Year the anti-war vote cost Labour its third term

Protesters and complacent supporters, you have been warned. Joe Haines, Harold Wilson's former press secretary, looks back on the election of 1970
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Indy Politics

On 13 June 1970, five days before polling day in that year's general election, a national opinion poll in the Daily Mail showed Labour in the lead by 12.4 per cent. I always distrusted opinion polls and still do. But on the most pessimistic margin of error, Labour's lead was at least 6.4 per cent.

On 13 June 1970, five days before polling day in that year's general election, a national opinion poll in the Daily Mail showed Labour in the lead by 12.4 per cent. I always distrusted opinion polls and still do. But on the most pessimistic margin of error, Labour's lead was at least 6.4 per cent.

A Labour majority looked a certainty, and with it the achievement of an historic consecutive third term. Instead, 35 years later, we are still waiting for that.

On 19 June, Harold Wilson moved out of 10 Downing Street, and I went with him. Ted Heath, a hopeless, hapless and unpopular opposition leader, was Prime Minister with a majority of 30. It enabled him to carry out a right-wing policy few wanted and which eventually led to the miners' strike, a three day-week, black-outs and rampant price increases.

Not for the first time, the polls were ridiculously wrong. More significantly, the turnout, at 72 per cent, though good by today's standards, was the lowest for 35 years. The allegiances of voters hadn't changed much since the overwhelming Labour victory of 1966. What defeated us was the failure of the Labour vote to vote.

Why? In part, it was complacency by Labour supporters who thought victory was so sure that they couldn't be bothered to turn out. But more important was the desire of normal Labour voters to "punish" us for our alleged wrongdoings, not least the failure to condemn the war in Vietnam.

The most wounding moments after our defeat came as we moved into the opposition leader's offices and started to open the thousands of letters that had arrived. There was, of course, the usual hate mail in green ink quoting Nostradamus. But the worst came from those who had sought to "teach us a lesson" confident they could do it without affecting the result, a condition known as having their cake and eating it.

One letter from a schoolteacher has stuck in my mind. Because of the war, he said, he had decided to abstain, not least because we were going to win anyway. Now he was appalled. He wanted to apologise and sought our absolution.

He didn't get it. It was during Wilson's premiership that for the first time more was spent on education than on defence, something that a teacher, of all people, might have borne in mind. In was also under Wilson that, for the first time in a century or so, a whole year had passed without a British soldier being killed on active service.

Like too many Labour voters, that teacher thought it was in the bag. But history tends to repeat itself. If Labour supporters believe the polls, then 2005 could, just could, be a repeat of 1970. If that happens, I hope no one will say this time that they hadn't been warned.

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