THE GENERAL ELECTION AND AFTERCategory: Politics
(by Reuben Father)
The most important General Election for a quarter of a century ended indecisively. It provided Britain with the first minority government since 1929.
In this Parliament no combination of two parties has an overall majority and there will be constant difficulties in piecing together majorities on the various matters which will come before it.
Turn from the Two Main Parties
The British electoral system has lost the one virtue its admirers claimed for it’s — the ability to provide a stable Parliamentary majority, albeit one supported by only a minority of the voters. Despite all the pressures to encapsulate political opinion around the two main parties, their combined total of the poll, 76 per cent, was lower than at any General Election since 1929. Nevertheless between them they captured 94 per cent of the seats.
The turn away from the two big parties had manifested itself in 1973 at by-elections and the elections for the.new Country and District Councils, with the Liberals making gains, largely at Tory expense. At its 33rd Congress in November 1973, the Communist Party warned, “Loss of Tory support has not meant an automatic increase in Labour support. There is a certain disenchantment with both major parties and the rigid two-party system, with the Liberals gaining, at least temporarily, on the local councils and in Parliament.”
The decline of support for the two big parties during the lifetime of the Heath government was accompanied by a loss of confidence in the democratic institutions and in their ability to exercise effective control over the enormous power of the industrial and commercial giants operating against the general, social interest.
Meanwhile the British economy was plunging into its most serious crisis for many years. The trendy, get-rich-quick merchant bankers and businessmen who leapt straight from the City boardrooms to the Cabinet room in 1970 had revealed themselves to be remarkably inept iц governing the country. Accustomed to their boardroom decisions being carried out immediately by a hierarchy of flunkeys, they behaved as though the electorate were theirs to command.
The Tories and the Crisis
Hence their ruthless determination to secure British membership of the Common Market in defiance of the majority of public opinion, including a large section of their own party. This enterprise succeeded only with the help of a group of Labour MPs whx) defied the decisions of the Labour Party Conference, its National Executive Committee and the Parliamentary Party itself.
Far from improving matters, membership of the EEC worsened the crisis, adding to home-grown Tory-1 inflation and imported European price increases. The initial cost of admission, £ 95 million, was an added burden on the balance of payments. In an atmosphere of world economic crisis, with convulsions in the international monetary system, each of the nine fought ferociously for its own interests. Co-operation was forgotten, and Britain looked like a Daniel who had bought an expensive admission ticket to the lion’s den.
Conservative reaction to the crisis was predictable: hold down wages; cut social expenditure; disarm the workers and weaken their power to resist. Unfortunately for the Tories they ran into the rock of the miners who were determined to win their pay claim at a moment when the energy crisis was demonstrating Britain’s need for more coal and more miners to get it.
Labour Manifesto and Campaign
Labour’s election manifesto included a number of progressive economic social policies adopted at recent Trade Union Congresses and Labour Party Conferences. Promising a settlement with the miners, they proposed an extension of nationalization, the repeal of the Industrial Relations Act and the Housing Finance Act, the renegotiation of the terms of entry to the Common Market with the people having the right to a final say through a General Election or a Consultative Referendum. Measures of price control and taxation policies to redistribute wealth and power were promised. Cuts in arms expenditure and some progressive steps in international affairs were included in the manifesto.
As the election campaign proceeded Labour succeeded in turning the argument away from the unions on to ,prices, housing and other issues on which the Tories were highly vulnerable. The Tories were forced on to the defensive, but Labour offered no adequate class explanation of the causes of inflation or the roots of the crisis. Indeed, they tended to echo the Tory explanations; its spokesmen admitted that whoever was the government would need to go to the International Monetary Fund for a huge loan. Nationalization was played down — in fact it was hardly mentioned. The knockabout performance at the daily press conference and on television could not hide the fact that Labour was not advancing either an alternative policy or an alternative ideology.
Campaign of the Other Parties .
The Liberals, flushed with recent by-election successes and hopeful of securing enough seats to hold the balance in a closely contested election, went into the election claiming they alone could unite the nation, break monopoly power and protect the individual. Fielding 517 candidates, more than at any other General Election for the past forty years, they claimed to be the moderates par excellence, but there was nothing in their manifesto or.campaign to dispute the fact that they were a second party of capitalism.
The Scottish Nationalist Party and Plaid Cymru campaigned for their traditional demand of a Scottish and Welsh Parliament to give their people a greater say m the conduct of their affairs. The Scottish Nationalists exploited to the hilt North Sea oil and g£s, arguing that if Scotland possessed the revenues, more jobs could be provided, pensions of £ 23 paid, and big increases given for family allowances.
The Communist Party campaigned around a policy to solve the crisis in the people’s interests, and defend democracy. Its proposals were aimed at weakening the power of big business, and it declared its aim in the election to be to win a Labour Government committed to Left policies with Communist MPs to strengthen its fight for leftward advance.