UK General Elections 1980-1999

1983: Mrs Thatcher decimates Labour

Share of the vote:

CON maj

144

Following her 1979 election victory, Margaret Thatcher saw her popularity plummet with unemployment rising and the economy entering recession. Michael Foot replaced James Callaghan as leader of the Labour Party in November 1980 and had presented himself as a candidate capable of uniting the right and left of his party which remained divided over the issue of the last Labour government and what the left had perceived has betrayals by James Callaghan. Upon Foot's election as leader, Labour were holding double-digit leads over the Conservatives in the opinion polls. Foot was hit by crisis in January 1981 when four members of the pro-European wing of the Labour Party (Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and William Rogers) broke away away and formed the Social Democratic Party. (SDP) The SDP quickly formed an electoral alliance with the Liberal Party and the Alliance overtook both Labour and the Conservatives in the opinion polls towards the end of 1981. The party even managed to hit 50 percent in some polls with David Steel famously declaring to the 1981 Liberal Party conference, 'go back to your constituencies and prepare for government'. Following Britain's victory in the Falklands War between 2nd April and 14th June 1982, the Conservatives began to pick up support and returned to a leading position in the opinion polls. Labour saw its popularity drop and many saw the party as having moved too far to the left with Sir Gerald Kaufman referring to the party's manifesto as 'the longest suicide note in history'. On 24th February 1983, the Liberals defeated Labour in the Bermondsey by-election, achieving a record 44.2 percent swing. After calling the election in May 1983, Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives continued to hold a commanding lead in the opinion polls, whilst Labour and the Alliance jostled for second place. On Election Day, Mrs Thatcher was returned as Prime Minister with a vastly increased overall majority of 144 seats. The Conservative number of votes and share of the vote declined slightly but Labour's vote declined by a massive 9.3 percentage points, accounting for a swing just short of 4 percent towards the Conservatives. This allowed the Conservatives to net an additional 37 constituencies, taking their total to 397 seats. At 27.6 percent, Labour's vote share of the vote was the party's lowest since 1918. The SDP-Liberal Alliance came within 700,000 votes of out-polling Labour but won 23 parliamentary seats to Labour's 209. Following the election, the SDP and Liberals argued for proportional representation and this would become a long-running campaign point for the two parties and their successor, the Liberal Democrats. The Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru both failed to make any gains, retaining 2 seats each.

1987: Thatcher scores the hat trick

CON maj

102

Share of the vote:

With inflation low and unemployment declining, the Conservatives were widely expected to win the 1987 election from the outset and when Margaret Thatcher called the election on 11th May, her party had a lead of over 10 points in most opinion polls. The Conservatives benefitted from the division in the left of centre vote but a week before polling day, a Gallup poll had the Conservative lead down to 4 percentage points. This became known as 'wobbly Thursday' and in his memoirs, David Young claimed that he took Norman Tebbit by his lapels and shouted 'Norman, listen to me, we're about to lose this fucking election'. As a result of the wobble, Thatcher handed management of the campaign over to Tim Bell who spent £2 million in one week on anti-Labour newspaper advertising. The Conservatives promised to increase home ownership and continue to privatise Britain's state controlled industries. Following the Labour Party's catastrophic 1983 defeat, Michael Foot resigned as party leader and was replaced by Neil Kinnock. Kinnock enjoyed campaigning and the Labour campaign was considerably more professional than in 1983. Kinnock had also worked to modernise the Labour Party, tackling Militant and the hard-left head on. For Labour, defence was a major issue. The party remained committed to cancelling the new Trident nuclear weapons system and found presenting a credible alternative difficult. The Conservatives, on the other hand, pledged to maintain an 'independent' nuclear deterrent. Despite the Conservative wobble, the party were returned to government with an slightly reduced overall majority of 102. The Conservative share of the vote dropped by just 0.2 percentage points with Labour gaining a mere 20 seats and an increase in vote share of 3.2 percentage points. The election was disappointing for the SDP-Liberal Alliance who's vote share dropped by 2.8 percentage points and number of seats dropped to 22. Soon after the election, the Liberals and SDP merged into the Liberal Democrats.

1992: John Major confounds the pollsters

CON maj

21

Share of the vote:

John Major replaced Margaret Thatcher as party leader and Prime Minister in November 1990. The Conservative Party saw its fortunes in the opinion polls reverse with Labour's leads being reduced and in some cases being overturned. The Conservative campaign focused on Labour's tax policy and the day before the election was called, Norman Lamont delivered a tax-cutting budget. John Major found his feet on the campaign trail; addressing crowds in the street standing upon a soapbox. Labour campaigned heavily on the issue of the National Health Service and caused controversy with a party political broadcast that dramatised the case of a child waiting for an ear operation. The truthfulness of the broadcast was questioned in a scandal that would become known as the 'War of Jennifer's Ear'.  As polling day approached, Labour were still fractionally ahead in the opinion polls and most suggested that they would either be the largest single party or win outright with a small overall majority. A week before the election, Neil Kinnock addressed a rally in Sheffield in which he took to the podium and repeatedly shouted 'we're all right!' Although Labour's internal polling suggested that the rally had little effect on the party's level of support, some senior Labour politicians criticised Kinnock for coming across as 'triumphalist'. John Major shocked the pollsters when his party were returned to office at the fourth successive election albeit with an overall majority reduced from 102 to 21 seats. Labour made significant gains compared to 1987 but the 2.2 percent swing that they achieved was short of that required to put them in power. Neil Kinnock resigned as leader of the Labour Party quickly after the election. The Conservative total number of votes,14,093,007, remains the largest number of votes ever received by a political party at a UK general election and surpassed the total received by Margaret Thatcher at her peak. Major's 41.9 percent share of the vote was down 0.3 percentage points compared to 1987 but Labour increased its share by a respectable 3.6 percentage points and outperformed the national swing in several key-marginal constituencies which accounted for the relatively large Conservative lead in vote share but small overall majority. The newly formed Liberal Democrats share of the vote was down considerably compared to the SDP-Liberal Alliance's share in 1987 and the party was left with two fewer seats. The Conservatives had lost seven seats at by-elections since 1987, they successfully regained them all in 1992. 

1997: Labour returns in a landslide

LAB maj

179

Share of the vote:

1997 marked a true watershed in British politics and the first change of government in 18 years. Following their fourth consecutive defeat in 1992, the Labour Party elected John Smith as leader. Smith continued Neil Kinnock's modernisation of the party, abolishing the block votes of the trade unions at Labour Party conferences and replacing them with one member, one-vote. Smith suffered a fatal heart attack in 1994 and was replaced as leader by Tony Blair. Blair rebranded the Labour Party as 'New Labour' and modernised party policy, notably revising Clause IV, removing the party's commitment to nationalisation. The Conservatives suffered several misfortunes that severely damaged their image and reputation. Despite the economy picking up soon after, 'Black Wednesday' in September 1992 and rising unemployment dented the idea that the Conservatives were the party of the economy. In 1995, John Major resigned as party leader with a view to heading off opposition from the eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party. Whilst announcing his decision to resign and stand again, Major famously challenged his opponents to 'put up or shut up'. Major defeated his only challenger, John Redwood, in the first ballot by a margin of 218 to 89. The party's image was further tarnished by the 'sleaze' scandals in which several prominent Conservative MPs were caught up. To compound all of these problems, the small overall majority was slowly eroded through by-election defeats and defections. By 1997, the government was in minority and had suffered several defeats in the commons, particularly over the issue of Europe. From late January 1993 to Election Day, Labour led every opinion poll with the Conservatives dropping as low as 18 percent in some surveys. Some in the Labour Party were reminded of the previous election in 1992 and were cautious that despite the polls, the Conservatives would pull it out of the bag when it mattered on election day. At 00:20, Labour gained Birmingham Edgebaston from the Conservatives on a 10.7 percent swing and it became apparent that Tony Blair was heading for Downing Street. Labour gained 146 seats and achieved the largest average swing since 1945. The Conservatives were left with 165 seats, their lowest total since the 1906 Liberal landslide and were wiped out in Wales and Scotland. Paddy Ashdown's Liberal Democrats netted 26 additional seats but lost vote share compared to 1992. John Major announced his resignation as party leader as he left Downing Street to resign as Prime Minister proclaiming that 'when the curtain falls it is time to get of the stage and that is what I propose to do'. Major then travelled to The Oval with his family to watch Surrey play cricket. Labour's victory was its first at a general election since October 1974 and marked the beginning of 13 years of Labour rule.

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