General elections are the great democratic leveller. Every citizen – however wealthy, educated or interested – gets an opportunity to pass judgement on the performance of the government and the direction of public policy. Yet while elections embody a principle of equality, not all elections are equal – some are more interesting and consequential than others. Here are the polls we regard as seven of the most significant elections since 1945.
1945: Labour by experience
The 1945 general election produced the first ever Labour majority government, and it did so by a landslide. Wartime necessity had shown that a large and active state could achieve great things without any apparent loss of individual liberty. The prevailing mindset that propelled the party to victory was articulated by David Niven’s character in the film A Matter of Life and Death, released that same year: “Conservative by nature, Labour by experience”.
In the six years that followed, Clement Attlee’s government pursued full employment, created the National Health Service, developed the welfare state and took large parts of industry into public ownership. It also gave trade unions new privileges. In the decades that followed, party politics were essentially a reaction to the Labour government’s record and its achievements.
1959: never had it so good, Jack
The Conservatives won their third successive general election in 1959. It helped that the party had largely accepted the post-war settlement enacted by Labour. It also helped that the Conservatives had governed in good economic times. As prime minister Harold Macmillan had optimistically said two years earlier: “Most of our people have never had it so good.”
The 1959 election is a classic example of the importance of moderation and prosperity in determining electoral success. It was also important for raising questions about Labour’s long-term future, not to mention its relationship with organised labour. Industrial practices in Britain had been satirised in the 1959 film I’m All Right Jack. And Labour’s fortunes would be greatly affected by increasingly dogmatic trade unions.
February 1974: an election that nobody won
A Labour minority government emerged from the February 1974 election. Edward Heath’s Conservatives had won the most votes, but it was Harold Wilson’s Labour party that won the most seats. The result was a testament to the poor performances of both parties. The Conservative government had presided over rising inflation and two miners’ strikes and performed a U-turn on economic policy. Labour, meanwhile, had been damaged by association with the trade unions, and further marred in the minds of voters by lurching to the left.
Apart from producing an inconclusive outcome – Wilson would call another election in October of the same year, which Labour narrowly won – the February 1974 election was important for heralding the fragmentation of Britain’s two-party system. The Liberal party’s revival and the rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalists would introduce greater uncertainty into future elections and place increasing strains on Britain’s non-proportional first-past-the-post voting system.
1979: the winter of our discontent
The 1979 election resulted in a Conservative win and the rise to power of Margaret Thatcher. Timing possibly made all the difference. James Callaghan’s Labour minority government had survived numerous economic and political challenges. In 1978, with North Sea oil flowing, Labour had seemed well-placed for victory. Yet, rather than going to the country, Callaghan decided to soldier on. The trade unions’ rebelled against the government’s incomes policies, and Britain was gripped by strikes in “the winter of discontent”.
The Conservatives promised to tame the unions, stem inflation and tackle unemployment. Many votes were swayed. Callaghan noted the shift in expectations: “I suspect there is now such a sea-change – and it is for Mrs Thatcher.”
Though nobody knew it at the time, the 1979 election would mark the beginning of 18 years of Conservative rule and, like the 1945 contest, arguably a new consensus in British politics.
1983: divided and conquered
The Conservatives were re-elected by a landslide in 1983, although their vote share actually declined. For much of the time, the government’s policies had been unpopular and divisive. The attempt to target inflation had produced a massive rise in unemployment, and many urban areas had rioted. Then, Argentina invaded the Falklands. Thatcher was able to bask in the glow of military victory, just as the tide of economic expectations was rising.
Meanwhile, Labour had made itself virtually unelectable. It had lurched to the left, promising massive nationalisation, withdrawal from the Common Market and unilateral nuclear disarmament, among other things. It had also split, with a number of its more moderate and popular MPs forming the Social Democratic Party, which promptly entered into an electoral pact with the Liberals.
In the event, the SDP-Liberal Alliance failed to “break the mould of British politics”, and Labour survived as the main opposition party. Nevertheless, the centre-left remained divided for another decade, helping the Conservatives to win in 1987 and 1992, giving them time to roll back the less popular parts of the state.
1997: a new dawn broken?
The 1997 election brought to an end the Conservative’s 18-year rule. The party under John Major had won a surprising victory in April 1992, but within months things had started to go wrong. Britain was forced out of the European exchange rate mechanism in September 1992, massively damaging the Conservatives’ reputation for economic competence.
Meanwhile, the party was bitterly divided over the issue of Europe and increasingly mired in accusations of “sleaze”. Even a period of sustained economic growth could not lessen voters’ doubts about the party’s fitness for office.
Labour during this period finally got its act together under a new leader, Tony Blair. Rebranding itself as New Labour, the party moved to the centre, cosied up to the media and sought to reassure business and middle England with an air of competence. “A new dawn as broken, has it not,” said Blair on the morning of victory.
A wholly discredited opposition and increasingly fragmented party system would help Labour to secure large parliamentary majorities in 2001 and 2005 on ever-diminishing shares of the vote.
2010: another election that nobody won
The 2010 election resulted in the second hung parliament since 1945 and the first peace-time coalition since the 1930s. The result owed much to the two major parties’ recent records and also their declining grip on voters’ hearts and minds.
After 13 years in power, and having governed amid the most turbulent economic events since the Great Depression, Labour still appeared moderate but had lost its reputation for competence.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, had tried to rid themselves of the ideological baggage of the Thatcher years. However, David Cameron’s project of “modernisation” often appeared half-hearted, and questions remained about the party’s competence. The 2010 campaign was also enlivened by televised leaders’ debates and the prospect of the Liberal Democrats finally breaking the mould of two-party politics.
In the election itself, the Conservatives won the lion’s share of seats, but not enough to form a majority government. Some form of coalition was widely thought necessary in the troubled economic circumstances, and a Conservative-Liberal Democrat government duly emerged. No one knew whether coalition would be the new norm or simply an aberration from usual practice.
The lessons of history
From the potted survey of elections described, two obvious lessons emerge. First, ideological moderation and economic prosperity are powerful cards to hold. Together they are an unbeatable combination. Second, the electoral system – Britain’s other national lottery – amplifies small changes in support, converting small movements of opinion and votes into massive shifts in power.
Looking ahead to the 2015 election, it is clear that neither the Conservatives nor Labour is an obvious beneficiary of either moderation or prosperity. The operation of the voting system is also even more uncertain thanks to the rise of UKIP, the Green Party, and the SNP. Whatever happens, 2015 is likely to be an interesting and a consequential election.