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How to lose an unlosable election

The Historian

In 1945 and again in 1974, the Tories lost an election they had been certain to win. Why? And is it about to happen again?

If Boris Johnson loses the election on 12 December, it will be in the long tradition of Conservative governments that have done badly in elections that reason said they should have won. 

In July 1945 Winston Churchill called an election, the first since 1935. The pre-election polls gave him an 83% approval rating, a record never to be exceeded in the years since. With Hitler’s Europe defeated, he was a national hero. Moreover, Britain was still at war in Japan and needed its wartime leader to be in power. By contrast, the leader of the Labour Party, Clement Attlee, appeared to be insignificant. As Churchill remarked, “he was a modest man with much to be modest about”. And yet somehow electoral disaster was snatched from the jaws of victory: the Conservatives lost by a landslide. Labour were voted into power with a majority of 145 seats. 

Ever since 1945 psephologists have been struggling to come up with convincing reasons for Churchill’s defeat. They range from troops serving abroad and unable to vote, Churchill’s frequent absences on war business, to the promises of Labour for a new health service, and memories of unemployment in the 1930s, to the industrialists who had done well out of the war. But I have not been persuaded. 

Let us go from 1945 to the February 1974 election, when Edward Heath lost a Conservative majority. This, according to the Mirror and the Sun, was a ‘crisis election’. The miners were on strike. The unions were out of control. Britain was on a three-day week. The lights were going out. The Conservative slogan was: ‘Who governs Britain?’ Was it to be the government or the unions? The electorate preferred the unions. 

As an aside, I almost think Corbyn took the speech with which he opened his current election campaign from the 1974 Labour Party manifesto. It promised “a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families”. It also committed the party to renegotiating the terms of British entry into the European Economic Community and holding a referendum on the issue. 

In common with 1945, the outcome of the 1974 election result has confounded the experts. Heath’s obvious lack of charm, high inflation, a large current-account deficit, and the socialist promises were all factors, but none, as it seemed to me at the time, were crucial reasons for throwing out the government when there was a national crisis. 

The Historian

About Jeffrey Bonas

Jeffrey Bonas

Jeffrey Bonas's experiences range from having been chairman of public companies to having assisted with the property portfolio of his Oxford college where he has been a Fellow.

Articles by Jeffrey Bonas

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