected and explosive events of the campaign was when the outspoken Conservative MP Enoch Powell, who had already announced that he could not stand for re-election on the Conservative manifesto, urged people to vote against Heath, because of the latter's policy toward the European Communities. In a speech in Birmingham on 23 February, Powell claimed the main issue in the campaign was whether Britain was to "remain a democratic nation ... or whether it will become one province in a new Europe super-state"; he said it was people's "national duty" to oppose those who had deprived Parliament of "its sole right to make the laws and impose the taxes of the country".[3] This speech promoted The Sun to run the headline "Enoch puts the boot in". A few days later he said he hoped for victory by "the party which is committed to a fundamental renegotiation of the Treaty of Brussels and to submitting to the British People ... the outcome of that renegotiation". These were the explicit manifesto promises of the Labour Party.[3]

A further unforeseen blow to the Conservative's campaign came on 26 February when Campbell Adamson, Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), was reported to have called for the repeal of the Heath Government's Industrial Relations Act, saying that it had "sullied every relationship between employers and unions at national level". Adamson had been closely involved with the Downing Street talks over the mining dispute. Although Heath emphasised that Adamson was voicing a personal opinion and that his views did not express the official position of the CBI, after the election he would acknowledge that this intervention had a negative impact on the Conservative campaign.[5] Labour meanwhile cited Adamson's comments as proving the need "for everything they (had)... been urging on the Government".[6]

Conservative campaign

Heath addressed the country on television on the evening of 7 February, and asked:

Do you want a strong Government which has clear authority for the future to take decisions which will be needed? Do you want Parliament and the elected Government to continue to fight strenuously against inflation? Or do you want them to abandon the struggle against rising prices under pressure from one particularly powerful group of workers ... This time of strife has got to stop. Only you can stop it. It's time for you to speak—with your vote. It's time for your voice to be heard—the voice of the moderate and reasonable people of Britain: the voice of the majority. It's time for you to say to the extremists, the militants, and the plain and simply misguided: we've had enough. There's a lot to be done. For heaven's sake, let's get on with it.[3]

The Conservative campaign was, thus, encapsulated by the now famous phrase "Who governs Britain?"

The party's manifesto, which was largely written by the future chancellor Nigel Lawson, was entitled Firm Action for a Fair Britain, and was characterised by what historian Dominic Sandbrook has called "strident rhetoric".[3] It claimed the Labour opposition had been taken over by "a small group of power-hungry trade union leaders", who were "committed to a left-wing programme more dangerous and more extreme than ever before in its history". It went on to assert that a Labour victory would be a "major national disaster". Sandbrook has criticised the manifesto as "very vague and woolly", and lacking in "detailed policies or [a] sense of direction".[3]

Edward Heath played a dominant and crucial role in the campaign. In public he appeared calm and in control; David Watt, in the Financial Times, called him "statesmanlike" and "relaxed". In his party's final broadcast of the campaign he said: "I'll do all that I can for this country ... We've started a job together. With your will, we shall go on and finish the job."[3]

One Conservative party political broadcast attracted controversy for its ferocity. In the film the narrator warned that Labour would confiscate "your bank account, your mortgage and your wage packet", while pictures of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan dissolved into those of Michael Foot and Tony Benn. It went on to claim that Labour would not have to move much further to the left before "you could find yourself not even owning your own home".[3] Wilson was reportedly furious, and Lord Carrington, the Secretary of State for Energy, was forced to make a formal apology.[3]

Labour campaign

The Labour manifesto, Let us work together, was notably radical. It had been greatly influenced by the economist Stuart Holland and Shadow Industry Secretary Tony Benn. In it, Labour promised "a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families". It advocated compulsory planning agreements with industry and the creation of a National Enterprise Board. This section attracted strong criticism from figures within the party, with Tony Crosland privately calling the nationalisation programme "half-baked" and "idiotic". The manifesto also committed the party to renegotiating the terms of Britain's entry into the European Economic Community, and holding a national referendum on the issue.[3]

The Labour campaign attempted to present the party's leadership as competent negotiators, who could restore peace with the unions. Unlike in previous elections Wilson took something of a back seat, allowing James Callaghan, Denis Healey and Shirley Williams to play equal, if not greater, roles in the campaign. In their final broadcast of the campaign a series of leading figures claimed Labour could put Britain "on the road to recovery". In the film Wilson asserted: "Trades unionists are people. Employers are people. We can't go on setting one against the other except at the cost of damage to the nation itself." David Owen would later call the campaign the "shabbiest" he had ever been associated with.[3]

Liberal campaign

The Liberal Party had undergone a revival under the leadership of Jeremy Thorpe, winning a string of by-elections in 1972 and 1973. It had begun to appeal to disaffected Conservative voters, and continued to do so throughout the campaign. Thorpe came across as young and charismatic, often attempting to appear above the two-party fray. Their manifesto You can Change the Face of Britain promised voting reform and devolution, although Sandbrook has described their economic policy as "impossibly vague".[3]

Position of the press

Historian Dominic Sandbrook describes the "level of partisanship" amongst the national newspapers during the election as "unprecedented" in post-war Britain. The Daily Mirror was one of the few national newspapers to support Labour, with many others urging their readers to re-elect Heath. There was fierce condemnation of Wilson and his party. The Sun, which had supported Labour in 1970, claimed a Labour victory would result in "galloping inflation", while an editorial in The Daily Telegraph said a Labour government would be "complete ruin public and private", and condemned Wilson's "craven subservience to trade union power". The Evening Standard published a piece by Kingsley Amis calling Labour politician Tony Benn, who was to be appointed Secretary of State for Industry after the election, "the most dangerous man in Britain", while in the Daily Express cartoonist Cummings depicted miners' leader Joe Gormley, Wilson and other Labour figures as French revolutionaries guillotining Heath. The Daily Mail, in the words of Sandbrook, "directed much of its fire at the unions"; it accused the National Union of Mineworkers, which was affiliated with the Labour Party, of "producing the worst inflation in our history". The Guardian, in contrast, chose not to openly support any party. Its columnist Peter Jenkins claimed the last ten years had proved that "neither party" had the ability to deal with the country's problems.[3]

Economic background

It was the first general election in the United Kingdom to be held during an economic crisis since the 1931 general election, which had been held in the depths of the Great Depression.[7]

Opinion polls

Throughout the campaign 25 of the 26 opinion polls had a Conservative lead, at one point even by 9%. Of the six polls on Election Day (28 February), two had a 2% lead, two a 4% lead, one a 3% lead and one a 5% lead.[8]


As the Queen was in New Zealand on 7 February, the Prime Minister notified her of his intentions via telegram rather than by the usual protocol of visiting Buckingham Palace. The key dates were as follows:

Friday 8 FebruaryDissolution of the 45th Parliament and campaigning officially begins
Monday 18 FebruaryLast day to file nomination papers; 2,135 candidates enter to contest 635 seats
Wednesday 27 FebruaryCampaigning officially ends
Thursday 28 FebruaryPolling day
Friday 1 MarchElection results in a hung parliament with Labour narrowly ahead as the largest party but short of a majority
Sunday 3 MarchEdward Heath begins meetings with Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe to discuss the terms of a potential coalition
Monday 4 MarchConservative Prime Minister Edward Heath resigns shortly after the Liberals reject his coalition terms, allowing Harold Wilson to return to power as leader of a Labour minority government
Wednesday 6 March46th Parliament assembles
Tuesday 12 MarchState Opening of Parliament


301 297 14 23
Labour Conservative Lib O

This election was fought on new constituency boundaries with five more seats added to the 630 used in 1970. This led to many seats changing hands on the new notional boundaries. Notional election results from the 1970 general election were calculated on behalf of the BBC by Michael Steed, for the purposes of comparing constituency results for those of February 1974.

For the first time since 1929 the two largest political parties had received less than a combined share of 80% of the vote, and the Liberals had also won more than 10% of the vote.

UK General Election February 1974[lower-alpha 1]
Candidates Votes
Party Leader Stood Elected Gained Unseated Net % of total % No. Net %
  Conservative Edward Heath 623 297 5 42 37 46.8 37.9 11,872,180 8.5
  Labour Harold Wilson 623 301 34 14 +20 47.4 37.2 11,645,616 5.9
  Liberal Jeremy Thorpe 517 14 8 0 +8 2.2 19.3 6,059,519 +11.8
  SNP William Wolfe 70 7 6 0 +6 1.1 2.0 633,180 +0.9
  UUP Harry West 7 7 1 2 1 1.1 0.8 232,103 N/A
  Plaid Cymru Gwynfor Evans 36 2 2 0 +2 0.3 0.5 171,374 0.1
  SDLP Gerry Fitt 12 1 1 0 +1 0.2 0.5 160,137 N/A
  Pro-Assembly Unionist Brian Faulkner 7 0 0 0 0 0.3 94,301 N/A
  National Front John Tyndall 54 0 0 0 0 0.2 76,865 +0.1
  Vanguard William Craig 3 3 3 0 +3 0.5 0.2 75,944 N/A
  DUP Ian Paisley 2 1 1 0 +1 0.2 0.2 58,656 +0.1
  Independent Liberal N/A 8 0 0 0 0 0.2 38,437 +0.2
  Communist John Gollan 44 0 0 0 0 0.1 32,743 0.0
  Independent Labour N/A 6 1 1 1 0 0.2 0.1 29,892 0.0
  Alliance Oliver Napier 3 0 0 0 0 0.1 22,660 N/A
  Independent N/A 43 0 0 0 0 0.1 18,180 0.0
  Unity N/A 2 0 0 2 2 0.0 17,593 0.4
  Independent Socialist N/A 2 0 0 0 0 0.0 17,300 N/A
  NI Labour Alan Carr 5 0 0 0 0 0.0 17,284 N/A
  Republican Clubs Tomás Mac Giolla 4 0 0 0 0 0.0 15,152 N/A
  Democratic Labour Dick Taverne 1 1 1 0 +1 0.0 14,780 N/A
  Ind. Conservative N/A 18 0 0 0 0 0.0 11,451 0.1
  Independent Republican N/A 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 5,662 N/A
  PEOPLE Tony Whittaker 6 0 0 0 0 0.0 4,576 N/A
  Workers Revolutionary Gerry Healey 9 0 0 0 0 0.0 4,191 N/A
  Social Democracy Dick Taverne 4 0 0 0 0 0.0 2,646 N/A
  Independent Democratic John Creasey 6 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,976 N/A
  Marxist-Leninist (England) John Buckle 6 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,419 N/A
  National Independence John Davis 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,373 N/A
  National Democratic David Brown 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,161 0.1
  Ind. Labour Party Emrys Thomas 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 991 0.0
  Mebyon Kernow Richard Jenkin 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 850 0.0
  International Marxist N/A 3 0 0 0 0 0.0 716 N/A
  British Movement Colin Jordan 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 711 0.0
  Independent Social Democrat N/A 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 661 N/A
  Wessex Regionalist Viscount Weymouth 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 521 N/A
  Independent Democrat N/A 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 386 N/A
  More Prosperous Britain Tom Keen and Harold Smith 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 234 N/A
  National Independent N/A 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 229 N/A
  John Hampden New Freedom Frank Hansford-Miller 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 203 N/A
All parties shown.
Government's new majority 33
Total votes cast 31,321,982
Turnout 78.8%

Votes summary

Popular vote
Scottish National
Ulster Unionist
Plaid Cymru
Social Democratic and Labour

Seats summary

Parliamentary seats
Scottish National
Ulster Unionist
Plaid Cymru
Social Democratic and Labour
Democratic Unionist
Independent Labour
Democratic Labour

Incumbents defeated




Scottish National Party

Ulster Unionist Party

Unionist Party of Northern Ireland


Independent Socialist

See also


  1. Results based on the notional 1970 results on the boundaries which came into force in 1974.[9] The seats won by the Ulster Unionists are compared with those won by Unionist MPs in the 1970 election. The Protestant Unionist Party became the core of the Democratic Unionist Party and their candidates are compared with the result of the Protestant Unionist in 1970. The sole Republican Labour Party MP elected in 1970 subsequently left that party to co-found the Social Democrat and Labour Party in 1970 and the remains of the party disintegrated by 1974.



  1. BBC Feb '74 Election coverage on YouTube, "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 1 April 2011. Retrieved 2 December 2016.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  2. Part 1, Election 74, BBC Parliament, retrieved 2 June 2018
  3. Sandbrook 2010, pp. 611–645.
  4. Taylor 1984, p. 258.
  5. George Clark (1974). "The 'Inevitable' Election". The Times Guide to the House of Commons 1974. London: Times Newspapers Limited. p. 28. ISBN 0-7230-0115-4.
  6. "Drop industry Act, urges CBI chief". The Glasgow Herald. 27 February 1974. p. 1. Retrieved 7 February 2019.
  7. "28 February 1974", BBC Politics 97, retrieved 2 June 2018
  8. Butler & Kavanagh 1974, p. 95.
  9. "Seats changing hands at General Elections", election.demon.co.uk, retrieved 2 June 2018


Further reading

  • Butler, David E.; et al. (1975), The British General Election of February 1974, the standard scholarly study
  • Craig, F. W. S. (1989), British Electoral Facts: 1832–1987, Dartmouth: Gower, ISBN 0900178302


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