Portraits of former PMs hang in Number 10. Photo: Dan Kitwood - WPA Pool/Getty Images
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What happened in the 1974 election?

Oil, Scottish Nationalists, and a split house - it all sounds a bit familiar.

For Labour, defeat is like shortbread: it rarely stops with one. Loss of power in 1951 was followed by crushing reverses in 1955 and 1959. The party stumbled out of office in 1979 – and went on to lose in 1983, 1987 and 1992. Since 1945, Labour has bucked the trend on just one occasion: 1974.

In June 1970, to the surprise of just about everyone but himself, Ted Heath, who had been widely written off by his own party due to both dire approval ratings and his strange lifestyle, became prime minister with a majority of 30. Harold Wilson, Labour’s popular if, by that point, somewhat tarnished leader, had planned to retire in 1972. But he
was desperate not to go down as a loser and was able to persuade his colleagues that only he could keep together a party that was badly split between modernisers still pining over a departed leader (Hugh Gaitskell) and an increasingly vocal left.

That unity came at the price of clarity, and both factions angrily stockpiled weapons for the coming civil war, with the right consolidating its control over the conservative parliamentary party and the left making inroads into the constituencies.

That war might have broken out into the open if the Conservative government had not made such a mess of things. Heath’s government became locked in a fruitless battle with the miners, while Anthony Barber, the chancellor of the Exchequer, managed to turn a large Budget surplus into a deficit of 6 per cent of GDP.

In February 1974, faced with the unappetising choice of a failed Tory administration and an incoherent Labour opposition, the country shrugged. The third party, the Liberals, enjoyed their biggest share of the vote since 1923 and the Scottish Nationalists returned their highest number of MPs yet (seven). Wilson, meanwhile, finished just behind Heath in the popular vote but ahead on seats, with 301 to the Conservatives’ 297. In addition, Labour’s position in the Commons was stronger than it looked, because even though it was 30 seats short of a working majority, none of the smaller parties – from the Liberals to the Scottish Nationalists and the various flavours of Irish unionists – wanted to help Heath stay in office.

Wilson opted to eschew a formal coalition with a smaller party and to carry on in the hope of securing a more comfortable parliamentary position at a later date, just as he had turned a Labour majority of four seats in 1964 into one of 96 in 1966. But Labour’s position after the October 1974 election was little better than it had been in February, with a majority of just three, and the Scottish Nationalists, on their best ever showing in parliament, with 11 seats.

The economy was still being buffeted by adverse global winds and capital flight, the trade unions were restive, and there was the question of Barber’s deficit to be addressed. The small majority would have been hard to manage in the best of times – but unlike in 1964, when Labour was largely united, the party’s divisions, partly suppressed during the years of opposition, sprang back into the open in office.

Passing legislation turned into a war of attrition that wore hard on Labour parliamentarians – for the most part, elderly men with hard careers in manual labour behind them. It proved next to impossible for the government to get bills through the House without them acquiring wrecking amendments and vexatious extra spending commitments, many of these from MPs who were notionally on the government’s side.

The years of hard slog had their effect. Thirteen Labour MPs died between October 1974 and May 1979. That, coupled with the enervating affect of Britain’s economic woes on the party’s popularity, meant that by the time that Jim Callaghan succeeded Wilson in 1976, the government had a majority in name only. A year later, in 1977, a double defeat in Birmingham Stechford and Ashfield left the party without any sort of majority at all.

Labour was now forced to live on what it could wheedle out of the smaller parties. But unlike the large majority secured by David Cameron in concert with the Lib Dems, these were impromptu coalitions, and they were able to edge the government over the line on individual votes, each often splitting the Labour Party down the middle.

What kept ministers and MPs going? The dream of North Sea oil, great deposits of which prospectors had discovered by 1974, but was not due to start paying dividends until the end of the decade. Labour’s dream was that if it held on long enough, it would be able to reap the electoral benefits of Britain striking oil. But it wasn’t to be: a deal with the SNP – for a devolved assembly for Scotland – was rebuffed by the Scottish electorate and led to a vote of no confidence in the Labour government.

The Scottish Nationalists voted with the Liberals and the Tories to bring down the government: and in the early hours of the morning on 4 May 1979, Margaret Thatcher stood outside Downing Street as prime minister for the first time. Labour did not come close to office again until 1997.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

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A Fox among the chickens: why chlorinated poultry is about more than what's on your plate

The trade minister thinks we're obsessed with chicken, but it's emblematic of bigger Brexit challenges.

What do EU nationals and chlorinated chickens have in common? Both have involuntarily been co-opted as bargaining chips in Britain’s exit from the European Union. And while their chances of being welcomed across our borders rely on vastly different factors, both are currently being dangled over the heads of those charged with negotiating a Brexit deal.

So how is it that hundreds of thousands of pimpled, plucked carcasses are the more attractive option? More so than a Polish national looking to work hard, pay their taxes and enjoy a life in Britain while contributing to the domestic economy?

Put simply, let the chickens cross the Atlantic, and get a better trade deal with the US – a country currently "led" by a protectionist president who has pledged huge tariffs on numerous imports including steel and cars, both of which are key exports from Britain to the States. However, alongside chickens the US could include the tempting carrot of passporting rights, so at least bankers will be safe. Thank. Goodness. 

British farmers won’t be, however, and that is one of the greatest risks from a flood of "Frankenfoods" washing across the Atlantic. 

For many individuals, the idea of chlorinated chicken is hard to stomach. Why is it done? To help prevent the spread of bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter. Does it work? From 2006-2013 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an average of 15.2 cases of salmonella per 100,000 people in the US (0.015 per cent) – earlier figures showed 0.006 per cent of cases resulted in hospitalisation. In 2013, the EU reported the level at 20.4 cases per 100,000, but figures from the Food Standards Agency showed only 0.003 per cent of UK cases resulted in hospitalisation, half of the US proportion.

Opponents of the practice also argue that washing chickens in chlorine is a safety net for lower hygiene standards and poorer animal welfare earlier along the line, a catch-all cover-up to ensure cheaper production costs. This is strongly denied by governing bodies and farmers alike (and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who reignited the debate) but all in all, it paints an unpalatable picture for those unaccustomed to America’s "big ag" ways.

But for the British farmer, imports of chicken roughly one fifth cheaper than domestic products (coupled with potential tariffs on exports to the EU) will put further pressure on an industry already working to tight margins, in which many participants make more money from soon-to-be-extinct EU subsidies than from agricultural income.

So how can British farmers compete? While technically soon free of EU "red tape" when it comes to welfare, environmental and hygiene regulations, if British farmers want to continue exporting to the EU, they will likely have to continue to comply with its stringent codes of practice. Up to 90 per cent of British beef and lamb exports reportedly go to the EU, while the figure is 70 per cent for pork. 

British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths says that the UK poultry meat industry "stands committed to feeding the nation with nutritious food and any compromise on standards will not be tolerated", adding that it is a "matter of our reputation on the global stage.”

Brexiteer and former environment minister Andrea Leadsom has previously promised she would not lower animal welfare standards to secure new trade deals, but the present situation isn’t yet about moving forward, simply protecting what we already have.

One glimmer of hope may be the frozen food industry that, if exporting to the EU, would be unable to use imported US chicken in its products. This would ensure at least one market for British poultry farmers that wouldn't be at the mercy of depressed prices, resulting from a rushed trade deal cobbled together as an example of how well Britain can thrive outside the EU. 

An indication of quite how far outside the bloc some Brexiteers are aiming comes from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's current "charm" offensive in Australasia. While simultaneously managing to offend Glaswegians, BoJo reaffirmed trading links with the region. Exports to New Zealand are currently worth approximately £1.25bn, with motor vehicles topping the list. Making the return trip, lamb and wine are the biggest imports, so it’s unlikely a robust trade deal in the South Pacific is going to radically improve British farmers’ lives. The same is true of their neighbours – Australia’s imports from Britain are topped by machinery and transport equipment (59 per cent of the total) and manufactured goods (26 per cent). 

Clearly keeping those trade corridors open is important, but it is hard to believe Brexit will provide a much-needed boon for British agriculture through the creation of thus far blocked export channels. Australia and New Zealand don’t need our beef, dairy or poultry. We need theirs.

Long haul exports and imports themselves also pose a bigger, longer term threat to food security through their impact on the environment. While beef and dairy farming is a large contributor to greenhouse gases, good stock management can also help remove atmospheric carbon dioxide. Jet engines cannot, and Britain’s skies are already close to maximum occupancy, with careful planning required to ensure appropriate growth.

Read more: Stephen Bush on why the chlorine chicken row is only the beginning

The global food production genie is out of the bottle, it won’t go back in – nor should it. Global food security relies on diversity, and countries working and trading together. But this needs to be balanced with sustainability – both in terms of supply and the environment. We will never return to the days of all local produce and allotments, but there is a happy medium between freeganism and shipping food produce halfway around the world to prove a point to Michel Barnier. 

If shoppers want a dragon fruit, it will have to be flown in. If they want a chicken, it can be produced down the road. If they want a chlorinated chicken – well, who does?