The lessons of Heath's battle with the miners

The 'who governs' question of 1974 can be compared to the current issue of Iraq
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The Independent Online

Thinking about the forthcoming election, my mind goes back to the early months of 1974 when Edward Heath came a cropper at the polls. Nobody expected such a result until late in the campaign. What changed things dramatically 30 years ago was that a new issue was added to the usual bread and butter debates. Then the extra question was: who governs Britain? This time, Tony Blair has two additional hurdles to get over - his misleading presentation of the reasons for going to war in Iraq and the appalling outcome.

Thinking about the forthcoming election, my mind goes back to the early months of 1974 when Edward Heath came a cropper at the polls. Nobody expected such a result until late in the campaign. What changed things dramatically 30 years ago was that a new issue was added to the usual bread and butter debates. Then the extra question was: who governs Britain? This time, Tony Blair has two additional hurdles to get over - his misleading presentation of the reasons for going to war in Iraq and the appalling outcome.

Mr Heath's problems had begun in the summer before the election when the coal miners pressed for a further pay award. They had had a very good settlement in 1972 after striking for many weeks. In November 1973 they introduced a new overtime ban. Because the supply of electricity was still mainly dependent on coal, the Conservative Government riposted with restrictions. Street lighting was curtailed, floodlighting banned and television programmes had to finish by 10.30pm. At the same time, oil prices had started to rise for the first time and this strengthened the coal miners' bargaining power. A 50mph speed limit was imposed on all roads.

During a meeting at Downing Street, Mick McGahey, the Communist vice-president of the National Union of Mineworkers, said something to the effect that he was determined to break existing pay restrictions and get Mr Heath and the Tories out of office and that he would do anything to achieve it. These words became notorious. In December, the Government declared that a three-day working week would be introduced in the New Year.

I remember those days. I was editor of the Investors Chronicle. Interruptions to power supplies meant that it was a nerve-wracking enterprise, getting copy set and printed and the magazine bound and distributed. In London at night, the absence of street lighting gave an impression of wartime. One half expected to hear the rumble of bombers approaching. I met people who boasted that they had bought themselves generators and filled their garages with tinned food so that they could survive anything.

I decided I wouldn't do any of these things but, when the hour came, I would lead a mob and descend on the food hoarders. It was the only period in my life when I thought that it was just conceivable that a coup d'état could take place, either from the far right or from the far left.

Opinion polls found that 35 per cent of voters regarded strikes and labour relations as "the most urgent problem" facing the country. Then, in early February, it emerged that the miners had voted for another strike. A Cabinet minister observed: "The miners have had their ballot, perhaps we ought to have ours." Mr Heath found himself between the rock of the miners' determination to cripple the economy rather than compromise and the hard place of the Conservative party's resistance to anything that smacked of surrender. An election was called for 28 February, 18 months earlier than expected.

What joins the "who governs" question of 1974 to the contemporary issue of Iraq is that both concern personal security. In the former case, closed factories, blackouts and speed restrictions suggested that civilised life was at risk. Today, the total disaster of Mr Blair's war against Iraq means that we are more vulnerable to terrorist attack than before. And new security measures reduce the amenities to which we have been accustomed. That is the similarity between today and 30 years ago.

There are further illuminating comparisons to be made.Turnout in 1974, at 79 per cent, was 7 percentage points higher than it had been in 1970. I believe we shall see increased participation this time. More young people will vote. Another unusual aspect of the 1974 election was that opinion polls showed that a higher proportion of votes switched during the three weeks than in any previous general election. Electors were reflecting on a big issue.

During the course of the 1974 campaign, support for the Liberals, the predecessors of the Liberal Democrats, kept rising. Indeed, extrapolating the polls on the final Sunday suggested that the Liberals would emerge as the strongest party on election day. In the event, they fell well short. But they had started from a low base and tactical voting had not yet been invented. The result was as follows: Labour 301 seats, Conservatives 296, Liberals 14, Scottish Nationalists 7, Plaid Cymru 2 and Ulster Loyalists 11. Not since 1929 had the British electoral system failed to provide a clear majority for one party - and never before had it produced a situation where not even the first and third parties combined could control the House.

In fact, a majority of voters both before and after the election continued to favour Mr Heath's policies for controlling inflation. But perhaps I was more representative of the average voter than I realised. Vague fears that a putsch was conceivable persuaded people to play safe with a Labour Government that would not confront trades union power. It will be the same this time, I believe. Many voters will continue to prefer Labour's domestic policies to its rivals'. But they will want to get rid of the dangerous, blinkered, deceitful Mr Blair. Thus, my election forecast for 2005 is a hung Parliament as in 1974.

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