Harry Hayfield ahead of today’s BBC coverage
Throughout Saturday BBC Parliament will be replaying the 1979 general election programme, as a build up to the funeral of Baroness Thatcher on Wednesday. The 1979 election is, to date, the only general election in modern electoral history (since 1950) to have been triggered by a vote of no confidence in the government and the polling (done by Gallup) makes for interesting reading for the Liberal Democrats.
March 1977 saw the Labour government in a terrible state of affairs. It’s majority of three won at the October 1974 general election was now a mere memory and so James Callaghan (now Prime Minister after the resignation of Harold Wilson) along with
Jeremy Thorpe David Steel (the leader ofÂ the Liberal Party)Â agreed theÂ so called “Lib – Lab pact” to ensure that the government would survive. At this time, the polls were saying a Conservative lead of 16% (a 9.5% swing and an almost certain Conservative landslide) with the Liberals on 14% (down 5%Â on their election score). Almost immediately, the Liberals went into freefall in the polls (dipping into singleÂ digits a mere three months later) with Labour starting to rally.
A situation remarkably similar to what has been happening to the Liberal Democrats since joining the coalition
By October 1977, the Conservative lead had been wiped out and by the autumn of 1978, Labour were in the lead with a swing of 1% in their favour (suggesting a Labour majority of at least 35) and prompted discussions of a general election there and then. These were scotched however by Callaghan’s famous “There was I…” speech at conference that year. That speech killed the pact, the Liberals broke off their agreement but were still languishing in the polls by the time that the no confidence vote was lost (and yet despite that still managed to win the small matter of the Liverpool, Edge Hill by-election from Labour) with the last Gallup poll before the election suggesting a 7% swing from Lab to Con, coupled with a 12% swing from Lib to Con (promising virtual Liberal wipeout).
So as you watch the election from 0900 BST, ponder this. Are the Liberal Democrats heading for a 1979 election result (holding on to the majority of their seats due to local campaigns) or a 1997 election result (picking up seats from an unpopular Conservative party)?