The By Election Woes of the Callaghan Government in the Late 1970s

Threats to the government majority

The By Election Woes of the Callaghan Government in the Late 1970s
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The very poor performance of the Labour Party in parliamentary by elections turned out to be a grave hindrance to the ability of Prime Minister James Callagan to remain at 10 Downing Street.

In October 1974 Harold Wilson had managed to turn a minority Labour administration into one with the slenderest of parliamentary majorities (four seats to be precise). But it was hardly a strong administration and it needed to retain all its seats at any by elections to avoid becoming a minority government.

When Harold Wilson stepped down in 1976 to be replaced by the older James Callaghan many commentators regarded the new Premier as having a safe pair of hands. However the grave economic situation that the UK found itself in threatened to damage the popularity of the new government.

The desperate economic measures put into place by the Chancellor of the Exchequer Dennis Healey did little to restore growth, lower inflation, or improve confidence in the government. Under the enthusiastic leadership of Mrs Thatcher the Conservatives were determined to win by elections and turn the government into a minority one. So successful was this approach that Callaghan had to agree to the Lib – Lab Pact in 1976 to stay in power. In return for support from David Steel the Prime Minister pledged to look at electoral reform, but not as hard the Liberals believed he would.

As early as the summer of 1975  the London constituency of Woolwich West was lost.

Two years later the faked disappearance of Labour MP John Stonehouse caused a great deal of embarrassment for the government, perhaps he had watched the Rise and Fall of Reggie Perrin on BBC1 to get the idea! Instead of being dead he turned up in Australia with stolen money and his mistress in tow.

On the other hand the late Leonard Rossiter might have made a better MP, he certainly staged a more convincing disappearing act.

Stonehouse was extradited back from Australia and then convicted of fraud. His actions forced a by election in his former seat of Walsall North and another defeat for Labour. Further losses at Birmingham Stechford and Ashfield near Nottingham were damaging as  as they were traditionally safe Labour seats. The Conservatives pulled off a minor coup when they persuaded Reg Prentice to cross the floor and join their ranks.

When the Liberals pulled out of their pact with Labour (which had broken  promises concerning electoral reforms as they did not want to harm the chance of winning a majority in the next general election) Callaghan made a deal with the Scottish and Welsh nationalists to stay in office. Slightly improved economic conditions meant that he called an election in the summer of 1978 he would have probably won. Yet by election defeats, defections, and a failure to deliver devolution to the nationalists put the government on a knife edge. The Winter of Discontent finished it off. 

Childs D (1979) Britain since 1945- a political history,1979,Tonbridge printers limited,Great Britain
Hattersley R (1997) Fifty Years On - a prejudiced history of Britain, Abacus, London
Palmowski J (2008) Oxford Dictionary of Contemporary World History, Oxford

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