Saturday, September 29, 2007

The lesson of October 1974

I have been taking a little look back at autumn elections since the war.

It's 33 years since the last autumn election. All the intervening general elections have been in May, June or April.

There was an October election in 1964, when the Tories were defeated by Harold Wilson's Labour. There were also October elections in 1959 and 1951. The latter one of that couplet was due to Labour whittling away their thin majority. The election had a 82.6% turnout and resulted in a change to a Conservative government. 1959 had a 78.7% turnout and the Tories held on to power.

The October 1974 general election had a 72.8% turnout and resulted in Harold Wilson's Labour government transforming itself from a minority one to a majority one - just.

The thing about 1974 is that the country had been going through what can be fairly described as its biggest crisis since the war - the The Three Day week with energy shortages, power cuts, television stations closing down at 10pm etc etc. It was "Dunkirk spirit" time. In February 1974, Ted Heath had asked: "Who runs Britain?". The answer came back "Not you, mate" and Harold Wilson, in eight months, brought the country back to a semblance of order.

But the reason for the October election was clear. The country was coming out of a crisis. The government was in a minority of 33. Harold Wilson quite properly, and unavoidably, went to the country for a larger mandate, which he received.

I suppose you could say that the precedent of 1959 supports Brown calling an autumn election which he can expect to win.

The other precedents, particularly 1974, suggest that he will only win if he manages to convince the electorate that he is seeking their mandate in the interests of the country.

I am yet to discover any convincing reason, which is in the interests of the country, for Brown to go to the polls this autumn. There is no crisis. His government has a majority of 60+ and 2.5 years left to run.

If Brown goes for an autumn election he is going to need all his considerable powers of persuasion to convince people that he is not just doing it because he thinks he can win now and might lose later.

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