Guide to UK Election (History)

The Representation of the People Act (Great Reform Act) of 1832 and women’s suffrage after World War I are two great lines in the history of UK electoral democracy – all UK election results since the former appear here.

However, most coverage now starts from World War II, as Labour established itself as the main party of the centre left in opposition to the Conservative Party and its various allies. By this time, universal suffrage existed from age 21 and, from 1950, all constituencies were single-seat.

From 1945 the competition was recognised as primarily between the Labour Party (openly at the time referred to as “Socialists”) and the others, led by the Conservative Party but also consisting of National LIberals and various Unionists (typically in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but on occasions even elsewhere). The Conservatives also had pact arrangements in some two-constituency cities with the Liberal Party, where one party contested one division and the other the other. This arrangement remained effective, at least to some extent, until the breakdown in the link with the Ulster Unionists and the growth of the LIberal Party during the economic crisis of the early ’70s.

A noteworthy aspect of UK elections is that, unlike Presidential elections, the scale of the victory is also relevant. Each large party aims to secure an absolute majority of seats in the Commons in order to ensure its Leader will be appointed Prime Minister (and thus able to command a majority for that party’s policies in government). Over time, the size of that majority has begun to matter – the rise of smaller parties in by-elections from the ’60s, taking from the governing party’s majority, has seen the notion of a “workable majority” introduced, generally accepted to be about 20 – any less than that and, although the winning party may form a government, it will do so knowing it is unlikely to last a full five-year term. Majorities of over 100 are referred to as “landslides” – this is relevant because a Prime Minister commanding such a majority can even cope with rebellions in his or her own party and still put through policies easily. (Precise majority figures vary by source, depending on status of Speaker and some aligned independents.)

1945 – Labour landslide majority 146

In 1945 wartime Leader Winston Churchill led the centre-right into what he felt would be a comfortable victory, even before victory in Japan had been secured. He was to be shocked, as the country turned to the Socialists, with their vision of a welfare state including legal aid and a free health service (in fact based on a Liberal’s proposals during the War). Clement Attlee became Labour Prime Minister with its first ever majority, a landslide at that.

1950 – Labour narrow majority 4

Labour’s radical reforms changed the face of the country but, with rationing ongoing and some concerns at the pace of change, Mr Attlee’s majority was cut dramatically, meaning he had only a wafer thin majority upon which to rely. He knew he would need a rematch soon.

1951 – Conservative narrow majority 17

Mr Attlee was not the last Labour leader to be stunned by a defeat in an early election. It was particularly unexpected because Labour actually secured most votes (with both big parties receiving over 97% between them), but piled them up in the wrong areas. Thus Mr Churchill returned to the Premiership in his late seventies.

1955 – Conservative working majority 59

Anthony Eden took over as Prime Minister in May 1955, and immediately called an election to confirm him in office. Victory was duly secured, with the country in high spirits after becoming the third nuclear power, conquering Everest and coronating a new monarch. This was the first fully televised election results service, on the basis of a model first trialled in 1950.

1959 – Conservative landslide majority 100

Labour Leader Hugh Gaitskell was stunned by this result, having fully expected to win. Mr Eden had been left broken by the embarrassment of the Suez Crisis and had made way for Harold McMillan, a patrician who saw himself more as a Chair than Leader. His case that the country had “never had it so good” chimed with an electorate post-rationing (except in Scotland and Lancashire, which ran against the national trend and saw Labour gains). Television coverage of results night is identifiably the same basic service as still exists in 2015, with analysis and interviews accompanying “gains” and “losses” – alongside the concept of “swing”. This was the first election covered by ITN (now ITV News).

1964 – Labour narrow majority 4

Labour returned to power in the “White Heat” election of 1964, becoming the only party ever to overturn a landslide majority directly, but was frustrated by not winning by a wider margin. Another Scottish patrician, Alex Douglas-Hume, had taken over as Prime Minister the previous year but was seen as someone sent in to keep the score down. He nearly pulled off a sensational victory, and new Prime Minister Harold Wilson, the first educated at a Grammar School, would soon need to return to the country for a bigger mandate.

1966 – Labour working majority 96

The election of 1966, as the decade began to swing, saw Mr Wilson get what he had asked for and become the first Labour Leader to secure a second term with a workable majority. He took advantage of a change in Opposition Leader, putting Edward Heath into the heat of an election only seven months after taking over. Mr Health ended the “Conservative and allies” arrangement, and from this election all centre-right candidates in Great Britain were referred to specifically as “Conservative”.

1970 – Conservative working majority 30

1970, which saw a reduction in voting age to 18, remains a much studied and mysterious election result. Labour, who had deliberately called it early in the summer, seemed set for a comfortable victory and a historic third term, with even television results coverage starting out with discussion as to who may be in Mr Wilson’s next government. Bafflingly, the Conservatives won comfortably, securing well over the necessary 4% swing. Various suggestions for why range from poor employment and trade figures to apparently racist speeches and even England’s World Cup exit a few days earlier; the likelihood, in fact, was that the 1967 devaluation of the pound had shaken the public’s belief in Labour’s economic competence.

1974 (Feb) – Labour short by 17

1974 was a year of dramatic electoral change, confirming the political changes which had occurred during industrial disputes and the oil crisis as the UK’s economy crumbled. The Conservatives’ traditional coalition with the Ulster Unionists crumbled too as the result of an attempt to pursue power-sharing with a Council of Ireland in 1973; economic chaos led to many more people flirting with outright Nationalism in Scotland and Wales; and the Liberal vote trebled in the atmosphere of protest.

After just three and a half years of industrial tension and the imposition of the “three-day week”, Mr Health asked the voters “Who governs?”

It was a gamble and it failed. “We’re not really sure but probably not you” was the response from the voters, as they delivered the first post-war hung parliament. It was very hung – the Conservatives had most votes, but Labour had most seats and neither could reach an outright majority even with the Liberals or the Unionists. Sound familiar?

1974 (Oct) – Labour narrow majority 4

No one had expected the hung parliament but Mr Wilson returned to the premiership in March, calmed industrial tensions, and tried a replay in October. Expecting a significant majority, his victory was pyrrhic, securing a razor-thin overall advantage which soon disappeared requiring a “Lib-Lab” pact for the final part of the term. So did Mr Wilson, resigning less than halfway through the parliament for reasons still to this day not fully explained.

1979 – Conservative working majority 43

James Callaghan took over, and was tempted to call an early election before industrial relations worsened again. He dithered fatally and, despite his personal popularity, was comfortably defeated in May 1979 after the “Winter of Discontent”. The UK’s first woman Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, would lead the country into the ’80s… and right through them.

The Liberals suffered too. Their Leader Jeremy Thorpe lost his seat after becoming involved in a bizarre legal case involving the shooting of a dog belonging to a man who claimed to have been his lover nearly two decades beforehand. This was terminal – the Liberal Party would soon realise it could no longer go on alone.

1983 – Conservative landslide majority 144 

1983 was a curious election, coming just after the Falklands War, in which Mrs Thatcher more than trebled her majority but did so with a decreased share of the vote. A breakaway faction of the Labour Party formed the SDP, which contested the election in a formal Alliance with the Liberals and came within a whisker of outpolling Labour. Labour, led by Michael Foot, had fought on an outright Socialist manifesto, including withdrawal from the EEC and Nuclear disarmament – self-dubbed the “longest suicide note in history”. It still got ten times as many seats as the Alliance due to the vagaries of the electoral system – it was the split in many constituencies that saw the Alliance come second in huge numbers but win so few; and which enabled the Conservatives to sneak through the middle in many cases to rack up surprise gains across the country.

1987 – Conservative landslide majority 102

Mrs Thatcher secured a historic third successive term and second landslide majority as the opposition remained divided – although new Labour Leader Neil Kinnock did succeed in handily defeating the Alliance to ensure his party’s survival as the main political force of the centre left, making some gains as he did so. Yet again, at around 42%, the Conservative vote share remained stable and the number of seats won depended largely on how split the Opposition was. The third parties realised that an outright merger was now necessary if they were to have any chance in future – thus were born the “Social and Liberal Democrats”, subsequently the LibDems.

1992 – Conservative working majority 21

Staggeringly, after a bitter change of leadership, huge row over Europe, the introduction of the poll tax and a deep recession, the Conservatives mustered 42% again in 1992, confounding the polls and even basic common sense to secure over 14 million votes under John Major’s consensus-based leadership – the only time any party has managed this. No one has quite explained how this happened, but it left Labour shell-shocked, gaining seats only due to a decline in the votes cast for the new Liberal Democrats.

It is remembered as an epic night in television. David Dimbleby was set, until literally seconds before polls closed, to announce an exit poll showing a narrow Labour majority; it was switched, after Big Ben had started chiming, to declare a hung parliament with the Conservatives ahead (contrary to popular memory, which still “recalls” a prediction of a Labour win). The projections favoured the Conservatives increasingly through the night from there. This was also the first election covered by Sky.

Mr Major’s completely different style of leadership was sufficient differentiation from what had gone before for him to secure a full fourth term for his party (although it would take a deal with Ulster Unionists to secure the majority towards the end). Some Conservatives subsequently wished he hadn’t…

1997 – Labour landslide majority 179

Tony Blair’s Labour Party amassed over 400 seats and a mammoth majority in the Commons as the Conservatives were reduced to demoralised rump in 1997. The giant swing saw candidates who had made no plans for a change of career suddenly thrust on to the Green Benches. The Liberal Democrats also secured more than double representation. It was not until the wee hours that the Conservatives even won a second seat – “At least we’ll now be able to have a leadership election” quipped former Party Chair Cecil Parkinson – and they mustered none at all outside England.

2001 – Labour landslide majority 163

The 2001 election was almost a re-run of 1997 – remarkably, almost half the seats changing hands were in Northern Ireland alone. The results in Great Britain were notable only for LibDem gains taking them above 50 seats; the campaign was notable only for Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott becoming embroiled, literally, in a punch-up. In retrospect, notable also was the decline in turnout to just 59%.

2005 – Labour working majority 66

2005 saw a fall in Labour’s majority and a record LibDem seat total in the wake of the Iraq war, but was notable mainly for Labour’s attainment of a clear win with less than 36% of the vote. The Conservatives had removed Iain Duncan Smith as Leader without even allowing him to contest an election; Michael Howard became the third centre-right Leader in a row not to be Prime Minister as his bizarre “Are you thinking what we’re thinking” campaign left his party still short of 200 seats.

This election was notable also for confirming DUP and Sinn Féin ascendancy in Northern Ireland.

2010 – Conservatives short by 19

After a brutal economic crisis, the worst since 1929, the Conservatives gained more seats than they had since 1970. However, despite a similar vote share to Labour five years previously, these gains did not suffice to provide an overall majority. Incumbent Prime Minister Gordon Brown clung on for four days after the poll. In the end, he had no realistic way of turning his 258 seats into a majority.

Star of the campaign was Nick Clegg, who had dominated the debates and whose Liberal Democrats topped the opinion polls within sight of the finishing line. In the end, however, they only nudged up one percentage point and actually lost seats overall – a disappointment, even if it was enough for a return to Whitehall for the first time since the 1920s. Thus was formed a Conservative/LibDem Government under the premiership of David Cameron with a majority of 76.

2015…? Whatever happens, it will be some story!

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2 thoughts on “Guide to UK Election (History)

  1. William Allen says:

    The first general election that happened after I started work was the 1997 election which saw Labour come to power. It took only to the first Labour budget for me to feel less well of as Labour raised taxes, effectively punishing those who work to reward those who do not. I have long felt that the electoral system needs reforming. First we need PR and second we need to really consider who is allowed to vote. I personally think that only people who economically contribute to the country should have the ability to influence who governs. That may seem radical but it would free all the political parties to form policy which would promote the economy, allow proper defence and education rather than having to worry about loosing the votes of those who do nothing but take.
    I fear another Labour government, I do not think the UK would survive it.

    • Mark Hamilton says:

      Lets hope you don’t have an accident leaving you unable to “economically contribute” and then find you also no longer have a valid view on how the country you live in is governed.

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