Stories

Long read: When football cost Labour a general election

We are part of The Trust Project What is it?

There are more explanations for England’s loss in Leon than there are for Wilson’s defeat in the 1970 election. Some see conspiracy in Gordon Banks’ dodgy bottle of beer (the great goalkeeper missed the game with an illness). Others castigate Ramsey for his tactics, arguing that 4-4-2 was never going to succeed in the Mexican heat. A few pinned the entire catastrophe on Banks’s replacement, Peter Bonetti.

Peter Bonetti

Stand-in goalkeeper Bonetti did not convince against Germany

Although Wilson felt Ramsey had made the wrong substitutions, he still rang the manager to commiserate and congratulate him on a “magnificent performance”.

Upon hearing the news on the campaign trail, Roy Jenkins remembered the “mystical symbiosis” between Labour and the England team, and wondered how this defeat would play out on polling day. Benn was quick to muse: “Tonight England was finally knocked out of the World Cup which, no doubt, will have another subtle effect on the public.”

The effect might have been mystical but it wasn’t subtle. The morning after the match, Jenkins and Minister for Sport Denis Howell had a meeting in Birmingham. “Roy was totally bemused that no question concerned either trade figures or immigration, but solely the football and whether Ramsey or Bonetti was the major culprit,” Howell recalled. “I tried to be good-humoured about my answers, but for the first time I had real doubts and knew the mood was changing fast – and afterwards my wife Brenda came back from canvassing and said, ‘I don’t like the smell of it all; it’s just like 1959 all over again.’”

In October 1959, the British electorate, largely agreeing with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan that they had “never had it so good”, gave the Conservative Government a 100-seat majority over Labour. The 1970 election wouldn’t be that one-sided, but Heath went into office with a healthy majority of 30.

Tonight England was finally knocked out of the World Cup which, no doubt, will have another subtle effect on the public

- Tony Benn

A pair of hammer blows

So how much difference did that World Cup quarter-final defeat make? Elections are, by and large, a referendum on how people feel about themselves and their country. If voters feel, as Macmillan suggested, that they’ve never had it so good, it might take a scandal of Watergate magnitude to convince them to choose a new government. If they are unsure or fear that things are likely to take a turn for the worse, they are more likely to vote for change.

A nation’s sense of wellbeing is influenced by a multitude of factors. Within 24 hours of England’s loss at the hands of Beckenbauer and friends, the headlines were dominated by a hefty balance-of-payments economic deficit. These two unexpected hammer blows seemed to reinforce Heath’s warnings that things were not as the Government was insisting, and that without change things would only get worse.

The nature of that quarter-final defeat – and the identity of the victors – also seemed to fit a particular political narrative. Here was a country that in 1966, full of optimism about modernisation, could conquer the world, but by 1970 had declined. This narrative echoed what Heath had been saying since the start of the campaign, rather than Labour’s message, which was encapsulated in the buoyant title of the party’s election manifesto: ‘Now Britain’s strong – let’s make it great to live in’.

Happier times: Bobby Moore holds the Jules Rimet Trophy in 1966

So it is entirely probable that some voters, still traumatised by images of Gerd Muller slamming the ball past Bonetti to score West Germany’s third, concluded that Britain was not as strong as Labour insisted and voted Conservative.

As a rule of thumb, higher voter turnouts tend to favour Labour and in 1970 only 72 per cent of the electorate voted, down from 76 per cent in 1966, so it’s possible many Labour supporters simply stayed at home.

Crosland certainly felt he knew who was responsible for Labour’s “relegation”, putting it all down to the “disgruntled Match of the Day millions”. And if he was right, a government that took office in 1964, promising to revolutionise British society through the “white heat” of technology, came undone nearly six years later on a football pitch in the white heat of Leon.

This feature first appeared in the June 2015 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe!

New features you'd love on FourFourTwo.com