1970 United Kingdom general election

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1970 United Kingdom general election
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg
  1966 18 June 1970 Feb 1974  

All 630 seats in the House of Commons
316 seats needed for a majority
Opinion polls
Turnout72.0%, Decrease2.svg3.8%
 First partySecond partyThird party
Golda Meir and Edward Heath cropped (cropped).jpg
Harold Wilson (1967).jpg
Leader Edward Heath Harold Wilson Jeremy Thorpe
Party Conservative Labour Liberal
Leader since 28 July 1965 14 February 1963 18 January 1967
Leader's seat Bexley Huyton North Devon
Last election253 seats, 41.9%364 seats, 48.0%12 seats, 8.5%
Seats won330288 [note 1] 6
Seat changeIncrease2.svg77Decrease2.svg75Decrease2.svg6
Popular vote13,145,12312,208,7582,117,035

UK General Election, 1970.svg
Colours denote the winning party—as shown in § Results

Composition of the Commons in 1970.svg
Composition of the House of Commons after the election

Prime Minister before election

Harold Wilson

Prime Minister after election

Edward Heath

The 1970 United Kingdom general election was held on Thursday 18 June 1970. It resulted in a surprise victory for the Conservative Party under leader Edward Heath, which defeated the governing Labour Party under Prime Minister Harold Wilson. The Liberal Party, under its new leader Jeremy Thorpe, lost half its seats. The Conservatives, including the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), secured a majority of 30 seats. This general election was the first in which people could vote from the age of 18, after passage of the Representation of the People Act the previous year, and the first UK election where party, and not just candidate names were allowed to be put on the ballots. [1]


Most opinion polls prior to the election indicated a comfortable Labour victory, and put Labour up to 12.4% ahead of the Conservatives. On election day, however, a late swing gave the Conservatives a 3.4% lead and ended almost six years of Labour government, although Wilson remained leader of the Labour Party in opposition. Writing in the aftermath of the election, the political scientist Richard Rose described the Conservative victory as "surprising" and noted a significant shift in votes between the two main parties. [2] The Times journalist George Clark wrote that the election would be "remembered as the occasion when the people of the United Kingdom hurled the findings of the opinion polls back into the faces of the pollsters". [3]

The result would provide the mandate for Heath as Prime Minister to begin formal negotiations for the United Kingdom to become a member state of the European Communities (EC)—or the "Common Market" as it was more widely known at the time, before it later became the European Union; the UK officially joined the EC on 1 January 1973, along with the Republic of Ireland and Denmark.

Frontbench Labour politicians George Brown and Jennie Lee were voted out at this election.

This marked the end of a series of elections where both main parties won over 40% of the vote. This would not occur again for the Conservatives for nine years; Labour would wait 27. This was also the most recent election at which a House of Commons majority for one party immediately before election day was replaced by a Commons majority for a different party on election day.

The result was cast as a two-party politics outcome, with no third party reaching 10% of the (total) vote. Such an outcome would not happen again until the 2017 election.

The election was the last in which a nationwide UK party gained seats in Northern Ireland. [4] The UUP sat with the Conservative Party at Westminster, traditionally taking the Conservative parliamentary whip. To all intents and purposes the UUP functioned as the Northern Ireland branch of the Conservative Party. However, hardline unionist Ian Paisley unseated the UUP incumbent in North Antrim, a clear sign that the UUP's complete dominance over unionist politics in Northern Ireland was already starting to weaken. In 1972, in protest over the permanent prorogation of the Parliament of Northern Ireland, Westminster UUP MPs withdrew from the alliance. [5] [ page needed ]

Election date

The date of 18 June was supposedly chosen because Harold Wilson wanted as Prime Minister to go to the polls before the introduction of decimal coinage in early 1971, for which his government had been responsible and which he thought was hugely unpopular, [6] [ page needed ] and because Wilson sought to gain some momentum by surprising the Conservatives, who were expecting an October election. [6] [ page needed ]


Commentators believed that an unexpectedly bad set of balance of payments figures (a £31-million trade deficit) published three days before the election and a loss of national prestige after the England football team's defeat by West Germany on 14 June in the World Cup contributed to the Labour defeat. [7]

Shadow Chancellor Iain Macleod campaigning in York. Iain Macleod.jpg
Shadow Chancellor Iain Macleod campaigning in York.

Other factors that were cited as reasons for the Conservative victory included union indiscipline, rising prices, the risk of devaluation, the imposition of Selective Employment Tax (SET), and a set of jobless figures released on final week of the campaign showing unemployment at its highest level since 1940. Interviewed by Robin Day, the outgoing Prime Minister Harold Wilson highlighted the possibility that "complacency engendered by the opinion polls" may have resulted in a poor turnout of Labour supporters. [8]

As defending world champions, England's venture in the World Cup attracted a much keener public interest than the general election did. [9] However an analysis by pollster Matt Singh for the 50th anniversary of the election concluded that the late swing had been caused by the weak economic data and that there was "no evidence" that the World Cup had influenced the outcome. [10]

American pollster Douglas Schoen and Oxford University academic R. W. Johnson asserted that Enoch Powell had attracted 2.5 million votes to the Conservatives, although the Conservative vote only increased by 1.7 million. Johnson later stated "It became clear that Powell had won the 1970 election for the Tories ... of all those who had switched their vote from one party to another, 50 per cent were working class Powellites". [11] The Professor of Political Science Randall Hansen assessed a range of studies, including some which contended that Powell had made little or no difference to the result, but concluded that "At the very least, Powell's effect was likely to have fired up the Conservative vote in constituencies which would have voted Tory in any event". [12] [ page needed ] Election night commentators Michael Barratt and Jeffrey Preece dismissed any special "Powell factor", as did Conservative MPs Reginald Maudling, Timothy Raison and Hugh Dykes. [8]

The 1970–74 Parliament has to date been the only time since the 1924–29 Parliament in which the Conservative Party were only in government for one term before returning to opposition.

The most notable casualty of the election was George Brown, deputy leader of the Labour Party, who lost to the Conservative candidate in the Belper constituency. Brown had held the seat since 1945. Labour Minister for the Arts, Jennie Lee lost her Cannock seat, held by Labour since 1935 on a swing of 10.7% to the Conservatives in what Richard Rose called "the biggest upset" of the election. [13]

Unusually for the Liberal Party, the by-elections between 1966 and 1970 had proved almost fruitless, with many Liberal candidates losing deposits. The one exception was its by-election gain of Birmingham Ladywood in June 1969; this was promptly lost in the 1970 general election. The party found itself struggling to introduce its new leader Jeremy Thorpe to the public, owing to the extensive coverage and attention paid to Enoch Powell. The election result was poor for the Liberals, with Thorpe only narrowly winning his own seat in North Devon. [7] Indeed, of the six MPs returned, three (Thorpe, David Steel and John Pardoe) were elected by a majority of less than 1,000 votes. [14]

The BBC's election coverage was led by Cliff Michelmore, along with Robin Day, David Butler and Robert McKenzie. [7] There were periodic cutaways to the BBC regions. This coverage has been rerun on BBC Parliament on several occasions, including on 18 July 2005 as a tribute to Edward Heath after his death the previous day. Its most recent screening was on the 20th of June 2020, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its first transmission. [15] The BBC coverage was parodied by Monty Python's Flying Circus in its famous "Election Night Special" sketch.

Both BBC and ITN carried their 1970 election night broadcasts in colour, although segments broadcast from some remote locations and some BBC and ITN regional bureaus were transmitted in black-and-white. Some ITV regions were not yet broadcasting in colour at the time of the 1970 elections.


The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, visited Buckingham Palace on 18 May and asked the Queen to dissolve Parliament on 29 May, announcing that the election would be held on 18 June. The key dates were as follows:

Friday 29 MayDissolution of the 44th Parliament and campaigning officially begins
Monday 8 JuneLast day to file nomination papers
Wednesday 17 JuneCampaigning officially ends
Thursday 18 JunePolling day
Friday 19 JuneThe Conservative Party wins power with a majority of 31
Monday 29 June 45th Parliament assembles
Thursday 2 July State Opening of Parliament

Opinion poll summary

Summary of the final polling results before the general election. [16]

PartyMarplanGallupNational opinion polls (NOP) Opinion Research Centre (OPC)Harris
Conservative 41.5%42.0%44.1%46.5%46.0%
Labour 50.2%49.0%48.2%45.5%48.0%
Liberal 7.0%7.5%6.4%6.5%5.0%
Other parties 1.3%1.5%1.3%1.5%1.0%
Labour lead8.7%7.0%4.1%1.0%2.0%
Fieldwork dates11–14 June14–16 June12–16 June13–17 June20 May 16 June
Sample size2,2672,1901,5621,5834,841



This was the first general election where 18-year-olds had the right to vote. Therefore, despite 1.1 million more people voting in 1970 compared to 1966, turnout actually fell by 3%. This 72% turnout was the lowest since the 1935 general election and compared with a post-War high of 84% in 1950. Professor Richard Rose described the low turnout, which he noted was "one of the lowest since the introduction of the democratic franchise", as surprising to politician and pollsters. Changes to electoral law as part of the Representation of the People Act 1969 had made postal voting easier and polling stations were open an hour later than in past elections, and this would have been expected to improve turnout. On top of this it was reported by Rose that an estimated 25% of 18- to 21-year-olds who were now eligible to vote had not put their names on the electoral register, meaning the turnout was even lower than the percentage figure suggested. Rose also argued that the turnout figures in Britain were "now among the lowest in the Western world." [2] Because the previous election had been in 1966, some people had not had their chance to vote in a general election until the age of 25. Labour's number of votes, 12.2 million, was ironically the same amount they had needed to win in 1964. The Conservative vote surge cost Labour in many marginal seats. Rose suggested the absolute fall in the number of Labour votes suggested that many of the party's supporters had decided to abstain. He also noted that the Labour Party's local organisation was poorer than that of the Conservatives, but did not feel this was a significant factor in Labour supporters failing to come out to vote for the Party given that this organisational difference had been the case in past elections without having this effect. [2] For the Liberals, a small 1% drop in their vote share saw them lose 6 seats, 3 of which were held by the narrowest of margins.

In the end the Conservatives achieved a swing of 4.7%, enough to give them a comfortable working majority. As for the smaller parties, they increased their number in the Commons from 2 to 6 seats.

The Scottish National Party won its first-ever seat at a general election (they had won several by-elections previously, going back as far as 1945), although they did lose Hamilton, which they won in a by-election in 1967.

1970 UK parliament.svg
UK General Election 1970
PartyLeaderStoodElectedGainedUnseatedNet % of total %No.Net %
  Conservative Edward Heath 628330803+7752.446.413,145,123+4.5
  Labour Harold Wilson 625288 [note 1] 1 777645.743.112,208,7584.9
  Liberal Jeremy Thorpe 33260661.07.52,117,0351.0
  SNP William Wolfe 65 1 1 0+10.21.1306,802+0.6
  Plaid Cymru Gwynfor Evans 3600000.6175,016+0.4
  Unity N/A5220+20.30.50140,930N/A
  Independent N/A4000000.139,2640.0
  Communist John Gollan 5800000.137,9700.1
  Protestant Unionist Ian Paisley 2 1 1 0+10.20.135,303N/A
  Republican Labour Gerry Fitt 1 1 0000.20.130,649N/A
  Independent Labour N/A3 1 1 0+10.20.124,685+0.1
  Ind. Conservative N/A800000.124,014+0.1
  Democratic Party Desmond Donnelly 500000.115,292N/A
  National Democratic David Brown400000.114,276N/A
  National Front John O'Brien 1000000.011,449N/A
  National Democratic Gerry Quigley 200000.010,349N/A
  Vectis National Party R. W. Cawdell 1 00000.01,607N/A
  Independent Liberal N/A200000.01,4560.0
  World Government Gilbert Young200000.01,016N/A
  Mebyon Kernow Len Truran 1 00000.0960N/A
  Ind. Labour Party Emrys Thomas 1 00000.08470.0
  British Movement Colin Jordan 1 00000.0704N/A
  Independent Progressive 1 00000.0658N/A
  Socialist (GB) N/A200000.03760.0
  Young Ideas Screaming Lord Sutch 1 00000.0142N/A
  British Commonwealth 1 00000.0117N/A
All parties shown. [note 2]
Government's new majority30
Total votes cast28,305,534

Votes summary

Popular vote

Seats summary

Parliamentary seats

Televised declarations

These declarations were covered live by the BBC where the returning officer was heard to say "duly elected".

From BBC Parliament Replay
ConstituencyWinning party 1966Constituency result by partyWinning party 1970
Guildford Conservative 27,20313,1088,822 Conservative hold
Cheltenham Conservative 22,82314,2138,431 Conservative hold
Salford West Labour 14,31016,986 Labour hold
Wolverhampton North East Labour 15,35817,2511,592 Labour hold
Salford East Labour 9,58315,8533,000 Labour hold
Wolverhampton South West Conservative 26,25211,7532,459318 Conservative hold
Newcastle upon Tyne Central Labour 4,25613,6711,433 Labour hold
Newcastle upon Tyne North Conservative 15,97812,518 Conservative hold
Exeter Labour 21,68020,4096,672 Conservative gain
North Devon Liberal 18,5245,26818,893175 Liberal hold
West Aberdeenshire Liberal 18,3966,14112,8472,112 Conservative gain

Incumbents defeated




Ulster Unionist Party

Scottish National Party

Plaid Cymru

Democratic Party

See also


  1. 1 2 The seat and vote count figures for Labour given here include the Speaker of the House of Commons
  2. The Conservative figure includes eight Ulster Unionists, and the Labour figure includes seven Northern Ireland Labour Party candidates.

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  1. HC Deb 10 December 1968 vol 775 cc242-87
  2. 1 2 3 Richard Rose (1970). "Voting Trends Surveyed". The Times Guide to the House of Commons 1970. London: Times Newspapers Limited. p. 31.
  3. George Clark (1970). "The General Election Campaign, 1970". The Times Guide to the House of Commons 1970. London: Times Newspapers Limited. p. 26.
  4. Keohane, Dan (2000), Security in British Politics 1945–99, p. 183
  5. Bell, Stuart; Seldon, Anthony, The Heath Government 1970–74: A Reappraisal
  6. 1 2 Haines, Joe (2003), Glimmers of Twilight, London: Politico's Publishers
  7. 1 2 3 "1970: Heath's surprise victory", BBC News, 5 April 2005, retrieved 31 May 2018
  8. 1 2 BBC Election Results Programme, 18–19 July 1970
  9. "Heath: The victory few predicted", BBC News, retrieved 31 May 2018
  10. "Did England's World Cup defeat win the 1970 election for the Tories?". CapX. 19 June 2020. Retrieved 19 June 2020.
  11. Heffer, Simon (1999), Like the Roman: The Life of Enoch Powell, London: Phoenix, p. 568
  12. Hansen, Randell (2000), Citizenship and Immigration in Post-War Britain, Oxford University Press
  13. Richard Rose (1970). "Voting Trends Surveyed". The Times Guide to the House of Commons 1970. London: Times Newspapers Ltd. p. 31.
  14. The Times Guide to the House of Commons 1970. London: Times Newspapers Ltd. 1970. p. 250.
  15. BBC Election 1970, BBC Parliament, archived from the original on 25 October 2010
  16. Abrams, M. (1970), "The Opinion Polls and the 1970 British General Election", The Public Opinion Quarterly, 34 (2): 317–324, doi:10.1086/267808

Further reading