Could 2005 be the new 1970?

by Stephen Tall on March 16, 2005

I don’t believe, pace Shirley Bassey, that history repeats itself. I’m pretty sceptical too of so-called historical parallels. But every now and then you read something, and catch a strong whiff of anticipated deja vu.
This is precisely what happened to me when I stumbled across BBC.co.uk’s ‘On This Day’ page for 19th June, 1970:

SHOCK ELECTION WIN FOR HEATH
Edward Heath has become the new British prime minister after a surprise victory for the Conservatives in the general election.
The result has confounded all opinion polls conducted before yesterday’s election which had predicted a comfortable win for Labour. But with all 630 seats now declared the Conservatives have won 330 seats, giving them a majority of 30. Labour have won 287 seats.
The new prime minister, Edward Richard George Heath, who has led the Conservative party since 1965, has pledged to “restore honesty to government and integrity to politics” and bring to an end what he referred to as “six long years of hard labour”.
The outgoing prime minister, Harold Wilson, refused to admit defeat until the last minute.
But just after 1400 hrs today, when the Conservatives reached the required majority of 316 seats, he requested an audience with the Queen to tender his resignation. Shortly afterwards the Queen invited Mr Heath to Buckingham Palace where she asked him to form a new administration.
In an interview with the BBC, the defeated Harold Wilson said he had always admired Edward Heath although he had not agreed with many of his election tactics, including the Conservatives’ attempt to “drag sterling into the campaign.” Devaluation of the pound has remained a controversial issue for both the main parties.
But Mr Wilson said Mr Heath would now have the strongest economic position any prime minister had taken over in living memory.
He suggested the low turn-out of voters – just 70% – may have contributed to his defeat: “We were up against something that no-one foresaw. (…) It was a low poll and a low poll is going to count against us. All the signs were of a high poll.”

Do I seriously think this could happen in 2005? No, I don’t. The circumstances are very different in all sorts of ways, for example: Labour’s majority in 1966-70 was a hundred, less than Mr Blair’s today, and much more vulnerable to a swing to the Tories; Labour devalued the pound in 1967, and failed to regain their economic credibility; the Liberals were an insignificant national force, and few fringe parties stood candidates, so the election was a two-horse race.

But it’s a sharp reminder that:

(i) opinion polls can be misleading. In 1970, most polls had pointed to a comfortable Labour victory and a third Labour term: the Tories, with an unpopular leader, trailed by 12.4%, but in fact won by a slender 3.4%.

(ii) low voter turn-out can disproportionately hit Labour, whose supporters tend to be less motivated than the Tories’, and the Lib Dems’. This is likely to be especially true of Labour this time, after four years in which Mr Blair has tried the patience of many of those who put him in power in 1997.

Let’s hope this is one 1970s’ revival that doesn’t find favour.