When every vote counted: what minority government in the 1970s meant for MPs

Posted by ap507 at Sep 14, 2017 11:45 AM |
With Parliament back and Theresa May’s government trying to pass controversial legislation, Emmeline Ledgerwood, oral history project volunteer and PhD student at the British Library/University of Leicester, blogs on the periods of minority government during the 1970s
When every vote counted: what minority government in the 1970s meant for MPs

PhD student Emmeline Ledgerwood pictured

Think: Leicester does not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Leicester - it expresses the independent views and opinions of the academic who has authored the piece. If you do not agree with the opinions expressed, and you are a doctoral student/academic at the University of Leicester, you may write a counter opinion for Think: Leicester and send to ap507@le.ac.uk

As Westminster returns to work after the summer recess, MPs must become accustomed to an environment which few living parliamentarians have experienced—a House of Commons with a minority government.

There have been limited instances of minority government in the UK Parliament since WWII. When John Major lost his majority in 1997 he only had three months to survive until it was time to fight a general election.

It was during the period 1974-79 that the tensions and challenges posed by the lack of a governing majority became routine for those MPs who belonged to the House of Commons at that time.

Heath failed to form a coalition after the election in February 1974, leaving Labour to snatch their opportunity to take power, albeit by forming a minority government. Harold Wilson then called a second election in October 1974 which returned a majority of three.

However by April 1976—shortly after Callaghan had replaced Wilson as Labour party leader—any minimal advantage had slipped out of Labour’s grasp through a combination of by-election defeats and the defection of backbenchers to other parties.

Callaghan’s government survived due to the failure of opposition parties to unite against them, and the formation of a Lib-Lab pact in March 1977 that effectively saw off a vote of no confidence and lasted until speculation in mid-1978 suggested that a general election would soon be called.

A recent report from the Hansard Society outlines how our current Parliament may operate in the context of a minority government.

  • Bills may be presented in skeleton form, leaving the details to be filled in through delegated or secondary legislation which is barely scrutinised by Parliament.
  • The conduct and character of Select Committees in this situation is uncharted territory, as the system only developed after 1979.
  • The usual channels may come under increasing strain and the business managers—particularly the Chief Whip—will be key figures in the government, needing to take greater account of the needs and demands of the smaller parties upon whose votes they may need to rely.

That was exactly the case in 1974-79. When the margins are tight, every vote on every side counts and securing those votes is the job of the whips.

MPs who served in the 1974-79 Parliament and have been interviewed for The History of Parliament's Oral History project remember it as a testing yet exciting period, giving an indication of what minority government could mean for our current crop of parliamentarians.

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