May Ignores the Folly of Heath to Call Snap General Election: can Labour respond?

So, Theresa May has called for a snap general election for the UK to be held on the 8th June 2017. The short-notice announcement this morning came somewhat as a surprise given that May has consistently claimed that she would not call an early election and thereby add further chaos to the Brexit process.

May during her announcement outside 10 Downing Street

Logically, however, this particular political u-turn makes sense. Not only is a handsome Conservative Party victory likely given the disarray of the Labour Party but a resounding majority would give May the mandate she needs to continue to push towards a hard Brexit. Additionally, as BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg notes:

Dealing day-to-day with a small majority has given Conservative backbenchers significant power to force the government to back down on a variety of issues.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Opposition leader, has welcomed the announcement and therefore it is likely that Parliament will approve the decision to take the British electorate to the polls once more.

Whilst current projections suggest a Tory landslide, May should be wary of recent history. The last snap election called by a Conservative Prime Minister was in February 1974 when Edward Heath sought a new majority as an affirmation of his policy towards the Miners’ Strike.

Heath, confident of victory, did not bargain on other factors coming into play during the election campaign. A stagnating economy and continuing inflation led to a loss of government credibility, whilst the decision to join the European Economic Community (EEC), the forerunner of the European Union, alienated people both within and outside the Conservative Party. Tory stalwart Enoch Powell – he of the ‘rivers of blood’ speech – went as far as to campaign against Heath.

Heath believed that a majority of voters shared his view on the Miners’ Strike

Compounding matters, the Ulster Unionists, traditional Tory supporters, abandoned the party after the Sunningdale Agreement established a power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive.

Revelations during the election campaign that the striking mineworkers were receiving far less money than the government and its National Coal Board allies made out condemned Heath to failure. Harold Wilson’s Labour Party won by a margin of 4 seats (despite losing the popular vote), forcing the first hung parliament post-WWII.

Harold Wilson returned as PM after a surprise victory

An inability to form a coalition with the Liberals, or to regain the trust of the Ulster Unionists, led to Heath’s resignation and a minority Labour government.

In October 1974 a second snap election of the year was held at the behest of Wilson who managed to secure the majority (albeit narrow) that he needed to govern effectively. From a position of relative strength at the beginning of the year, Heath and the Tories had fallen flat on their face in a self-imposed disintegration. It would take the arrival of the indomitable Margaret Thatcher to reinvigorate the party.

May should take heed, therefore, that victory is far from certain. All sorts of shenanigans take place during election season and with 24-hour media scrutiny, the next scandal is only just around the corner. With an electorate tiring of the political elite and their partisan and selfish ways, the Prime Minister may yet be punished for what could be interpreted as an arrogant and unnecessary move.

Whilst Brexit will dominate the debates and newsfeeds over the coming months, the state of economic recovery, the education system, immigration and the NHS will all be an important part of the maelstrom of discussion. The Tories have weaknesses on all of these issues which even a factionalised Labour Party may be able to exploit.

Certainly do not expect the next two months to be quiet. Heath and Wilson will no doubt be enjoying a wry smile as their successors join battle once again.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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