This weekend sees the 25th anniversary of the 1992 general election, a defining moment in British political history. To mark the occasion, this is the first of two extracts from Alwyn Turner’s book A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s.
Going into the general election of 1992, the assumption was that Labour were the favourites to win the election. Few shared the excessive optimism of Tony Benn (‘it looks to me as if this is going to be a 1945-type breakthrough’), but most were convinced that John Major’s government would fall, including most of the members of that government.
Social services minister Ann Widdecombe was sufficiently doubtful of the outcome that she took her pot plants home from the office, not expecting to return. Meanwhile the Conservative Party chairman, Chris Patten, issued instructions on the day before the poll that no senior ministers should appear on television in the early hours of the election broadcasts; the implication was that he believed a loss of the government’s majority was likely and that he didn’t want anything said that might scupper negotiations with other parties in the event of a hung parliament. It wasn’t an encouraging message, as the home secretary Kenneth Baker noted: ‘From the very top of the party the prospect of defeat was being signalled.’
If one were looking for a dissident opinion, however, there was always the stock market, which is more often right than not in making such calculations: as trading started on the morning of election day, share prices rose in anticipation of a Conservative victory.
As voting closed at 10 p.m., the BBC and ITN unveiled the results of their exit polls, both showing a hung parliament. The BBC predicted that the Conservatives would emerge as the largest party on 301 seats, still twenty-five seats short of an outright majority, with Labour on 298. On this projection, with the Lib Dems achieving just twenty-four seats, there was no easy or obvious coalition to be constructed that could command a majority of the House of Commons, but one thing was certainly clear, as shadow trade secretary Gordon Brown was quick to point out: the Tories had ‘lost their mandate to govern’.
Unfortunately for Labour, the exit polls were misleading. Not quite as misleading as the opinion polls during the campaign, but still suffering from the same basic flaw; it transpired that many of those who voted Conservative were unwilling to admit the fact to strangers bearing clipboards, either before or after the event.
It wasn’t a very encouraging message for the Tories. The massive discrepancies between the opinion polls and the actual votes cast suggested that the electors were troubled by feelings of guilt. In the privacy of the polling booths, they opted for a party that promised tax cuts, but they were aware enough of what was expected of them, when asked by pollsters, to protest the opposite, to say they wished to contribute more of their income in order to fund greater investment in public services. They were attracted to the thought that there was such a thing as society, if not necessarily willing to foot the bill.
Those, however, were considerations for the future. At the time, with election night shading into the early hours of the next day, the emerging story was one of Tory success.
The key moment came with the declaration in Basildon, a Tory marginal that was considered essential for Labour to win. This was the heartland of ‘Essex man’, the southern working-class voter who had been won over by Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit in the 1980s. Since John Major’s appeal was thought to reside in the suburbs rather than in the new towns, hopes were high in Labour circles that Basildon could be taken. It wasn’t, and the Conservative candidate David Amess was returned to represent the seat he had held since 1983. There was a swing from Tory to Labour, but too small to offer any real hope for the rest of the night.
As the election results started to mount up, predictions were revised again and again, each time showing a more substantial move towards the Conservative cause. By the end of the night, it had become apparent that it was all over for Labour and for Neil Kinnock. The Conservatives had recorded 14.1 million votes, the largest endorsement ever achieved in Britain and, though their share of the vote was lower than had been attained in any of the previous three victories under Margaret Thatcher, they were still 7.5 percentage points clear of Labour, greater than the margin of victory in 1979. And much of that margin was the result of the female vote; the lead amongst women was more than twice as great as that amongst men.
Most importantly the Conservatives had a reduced, but still workable, majority of twenty-one seats in the Commons. It was an historic victory, the first time that any party had won four consecutive general victories since the days before the Great Reform Act of 1832 had wiped out the rotten boroughs. And it was all the work of John Major, a man untainted by associations with Thatcherism or with anything else. It was hard to believe that any other Tory leader – even Michael Heseltine – could have achieved such a result.
For the millions who had genuinely believed that this was Labour’s moment, the election night saw a slow, cruel collapse of hope. Yet again the party had failed to secure more than 40 per cent of the popular vote, as it had similarly failed in every general election since 1970. If the Tories couldn’t be defeated in the depths of a recession caused by their own policies, with all the concessions made by Kinnock, then it was reasonable to ask the question put by veteran MP Giles Radice: ‘Can Labour ever win?’
Much of the talk in political circles concerned the question of whether Britain might have become a one-party state, along the lines of Japan, where the Liberal Democratic Party had been in power since 1955. By removing Thatcher and replacing her with a very different kind of leader, the Tories had shown that they were capable of reinventing themselves sufficiently to satisfy the public need for a new direction.
‘We live in a dominant party system, where political changes occur through shifts in the dominant party,’ argued Tony Wright, a political lecturer who had just been elected as Labour MP for Cannock and Burntwood. ‘Mr Major is the perfect politician for such a system, without ideological baggage and willing to open and close windows of political opportunity as circumstances demand.’
By the time Major came to write his memoirs, that sort of thinking seemed a very distant memory. But he still claimed the 1992 victory as a significant moment in British politics. ‘Our victory ensured that our reforms over the previous thirteen years were made permanent,’ he wrote. ‘Above all, our victory in 1992 killed socialism in Britain. It also, I must conclude, made the world safe for Tony Blair.’