On election night on 10 October 1974, the BBC broadcast a special episode of The Clangers, a children’s animated television series. The episode, ‘Vote for Froglet’, satirised the politics of the day, showing the gentle mouse-like Clangers rejecting a divisive two-party politics, essentially saying: ‘Sod off! The whole thing is a waste of everybody’s time!’ No two historical moments are exactly the same. But the desperate politics of mid-1970s Britain is certainly parallel to our own miserable times.
Currently faced with a contest meant to resolve an ever-deepening Brexit crisis, itself the product of deep-set economic problems, neither Labour nor the Conservatives are generating much faith in the electorate, led as they are by figures whose core support lies on the far-right and hard-left. Perhaps we should call 2019 The Clangers election.
In 1974, an increasing number of Britons shared the Clangers’ sentiments as well. The February election was the first since 1929 in which Labour and the Conservatives won less than 80 per cent of the vote, and nearly 25 per cent backed the Liberals or the various nationalist parties. After failing to form a coalition with the Liberals, Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath gave way to Labour’s Harold Wilson.
Wilson’s minority government pledged, thanks to the influence of radical left-wingers like Tony Benn, to ‘bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families’. In the 1974 election in October, Labour gained a slim majority – of just three seats – repeating its promise to remake the economy and society.
Turnout though had fallen from 79 per cent in 1974 to 73 per cent in 1979 (the second lowest since 1945) and Labour and the Conservatives’ grip on voter loyalties was palpably loosening. Political scientists like Ivor Crewe even began to talk of a ‘dealignment’ between the people and the political parties. Oliver Postgate, the creator of The Clangers, exemplified that. A grandson of the former Labour leader George Lansbury, he had always voted for the party but in October he supported the Liberals, and hoped for a coalition government. As we discuss in The Zeitgeist Tapes podcast, Postgate made the special Clangers episode for adults to express his own misgivings about politics.
Voter disillusion with two-party politics was largely because neither Labour nor the Conservatives were able to solve Britain’s acute economic problems. Some analysts, like Anthony King, claimed Britain had become ‘ungovernable’. A damaging miners’ strike had provoked Heath to call the February election and ask the electorate to decide: ‘who governs?’ In the end, Heath’s free market experiment failed, but Wilson’s party also abandoned consensus politics and promised a massive expansion of the state. Many despaired that party politics was not only failing to solve the big issues of the day but was now in the hands of divisive ideologues.
Whatever the result on 12 December 2019 – and the betting is that neither Jeremy Corbyn nor Boris Johnson will have a majority – it is helpful to recall what happened after ‘Vote for Froglet’ was broadcast. Prime Minister Wilson held a referendum in 1975 which confirmed Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community and then ditched Labour’s radical programme – to Benn’s despair. But the Labour government soon lost its small majority and struggled to breathe life into an economy seemingly beyond hope.
In 1975 Heath was unexpectedly replaced as Conservative leader by Margaret Thatcher, whose faith in free market solutions was absolute. After the October contest some believed the Tories were finished as a party of government as they had lost four out the last five general elections. But within four years Thatcher was Prime Minister and she determinedly applied her radical ideas in office, privatising state industries, destroying the unions as a serious force, cutting income tax and increasing inequality.
It is unlikely that in opening up a new and decisive way of governing for a generation or more, Thatcher would have been welcomed by the Clangers. The lesson for disillusioned voters in 2019, is that the future could be equally bumpy and surprising: however bad things might look now, they could be set to get a whole lot worse.
Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham and is writing The Labour Party: from Callaghan to Corbyn for Polity Press, to be published in 2021.