31 December 2012

Looking back in hindsight: 1997 UK General Election

On the face of it, "Election '92" will be regarded at Labour Party headquarters as "the one that got away". John Major returned against all the odds at the election with the largest ever popular vote in history - over 14 million - amassing 41.9% of the vote for the Conservatives, down just 0.3% on Thatcher's third in 1987. Labour had risen by 3.6% on 1987. It was a swing of just 2% to Labour, far away from what the opinion polls predicted. Immediately Neil Kinnock was blamed for being over-confident in a rally in Sheffield a few days before the election (the now-infamous "We're all right!" speech, whereupon he was introduced as "the next Prime Minister: Neil Kinnock!"). Indeed, the BBC, ITV, and Sky predicted that there would be a Hung Parliament, but John Major ended up with not only an overall majority, but a workable one at that. John Smith was elected as Labour leader in 1992.

The inter-election period's opinion polls were decided by only one thing (primarily): Black Wednesday. The Conservatives collapsed from an opinion poll surge, and Labour took the lead and kept it. Nothing much changed between 1993 and 1997 (aside from a Lib Dem spike in 1993), even when John Smith died and Tony Blair took charge.

On 17 March 1997, John Major got out his soapbox and called the election for the first of May 1997. Could he pull off another 1992? On the face of it, it was going to be difficult; Labour had a 27-point lead in March 1997. The election campaign was a rather strange one. There was loads of negative campaigning from the Conservatives tied in to the extremely positive situation Britain was in at the time (New Labour, New Danger). Labour simply didn't really do anything, but underlined their non-existent-campaign with the song "Things Can Only Get Better". The Liberal Democrats capitalised on one poll which said 50% of the country would vote for the Liberal Democrats if they thought they had a chance of winning.

Conservative Broadcast:

Labour Broadcast:

Liberal Democrat Broadcast:

Our reaction to these broadcasts:

Conservative: With the benefit of hindsight, nearly all of what they say is true. I would have liked more promoting of the Conservatives. Damn scary, though!

Labour: I'm pretty sure everyone knows how to vote. I wonder who Tony Blair voted for.... it's in Peter Shaw's constituency!

Liberal Democrats: Really, John? 50%? It wouldn't necessarily mean a guaranteed Lib Dem victory. Labour could (in theory) amass the other 50% and beat you.

So, on came Election night.

The Conservatives were hopeful as they had closed the gap from 27 percentage points behind to "just" 10. You couldn't blame them for being hopeful: Kinnock, remember, lost from 24 percentage points ahead. The polls closed at 10pm, and the exit poll was revealed: Blair will be Prime Minister with a "landslide likely". The exit poll had Labour on 47% (+12%), the Conservatives on 29% (-14%), the Liberal Democrats on 18% (+/- 0%), and the others on 6% (-1%). The 29%, if it were true, would be the worst result for the Conservatives since 1832 (no typo!). The ballot boxes were raced to Sunderland South, the Conservatives were still hopeful, Labour were celebrating in the background whilst John Prescott was telling David Dimbleby that "we still must be sceptical", and the Liberal Democrats were quietly confident of taking some Conservative seats away. Peter Snow had thought Labour had it sown up already: "It would have to be terribly wrong for John Major to win! [...] These are all the red Labour MPs vulnerable to a Tory swing - needn't worry about them, I don't think." Millions turned off - Labour might have sown it up already. 

Peter Snow (on the right) looks taken aback at the exit poll's prediction (from bottom left to top right). 

A glimmer of hope for the Tories comes about, though. There was a recount at Stirling, Michael Forsyth's seat, just #7 on that list. It came to nothing. Labour had 190 seats before John Major could get 10. Elsewhere, gain after gain after gain came about (with a Con Hold here or there), until, at 03:13am, Tony Blair amassed the 330 he needed. Even the fifth-safest Conservative seat went to Independent Martin Bell (later to be held by George Osborne).

I mentioned Harrow West in an earlier blog, so there is just one more thing I want to mention. Enfield Southgate. Michael Portillo. He lost to Stephen Twigg on a 17.5% swing. A kick in the Tories' teeth, as Portillo was being touted as new Conservative leader until he lost. 

The final results:


Labour 418 (+145)
Conservatives 165 (-178)
Liberal Democrats 46 (+28)
Others 21 (-4)


Labour 43.2% (+8.8%)
Conservatives 30.7% (-11.2%)
Liberal Democrats 16.8% (-1%)
Others 9.3% (+3.4%)


Next time: 1992.

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