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Volume 54 Number 5, March 3, 2024 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

50 years after the February 1974 election

A Defining Moment for the Role of the Working Class

Miners strike for a minimum wage, March 1912 - Photo: Getty Images

Fifty years ago this week, on February 28, 1974, then Prime Minister Edward Heath called a snap election [1], asking his famous question: "Who governs Britain?"

This question was in fact forced on his Conservative government by the miners, who at that time were a formidable organised force. Their strike action had been so powerful as to result in Heath's government imposing a three-day working week to conserve fuel as stocks of coal ran low. Heath called the election in an attempt to reassert the authority of the government, assuming that the electorate would respond by delivering him a stronger majority, tightening grip over decision-making power in the face of the growing challenge by the working class and its developing consciousness and organisation.

The resounding answer, however, was: not him. Instead, the election resulted in the first hung parliament since 1929. While the Conservatives had marginally more votes (37.9% to Labour's 37.2%), Labour, by the vagaries of the first past the post system, emerged as the largest party in the Commons, albeit by just four seats [2].

Participation in the election was historically high, with a turnout of 78.7%, the highest since 1959. Yet the combined vote of the two major parties fell from nearly 90% to 75%, in what was perhaps the most significant feature of the election results other than its indecisive outcome [3].

Poster from 2019

In the wake of the election, Heath attempted but failed to reach a deal with what was then the Liberal Party. He resigned as prime minister on March 4, power subsequently passing to Harold Wilson's minority Labour government. The striving of the miners for the recognition of their rights forced another election to be held in October of that year [4]. This election was again barely decisive, but was enough to deliver Wilson a slim majority.

So it was that the ruling circles, in the person of Edward Heath, put the question of "who governs", and lost. The profound repercussions of this moment in history have left their mark on the present and have still not been resolved. Though the government was defeated by its own question, the system then did not provide that it was the miners who won [5]. The role of the working class was affirmed during the whole period of that great conflict, a role that the working class has as its independent programme and mission to play its leading role in the transformation of society and put its stamp on the nation. In particular, the workers' consciousness surrounding its own question of "What Kind of Society?" has been developing since that time, and the necessity and possibility of bringing about a modern alternative that favours the working class and people not the rich [6].

The events of 1973-4 came towards the end of the social-democratic period that had been the consensus since the end of the Second World War, a mode of governance and of accommodating claims on the economy that was going into serious crisis at that time.

The response of the Labour government following these events was to institute the tripartite arrangement between the government, big labour and big business in the form of the so-called Social Contract, to divert the workers' independent consciousness and organisation from developing any further.

Murton Lodge Banner - The Future is in your hands

But this itself was to be short-lived. The whole social-democratic period was to be abandoned with the unleashing of the anti-social offensive spearheaded by the neo-liberal Thatcher government from 1979, and the equally historic miners' strike of 1984, which also marks its 40th anniversary this month. By that time, the aim was the complete silencing of the voice of the workers and the end of any reasonable accommodations.

Today, the days of "beer and sandwiches at Number 10", the days of winning the consent of organised labour to the programmes of government, are a distant memory. It is also telling that no Prime Minister since Heath has both taken and lost their time in office as a result of an election: all have either resigned due to factional infighting, been coronated following such as resignation, or both. The 1974 election marked the turning-point of the two-party system of the big catch-all parties of the postwar period, following which the big parties began to transform themselves into the cartel party system that is in such crisis today. With the decay of the old two-party system came also the beginning of the end of predictability.

Today, the party-dominated system is in utter crisis, while the disequilibrium has become so great that the unions face a huge challenge in effectively carrying out their role as the workers' self-defence organisations.

Wakefield - With banners held high, 2019

Today, it is the struggle between the Old and the New that is increasingly thrown into sharp relief. The financial oligarchy has reached a dead-end, and the workers, increasingly disillusioned with cartel-party politics, are tasked with taking up their independent role. The working class is becoming ever more conscious of the fact that it alone holds the solutions to the all-sided crisis. Workers are aware of their own worth and are determined to make their claims, declaring that "Enough is Enough!".

The times require that the working class upholds the most modern and enlightened definitions of democracy and human rights; it cannot succeed in making its claims on society without them. The role assigned to the workers by history is to make history by taking up the future of society, ending its division into classes and into governor and governed, bringing about a society based on the rights of all and where the individual and collective are one.

Faced with this historic task, the working class faces the immediate challenge of becoming an organised political force in its own right. The working people cannot afford simply to hand over their power to representatives whom they do not even select and over whom they exercise no control.

Today the working people know perfectly well who governs. The challenge facing the workers is to deprive the ruling elite the power to deprive them of what belongs to them by right, including their right to govern themselves and exercise control over the matters that affect their lives. This is what the events of 50 years ago remind us of, and that the working class is set to further respond to this challenge.


1. After announcing the election on February 7, parliament was dissolved just one day later, and the election held 20 days after that.
2. "February 1974 United Kingdom general election", Wikipedia, February 23, 2024
3. Lewis Baston, "Who governs?", The Guardian, April 4, 2005
4. "Who Rules?", Workers' Weekly, June 14, 2017
5. "Election Material", RCPB(ML), April 2001
6. "There Is a Way Out of the Crisis", RCPB(ML), March 19, 1994

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