Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Would Jim Callaghan have won an autumn 1978 election?

Paul Linford has posted an entertaining list of what he regards as The Top 10 Political Misjudgements.

At no. 1 in his list - by which I assume Paul believes it to be the most disastrous misjudgment of all - is Jim Callaghan's decision not to call a general election in the autumn of 1978. He writes:
Prime Minister Callaghan ducks out of an autumn 1978 election after private polls show it might result in a hung Parliament. The ensuing Winter of Discontent puts paid to Labour's credibility as a governing party and leads to 18 years of Tory hegemony which ultimately removes all vestiges of democratic socialism from the British state.
That is not quite how I remember it. While Callaghan's government had managed to defuse the sense of crisis that had existed earlier in the 1970s, there was still a strong feeling that Labourism was worked out and that the future belonged to Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives.

As I recall, the prospect that faced Callaghan in the autumn of 1978 was a narrow defeat. He held on, hoping that the country's economic position would have improved by the spring. In fact the trade unions finally lost patience with his austerity programme and the Winter of Discontent ensued, guaranteeing a rather more comfortable Tory victory in 1979.

Alan Watkins, always an acute observer, remembers it thus:
Was it a missed opportunity on the part of Callaghan in autumn 1978? My view at the time was that the prime minister had allowed the speculation to get out of hand. The date of the election was regarded as a certainty. When the newspapers were disappointed in their expectations, they duly took their revenge. Callaghan's elephantine attempts at humour at that year's TUC conference only made matters worse.
And I recall someone writing at the time that Callaghan held on because (1976-9) would look so much more impressive after his name in the history books than (1976-8).

So a myth about Jim Callaghan and an autumn 1978 election has been allowed to grow. Or is there hard evidence that he could have won an earlier election?


Anonymous said...

Something like Thatcher was politically inevitable by the end of the 70s. The country was bankrupt, economically and politically, and the Liberal Party had done itself no favours in propping up Callaghan in a pretty meaningless "agreement".

Paul Linford said...

You may of course be right - the essence of these counterfactual things is that we will never know -but the following may be relevant:

1. Margaret Thatcher was not personally popular in the country and there seems to have been a certain amount of resistance among the electorate to voting for her. Even after the chaos of the Winter of Discontent, she only got a majority of 43. Jim Callaghan was, by contrast, a well-liked avuncular figure.

2. The period of 1976-8 (mainly covered by the Lib Lab pact) was a stable and successful period of governance. Although the zeitgeist probably was with Thatcher, and she had the Big Vision, Callaghan could have fought an election on "competence" (as Brown put it) and won.

3. Callaghan's private opinion polls were showing that the best (or worst) Labour would achieve was a hung Parliament. He reckoned that over the course of the winter he could convert that into a majority. What seems clear from these polls is that although Labour may not have been in a position to win a '78 election outright, neither was Thatcher. Had there been a hung Parliament, we would almost certainly have seen the renewal of the Lib-Lab pact, and the replacement of Thatcher in favour of a more emollient Tory leader more likely to entice floating voters in a second election.