The election of 1997

Factor which explain the result

The 1 May 1997 general election resulted in a landslide Labour victory, the party, under the leadership of Tony Blair, winning 418 seats and gaining a parliamentary majority of 178, the largest since the 1930s. Labour’s 1997 election success was the party’s first since October 1974, and it brought to an end 18 years in opposition.

FPTP

Labour’s crushing victory nevertheless owed much to the Westminster electoral system, as it was based on just 43.2 per cent of the vote.

Not 'the economy stupid'

The election was also a notable exception to the ‘rule’ that the key determinant of electoral success is the government’s economic performance. In this case, despite the fact that the economy had been growing strongly since about 1993, with unemployment falling steadily, the Conservatives lost 178 seats, the party’s vote having fallen to 30.7 per cent on the basis of a 10.2 per cent swing to Labour.

New Labour

In explaining the outcome of the 1997 election, most attention has focused on how, after four successive defeats, Labour managed to transform its electoral fortunes. In a process that had started under Neil Kinnock in the 1980s, but accelerated sharply once Blair became party leader in 1994, the Labour Party radically altered its image and policies. Rebranded as New Labour; the party abandoned left-wing policies which addressed the interests of the ‘traditional’ working class and adopted a centrist programme aimed at attracting support from the middle classes; rewriting the ‘socialist’ Clause IV of the party’s constitution in the process.

The media

Under Blair, Labour also launched a ‘charm offensive’ intended to win over the City and big business, and assiduously cultivated the Murdoch press, gaining the endorsement of The Sun in the 1997 election. The effectiveness of these strategies was evident in the success Labour had in 1997 in winning support from C1 and C2 voters, even attracting increased support from AB voters.

Nevertheless, some argue that governments lose elections, oppositions do not win them. From this perspective, the parlous state of the Conservatives, rather than the transformation of Labour, was the principal explanation for the outcome of the 1997 election.

Events

Conservative misfortunes arguably began in September 1992 when a speculative surge against the pound forced the UK out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, in the process damaging the party’s reputation for economic competence.

A disunited party

More seriously, John Major’s Conservative government was dogged throughout the 1990s by splits over Europe, which, combined with a small parliamentary majority from 1992, made the prime minister appear weak and the party hopelessly divided.

Time for a change

Finally, the Conservatives may have struggled precisely because they had been in power too long, parties that win a number of successive elections tending to experience a decline in support over time. The Conservatives were thus vulnerable to perhaps the most potent of all electoral slogans: ‘Time for a change’.