Twenty years on from the general election of 1992, this is the first of three extracts from Alwyn Turner’s book A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s.
To start with, 1 May 1997 was a beautifully sunny day. Outside the ranks of the Conservative Party itself, there was a sense of hope and optimism abroad, a feeling that the spell cast long ago by the White Witch to make it always winter but never Christmas was about to be broken.
That expectation was confirmed when, shortly after the polls closed, the BBC predicted that the landslide would be so great that the seats of cabinet ministers Malcolm Rifkind, Michael Forsyth and John Selwyn Gummer were at risk of being lost. In the event, Gummer held onto his seat, albeit with a 12 per cent swing against him, but the others were less fortunate.
It is a rare thing for a cabinet minister to lose an election; Chris Patten had been defeated in 1992, but before that one had to go back to 1979, when Shirley Williams lost in Hertford and Stevenage. This time, no fewer than seven members of the cabinet found themselves being made unemployed on live television, as the votes were counted. Had so many Tories not swapped seats in the chicken-run days, the number would have hit double figures.
Notable casualties outside the cabinet included Neil Hamilton, who shed over 13,000 votes to be thoroughly beaten by the independent Martin Bell, Jonathan Aitken in South Thanet, and Norman Lamont, whose constituency of Kingston had been abolished and who failed to take what should have been a safe seat in Harrogate and Knaresborough.
The wrath of the voters fell on Eurosceptics and Europhiles alike. On the right, Tony Marlow, Toby Jessel, Ivan Lawrence and Rupert Allason all lost their seats, as did Nicholas Budgen in Wolverhampton South West, a constituency he had taken over from Enoch Powell and which had been Conservative since 1950. George Gardiner, the solitary Referendum Party MP, was beaten into fourth place in Reigate, which did therefore give the Conservatives a gain, even if only on a technicality and even if the party’s majority was reduced by 10,000 votes compared to 1992.
On the left, Edwina Currie lost in Derbyshire South, as did Sebastian Coe, the former Olympic athlete who, ever since his election in 1992, had been rather wasted as an asset, buried from public sight in the whips’ office.
Most famously from this wing of the party, David Mellor was beaten in Putney, where James Goldsmith – founder of the Referendum Party – was himself a candidate. Goldsmith’s own vote was an insignificant 1500, not enough to have swayed the result in a constituency taken by Labour with a 3000 majority, but the personal animosity between the two men was one of the highlights of election night. Mellor’s speech conceding defeat was punctuated by chants of ‘Out! Out! Out!’ led by Goldsmith, but he still made his point:
I would like to say that fifteen hundred votes is a derisory total, and we have shown tonight that the Referendum Party is dead in the water. Sir James, you can get off back to Mexico, knowing your attempt to buy the British political system has failed.
In a subsequent interview with Michael Buerk, Mellor added a lovely soundbite: ‘Up your hacienda, Jimmy.’
If one way to measure the government’s rout was by the massed ranks of departing MPs, another was by geography. The Tories lost all ten Scottish and all six Welsh seats that they had held. The northern English cities inevitably proved even more hostile territory than they had been in the 1980s, but the battle was also lost in the south-west, where there was now no Conservative representation in cities like Bristol and Plymouth. It could no longer be suggested that this was a national party; the surviving Tory rump was confined almost exclusively to rural areas and, particularly, to the south-east.
Not that there was much comfort even here. The Conservatives had gone into the election with forty-one London seats and emerged with just eleven. The national swing to Labour was 10.5 per cent, but this concealed some truly remarkable results, particularly in the London suburbs. Constituencies in places like Harrow, Wimbledon, Croydon and Hendon all saw swings against the Tories of over 15 per cent, while in Brent East a swing of nearly 19 per cent unseated Rhodes Boyson, one of those who could claim to have been a Thatcherite before Thatcher.
There was a warning here for the Labour Party, had it been in a suitably reflective frame of mind. The fact that the southern suburbs registered above-average swings meant that the reverse was true in Labour’s heartlands, where the vote was noticeably less enthusiastic. Peter Mandelson described the 1997 election as a ‘revolution’ and he may well have been right; no one was quite sure what would come next, but there was an overwhelming wish to see the toppling of the ancien régime. It was, though, ‘a bourgeois revolution’, in the words of Hywel Williams, and for MPs who had spent the last few weeks campaigning in traditional Labour areas, the scale of the national victory came as a shock.
‘Nothing prepared me for what happened. During the campaign I saw no particular enthusiasm among my own electorate,’ remarked Chris Mullin of his Sunderland South constituency. ‘I’ve been involved in every election since 1970 and I’ve never seen such apathy and indifference.’ Mullin’s majority in a solid Labour seat went up by more than 5000, but his actual vote declined by more than two thousand. Just down the coast, in Mandelson’s constituency of Hartlepool, turnout fell by over ten percentage points.
Labour did increase its national vote by some two million, but still polled lower than John Major had five years earlier, while its share, at 43.2 per cent, was only marginally higher than the 43.1 per cent registered by Harold Wilson when losing the 1970 election. And this was on the worst turnout since 1935. Indeed the turnout was perhaps the real story of the election, though it wasn’t widely recognised as such at the time.
The Conservatives had shed four and a half million votes. Even allowing for natural wastage, for Labour’s improved showing and for the interventions of the Referendum Party and the UK Independence Party (who accounted for around 900,000 votes between them), that meant a great many people had absented themselves from the polling booths. They included traditional Labour voters, as in Sunderland, but most attention was fixed on Tory truants.
‘Up and down the country they stayed at home, our people,’ reflected Ann Widdecombe. ‘They stayed at home on a grand scale.’ Amongst those who didn’t bother with the ballot box was Julian Critchley, who couldn’t bring himself to vote for his Eurosceptic successor in Aldershot. Whether someone like Critchley could be regarded as typical of the stay-at-home Tories was a matter of some dispute, though the anti-Europe parties’ comparatively poor showing suggested that he might well have been; it seemed unlikely that the absentees were distressed by the lack of right-wing policies. The debate over who those missing supporters were, and how to win them back, was to preoccupy the Conservative Party for the next decade.
For now, Labour had the luxury of simply ignoring the details. Thanks to the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system, the party had a majority of 179 seats in the Commons, more than 63 per cent of the MPs, and – taking into account boundary changes – had gained 145 seats. In parliamentary terms, it dwarfed even the 1945 landslide of Clement Attlee (though he had won a shade under half the popular vote), a moment that had largely passed into the realm of fable.
Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats actually polled fewer votes than in 1992, but more than doubled their number of MPs, a fact which simply revealed the extent of the anti-Tory tactical voting at work. And the Conservatives lost more than half their seats.
Amongst the bedraggled company of 165 Tory MPs who slunk back to the Commons was the former education and employment secretary, Gillian Shephard, though her judgement seemed a little affected by the trauma. ‘The scale of the defeat in terms of parliamentary seats was enormous,’ she subsequently wrote; ‘in terms of actual votes cast, less shattering.’
But whichever way one cut it, the Tory performance was a catastrophe. The disappearance of those four and a half million votes gave the party just a 30.7 per cent share – the lowest it had recorded since 1832 – while barely one in five of the registered electorate had been persuaded to come out in support of the government. It was going to be a long, dispiriting road back to power…