February 1974 United Kingdom general election

February 1974 United Kingdom general election

← 1970 28 February 1974 Oct 1974 →

All 635 seats in the House of Commons
318 seats needed for a majority
Opinion polls
Turnout78.8%, Increase6.8%
  First party Second party Third party
Leader Harold Wilson Edward Heath Jeremy Thorpe
Party Labour Conservative Liberal
Leader since 14 February 1963 28 July 1965 18 January 1967
Leader's seat Huyton Sidcup North Devon
Last election 288 seats, 43.1% 330 seats, 46.4% 6 seats, 7.5%
Seats before 287 325 6
Seats won 301 297 14
Seat change Increase14 Decrease28 Increase8
Popular vote 11,645,616 11,872,180 6,059,519
Percentage 37.2% 37.9% 19.3%
Swing Decrease5.9% Decrease8.5% Increase11.8%

Colours denote the winning party—as shown in § Results

Composition of the House of Commons after the election

Prime Minister before election

Edward Heath

Prime Minister after election

Harold Wilson

The February 1974 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday 28 February 1974. The Labour Party, led by Leader of the Opposition and former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, gained 14 seats (301 total) but was seventeen short of an overall majority. The Conservative Party, led by incumbent Prime Minister Edward Heath, lost 28 seats (though it polled a higher share of the vote than Labour). That resulted in a hung parliament, the first since 1929. Heath sought a coalition with the Liberals, but the two parties failed to come to an agreement and so Wilson became Prime Minister for a second time, his first with a minority government. Wilson called another early election in September, which was held in October and resulted in a Labour majority. The February election was also the first general election to be held with the United Kingdom as a member state of the European Communities (EC), which was widely known as the "Common Market".

Its results saw Northern Ireland diverging heavily from the rest of the United Kingdom, with all twelve candidates elected being from local parties (eleven of them representing unionist parties) after the decision of the Ulster Unionists to withdraw support from the Conservative Party in protest over the Sunningdale Agreement. The Scottish National Party achieved significant success at the election by increasing its share of the popular vote in Scotland from 11% to 22%, and its number of MPs from one to seven. Plaid Cymru also succeeded for the first time in getting candidates elected at a general election in Wales (its sole previous seat was won at a by-election in 1966).

Although Heath's incumbent Conservative government polled the most votes by a small margin, the Conservatives were overtaken in terms of seats by Wilson's Labour Party because of a more efficiently-distributed Labour vote. Ultimately, the decision by the seven Ulster Unionist MPs not to take the Conservative whip proved decisive in giving Labour a slim plurality of seats. The other four unionists elected were hardliners who were not affiliated with the UUP.

Both the Labour and the Conservative parties lost a considerable share of the popular vote, largely to the Liberal Party under Jeremy Thorpe's leadership, which polled two-and-a-half times its share of the vote in the previous election. However, even with over 6,000,000 votes, only 14 Liberal MPs were elected. There had been some media projections that the Liberals could take twice as many seats.

Given that it was not obvious who could command the support of the House, Heath did not resign immediately as Prime Minister. However, he knew that even if he could persuade all eleven of Northern Ireland's unionist MPs to support a Conservative government, at least on confidence matters, over one led by Wilson, he would still need the support of the Liberals to have a workable majority. Heath, therefore, started negotiations with Thorpe to form a coalition government. Thorpe, never enthusiastic about supporting the Conservatives, demanded major electoral reforms in exchange for such an agreement. Unwilling to accept such terms, Heath resigned, and Wilson returned for his second stint as Prime Minister.

The election night was covered live on the BBC and was presented by Alastair Burnet, David Butler, Robert McKenzie and Robin Day.

Prominent members of Parliament who retired or were defeated at the election included Gordon Campbell, Bernadette McAliskey, Enoch Powell, Richard Crossman, Tom Driberg and Patrick Gordon Walker. It was the first of two United Kingdom general elections held that year, the first to take place after the United Kingdom became a member of the European Communities on 1 January 1973 and the first since 1929 not to produce an overall majority in the House of Commons for the party with the most votes. This was also the first time since 1910 that two general elections were held in the same year.


On Thursday 7 February, it was announced that Prime Minister Edward Heath had asked Queen Elizabeth II, who was then in New Zealand for the 1974 British Commonwealth Games, to dissolve Parliament for a general election to take place on 28 February. Because of the Queen's absence abroad, the dissolution offers a rare example of the dissolution of parliament having to be promulgated by Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother and Princess Margaret as Counsellors of State, on the express instructions of the Queen. The severe economic circumstances in which the election was held prompted both The Sun and the Daily Mirror to characterise it as a "crisis election".

On 10 February, the National Union of Mineworkers, as expected, went on strike, but it was more of a low-key affair than the high-profile clashes of 1972, with no violence and only six men on each picket line. Jim Prior later wrote that the miners had been "as quiet and well-behaved as mice". The Three-Day Week continued throughout the election although Heath allowed the late-night television curfew to be lifted to allow more coverage of the campaign. The low profile of the miners' strike allowed worries over inflation to dominate the election. On 15 February, it was announced that the Retail Price Index showed a 20% increase in prices over the previous year.

On 21 February, the Pay Board released a report on miners' pay, which unexpectedly revealed that they were paid less than other manufacturing workers, contrary to the claims of the National Coal Board. That came as a severe blow to the Conservative position and led to accusations that the National Coal Board did not understand its own pay system and that the strike was unnecessary. Four days later, there was further bad news for Heath and his party, with the latest trade figures showing that the current account deficit for the previous month had been £383,000,000, the worst in recorded history. Heath claimed the figures confirmed "the gravity of the situation" and the need for a new mandate, which prompted Roy Jenkins to quip: "He [Heath] presumably thinks a still worse result would have given him a still stronger claim".

One of the most unexpected and explosive events of the campaign was when the outspoken Conservative MP Enoch Powell, who had already announced that he could not stand for re-election on the Conservative manifesto, urged people to vote against Heath for supporting the European Communities. In a speech in Birmingham on 23 February 1974, Powell claimed the main issue in the campaign was whether Britain was to "remain a democratic nation ... or whether it will become one province in a new Europe super-state"; he said it was people's "national duty" to oppose those who had deprived Parliament of "its sole right to make the laws and impose the taxes of the country". The speech prompted The Sun to run the headline "Enoch puts the boot in". A few days later, he said he hoped for victory by "the party which is committed to a fundamental renegotiation of the Treaty of Brussels and to submitting to the British People ... the outcome of that renegotiation". Those were the explicit manifesto promises of the Labour Party.

A further unforeseen blow to the Conservative campaign came on 26 February when Campbell Adamson, Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), was reported to have called for the repeal of the Heath Government's Industrial Relations Act and saying that it had "sullied every relationship between employers and unions at national level". Adamson had been closely involved with the Downing Street talks over the mining dispute. Although Heath emphasised that Adamson was voicing a personal opinion and that his views did not express the official position of the CBI, he after the election acknowledged that the intervention had a negative impact on the Conservative campaign. Labour, meanwhile, cited Adamson's comments as proving the need "for everything they (had)... been urging on the Government".

Conservative campaign

Heath addressed the country on television on the evening of 7 February, and asked:

Do you want a strong Government which has clear authority for the future to take decisions which will be needed? Do you want Parliament and the elected Government to continue to fight strenuously against inflation? Or do you want them to abandon the struggle against rising prices under pressure from one particularly powerful group of workers ... This time of strife has got to stop. Only you can stop it. It's time for you to speak—with your vote. It's time for your voice to be heard—the voice of the moderate and reasonable people of Britain: the voice of the majority. It's time for you to say to the extremists, the militants, and the plain and simply misguided: we've had enough. There's a lot to be done. For heaven's sake, let's get on with it.

The Conservative campaign was, thus, encapsulated by the now-famous phrase "Who governs Britain?"

The party's manifesto, which was largely written by the future Chancellor Nigel Lawson, was entitled Firm Action for a Fair Britain and characterised by the historian Dominic Sandbrook as "strident rhetoric". It claimed the Labour opposition had been taken over by "a small group of power-hungry trade union leaders", who were "committed to a left-wing programme more dangerous and more extreme than ever before in its history". It went on to assert that a Labour victory would be a "major national disaster". Sandbrook criticised the Conservative manifesto as "very vague and woolly" and lacking in "detailed policies or [a] sense of direction."

Edward Heath played a dominant and crucial role in the campaign. In public, he appeared calm and in control. David Watt, in the Financial Times, called him "statesmanlike" and "relaxed". In his party's final broadcast of the campaign he said: "I'll do all that I can for this country ... We've started a job together. With your will, we shall go on and finish the job".

One Conservative political broadcast attracted controversy for its ferocity. In the film the narrator warned that Labour would confiscate "your bank account, your mortgage and your wage packet" while pictures of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan dissolved into those of Michael Foot and Tony Benn. It went on to allege that Labour would not have to move much further to the left before "you could find yourself not even owning your own home". Wilson was reportedly furious, and Lord Carrington, the Secretary of State for Energy, made a formal apology.

Labour campaign

The Labour manifesto, Let us work together, consisted of only ten pages only, the shortest since 1955. It had been greatly influenced by the economist Stuart Holland and Shadow Industry Secretary Tony Benn. In it, Labour promised "a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families". It advocated planning agreements with industry and the creation of a National Enterprise Board. That section attracted criticism from some figures within the party. For example, Anthony Crosland privately called the programme "half-baked" and "idiotic".The manifesto also committed the party to renegotiating the terms of Britain's entry into the European Economic Community and to holding a national referendum on the issue.

The Labour campaign presented the party's leadership as competent negotiators, who would restore peace with the unions. Unlike in previous elections, Wilson took something of a back seat and allowed James Callaghan, Denis Healey and Shirley Williams to play equal, if not greater, roles in the campaign. In the final broadcast of the campaign, a series of leading figures claimed Labour could put Britain "on the road to recovery". In the film, Wilson asserted: "Trades unionists are people. Employers are people. We can't go on setting one against the other except at the cost of damage to the nation itself".

Liberal campaign

The Liberal Party had undergone a revival under the leadership of Jeremy Thorpe by winning a string of by-elections in 1972 and 1973. It had begun to appeal to disaffected Conservative voters and continued to do so throughout the campaign. Thorpe came across as young and charismatic, often attempting to appear above the two-party fray. The manifesto, You can Change the Face of Britain, promised voting reform and devolution, but Sandbrook described its economic policy as "impossibly vague".

Scottish National Party campaign

During the election, the Scottish National Party campaigned widely on the political slogan "It's Scotland's oil". It was argued that the discovery of North Sea oil off the coast of Scotland and the revenue that it created would not benefit Scotland to any significant degree while it remained part of the United Kingdom.

Position of press

The historian Dominic Sandbrook describes the "level of partisanship" amongst the national newspapers during the election as "unprecedented" in post-war Britain, with most of the media prejudiced in favour of Heath and the Conservatives. The Daily Mirror was one of the few national newspapers to support Labour, with many others urging their readers to re-elect Heath. In the right-wing media, there was fierce condemnation of Wilson and his party. The Sun, which had supported Labour in 1970, claimed a Labour victory would result in "galloping inflation", and an editorial in The Daily Telegraph said a Labour government would be "complete ruin public and private" and condemned what it saw as Wilson's "craven subservience to trade union power". The Evening Standard published a piece by Kingsley Amis calling the Labour politician Tony Benn, who was to be appointed Secretary of State for Industry after the election, "the most dangerous man in Britain", and in the Daily Express, the cartoonist Cummings depicted the miners' leader Joe Gormley, Wilson and other Labour figures as French revolutionaries guillotining Heath. The Guardian, in contrast, chose to support no party openly. Its columnist Peter Jenkins claimed the last ten years had proved that "neither party" had the ability to deal with the country's problems.

Economic background

It was the first general election in the United Kingdom to be held during an economic crisis since the 1931 general election, which had been held in the depths of the Great Depression.

Opinion polls

Throughout the campaign 25 of the 26 opinion polls had a Conservative lead and one even by 9%. Of the six polls on election day (28 February), two had a 2% lead, two a 4% lead, one a 3% lead and one a 5% lead.


As the Queen was in New Zealand on 7 February, the Prime Minister notified her of his intentions via telegram, rather than by the usual protocol of visiting Buckingham Palace. The key dates were as follows:

Friday 8 February Dissolution of the 45th Parliament and official beginning of campaign
Monday 18 February Last day to file nomination papers; 2,135 candidates enter to contest 635 seats
Wednesday 27 February Campaigning officially ends
Thursday 28 February Polling day
Friday 1 March Election results in a hung parliament with Labour narrowly ahead as the largest party but short of a majority
Sunday 3 March Edward Heath begins meetings with Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe to discuss the terms of a potential coalition
Monday 4 March Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath resigns shortly after the Liberals reject his coalition terms, which allows Harold Wilson to return to power as leader of a Labour minority government
Wednesday 6 March 46th Parliament assembles
Tuesday 12 March State Opening of Parliament


This election was fought on new constituency boundaries with five more seats added to the 630 used in 1970. This led to many seats changing hands on the new notional boundaries. Notional election results from the 1970 general election were calculated on behalf of the BBC by Michael Steed to of compare constituency results with those of February 1974.

For the first time since 1929, the two largest political parties had received less than a combined share of 80% of the vote, and the Liberals had also won more than 10% of the vote.

UK General Election February 1974
Candidates Votes
Party Leader Stood Elected Gained Unseated Net % of total % No. Net %
  Conservative Edward Heath 623 297 5 42 −37 46.8 37.9 11,872,180 −8.5
  Labour Harold Wilson 623 301 34 14 +20 47.4 37.2 11,645,616 −5.9
  Liberal Jeremy Thorpe 517 14 8 0 +8 2.2 19.3 6,059,519 +11.8
  SNP William Wolfe 70 7 6 0 +6 1.1 2.0 633,180 +0.9
  Ulster Unionist Harry West 7 7 1 2 −1 1.1 0.8 232,103 N/A
  Plaid Cymru Gwynfor Evans 36 2 2 0 +2 0.3 0.5 171,374 −0.1
  SDLP Gerry Fitt 12 1 1 0 +1 0.2 0.5 160,137 N/A
  Pro-Assembly Unionist Brian Faulkner 7 0 0 0 0 0.3 94,301 N/A
  National Front John Tyndall 54 0 0 0 0 0.2 76,865 +0.1
  Vanguard William Craig 3 3 3 0 +3 0.5 0.2 75,944 N/A
  DUP Ian Paisley 2 1 1 0 +1 0.2 0.2 58,656 +0.1
  Independent Liberal N/A 8 0 0 0 0 0.2 38,437 +0.2
  Communist John Gollan 44 0 0 0 0 0.1 32,743 0.0
  Independent Labour N/A 6 1 1 1 0 0.2 0.1 29,892 0.0
  Alliance Oliver Napier 3 0 0 0 0 0.1 22,660 N/A
  Independent N/A 43 0 0 0 0 0.1 18,180 0.0
  Unity N/A 2 0 0 2 −2 0.0 17,593 −0.4
  Independent Socialist N/A 2 0 0 0 0 0.0 17,300 N/A
  NI Labour Alan Carr 5 0 0 0 0 0.0 17,284 N/A
  Republican Clubs Tomás Mac Giolla 4 0 0 0 0 0.0 15,152 N/A
  Democratic Labour Dick Taverne 1 1 1 0 +1 0.0 14,780 N/A
  Ind. Conservative N/A 18 0 0 0 0 0.0 11,451 −0.1
  Independent Republican N/A 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 5,662 N/A
  PEOPLE Tony Whittaker 6 0 0 0 0 0.0 4,576 N/A
  Workers Revolutionary Gerry Healy 9 0 0 0 0 0.0 4,191 N/A
  Social Democracy Dick Taverne 4 0 0 0 0 0.0 2,646 N/A
  Independent Democratic John Creasey 6 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,976 N/A
  Marxist-Leninist (England) John Buckle 6 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,419 N/A
  National Independence John Davis 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,373 N/A
  National Democratic David Brown 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 1,161 −0.1
  Ind. Labour Party Emrys Thomas 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 991 0.0
  Mebyon Kernow Richard Jenkin 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 850 0.0
  International Marxist N/A 3 0 0 0 0 0.0 716 N/A
  British Movement Colin Jordan 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 711 0.0
  Ind. Social Democrat N/A 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 661 N/A
  Wessex Regionalist Viscount Weymouth 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 521 N/A
  Independent Democrat N/A 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 386 N/A
  More Prosperous Britain Tom Keen and Harold Smith 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 234 N/A
  National N/A 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 229 N/A
  John Hampden New Freedom Frank Hansford-Miller 1 0 0 0 0 0.0 203 N/A
All parties shown.
Government's new majority −33
Total votes cast 31,321,982
Turnout 78.8%

Votes summary

Popular vote

Seats summary

Parliamentary seats

Incumbents defeated



The Liberal Party

Scottish National Party

Ulster Unionist Party

Unionist Party of Northern Ireland


Independent Socialist

See also

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