February 1974 United Kingdom general election

The February 1974 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday, 28 February 1974. The Labour Party, led by Leader of the Opposition and former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, gained 14 seats (301 total), but was seventeen short of an overall majority. The Conservative Party, led by incumbent Prime Minister Edward Heath, lost 28 seats; but achieved a higher share of the vote than Labour. This resulted in a hung parliament, the first since 1929. Heath resigned when he refused to a key term of a possible coalition, and Wilson became Prime Minister for a second time, his first under a minority government. Because Labour was unable to form a majority coalition with another party, Wilson called another early election in September, which was held in October and resulted in a Labour majority. This was also the first general election to be held with the United Kingdom as a member state of the European Communities (EC)—widely known as the "Common Market".

February 1974 United Kingdom general election

 1970 28 February 1974 Oct 1974 

All 635 seats in the House of Commons
318 seats needed for a majority
Opinion polls
Turnout78.8%, 6.8%
  First party Second party
Leader Harold Wilson Edward Heath
Party Labour Conservative
Leader since 14 February 1963 28 July 1965
Leader's seat Huyton Sidcup
Last election 288 seats, 43.1% 330 seats, 46.4%
Seats before 287 325
Seats won 301 297
Seat change 14 28
Popular vote 11,645,616 11,872,180
Percentage 37.2% 37.9%
Swing 5.9% 8.5%

  Third party Fourth party
Leader Jeremy Thorpe William Wolfe
Party Liberal SNP
Leader since 18 January 1967 1 June 1969
Leader's seat North Devon None
(Contested West Lothian)
Last election 6 seats, 7.5% 1 seat, 1.1%
Seats before 11 2
Seats won 14 7
Seat change 3 5
Popular vote 6,059,519 633,180
Percentage 19.3% 2.0%
Swing 11.8% 0.9%

Colours denote the winning party—as shown in § Results

Composition of the House of Commons after the election

Prime Minister before election

Edward Heath

Prime Minister after election

Harold Wilson

This election saw Northern Ireland diverging heavily from the rest of the United Kingdom, with all twelve candidates elected being from local parties (eleven of them representing unionist parties), following the decision of the Ulster Unionists to withdraw support from the Conservative Party in protest over the Sunningdale Agreement. The Scottish National Party achieved significant success at this election, having increased its share of the popular vote in Scotland from 11% to 22%, and the number of SNP MPs rose from one to 7. Plaid Cymru also succeeded for the first time in getting candidates elected at a general election in Wales (it had previously won a by-election in 1966).

Although Heath's incumbent Conservative government polled the most votes by a small margin, the Conservatives were overtaken in terms of seats by Wilson's Labour Party, due to a more efficiently-distributed Labour vote and the decision by Ulster Unionist MPs not to take the Conservative whip.

Both Labour and Conservative lost a considerable share of the popular vote, largely to the Liberal Party under Jeremy Thorpe's leadership, which polled two-and-a-half times its last share of the vote. However, even with over 6,000,000 votes, only fourteen Liberal MPs were elected. There had been some media projections that the Liberals could take twice as many seats.[1]

Heath did not resign immediately as Prime Minister. Assuming that Northern Ireland's Unionist MPs could be persuaded to support a Conservative government on confidence matters over one led by Wilson, he entered into negotiations with Thorpe to form a coalition government. Thorpe, never enthusiastic about supporting the Conservatives, demanded major electoral reforms in exchange for such an agreement. Unwilling to accept such terms, Heath resigned and Wilson returned for his second stint as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

The election night was covered live on the BBC, and was presented by Alastair Burnet, David Butler, Robert McKenzie and Robin Day.[1][2]

Prominent members of Parliament who retired or were defeated at this election included: Gordon Campbell, Bernadette McAliskey, Enoch Powell, Richard Crossman, Tom Driberg and Patrick Gordon Walker. It was the first of two United Kingdom general elections held that year, the first to take place after the United Kingdom became a member of the European Communities on 1 January 1973 and the first since 1929 not to produce an overall majority in the House of Commons for the poll-topping party. This was also the first year in which two general elections were held in the same year since 1910.