On the morning of 19 June 1970, a crowd formed in Downing Street, shouting: “Out! Out! Out!” Inside No 10, the building echoed to the plaintive cry of “The Carnival is Over” by The Seekers. Harold Wilson’s sons, Robin and Giles, played the single again and again as they threw together the belongings that their parents had accumulated over six years, and shoved the boxes into a car waiting discreetly at the back garden door.
In his Albany apartment off Piccadilly, Edward Heath lay asleep. He had left instructions with his housekeeper to wake him at noon, so he did not take the phone call that came through from a Mr Nixon late that morning.
Overnight, British voters had delivered the biggest electoral upset since the 1945 Labour landslide. With one exception, every opinion poll during the election campaign had put Labour ahead, by anything up to 11 percentage points.
William Hague was nine years old at the time, and still in the Hansard-free phase of his childhood. He admits that his memories of the 1970 general election are “hazy”, but it is the record of the polls that he holds on to. His lieutenants have been trawling the evidence to find out how Edward Heath pulled it off.
Like Hague, Heath was taunted as a “born loser”. Wilson, at Prime Minister’s Question Time, took to calling him “the temporary leader of the opposition”, and then, as now, political gossip was all about who would win the inevitable leadership contest after the Tories’ humiliating defeat.
Everywhere that Heath spoke, his aides put up the Tory campaign logo behind him – a series of concentric circles, which Wilson said looked like something out of Doctor Who. The press gang following Heath said it represented the plughole down which he was disappearing. Then, as now, the personal poll ratings suggested that the Tory leader was no small part of his party’s problem. Then, as now, it seemed as though the Tory leader was the only person in the country who thought he could win.
Heath, like Hague, presided over “a lurch to the right”. The party programme, agreed at the Selsdon Park Hotel in Croydon in 1970, was seen as a significant ideological shift. It pledged tax cuts and trade union reform, as well as precursors to Hague’s “red meat” policies on immigration and crime.
Wilson was still being treated with some reverence by the press. Like Tony Blair, he was calling an election a year earlier than required. Early in 1970, Wilson killed off any notion of a television debate between the party leaders. The Labour leader, then as now, had acquired something of a reputation for tricksiness. Shirley Williams, who was a minister of state at the Home Office in 1970, has said that most ministers took re-election for granted and spent much time during the election campaign wondering which job Wilson might give them after polling day. Today, she sees some similarities between Wilson’s “clever, witty, fast-footed, slightly cosmetic party” and new Labour.
Alas for Hague, the parallels end there. I asked Sir Edward Heath recently if Hague could take some comfort from his 1970 victory. There was a big intake of breath, the famed shaking shoulders shrug, silence, and then he said gravely: “No . . . none.” And then: “William Hague can’t appeal to the whole country . . . He doesn’t want to.”
More awkwardly for Hague, Blair shows no signs of matching Wilson’s complacent style. On the campaign trail, Wilson was forever inviting people to tea in Downing Street after the election. He had been hugely impressed by the Queen’s informal walkabouts on a recent trip to Australia and New Zealand, and decided to base his campaign on this: he made dozens of unannounced stops on his tour. It even prompted that collector’s rarity – a Heath joke. While campaigning in Birmingham, Wilson was hit by a well-aimed hard-boiled egg. Heath said that, given the secrecy of Wilson’s itinerary, the attack suggested that voters were wandering around the country armed with rotten food, on the off-chance that they might see the Labour leader.
The notion of “late swings” is now as unfashionable as the Wilsons’ record collection. But consensus attributes Heath’s 1970 victory to a late surge. Labour ran on its economic record, but should have studied the news diary a little more closely. The party made much of the positive balance- of-trade position. Then, three days before the election, figures showed that it had plunged into deficit. Public faith in Labour’s economic management was still fragile, and on polling day itself unemployment figures shot up.
It is on the economy that most parallels founder. Labour had taken a battering with the devaluation crisis in 1967, from which its reputation was only slowly recovering. Prices were up. In 1970, Roy Jenkins produced an economist’s Budget, not a party manager’s. After delivering his Budget speech, it was recorded, a deathly hush fell over the Labour benches. Gordon Brown has much more room for manoeuvre – and he will not be sitting down to silence when he finishes his Budget speech on Wednesday.
And then there was Wilson’s obsession with football. Shirley Williams said he had an “astrological-like fixation” that political fortunes swung with the national team. The Wilson government had nothing to match the Downing Street communications grid that synchronises new Labour policy announcements – when Wilson summoned ministers to Chequers for a pre-election session, the international football fixtures were on the table. Four days before polling, Wilson’s worst nightmare came true. England lost to Germany 3-2. They had been 2-0 up at halftime. They were now out of the Mexico World Cup. In desperation, Wilson accused the Tories of taking pleasure in England’s defeat. Heath spluttered that his patriotism was beyond reproach, because he had spent Christmas leading Britain to victory in the Sydney-Hobart Yacht Race.
During the 1970 campaign, polls suggested that only 29 per cent of voters “cared very much” which side won the contest. The overall turnout was the worst since 1934, with only 72 per cent of the population voting. There was anecdotal evidence on polling day of the Labour heartlands vote staying at home. David Butler, surveying the 1970 contest, said that it turned into an “unpopularity contest”- and Hague’s best hope is for a similar disenchantment to pervade the country in 2001.
Otherwise, he faces a much bigger electoral mountain: Heath won power on a 4.7 per cent swing – Hague needs an 8 per cent swing. And the Millbank machine will make sure no damaging government statistics can knock Labour’s campaign off course. Hague’s euro rebels may be dwindling, but they command headlines still, and in 2001 it is his party that looks divided.
Wilson also blamed the hot, muggy weather for his defeat in 1970. The Met Office won’t forecast as far ahead as 3 May – but England has two World Cup qualifying matches in late March, against Finland and Albania, followed by no fixtures until late May. Millbank had probably worked that out already.
Gary Gibbon is a political correspondent for Channel 4 News