Long read: When football cost Labour a general election

These days politicians will leap on the football bandwagon as quickly as they can fluff a photo-op penalty, but in 1970 Harold Wilson was playing a whole new ball game

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When Harold Wilson saw Bobby Charlton substituted in the 1970 World Cup quarter-final, the Prime Minister began to suspect the game was up – both for England and for the Labour party’s hopes of re-election in the imminent general election.

On Sunday June 14, in the merciless midday sun in Leon, England lost a remarkable contest with rivals West Germany 3-2, despite being pre-match favourites and leading 2-0 after 68 minutes through Alan Mullery and Martin Peters. Like many pundits, Wilson felt the turning point had been Sir Alf Ramsey’s first substitution, which came with England leading 2-1.

As he later told Bill Shankly: “I think the mistake was to take [Bobby] Charlton off. That was the signal to the Germans. All they had to do was pile on the attack.”

Bobby Charlton

Charlton, whose substitution was criticised, leaves the pitch against Germany in 1970

Four days later, on the morning of polling day, a letter to The Times from Peter Grosvenor presciently enquired: “Sir, thinking of strange reversals of fortune: could it be that Harold Wilson is 2-0 up with 20 minutes to play?”

All but one of the final opinion polls put Labour in the lead, but a swing of 4.7 per cent to the Conservatives ended Wilson’s six-year reign as Prime Minister. Labour lost 76 seats and the Tories, led by Edward Heath, unexpectedly formed the new Government.

Even today, historians and political writers can’t quite explain how Wilson lost.

Fed up with England

The announcement of a large trade deficit on the Monday of election week didn’t help Labour’s cause. Wilson was later criticised for staging a comfy, complacent, presidential-style campaign long on personal appearances and short on policy details.

Yet the Labour leader became convinced that England’s defeat had played its part.

In a long conversation with Shankly on a trip to Liverpool in 1975, faithfully recounted in David Peace’s novel Red or Dead, Wilson said: “People get fed up with their government, like supporters get fed up with a team. And that’s what happened. When I heard we [England] lost 3-2, I thought there’d be an effect. And I did hear a lot of voters saying ‘Oh, I can’t stand anything after this.’ It had some effect on the election. Not decisive, of course.”

Bill Shankly

Liverpool legend Bill Shankly bonded with Wilson over football

That seemed to be what he was counting on when his inner cabinet met at Chequers in April 1970 to discuss the timing of the next election. As then-Defence Secretary Denis Healey recounts with unintentional humour in his memoirs The Time Of My Life: “In June, the British football team would be defending its possession of the World Cup in Argentina.”

Not even realising the English were defending the Jules Rimet trophy in Mexico, Healey was predictably unimpressed by Wilson’s fears that “if we were defeated just before polling day the Government would suffer”. Yet Wilson described the World Cup – and the timing of matches – as a “determining factor”. After making a few calls, he was relieved to discover the matches would be played at night.

The ministers at Chequers agreed to wait for the May local election results before deciding whether to plump for June or October. When they showed a swing to the Government, Wilson set the date: June 18, during the climax of the World Cup and, crucially, before many Labour voters in the north were due to go on holiday en masse.

People get fed up with their government, like supporters get fed up with a team. And that’s what happened. When I heard we [England] lost 3-2, I thought there’d be an effect

- Harold Wilson

Wilson was partly gambling his office on his theory of a “mystical symbiosis”, as his Chancellor of the Exchequer Roy Jenkins later put it, between Labour and the England team. This might sound absurd now, but throughout his long political career Wilson showed a keen awareness of the game and its political uses.

In 1966, he tried to persuade the BBC to let him share his expert analysis of the World Cup final with the nation at half-time. In an age when many celebrities had not yet learned to use football to underline their street cred, the Prime Minister’s suggestion was ignored.

Wilson didn’t just love football – he relied on it

When Manchester United won the European Cup in 1968, Wilson mocked his Leader of the House of Commons, Richard Crossman, for his indifference. In his diaries, Crossman noted: “Harold clearly felt this makes me incapable of being a great political leader – because the mark of a leader is to be a man who sees football or at least watches it on television.”

George Best

Harold Wilson cosies up to George Best in 1968

This conviction sprang from Wilson’s own life. He was no football luvvie. In April 1981, appearing on a Granada TV talk show with Shankly as a fellow guest, he was asked by host Shelley Rohde: “I’ve often thought, Sir Harold, your support for Huddersfield is a little out of expediency, or is that totally unfair?” Wilson replied: “Oh no, it’s born loyalties.”