A Summary of UK General Elections, 1945-2017
Since the end of the Second World War in 1945, the Conservative and Labour parties have battled it out at twenty General Elections. Nine of these elections have produced overall majorities for the Conservative Party whilst eight have produced overall majorities for the Labour Party. The remaining three have produced hung parliaments, two with the Conservatives as the largest single parliamentary grouping and one with Labour as the largest single parliamentary grouping.
Despite this virtually even split, the Conservatives have sat on the government benches for forty-two of the last seventy-two years whilst Labour have served for thirty years. In that period, there have been nine Conservative and five Labour Prime Ministers. The longest serving Prime Minister was Margaret Thatcher who resided in 10 Downing Street from May 1979 to November 1990. The longest single stretch of rule for a single party was the eighteen years of Conservative rule from 1979 to 1997 under Margaret Thatcher and later John Major. In 1951 and February 1974, one party won the national popular vote and another won the most seats. In 1951, Winston Churchill's Conservative and Unionist Allies actually secured an overall majority whilst Clement Attlee's Labour Party won the most votes received by a British political party. This record has only been surpassed once, in 1992 by John Major.
Labour won the 1945 election with an enviable overall majority of 146. The recovery of the Conservatives in 1950 cut this majority to the slender figure of five before the Conservative and Unionist Allies finally returned to power in 1951 (despite losing the national popular vote to Labour) with a majority of 17. The party then increased their majority to 60 in 1955 under Anthony Eden and almost uniquely for a government seeking a third term, increased it once again to 100, in 1959 under Harold Macmillan. Labour returned to power in the October 1964 election, where Harold Wilson won a wafer thin majority of four before going to the country in a snap-poll in 1966 and successfully increasing Labour's majority to a commanding 98-seats. 1970 saw Edward Heath secure a shock victory returning the Conservatives to power with a majority of 30.
Heath went to the country in February 1974 hoping to secure a fresh mandate after a show down with the striking miners but his party lost seats, finishing 4 seats behind Harold Wilson's Labour in the first hung parliament since 1929. Wilson formed a minority government, 17 seats short of an overall majority and then called a second election in October. Labour limped over the finishing line and secured a majority of 3; far from decisive. The 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992 elections all produced Conservative majorities of varying sizes, with Mrs Thatcher securing the largest Conservative majority of the post-war era (144) in 1983 and John Major confounding the pollsters with a 21-seat advantage in 1992. Labour then won the 1997 election in a landslide with a 179 seat overall majority followed by a near repeat performance in 2001 with a 167 seat majority and then a dramatic reduction in 2005 down to 66 seats. The 2010 election resulted in another hung parliament with the Conservatives short by 19 seats of an overall majority. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that was formed to all intents and purposes functioned as a majority government with a relatively large 78-seat majority.
In 2015, David Cameron shocked practically every pollster, pundit and pre-election forecast when the Conservatives won their first overall majority in 23 years, albeit a historically small one of just 12. The snap 2017 election saw Theresa May's gamble fail with the third hung parliament of the post-war era and the Conservatives 8 seats short of an overall majority. Mrs May formed a minority government with a confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party.
Since 1945, Britain's electorate has generally returned governments with overall majorities. Of the nine Conservative victories, none of them have been in single figures, although the 21-seat majority in 1992 had disappeared by 1996. Labour, on the other hand, have won three elections with majorities of five or less and Tony Blair is the party's only leader to have won more than one comfortable majority. Clement Attlee, Harold Macmillan, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair are the only leaders to have led their parties to three-figure majorities and in the last 51 years, only Mrs Thatcher and Mr Blair have won majorities greater than 32.
Labour won 11.97 million votes at the 1945 election and increased its total poll to 13.27 million and then 13.97 million in 1950 and 1951 respectively, their total number of votes then decreased at the next three elections, including at their victory in 1964. At the same time, the Conservative and Unionist Allies slumped to 9.97 million votes before recovering to 12.47 million in 1950 and 13.72 million in 1951. Despite winning power in 1951, Winston Churchill's Conservatives lost the national popular vote to Labour. In 1955, the Conservatives topped the poll for the first time in the post-war era with 13.29 million votes and once again in 1959 under the leadership of Harold Macmillan. Labour's Harold Wilson edged out Alec Douglas Home in 1964 by just 203,166 votes. When Labour were returned to power in a landslide in 1966, the Labour vote rose to 13.07 million whilst the Conservative vote fell to 11.47 million.
1970 then saw the two parties reverse before both losing votes in the February and October 1974 elections. In 1979, Mrs Thatcher's Conservatives surged back to 13.7 million votes, gaining 3.27 million voters. James Callaghan's Labour Party actually increased its total poll slightly compared to October 1974. 1983 saw the Labour vote bottom out in the party's mythical defeat with Michael Foot losing over 3 million votes. Despite the election marking peak Margaret Thatcher in terms of seats, it was her lowest total poll. 1987 saw some Labour recovery to 10.03 million votes and also Mrs Thatcher's peak at 13.74 million. John Major then won over 14 million votes in 1992 before sending the Tory vote plummeting to 9.6 million in 1997 at the hands of Tony Blair. The Labour vote increased in 1992 and then again to 13.52 million in 1997 at Blair's first landslide. Both parties saw their total poll fall in 2001 due to the abysmally low turnout with the Conservatives marginally recovering in 2005 but with neither of the two main parties receiving over 10 million votes for the first time in the post-war era. In 2010, the Conservative vote rose to 10.7 million before rising to 11.3 million in 2015 under David Cameron. At the same time, the Labour vote dropped to a disappointing 8.61 million in 2010 before nudging up to 9.3 million in 2015 under Ed Miliband. Defined as a return to two-party politics, both the Conservatives and Labour increased their number of votes in 2017. Theresa May returned the Conservatives to Thatcherite popularity with 13.64 million votes, whilst Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party received 12.88 million votes; its highest number since 1997.
The Liberal Party made only a limited impact on the elections between 1945 and 1970, receiving between 0.73 million and 3.1 million votes each time. The party made a breakthrough in February 1974, polling 6.06 million votes. In 1974's second election, they fell backwards to 5.35 million votes and then once again to 4.31 million in 1979. The SDP-Liberal alliance then polled a massive 7.78 million votes and came within spitting distance of outpolling the Labour Party in 1983 but its number of votes then fell at every election until 2001 (as the Liberal Democrats from 1992). Charles Kennedy then presided over a revival in 2005 and Nick Clegg oversaw the best Liberal Democrat performance with 6.84 million casting their votes for a Liberal Democrat candidate in 2010. Following their decision to enter into a coalition with the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats were then heavily punished in 2015, losing 4.42 million votes. Their total poll fell once again in 2017. In 2015, the United Kingdom Independence Party polled 3.88 million votes, a record for a party that wasn't one of the 'big three'. At the same election, the Greens received 1.20 million votes but the two parties received only two seats between them.
In the years since the Second World War, the highest number of votes to ever be received by a British Political Party remains the 14.09 million cast for John Major's Conservatives in 1992, closely followed by Clement Attlee's 13.95 million in 1951. Often overlooked by history, William Hague's 2001 performance in votes was actually the lowest number for one of the two major parties with just 8.34 million votes being cast for the Conservatives. This was slightly worse than Michael Foot's disastrous Labour result in 1983 but was on a much lower turnout. At her three election victories, Margaret Thatcher received 13 million votes each time, she actually received slightly more votes in 1987 than she did in 1979. By contrast, Tony Blair lost 3.97 million votes between 1997 and 2005, failing to break the 10 million barrier in 2005.
Jeremy Corbyn's 2017 total poll is the fifth largest when ranked against fellow Labour leaders and 14th largest when compared with every other Conservative/ Labour performance since the Second World War. Theresa May's 2017 total poll ranks sixth against fellow Conservative leaders and seventh overall since the Second World War.
Seats Won in the House of Commons
Following its landslide win in 1945, Labour's number of seats declined at the next four elections whilst the Conservatives recovered. After entering government in the wrong-winner election of 1951, the Conservatives then increased their number of seats to 345 in 1955 and 365 in 1959. 1959 marks the only occasion in the post-war era in which a government has increased its number of seats when seeking a third term in office. Labour then regained power in 1964 under Harold Wilson by a wafer thin margin of four and all of the seats up for election were won by candidates from the Labour, Conservative and Unionist and Liberal parties. Wilson then chose to go to the country in 1966 to improve his precarious position in parliament and successfully increased his number of seats from 317 to 364. The Conservatives then won the 1970 election with 330 seats before the two major parties essentially tied in February 1974 and then the October election tipped the balance slightly in Labour's favour albeit only just. 1970 saw the first member of the Scottish National Party elected at a General Election in the Western Isles before the party amassed seven seats in February 1974 and then 11 seats in October 1974. The two 1974 elections also saw Plaid Cymru return two and then three representatives respectably.
Labour struggled on for almost a full parliamentary term under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan following their nail-biting October 1974 win before losing 50 seats and being defeated by Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives in 1979. The Scottish National Party suffered the consequences of voting down a Labour government and lost nine of its 11 seats whilst Plaid Cymru and the Liberals also fell back.
In 1983, the Conservatives reached their post-war peak with 397 seats and Labour slumped to just 209 MPs. Despite a high share of the national popular vote, the SDP-Liberal Alliance garnered just 23 seats. 1987 was very much a 'no change' election with the Conservatives reversing very slightly to 376 seats and Labour recovering to 229. 1992 saw the Conservatives hold on to power but with 336 MPs and Labour improving vastly on its 1987 performance to 271. In the Labour landslide of 1997, Labour amassed an eye-watering 419 seats with the Conservatives way behind on their worst result since 1906 on 165. The election left the Conservatives with no MPs in Scotland or Wales. The Liberal Democrats more than doubled their 1992 seats from 20 to 46. 2001 was another 'no change' result and Labour returned to power with its majority barely touched and its number of seats reduced to 413. The Conservatives netted just one seat and improved to 166 whilst the Liberal Democrats returned 52 representatives.
Labour's number of seats fell to 356 in 2005 with the Conservatives beginning their road to recovery and the Liberal Democrats registered the best result for a third party since 1923 with 62 MPs. The Conservatives dramatically increased their seat count in 2010, to 307 whilst the Liberal Democrats reversed for the first time since 1992 and Labour plummeted to 258. Caroline Lucas was elected in Brighton Pavilion, the first win at a General Election for the Green Party. 2015 saw the Conservatives make further progress and their seat total rose to 331 whilst Labour slumped to 232, their worst result since 1987 and the Liberal Democrats were reduced to a rump of just eight. 2015 was marked by the rise of the Scottish National Party who gained a staggering 50 MPs and took 56 of Scotland's 59 constituencies. The 2017 snap election marked the first decline in Conservative seats since 1997, with the party reduced to 318 MPs and Jeremy Corbyn's Labour made shock gains to bring Labour's total to 262. The Scottish National Party fell back dramatically to 35 seats, leaving no party other than the Conservatives and Labour with more than 40 seats for the first time since 1992.
Net Seat Change by Leader*
No leader in the post-war era has gained as many seats for their party as Clement Attlee did for Labour between 1935 and 1955. It is often forgotten that when he took over the leadership of the Labour Party in 1935, Attlee's party was a mere rump in the House of Commons, holding just 52 seats. Within weeks of being elected leader, he then fought the 1935 election at which the Labour Party began to recover, winning 154 seats. When he stood down as party leader in 1955, Labour's commons representation stood at 277. A net gain of 225 seats.
The next greatest seat gainer is perhaps a surprise, David Cameron. He took on the a bruised Conservative Party that had lost three consecutive elections for the first time in the post-war era in 2005. The party had made almost no progress under William Hague in 2001 and Michael Howard had made minor progress in 2005 winning 198 seats, 12 less than Michael Foot left Labour with in 1983. Over the ensuing two elections, he increased the Conservative Party's total seats to 331 at his final election all leader in 2015. His 2010 performance was the greatest performance of any Conservative leader since 1931 in terms of seats gained at a single election. With a net gain of 133 seats, he is the only party leader since 1945, other than Attlee, to have left his party with over 100 more seats than when he took on the leadership.
Mrs Thatcher and Mr Blair come in at third and fourth respectively, net gaining 99 and 85 seats for their parties. Neil Kinnock actually finishes ahead of Harold Wilson by one seat. 1950s Conservative victors, Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan netted 44 seats between them whilst the next two Conservative leaders, Alec Douglas Home and Edward Heath both left the Conservatives with less seats than they found the party with. James Callaghan and Michael Foot suffered heavy losses for the Labour Party but the largest number of Labour losses lies with Gordon Brown at 98. The worst overall result for a leader of either of the two major party comes from John Major who, despite his shock 1992 win, left the Conservatives as a rump in the commons with 211 less seats in 1997 than in 1990.
Following the 2017 General Election, Jeremy Corbyn stands at a total of 30 net gains whilst Theresa May is the first Conservative leader since John Major to preside over a net-loss of seats.
*Change in the number of seats taken when acceding to the party leadership and at their final election as leader, does not include mid-term results and changes.
Swing Between the Conservatives and Labour
Electoral swing is used as an indication of the scale of voter change between two parties. Since 1945, there have been ten swings from Labour to the Conservatives and ten from the Conservatives to Labour. The 11.78 percent swing from Conservative to Labour in 1945 remains the largest in British electoral history and a double-digit swing has only been achieved once more, by Tony Blair in 1997. At the four elections from 1950 to 1959, there was a Labour to Conservative swing. This is the only occasion at which a party has received four successive swings in its direction. 1964 and 1966 then both saw swings from Conservative to Harold Wilson's Labour before a hefty 4.73 Labour to Conservative swing that delivered Edward Heath his shock win in 1970.
The 1974 elections saw modest swings from Conservative to Labour before the largest swing towards the Conservatives, 5.28 percent, propelled Margaret Thatcher into power in 1979. There was then a further swing from Labour to Conservative in 1983 before three swings to Labour in 1987, 1992 and 1997. Whilst in opposition, the Conservatives then recovered, with a swing in their direction in 2001, 2005 and 2010. Despite losing seats, there was a small swing to Ed Miliband's Labour in 2015 but this was the smallest swing between the two parties since the Second World War. Jeremy Corbyn presided over the largest Conservative to Labour swing since 1997 in 2017 and indeed the largest swing towards his party since October 1974 excluding 1997.
The 3.91 percent swing from Labour to the Conservatives in 1983 remains the largest swing towards an incumbent government, closely followed by the 2.62 swing to Labour in 1966. There was also a swing to Anthony Eden's governing Conservatives in 1955 and uniquely, this was larger than the preceding swing which put the Conservatives into power in 1951. To date, no governing party has replicated Eden's feat and encountered a bigger swing whilst seeking a second term than the one that put their party into power. Harold Macmillan then went one better in 1959 and remains the only leader since 1945 to have a swing to their party at a General Election whilst seeking a third term in office.
The smallest swing to cause a change of government is the 0.98 percent swing from Labour to the Conservatives in 1951 which returned Winston Churchill's Conservative and Unionist allies to the government benches after six years of opposition. In 2010, the 4.95 percent swing from Labour to David Cameron's Conservatives remains the largest swing towards a party where the party on the receiving end failed to secure an overall majority.
Share of the Vote
In the early 20th century, the Conservative and Liberal Parties were the two main political parties in the UK with the Liberals seeing their support decline following their 1906 landslide victory under Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman. The Labour Party grew relatively quickly and overtook the Liberals as the main opposition to the Conservatives in 1922. Labour won more votes than the Conservatives for the first time in 1945 and did so again in 1950 and 1951. The Conservatives saw their vote almost hit 50 percent in 1955 and 1959 before being narrowly defeated by Harold Wilson in 1964 and again in 1966 by a much bigger margin. The Liberals performed well in both of 1974's elections and both Labour and the Conservatives saw a significant decline before seeing their combined share rise again in 1979 with the Conservatives defeating Labour.
1983 saw the newly formed SDP-Liberal Alliance come within 700,000 votes of out-polling Labour but their share of the vote declined in 1987 with Labour making up some ground. The 25.4 percent achieved by the alliance in 1983 remains the largest share of the vote achieved by a third party since 1923. The Liberal Democrats lost vote share compared to the Alliance in 1992 and again in 1997 but saw a steady rise in 2001, 2005 and 2010 before plummeting to levels barely higher than in the 1960s at the 2015 General Election as a result of their time in coalition with the Conservatives.
The Conservatives sustained a share of around 42 percent from 1979 to 1992 but dropped dramatically in 1997 to a post war low of 30.7 percent. Margaret Thatcher's three victories between 1979 and 1987 were impressive by modern standards in terms of share of the vote but when compared to 1950s Conservative performance, were relatively average. They made limited improvement in 2001 and 2005 before returning to government in 2010 but still with support in the mid-30s rather than low-40s as had once been standard. The 2017 election marked the best result for both the Conservatives and Labour in many years and their combined share was at its highest level since 1970. Labour's worst defeat came in 1983 with just 27 percent of the vote under Michael Foot and Gordon Brown came close to replicating this in 2010 with a disappointing 29 percent. At 40 percent, Jeremy Corbyn's 2017 share of the vote is Labour's best performance since 2001. UKIP saw itself become a significant force in 2015, gaining an impressive 12.6 percent share of the vote despite only winning one seat. Following Britain's vote to leave the European Union, this share evaporated in 2017 as Britain polarised between the Conservatives and Labour.
The best Labour share of the vote was recorded in the 1951 election at 48.8 percent whist the Conservatives recorded theirs at the successive election, 1955, at 49.7 percent.
Change in Vote Share
The largest change in vote share for one of the two major parties was the 9.82 point increase for Labour in 1945, followed closely by the party's 9.6 point increase in 2017 under Jeremy Corbyn. The Conservatives have only ever increased their share by more than 5.5 points on one occasion, in 1979. Despite losing the party's overall majority, Theresa May's 5.5 point increase is, to date, the second largest Conservative vote share increase the post-war era.
The largest Conservative decrease in share came in 1945 in their landslide defeat to Attlee's Labour, closely followed by their 11.24 point drop in 1997. Labour's biggest decline came in 1983 at 9.28 points.
In several elections: 1951, 2015 and 2017 both the Conservatives and Labour increased their share of the vote whilst in 1959 and February 1974, both parties saw their share decline. Returning Britain to a 'two party' system, 2017 is the only post-war election in which both of the major parties have seen their share rise by more than 5 points. Since their heavy defeat in 1997, the Conservatives have increased their vote share at each of the subsequent elections. The 5.5 point increase in the Conservative vote in 2017 is currently the largest increase in the vote share for a governing party in the post-war era.
Since 1945, the Conservatives have prevailed in the popular vote on eleven occasions, whilst Labour have on nine. In 1951, Labour won the popular vote but the Conservative and Unionist Allies won an overall majority. This situation was reversed in February 1974 where the Conservatives edged ahead in the popular vote but Labour won four more seats. The Conservatives progressively reversed an 8-point Labour lead in 1945 and turned it into a 5.5 point Conservative lead in 1959. The Labour Party won by a hair's breadth in 1964 before increasing to a larger 6-point lead in 1966. The Conservatives then won by 3.4 points in 1970 and the tiny margin of 0.6 points in February 1974. Labour's Harold Wilson turned this into a 3.5 point win in October of the same year before the four consecutive Conservative wins from 1979 to 1992. The Conservative victory in 1983 by 14.9 points is currently the largest winning margin in the post war era, followed by Tony Blair's 12.5-point win in 1997. The Labour Party's winning margin slowly shrunk over the course of the 2001 and 2005 elections down to just 2.8 points in 2005. The Conservatives then won by a respectable 7.1 points in 2010, the largest winning margin for a party that failed to win an overall majority. Their lead shrunk to 6.4 points in 2015 but their haul of seats increased to 331.The Conservative winning margin in 207 was reduced to 2.3 points, the smallest since February 1974.
The Labour Party won the most seats in Scotland in 1945 and 1950 before tying with the Conservatives in 1951 on 35 seats each. Anthony Eden's victory in 1955 saw the Conservatives win the most seats in Scotland for the only time in the post-war era. The Labour Party then won a majority of Scotland's seats at every election until 2015. The Conservatives won 22 Scottish seats in 1979 under Margaret Thatcher before declining to no seats at all in 1997. The Conservatives then won one seat in 2001, 2005, 2010 and 2015.
The Scottish National Party won their first seats in 1970 and saw rapid growth in both of the 1974 elections before collapsing in 1979 and remaining in single figures until 2010. In 2015, the Scottish National Party wiped both Labour and the Liberal Democrats from the electoral map, winning a landslide 56 out of Scotland's 59 seats. Labour and the Liberal Democrats were reduced to just one seat each whilst the Conservatives held their sole constituency.
2017 saw another rapid reversal, with the SNP losing 21 seats and the Conservatives gaining 12 seats to move into second place. Labour and the Liberal Democrats both made some modest recovery.
The highest turnout at a General Election in the United Kingdom was 83.9 percent in 1950 and was only slightly lower the following year at 82.6 percent. Until 1997, turnout was always above 70 percent before dropping to a low of 59.4 percent in 2001. The high level of apathy in 2001 was put down to the near certainty of the re-election of the Labour Party and there has been a steady increase in participation at every election since. The 2016 referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union saw 72.21 percent of voters turn up to vote and 68.8 percent chose to exercise their democratic right at the 2017 General Election.