All general elections are exciting but some are more memorable than others
WITH opinion polls differing wildly we could well be in for a nail-biting night of high political drama as the results of Thursday’s general election start to pour in from all over the country. But will it be as dramatic as these five remarkable contests from the past?
DECEMBER 1923 It was the era of jazz and great political uncertainty. The Tories had won the November 1922 general election under Andrew Bonar Law but he fell gravely ill with cancer and stepped down after just seven months in office making him Britain’s shortestserving 20th-century Prime Minister. His successor Stanley Baldwin went to the country hoping to get a mandate for his policy of protectionism – the imposition of tariffs on imported goods.
The election that followed has been described by historian Lewis Baston as “one of the strangest and most fascinating in history”. Eagerly contested, with free trade versus protectionism the big issue, it was the last time a third party (the Liberals) won more than 100 seats. The Tories ended up the largest party but lost their majority.
“There was near panic in some quarters when the election results became known,” wrote historian Norman Lowe. Deliberations over who should form the next government continued over Christmas and well into the New Year.
Baldwin was defeated in a House of Commons vote of no confidence in January, and King George V then called on Ramsay MacDonald to form the first Labour government in our history. The king wrote in his diary, “Today 23 years ago dear Grandmama (Queen Victoria) died. I wonder what she would have thought of a Labour government!”
Conservative leader Ted Heath celebrates his unexpected win in 1970
The political turmoil continued though as Labour only survived 10 months in office and after another election in October 1924 – the third in just three years – Baldwin and the Conservatives returned to power.
OCTOBER 1951 Labour, led by Clement Attlee, had won the last two elections and had been in power since 1945 but went to the country early to try increase their slim majority.
The opinion polls predicted a win for the Tories – who had promised to give people more red meat – meaning that there would be an emotional return to power for Winston Churchill, Britain‘s wartime leader, who was just one month away from his 77th birthday.
But the early results put Labour ahead. Only in the afternoon of the day following the election did the Conservatives take the lead. Labour had done much better than anyone had expected and in fact polled their highest share of the national vote ever with 48.8 per cent.
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The problem was their vote was piled up high in safe seats and they failed to translate their popularity into a majority. Six years after last leaving office Churchill returned triumphantly to Downing Street amid cheering crowds, as the second oldest Prime Minister in Britain’s history. Defeat was a bitter pill for Labour to swallow and although they did not know it at the time, they would be out of office for the next 13 years.
JUNE 1970 This was arguably the greatest election shock of the 20th century. Harold Wilson’s Labour government was consistently ahead in the polls, the weather was good, the economy was doing well and Wilson was so confident of success he fought a very low-key campaign. In early June the bookies were offering odds on 1-20 on a Labour victory. The result of the election on June 18 seemed to be a foregone conclusion.
The Economist magazine said the Tories faced “the apparent certainty of humiliating defeat”. But Wilson, like much of the country, watched in stunned disbelief as the first results came in and showed a swing to the Tories. Labour lost one seat, Ipswich, to the Conservatives by just 13 votes.
Labour’s Harold Wilson has his revenge in 1974
Cabinet minister Barbara Castle wrote how in the early hours of the morning Wilson, “impassive, though obviously downcast” sat alone on a giant sofa in the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool, looking “isolated and enigmatic”. Some pundits blamed Labour’s surprise reverse on England’s World Cup exit to West Germany a few days before the election, arguing that voters had turned against the prime minister as he had associated himself with England’s historic World Cup success four years earlier.
Labour officials blamed “bias by the BBC” with one party spokesman complaining of “insults to Mr Wilson and grovelling adulation to Mr Heath”. Another explanation was that many Labour supporters were so confident of their party winning, they did not bother to go out and vote. Backing this theory up is the fact that the turnout of 72 per cent was the lowest of any election since the war.
FEBRUARY 1974 This election took place amid the backdrop of power cuts, industrial unrest and the Three-day Week. Prime minister Edward Heath called an early election asking the question, “Who governs Britain: Parliament and the elected government or the trades unions?” But he did not get the answer he wanted.
His cause was not helped by a Tory split as former minister Enoch Powell, who had a large personal following, urged voters to vote Labour because of Heath’s strong support for Britain’s membership of the EEC (now the EU) and Labour’s promise of an in-out referendum. Almost all the opinion polls still pointed to a Tory victory with leads of up to 11 per cent but this time it was Heath who got the nasty surprise on election night.
The Tories got the most votes but Labour, campaigning on the slogan, “Let us work together” narrowly won the most seats. A cliff-hanger election had produced a hung Parliament for the first time since the Second World War. The Liberals, led by Jeremy Thorpe, declined to join the Tories in a coalition government, and four days after the election, a new Labour minority government was formed. Harold Wilson had got his revenge over Heath for 1970.
MAY 2010 Most of the polls had the Conservatives, who were seeking to return to power for the first time in 13 years, ahead but in the end it was, in the words of political commentator Ian Dunt, “The most surprising and dramatic election night in a generation.”
This was the first election to feature leaders’ debates on TV and following a well-received performance by their leader Nick Clegg in the fi rst one, the Lib Dems surged in popularity. An election night exit poll correctly predicted Britain’s first hung Parliament since February 1974.
The Conservatives easily won the most votes but they failed to make the gains in seats they had hoped for. Four days after the election Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister since 2007, was still hanging on in Downing Street, and it looked at one point as if Tory leader David Cameron might have missed his chance of the top job. This time though the Lib Dems decided to go with the Tories and after they agreed a deal, Britain had its fi rst peacetime coalition government since the 1930s.