The Politics of Necessity: Lessons from the 1977 Lib-Lab Pact

"The agreement 40 years ago lasted just 18 months and was considered a failure in the years afterwards. Given that most polls currently suggested Labour would only be returned to government in minority it should consider looking back at its own history."

As the government suffers yet another technical defeat in the commons over the publication of Brexit impact documents, it is worth emphasizing that in minority governments such votes occur regularly and often don’t topple a government.

When the government inked a Confidence -and-Supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party on June 17th the United Kingdom entered its fifth period of a minority rule since the 1970’s. Two or those were the short sitting of the 1974 Parliament under Harold Wilson before the calling of the October election, and the often forgotten final 5 months of John Major’s disintegrating government in the run up to the 1997 election. The hung parliament of 2010 was largely negated by the forming of the Coalition government, which largely acted and functioned like a majority government.

This leaves the 1977 to 1979 period of Labour government under James Callaghan, and the so-called Lib-Lab Pact, as the only comparable governing arrangement to todays. Given its relevance to today’s situation it is a somewhat under-reported period of British political history, however given the divisive legacy of that period in government amongst the Labour Party in the decades that followed it has largely been forgotten and looked on as a time that many on both the left and right of politics want to forget. But with minority rule back at Westminster, are there any parallels to be drawn?

The circumstances of the Pact’s formation could not have been more different from the Tory/DUP deal. By March 1977, Labour’s minority government under Jim Callaghan was in great peril. Having just been pushed into minority after another by-election defeat, it had narrowly avoided a formal defeat on key legislation by calling a vote of confidence for Wednesday the following week. Over the weekend, frantic discussions where had between senior Labour and Liberal figures about whether any arrangement could be brokered to head of an early election amidst economic turmoil.

Westminster was shocked when in the midst of a motion of no-confidence against the government of James Callaghan, the leader of the Liberal Party David Steel confirmed the announcement just made by the Prime Minister during the debate of an informal pact between the two parties in exchange for consultation of key areas of government policy (a confidence-and-supply arrangement in modern language). The no confidence motion, which had been called by the Conservatives under their then inexperienced new leader Margaret Thatcher, then failed and the first formal cooperation since the Second World War began.

The impromptu announcement came after a week of frantic meetings and discussion behind closed doors, and even more amazingly without leaks to the media. In exchange for keeping the government in power, the Liberals demanded consultation on any key pieces of government legislation and concessions on issues such as devolution.

However government defeats were still common even under this arrangement. Great effort was often put into bills and legislation which was then only to fall at the final hurdle, and many Labour policies that have at least mitigated the soaring inflation at the time simply could not be passed. None of this was missed by the Opposition Conservatives or the then much more centrist MP’s from the Scottish National Party, who often worked to actively extend the debate and sittings of Parliament in order to wear down the government’s resolve, tabling multiple amendments to proposed legislation.

An often difficult and unhappy arrangement, the pact ended amicably in the summer of 1978 with the British economy then appearing to have stabilised, but with the onset of the Winter of Discontent Labour went on to lose the 1979 election, and usher in 18 years of majority Conservative rule. While the formation of the pact bought the government a further two years in office, the defeat rendered the Pact as fruitless in the eye of most activists

But with the such a pact now in place again ahead of a potentially very difficult set of Brexit legislation for Theresa May’s government, there are clear parallels to be drawn: A small party keeps the government in power whilst extracting concessions, the government’s own backbenchers now hold far greater sway as just a handful of objects can scupper legislation, and the Opposition parties are emboldened and willing to peruse every avenue open to them to weaken the government’s authority further. The agreement 40 years ago lasted just 18 months and was considered a failure in the years afterwards. Given that most polls currently suggested Labour would only be returned to government in minority it should consider looking back at its own history.


Nathaneal is a Young Fabians member

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