in Voting patterns up to 1997 by D Preece.
Without looking at any election
results, it is instantly clear that the general trend for the last thirty years
has been an upward rise in the number of people who vote, after a low of 72% in
1970 - the lowest for the whole century. This reflects a more media dominated
society, in which politics and political figures feature more regularly than before.
It also represents a society in which the average person is more aware of what
is going on in the world than thirty years previous.
In June of 1970, despite opinion pollsters predicting another Labour victory,
the Conservatives gained power. They did not win, as popular myth went, because
of England's World cup defeat by West Germany - the election was a month before.
Labour lost because a mood of change was sweeping the country, as would be seen
again in May 1997. After six years in opposition, the people were willing to give
the Government of Edward Heath a chance. In addition, he appealed directly to
the voters using the 'new' medium of television as a political force.
Economically, wages were rising, and home ownership was on the increase. But inflation
was up, and industrial relations were not good. The amount of working days lost
through strikes would be blamed on the Labour Government. The Conservatives received
46.4% of the vote, and 330 seats, against Labour's 42.9% and 287 seats. It seemed
that the British people had a need to return the Conservatives, who were seen
as the Party of the economy, to Government.
A general election was called in February 1974 amid chaos. The world oil crisis
became a declared state of emergency, and this was coupled with a miners' strike
and a three day working week resulting from the disruption of energy supplies.
The Tory Government was in shambles. Some Tories, encouraged by MP Enoch Powell,
voted Labour in protest against Edward Heath's pro European stance. It is a problem
which still plagues the Party today. Despite this, Labour just made it, with a
margin of just 4 (301 to 297), despite the Conservatives actually polling more
votes - 37.9% against Labour's 37.1%. Harold Wilson formed Britain's first minority
Government since 1929-31. This was publicly perceived as a weakened Government.
In October 1974, the Labour majority was consolidated, winning 319 seats to the
Tories 277. Nationally, a divide began to emerge which would eventually split
the country. Nationalism in Scotland and Wales underwent an upsurge, and both
the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru, the Welsh National Party increased
their share of seats. So too did the Ulster Unionists, who now had a direct role
to play in Government at the height of the Troubles. The Liberals increased their
share of seats in both elections of 1974. The Labour Party began a period of what
we now recognise as factors in the defeat of the Tories at the 1997 election.
Splits began to form in the Party, which lacked a strong and charismatic leader.
Tensions between Right Wing and Left Wing were rising. It was on the road to unelectability.
It all ended in 1979. After the 'winter of discontent' in 1978, a period of massive
industrial unrest, Margaret Thatcher was swept to power on a majority of 43. Labour
had taken the blame for the deindustrialisation brought about by the emergence
of foreign competition which improved standards and undercut the British manufacturing
industry. In contrast, the Thatcherite policies of privatisation, curbing of the
power of trade unions and reducing state spending at the expense of the welfare
state were very popular. In addition, Thatcher had the vote of feminists and was
a strong and dynamic leader who looked capable. Thatcher received the highest
percentage of popular vote since Macmillan in 1959 - at 43.9%.
The demise of Union power was a key part of Margaret Thatcher's campaign. The
unions could no longer call strikes - potentially permanently damaging the employer
on short notice, and for small reason. This pleased employers and also the majority
of workers, who didn't want to strike in the first place. The tension between
Left Wing and Right Wing in the Labour Party reached breaking point, and snapped.
The Right Wing under David Owen, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and William Rodgers
formed the Social Democratic Party. It was the SDP-Liberal Alliance that led to
Labour's election disaster in June 1983 - the Party's worst performance since
the 1930s. The geographically unconcentrated nature of the Alliance softened the
blow for Labour. In addition to this, the Tories had just fought a decisive and
popular war in the Falkland Islands, but this was not the sole reason for the
Labour defeat. The Tory vote decreased to 42.4%, but the split on the Left Wing
gave them an overwhelming majority of 143. This made it easy for the Thatcherites
to continue with their radical plans.
The nature of the British 'first past the post' electoral system does not favour
third parties. Either Labour or the Alliance would face collapse. The Alliance
gave way. Although not completely destroyed by the election of June 1987, it ruined
Labour's chance at election victory. Neil Kinnock's Labour were disappointed,
but expected a victory in the next election. The Tories were returned with a majority
of 102 MPs. In the middle of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression
of the 1930s, the Conservatives under John Major were returned for a fourth term
in April 1992. The majority was not decisive, but workable at 65 MPs. This was
despite a Labour comeback: the Tories lost 39 seats, while Labour gained 42. It
was a cruel blow to the Labour Party, and to those who predicted a clear Tory
Many theories exist as to why Labour lost. The changes of election ward boundaries,
as well as general fear of Labour's tax proposals probably figured highly in the
defeat. The British public consciousness of the importance of General Elections
was confirmed by the turnout of 77.7% - the fifth highest turnout since May 1945.
But the Tories were going the way of the Labour of the seventies. Divisions in
the Party and public over Europe were growing, especially after the signing of
the Maastricht Treaty in 1991. Once again, the winds of change were blowing across
the UK, and 18 years of Conservative Government would close with the election
of May 1997. The Tory cause was not helped by the sleaze allegations which rocked
Party Headquarters on a seemingly weekly basis. Sleaze was nothing new to the
Tory Party. It had been started, or at least brought to major public attention,
by the Profumo Affair of 1963. This trail has continued up to the present day
- the most recent example is that of Lord Archer's resignation.
In comparison, the Labour Party was pulling together. A rebranded, and relaunched
'New Labour' under Tony Blair was preferable in public eyes to the faltering Conservative
Government. Its moderate policies were shifting towards the neutrality of the
Centre, and were increasingly similar to the Conservative's policies.
The lack of radical difference between the parties meant that the media presentation
of the 'image' would decide the election for the first time, much like the Presidential
campaigns of the USA. As much effort was spent on negative portrayal of the opposition
than on promoting the Party. 1997's landslide victory showed just how the media
and the Press could be the most powerful item in elections. Coincidentally, for
the previous elections, the newspaper tycoon, Rupert Murdoch favoured the Tory
Party. In 1997 he switched allegiance to Labour, and Labour gained victory. The
most obvious effect of the new power of the media is in the large numbers of people
employed as political 'spin doctors' - a uniquely nineties phrase. In addition,
the electorate as a whole are becoming more fluid. Using the vast resources of
the advertising world, people's opinions could be swayed, and so could their voting
patterns. Habitual or traditional voting was reduced. People no longer followed
their parents' in Party, but made up their own minds as to who they would vote
for. The old traditions of class voting disappeared with the 1979 election.
The slide towards a devolved UK showed in the polls; both Plaid Cymru and the
SNP fared well. The disaster that remained of the Tory Party would be blamed on
John Major, who resigned to make way for William Hague. The Tory Party has remained
dogged by scandal and sleaze. In terms of generalising election trends, the election
of 1950 reactivated the trend of voter division along predictable geographical
lines, as well as class, gender and age differences. This difference did not end
until the Thatcher election of 1979, in which large numbers of traditional Labour
working class voters turned against Labour and voted in Margaret Thatcher. Young
women (18-24) tended to go for Labour, but there is no doubt that the women's
vote secured the Conservative victory in 1970. Indeed, working class women often
chose to oppose the automatic Labourite husbands, purely on the grounds that it
was one of the few times that they could do so.
The vote of the ethnic minority was not an issue until the election of 1964, but
has responsible for securing votes for Labour since, particularly in inner-city
areas. The areas that would split Labour until the emergence of New Labour would
be the ones apparent of March 1950: taxation, strikes and defence. In the late
Cold War periods, the Tories were perceived to be the stronger Party in defence,
an attitude reinforced by the Falklands Crisis of 1983. The commitment of Labour
to unilateral renunciation of nuclear weapons would hurt Labour up until the 1980s.
The association of the Tories with economic stability and prosperity, and successful
management of the UK economy has been with them since the election of 1955. This
memory would have remained with the older citizens. Labour was pilloried in the
press for stirring class issues, encouraging strikes and being soft on Moscow.
Labour's undying links with the trade unions would be their downfall until the
shackling of the unions by the Thatcher Government. Once again, in 1997, tax plans
would hurt Labour. With large numbers of high profile celebrities threatening
to leave Britain if Labour gained power, the taxes were the most feared of their
It is evident that as society changes by processes chronological, economic or
social, then the attitudes towards and the expected deliveries of the Governments
will change. We have seen that as the mood of the country changes, then the Government
will also change. The influence of world politics and economics will also alter
the Government; the stable economy which won the 1966 election was brought about
by world economic influences. Similarly, the variance in the pound strength has
led from recession to boom. Will we see another bust? Will the Government change
if we do? We will have to wait and see.
Bibliography: 'Illustrated History of the 20th Century', 1994 ed., ISBN 1-85613-083-5