David Cameron’s sensational win today was certainly predicted by very few (should’ve bet on it). The comparison everyone is making is with 1992. It is certainly one I think the Conservatives were making themselves. When Mrs Thatcher was defenestrated in 1990, she was deeply unpopular. Tory canvassers called it the ‘that bloody woman’ factor. I would vote Tory, they heard, if it wasn’t for TBW. In retrospect, ditching Thatcher, in modern politico-speak , helped detoxify the Conservatives.
Nonetheless, as the campaign opened, the opinion polls gave Neil Kinnock’s Labour a a six point lead. Come polling day, the opinion polls had become more equivocal. However, on the night, the BBC exit poll predicted a hung parliament. In the event, John Major’s Conservatives polled more votes than any Conservative government in history.
There a several explanations that could be advanced. One was, surely, the fact that John Major was not Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, whilst being her very suddenly announced heir apparent and certainly a kind of Thatcherite, he was very different leader. His style was consensual rather than confrontational, he admired Stanley Baldwin. Baldwin may have been a decent and honest man, but he was certainly not above a little negative campaigning. In the 1924 election, part of his platform was to depict his Labour rivals as would-be communist infiltrators: the Campbell case and the infamous Zinoviev Letter did much to hurt Labour In 1992, the Conservative campaign, briliantly orchestrated by Chris Patten, ran heavy on the negative. Labour’s shadow chancellor, John Smith, had carefully costed reforms paid for by limited tax rises, aimed mostly at the better off. To the electorate of Middle England, via Patten, that became ‘Labour’s tax bombshell’. Add to that Labour’s recent past on the far left (the 1983 manifesto was the most left -wing in Labour history) a residual suspicion of labour as too left-wing, and the fact of Neil Kinnock’s firebrand socialist origins, and the fact that he was Welsh, and we can see where that see how the fear was born. Add the Tory reputation for economic competence, and that majority becomes very explicable. It was Major’s finest hour.
Here, thanks to Conservative Home, is the Labour’s Tax Bombshell party political broadcast:
In 1970, Harold Wilson went to the country having won a majority of 98 in 1966 and confidently expecting victory this time. For most of the campaign it appeared he was right, the opinion polls predicting a Labour win and the Tory press, and party, sniping at their leader, Edward Heath. In fact, the last week saw the polls move and, in the end, Heath won a majority of 30.
Here’s a lovely clip of the BBC’s election coverage, starting with a hardly surprising result in Newcastle Central:
In truth, neither story ended happily. Major’s government hit the rocks on Black Wednesday, and then lurched through five years of fratricidal strife over Europe during which the party became almost ungovernable, before collapsing under the great Labour landslide in 1997. The early optimism of the Heath government, and and its greatest achievement, British entry into the EEC, foundered in the face of conflict with the unions and economic woes (not helped by a recklessly inflationary chancellor, Anthony Barber). When the miners went on strike for the second time, Heath called a snap election on the ill-judged clarion call of ‘Who governs Britain?’ As the old joke runs, the electorate’s reply was ‘not you’. In fact, the electorate’s reply was very equivocal, and I will return to the elections of 1974 anon.
For now though, one lesson of the past for a leader who often seems a bit shaky on his history might be one of warning amidst the triumph.
There is a good article on 1992 from The Guardian here.