With a general election likely to take place in 2024 it is worth looking back at lessons to be learned from the past.
The value of the Archive of Market and Social Research lies in its providing us with the longer-term view, and in particular it is exactly 50 years since 1974 when there were two general elections: late swings in voting intention radically altered the outcome and, just like today, the Tories formed a somewhat unpopular incumbent government while both main party leaders were rated poorly.
The 1974 surprises
In the 18 months ahead of the first 1974 general election, Labour’s lead over the Tories in the Gallup, NOP and Harris polls varied from 8% to 18% but this had evaporated by February 1974, and the result was a dead heat. (The Liberals did well under Jeremy Thorpe, but he declined to go into a coalition with either main party – if he had done so, we might have had Proportional Representation over the years since then).
By the time of the October 1974 general election a second shift occurred in which the Conservatives under Heath finally lost power. Wilson had established himself in popularity while high inflation under Heath and his ‘Who Runs Britain’ challenge to the unions lacked credibility.
…And in 1970 too
A similar shift in the opposite direction occurred earlier, in 1970, when a continuing Labour lead of 6% or more in the polls was overturned in the last week before election day by the reality of a narrow win for the Tories under Heath.
Why the late swings in voting intention?
The latest (December 2023) Ipsos MORI poll puts voting intentions for Labour at 41% and for the Conservatives at 24%, a lead of 17%, but as has been shown, the precedents from these earlier years indicate that a seemingly secure lead cannot be taken for granted as election day approaches.
Various hypotheses have been offered to explain the late swings, but none appear to have examined the changing mindset of the voters and their very low levels of awareness as the election day approaches: only in the last 48 hours, prompted by pollsters’ questions and the need to make a real decision, do many voters begin to think seriously about the political landscape ahead.
The party leaders
Another similarity between 2024 and 1974 lies in unpopularity of the main party leaders. Asked in May 1973 who would be the best PM for the next 5 years, 19% said Wilson and 18% said Heath, with 48% naming various other leading politicians. Not a ringing endorsement, and the ratings of both main parties stood much higher than that of their leaders in each case.
This pattern is clearly being repeated now: in the Ipsos MORI poll for November 2023 Rishi Sunak was viewed favourably by 22% and unfavourably by 51%. For Sir Keir Starmer, the rating was not much better, with 30% favourably and 42% unfavourably. Only 21% viewed the Conservatives favourably and 37% viewed the Labour Party in the same way, so neither party leader can really claim to outshine his party in public perceptions.
Looking for earlier comparisons between the parties and their leaders in the 1940s and 1950s, it can be seen that posterity can take a different view from that reflected in the Polls of the time. Attlee was less popular on average than the Prime Ministers that followed him in the next 15 years. However, owing to the achievements of his period in power, he has subsequently been rated as perhaps the best Prime Minister of the last 75 years!
Much of the information contained in this article may be found in the Archive of Market and Social Research (AMSR):
- NOP Political Bulletins for April 1973, and February, March and November 1974
- ‘Pollsters, the Press and Politics – Polling in Britain’ by Robert M Worcester, in Public Opinion Quarterly, 1980.
- ‘Britain Speaks Out 1937-87, a social history as seen through the Gallup Data.’
- The Gallup Election Handbook 1945 – 1970.
Other sources used included:
- Ipsos MORI – latest opinion polls
- ‘The Pollbase Opinion Polls Database from 1943 to Today’, by Mark Pack, 2023.
Contributed by Phyllis Macfarlane and Peter Bartram
Date posted: 11th January 2024.