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Will 2024 be 1974 all over again?

Ewan Edwards

Much of the Lobby are rather pleased to have a relatively quiet 6-week recess after a bumper summer last year which saw a Prime Minister ousted, a tiresome leadership contest, the briefest British premiership, and another Prime Minister parachuted in. All within the space of three months. 2024 has the hallmarks of an equally arduous political year, so for those Lobby journalists it may be best to recuperate now.


Speaking to Iain Dale’s All Talk podcast, Harry Cole, The Sun's political editor, speculated that 2024 may mirror the political landscape of 1974 — a year of two general elections. Current punditry leans towards a late general election. This would provide Sunak time to fix the economy and pave the way to a fifth successive Conservative election victory, a true Christmas miracle. Yet, this strategy presents a dual-edged sword for the government. While delaying the election provides additional time for the government to fulfil their five pledges, it also allows a window for potential scandals, corruption, or sleaze to emerge. The cautionary tale of the former MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip underscores how a single scandal can snowball into a government's downfall.


The fallout from an impending Mid Bedfordshire by-election when, or rather if, Nadine Dorries finally formally resigns alongside any unforeseen political disruptions could accelerate Sunak's decision to call an early election in 2024.


One key point noted by Cole, was that overturning “the size and scope of Boris Johnson’s election victory” is a colossal task. The last Labour government took 18 years to chip away at the Conservatives majority. Even when it was assumed a Labour victory was inevitable in 1992, John Major scraped in with a minimal majority. In that case, for Keir Starmer to overturn what is left of the 2019 eighty seat majority is not only colossal but completely unprecedented in modern British politics. It is worth remembering how all too quickly it was assumed by the media that Kinnock would win in 1992 and Miliband would win in 2015; an outright Starmer victory is not yet nailed on, to think so would be foolish.


The most likely turn of events is that Starmer wins but with no overall majority, or with such a slim majority he is reliant on the votes of those in his party often dubbed the ‘loony left’. his faction includes figures like Richard Burgon and Diane Abbott — the latter currently without the Labour whip due to her comparison of antisemitism to the plight experienced by individuals with ginger hair, in an article for The Observer. In this scenario passing legislation will become a parliamentary nightmare, a flashback to the meaningful votes of 2019 or even the legislative impasse that plagued the 1974 Wilson government, culminating in two general elections that year.


The two general elections in 1974 were conducted during a dire period of dire economic difficulties and political mayhem in Northern Ireland. Sound familiar? Drawing parallels between 2024 and 1997 has garnered considerable media attention, yet the true essence of Starmer's legacy may resonate more with that of Wilson than Blair. It is worth noting how it is all too easy to draw historical comparisons, whilst 2024 may be fought on similar issues as 1974 the agenda will undoubtedly extend to matters such as migration, climate change, and net-zero targets.

Is a coalition government the most probable outcome?


Starmer has publicly dismissed any prospects of a coalition with the SNP but has left the door open for cooperation with the Liberal Democrats, who stand a good chance of securing seats in the Southeast and Southwest of England. However, scepticism lingers over a full-blown Lib/Lab coalition, given the Liberals' previous electoral obliteration following their last coalition partnership. Substantial policy divergences regarding electoral reform, housing, and recreational drug policy cast further doubt on a coalition partnership. The likelihood is a hung parliament with no coalitions, no confidence and supply motions just a minority government with limited legislative scope. A depressing reality.


If this is to be Great Britain’s political reality within the next 18 months, the tolerance of both MPs and the electorate for a gridlocked House of Commons will inevitably wear thin. Following attempts to navigate legislative blockades, the Labour Party may opt for another election, laying the blame for the impasse at the Conservatives' doorstep. Such a strategic move could provide Starmer with a smoother path to victory and a workable majority.


Since the Fixed Term Parliaments Act was repealed, the government as the prerogative to call an election as and when it pleases. The lingering question is whether the country can stomach two general elections within a year? We may be about to witness some of the lowest turnout rates in decades.


Image: PA; Wilson supporters campaigning against Ted Heath's Conservatives

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