1997 General Election

The 1997 General Election result saw Tony Blair become the Labour Prime Minister in a landslide victory after 18 years of Conservative leadership. But what led to this rise of the Labour Party and the simultaneous catastrophic fall of the Conservatives? 

1997 General Election 1997 General Election

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Table of contents

    1997 General Election Date and Summary

    The 1997 General Election was held on 1st May 1997 and saw a landslide victory for the Labour party. They managed to secure 418 seats while the Conservatives gained only 165. Around 10.2% of the electorate shifted their vote from Conservative to Labour in this election compared to the 1992 General Election.

    New Labour

    New Labour was an ideological shift of the Labour party, first led by Tony Blair and comprised several key elements: the abandonment of nationalisation, legal restrictions on unions, and no mention of socialism.

    1997 General Election Map

    Let's look at the results in more detail - below, we see a map showing the distribution of Conservative and Labour support across the United Kingdom, as well as other parties.

    Fig. 1: Map of the 1997 UK general election.Blue = Conservative, Red= Labour

    1997 General Election Results Table

    PartySeats wonGain/loss Percentage of vote
    Labour418+14543.2
    Conservative165-17830.7
    Liberal Democrat46+2816.8
    Scottish National6+32.0
    Ulster Unionist10+10.8
    SDLP3-10.6
    Plaid Cymru400.5
    Sinn Féin2+20.4
    Democratic Unionist2-10.3
    Independent1+10.1
    Speaker100.1
    UK Unionist1+10
    Source: House of Commons research paper 01/38

    1997 General Election Demographics

    Here is a brief breakdown of how people from different demographics voted for the two main parties in the election.

    Demographics are the characteristics of the population, such as income or race

    DemographicLabourConservative
    Gender
    • 45% of men voted Labour
    • 44% of women voted Labour
    • 31% of men voted Conservative
    • 32% of women voted Conservative
    Age

    Gained more votes than the Conservatives in every age group

    Those aged 55 and above were most likely to vote Conservative

    Region

    Labour gained the highest proportion of votes in the North with 62%

    The Conservatives gained the highest proportion of votes in the South East at 41%

    Ethnicity

    70% of non-white voters voted Labour, as well as the majority of white voters

    18% of non-white voters voted Conservative

    Occupation

    Manual and lower-paid workers were more likely to vote for Labour

    Those in higher-paid careers were more likely to vote Conservative

    1997 General Election Analysis

    Before this election, the Conservative Party had been in power for 18 consecutive years. However, by 1997, many people had become increasingly disillusioned with the Conservative party and began to distrust the party, whilst Labour's modernisation and reforms gained them more popularity.

    Modernisation

    To modernise the means to bring it in line with the global frontiers of capitalist expansion. Increased globalisation is one example of modernisation.

    The fall of the Conservative party

    As much as the 1997 election was a victory for Labour, it was more so a defeat for the Conservatives - let's find out why the Conservative party lost so much popularity.

    Thatcherism

    Europe

    Economic decline

    Tory 'sleaze'

    During the 1980s, the policies of Margaret Thatcher had divided the Conservative party.

    This meant that the party struggled to unify behind Thatcher, making it difficult to stand up to their opposition.

    The Conservative party was increasingly divided over Britain's position in Europe, split into pro-Europeans and Eurosceptics.

    This divide severely weakened the party.

    Britain experienced a recession at the beginning of both the 80s and the 90s.

    Thatcher's policies increased unemployment whilst tackling inflation. Economic hardship made the Conservatives unpopular.

    During John Major's government, several Conservative MPs were involved in scandals of corruption and illicit sexual affairs.

    This made the public lose faith in the party.

    Reputation of leaders

    During an election, people are not only influenced by the party as a whole but by the leader - the potential Prime Minister - let's look at the Conservative and Labour leaders' reputations.

    Margaret Thatcher (1979-90)John Major (1990-97)Tony Blair (1997-2007)
    • Her brand of conservatism was still strongly remembered by the British public.
    • The Conservative defeat in 1997 was a rejection of Thatcherite conservatism as well as support for the Labour party.
    • Major was a likeable, but bland and uninspiring character.
    • This was a pleasant change of pace after Thatcher's abrasive character.
    • Tony Blair had a great impression on the British public.
    • Compared to Major, Blair was younger, and captured the public's attention, spearheading the campaign of 'New Labour' in 1997.

    New Labour

    After years out of power, many Labour politicians began to see the need for a radical restructuring of the party. The restructure attempted to shift the party's focus towards the political centre, which was becoming more popular with the electorate.

    The outcome of this restructuring was 'New Labour' - what did this involve?

    • Economic Policy: Anti-inflationary, limited government spending. Kept restrictions on trade unions, and made little effort to undo the privatisation of industry. Desire to create a 'stakeholder society', where everyone had government-protected investments and pensions.
    • Foreign Policy: Closer ties with Europe as well as maintaining a 'special relationship' with the USA.
    • Domestic policy: Committed to Devolution for Scotland and Wales

    Devolution

    The diversion of central or singular power to local and regional governments

    Cool Britannia

    A large part of 'New Labour' was the way that the Labour party presented itself to the public. They adopted the phrase 'Cool Britannia' to reflect the new direction of the party.

    What was new about their image?

    • Labour MPs avoided using the term 'socialist' about the Labour party in order not to scare away voters.
    • Labour promised businesses that capitalism would be safe under New Labour.
    • Labour stopped presenting its policies in terms of a class struggle.

    Tony Blair helped this image a lot. He was youthful and presented himself as a down to earth, 'normal' man, which the public loved. He also attacked John Major's government, leaning into the image of a 'tired' Conservative party that needed to be replaced by something fresh and new.

    1997 General Election Campaigns

    The 1997 election campaign was one of the longest in British history. Parliament was dissolved on 8th April 1997, and the date of the 1997 general election was set for 1st May 1997.

    Conservative campaign

    ActionExplanation Impact
    'You can only be sure with the Conservatives.'

    This aimed to present the Conservatives as the safe choice for Britain.

    It was ineffectual against a background of Thatcherism, economic decline and scandals.

    Voter Appeal

    The campaign targeted white, middle-class, white-collar workers, age 35+ - their usual voter base.

    The highest proportion of the party's votes was from these groups, but this did not outweigh their overall loss in popularity.

    Conservative values

    Major promised a return to traditional values, such as a tax break for married couples when one partner stayed at home.

    Whilst it was traditional, by 1997 these ideas were outdated.

    Europe

    The Conservatives promised to keep Europe at arm's length.

    This promise did not have much credibility given the division over Europe in the party.

    Devolution

    The Conservatives attacked Labour's plans for Welsh and Scottish devolution, warning that it would break up the union.

    This alienated potential voters in Scotland and Wales who supported devolution.

    'New Labour, New Danger'

    The Conservatives used this slogan to imply that Labour would be dangerous for Britain.

    Despite posters depicting Tony Blair with devil eyes, the Conservatives did not actually state the dangers - this failed to sway voters.

    'Stealing Tory Clothes'

    The Conservatives accused Labour of stealing Conservative policies and ideas.

    This created a contradiction - if Labour was stealing Conservative ideas, why was Labour dangerous?

    Labour's Façade

    Major attacked Labour by saying that 'New Labour' was a façade and they would revert to their old policies when in power.

    This was ineffective for two reasons:

    1. The shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown promised this would not happen.
    2. In the 1992 campaign, John Major had promised to cut VAT but then had not done so - this seemed hypocritical.

    Labour campaign

    Unlike the Conservatives, Labour ran a very organised campaign. Labour's campaign demonstrated that the nation needed more centrist leadership due to the major splits in the Conservative party.

    ActionExplanationImpact
    'New Labour, New Life for Britain'

    This was used as a way to promote Labour's new centrist approach. It had reinvented itself as a modern party that would sweep away the Conservatives who were holding Britain back.

    This campaign was quite effective- people were desperate for change after 18 years of a Conservative government, and the image Labour and Tony Blair presented was enticing.

    Voter appeal

    The campaign focused on the middle and lower-middle classes, which had become a large majority of British people, as well as maintaining their traditional working-class support.

    This was very effective - the Labour party gained more votes than the Conservative party in every age, gender, and ethnic group and most regions of the UK.

    Spin doctors

    A key element of Blair's campaign was his use of spin doctors - their job was to judge the public mood and present government policies to the public in a favourable light - essentially 'spinning' a story.

    Spin doctors were controversial. At their best, they were simply a form of public relations, but at their worst, they were a method of lying to the public.

    Taxes

    Tony Blair promised that there would be no income tax rises and that VAT would be cut.

    These promises were enticing, but they became believable as Labour explained how these goals would be funded and achieved.

    Unemployment

    Labour emphasised reducing unemployment, especially among young people.

    This was looked on favourably as unemployment was high, largely thanks to the recessions in the early 1980s and 1990s, as well as Thatcher's policies.

    Welfare

    Labour vowed to reduce the size of infant school classes and cut waiting times for the NHS.

    This was effective as the Labour party explained how these policies would be put in place.

    Crime

    Labour promised to tackle crime rates, especially among young people.

    This was one of the policies that helped to entice the middle-class voters who might have normally voted Conservative.

    The Impact of the 1997 Election

    The impact of the 1997 election can be summarised in the five points listed below:

    • Tony Blair won 418 seats in the House of Commons, the most in the history of the Labour Party, and the highest proportion of seats won by any party since 1935.
    • The political landscape of British politics shifted to a more centrist stance.
    • There was a 71% voter turnout- the most recent national election with over 70% turnout until the 2016 EU referendum.
    • New Labour's successes spanned over 13 years and continued up until 2010 under Gordon Brown.
    • The 1997 general election saw the Conservative party struggle to modernise its image for the next 13 years.

    1997 General Election - Key Takeaways

    • The 1997 general election saw the Labour party win with a landslide majority, securing 418 seats to the Conservative party's 165, and the Liberal Democrats 46.
    • The Conservative party failed to win the election because they were worn out from 18 years in government, were internally divided over several issues, and were suffering from an image problem after a series of scandals.
    • Under the leadership of Tony Blair, the Labour party underwent a radical transformation into 'New Labour'. This appealed to many voters, especially those who were fed up with the Conservatives.
    • The Conservative electoral campaign was badly run and ineffective. Their promises were hard to believe, and their attacks on the Labour party were contradictory, hypocritical and ineffectual.
    • The Labour campaign was very effective, thanks to Blair's use of spin doctors and the party's emphasis on explaining how their promises would be achieved.
    • This election was significant as Labour gained the biggest majority in their history. The turnout was also very high for an election, standing at 71%.

    References

    1. Fig. 1: UK General Election, 1997 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:UK_General_Election,_1997.svg) by Mirrorme22 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Mirrorme22) is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
    Frequently Asked Questions about 1997 General Election

    How did the 1997 general election change politics?

    It moved the British political landscape to a centrist stance.

    What was Blair's majority in 1997?

    Labour managed to secure 418 seats to the Conservative party's 165, and the Liberal Democrats 46

    Who lost the 1997 general election?

    The Conservative Party

    What month was the 1997 general election?

    May

    How many people voted in the 1997 general election?

     71.3% of the electorate

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