Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the 1970 UK general election. Despite Harold Wilson’s optimism having called the election, and Labour poll leads throughout the campaign, (averaging four points in the final polls), when the votes were counted, it was Ted Heath’s Conservatives that swept to victory.
When the unexpected happens, a popular reaction is to look for the “thing” that caused the surprise. Very often, no such thing exists – for all the talk of the SNP in 2015, or the Sun’s election day front page in 1992, there is little evidence that either tipped the scales. When pollsters recontacted respondents after those elections and asked how they had voted, their results were pretty much the same as before, suggesting that there hadn’t been much of a late swing, and the polls had simply been wrong all along.
But 1970 was different. The polling inquiry set up in the wake of the surprise result concluded that the polls had probably been about right at the time they had been conducted, meaning that – unusually – something really had happened at the last minute. Back then, most polling ended a couple of days before the country voted, leaving just enough time for a late swing.
Meanwhile in Mexico, having won the World Cup at home in 1966, England’s footballers were attempting to defend the Jules Rimet trophy. After first round victories over Romania and Czechoslovakia, and (despite Gordon Banks’ goalkeeping heroics) a defeat to eventual champions Brazil, Alf Ramsey’s men took to the field for the quarter final against West Germany in Léon on the evening (British time) of 14th June.
Sadly from an English point of view, the defending champions, having been 2-0 ahead, ending up losing 3-2 after extra time. Could this devastating sporting upset, and its effect on the national mood, be the thing that swung the election against the incumbents, as has been suggested over the years?
It’s not completely implausible. There was after all a late swing, and more recent research in the United States has found evidence to support the idea that sporting outcomes can affect voting behaviour. And the World Cup, of course, is as big as it gets.
Then, as now, polling usually took several days. The last survey to start was Gallup’s for the Telegraph, from the 14th to 16th June. Given the timing of the match, we can infer that most of the interviews would have taken place after Gerd Müller’s volley had knocked England out.
Yet Gallup put Labour 7 points ahead, the widest margin it had shown for a month, and a long way from the eventual 3 point Tory margin of victory. And although polling from 1966 is more limited – there had been an election earlier that year – there was no sign of a positive impact on the government from England’s victory.
What’s more, looking at the swings in different areas since the 1966 election, any headwind for Harold Wilson as a result of England’s defeat ought to have been limited to England. Yet the swings in Scotland and Wales weren’t much different, as was usually the case at the time.
So if it wasn’t the football, what was it? Other theories have been put forward, including the impact of Enoch Powell or alternatively what might be described as bovine intervention.
Powell’s 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech clearly did swing votes. It had an immediate impact on the polls, and the data from the 1970 British Election Study suggests that the swing from Labour to the Conservatives since 1966 was three times bigger than average among white voters most hostile to high levels of immigration.
But there is no reason to think that Powell would have had an effect at the last moment – his impact should already have been baked in by that point.
The most plausible explanation for the late swing lies in the poor economic data released in the final days of the campaign. In 1970, most advanced economies were still operating under the Bretton Woods exchange rate regime, which put a premium on the balance of payments, as prior to the 1980s deregulation, trade deficits couldn’t easily be financed as they are now.
This was key to the Sterling devaluation of 1967 (from $2.80 to $2.40). Labour’s polling slumped, trailing the Tories by more than 20 points at times, and remained depressed until mid-1969, after which it began to improve quite strongly. By May 1970, all regular pollsters put Labour in the lead.
It’s unclear whether and to what extent this lead was “soft”, but big poll swings often overshoot, and certainly could have in this case if a run of better data had temporarily bolstered Labour’s standing on the economy.
In any case, weak trade figures released on 15th June brought the balance of payments sharply back into focus. Few respondents to the BES mentioned them directly, but voters lost by Labour and gained by the Conservatives overwhelmingly thought (by a ratio of 10-to-1) they’d be better off with a Tory government.
And unlike the football, most people probably wouldn’t have heard about the economic data immediately, but later on TV or radio or in the next day’s newspapers. The impact would then likely have been reinforced by subsequent bad news on unemployment. This, in turn, could explain why only the very last poll (ORC for the Evening Standard, which put the Conservatives one point ahead) got close to the result.
As such it’s theoretically possible that England’s defeat to West Germany affected the national mood enough to swing the election at the last minute, that the Gallup poll conducted mostly after the match was thrown off by something else, and that Scotland and Wales swung similarly to England for completely unrelated reasons. But there’s no evidence that it actually did.
Alternatively, we know that the government had taken a large hit from the earlier Sterling devaluation, recovered to a short-lived (and quite possibly soft) poll lead, which was then overturned as the last-minute trade data punched Labour’s bruise. Voters – most likely those identified in the BES as preferring Heath and the Tories on the economy – were reminded of the devaluation and took fright, voting Harold Wilson out of Number 10.
So while we can’t conclusively prove that this is what happened, what we do know points strongly towards economics, not football, deciding the 1970 election.
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