In 1964, Labour, led by Harold Wilson, returned to power after a gap of 13 years with a narrow majority of four. This was increased to 96 just 18 months later. However, Wilson’s second term in office was dominated by a sluggish economy. A decision to devalue the pound also damaged the government’s credibility.
Despite this, a gradual recovery in the economy helped Labour regain its position in the opinion polls by 1970. Encouraged, Wilson called an early election for June 1970. Throughout the campaign, the Conservatives trailed in the polls – in one case by as much as 12%.
However, England’s elimination in the quarter finals of the 1970 World Cup and unexpectedly negative trade figures all fuelled a late surge towards Edward Heath’s Tories. As a result, they won with a majority of 28.
Heath had ambitious plans to cut public spending, shift from direct to indirect taxation and curb the power of trade unions. However, rising unemployment caused this agenda to be ditched in favour of spending rises, resulting in higher inflation (prices rose 39.4% in under four years). Heath attempted to cap increases in prices and wages, but the refusal to raise miners’ wages led to a series of strikes in early 1974.
In response, Heath imposed controls on most private and industrial uses of electricity: businesses were restricted to three consecutive days of electricity, while people were forced to use candles for the first time in decades.
Heath called an election for February 1974. His campaign theme of “Who Governs Britain?” meant that the Conservatives won most votes, but left them four seats behind Labour, which formed a temporary minority government.