The Election of 1979

3 May 1979

The general election of 1979 was to prove a political watershed. Most historians and commentators agree that the election of Margaret Thatcher marked a break in post-war British history. The era from 1945 - 1979 had been characterised by a 'consensus' style of politics, in which the main parties mostly agreed on certain fundamental political issues and concepts such as the mixed economy, the role of the trades unions, the need for an incomes policy and the nature of the provision of public services such as health and education. This was now to change. Most of all, Mrs Thatcher's election heralded a change in the politics of unemployment.

Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan was forced to go to the country after his government lost a vote of confidence. Callaghan had had the option of calling an election in the Autumn of 1978, but decided to carry on and face the country after the economy had improved. Unfortunately the "winter of discontent" that followed severely damaged the government's economic policy and its standing in the polls. Although the government picked up slightly in the polls during the campaign, on 3 May 1979 Margaret Thatcher became Britain's first woman prime minister.


The Labour government that came to power in 1974 (as a minority administration from February and with a wafer thin majority from October) faced difficult economic circumstances, with inflation and unemployment both running at post-war record levels. The government also 're-negotiated' the UK's terms of entry into the EEC and had this endorsed in the 1975 referendum. in April 1976, Prime Minister Harold Wilson was succeeded by Jim Callaghan.Callaghan had been Chancellor and Home Secretary in the 1964-70 adminstration and served as Foreign Secretary from 1974. He remains the only Prime Minister to have served in all three 'great offices of state' before entering Number 10.

Harold Wilson's successor as Prime Minister and Labour leader, Jim Callaghan

Jim Callaghan

Callaghan's parliamentary position became increasingly precarious. By April 1976 the government had lost its formal majority. The immediate reasons were a by-election defeat, the defection of two of Callaghan's backbenchers to form a new 'Scottish Labour Party' and the defection of the maverick John Stonehouse.

However, Callaghan managed to survive, mainly because the other opposition parties did not seem ready to unite to defeat him. By March 1977, after further by-election losses, he agreed to a parliamentary arrangement with David Steel and the Liberal Party which became known as the 'Lib-Lab Pact'.

The Lib-Lab pact ended in August 1978. The pact had been unpopular with some activists in both Parties, and in any case, an election was expected soon.

Callaghan could have gone to the country in the Autumn of 1978. The economy was improving and the Government had recovered some of its popularity. There was considerable speculation and controversy in the Cabinet about when the best time to go would be. Callaghan sought to end the speculation by singing an old Marie Lloyd song 'Waiting at the Church' to the TUC Congress. This was misunderstood in some quarters and he put the country's mind at rest in a broadcast in which he confirmed that he would not call an election until 1979. He was expecting that another round of pay policy would demonstrate to the electorate the success of his economic policy.

In the event, the pay policy did not hold and the scenes of industrial unrest were to be remembered as the 'winter of discontent'. Callaghan hoped to keep public sector pay claims under 5%. When tanker drivers forced the Government to give them a 14% raise, the flood gates opened. By the end of January, water workers, ambulance drivers, sewerage staff and dustmen were involved in industrial action, heralding the 'Winter of Discontent'.

On returning from an international economic conference in Guadeloupe, the Prime Minister showed himself to be out of touch with the mood of the country. When asked about the growing industrial crisis facing Britain, Callaghan denied any crisis existed, leading to The Sun headline 'Crisis? What Crisis?' See the Conservative election broadcast below which exploited Callaghan's reported remark- but Callaghan actually never said them- even though they have always been attributed to him.Callaghan's actual words were : 'I don't think other people in the world would share the view [that] there is mounting chaos'When the devolution referenda were held, Wales voted 'no' and while Scotland voted 'yes' the majority was insufficient to make the decision binding. On the same day, 1 March 1979, the Government lost two by-election seats to the Conservatives. The SNP now withdrew its support from the Government and a vote of no confidence (on an SNP motion on devolution) was passed on 28 March. Callaghan called the general election for 3 May.


The Sun Head Line which has long been remembered as Callaghan's actual words.

Crisis what crisis

The Campaign

The conservative campaign of 1979 became a model for later election campaigns.

The careful management of Thatcher's image. She was less experienced than Callaghan so was advised to avoid debates. She had an unpopular image as 'Thatcher the milk snatcher' form her time as Minister of Education when she ended free milk in Primary schools. The campaign therefore cultivated an image of a careful housewife and mother. Economics was explained in terms of simple domestic common sense- not spending what you don't have and avoiding debt.

The techniques of advertising were used rather than dry political information delivered in speeches. They were criticized for fabricating images and photo opportunities in a way which is normal today. The world's largest advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi produced the campaign adverts. This was new in British politics.

Margaret Thatcher, elected Tory leader in 1975Five weeks passed between the Labour Government's defeat and polling day. Margaret Thatcher, who replaced Edward Heath as leader of the Conservative Party in 1975, prepared to go the electorate determined to pin the blame for the 'Winter of Discontent' firmly on the Government's shoulders. From the start of the campaign the Conservatives looked the likely winners, running ten points ahead in the polls. The only worry for the Conservatives was Thatcher's personal unpopularity when compared with Callaghan.One of the few surprises of the campaign was Thatcher's refusal to appear on the television programme Weekend World alongside Callaghan and Steel. Despite this, television coverage dominated the campaign as never before. All three major parties held morning press conferences co-ordinated for the cameras. Thatcher worked particularly hard to provide the media with photo-opportunities, whether it was by swinging her shopping basket, drinking tea in a factory or cuddling a new-born calf. David Steel was also camera friendly, although the media accused him of manipulating pictures by making sure he was filmed in narrow streets, giving the impression that he was surrounded by crowds of supporters.

The Government's manifesto, The Labour Way is the Better Way advocated an increase in pensions and tax cuts. However, opinion polls suggested the public believed the Conservatives were the party more likely to bring taxes down, spelling trouble for Labour. The Tory manifesto, The Conservative Manifesto 1979, promised to control inflation and keep the unions in check.

The one 'gaffe' of the campaign came from Sir Harold Wilson - the former Labour Prime Minister - who conceded in an interview with the Daily Mail that his wife might vote for the Conservatives, because their leader was a woman.

As the nation prepared to vote the Conservatives looked certain to win. They had put Callaghan through the wringer for Labour's handling of the economy. Their message was skillfully backed up by their advertising campaign directed by Saatchi and Saatchi, which claimed 'Labour isn't working'.Denis Healey, (Labour Chancellor) criticised the poster for duping electors by using people who were not genuinely jobless and claiming that the Conservatives were "selling politics like soap powder".But his attack served only to guarantee the poster massive front-page coverage – and helped propel Margaret Thatcher to power.Unemployment was so explosive a political issue in the 1970s, it led the Conservatives’ campaigning not once but twice. In autumn 1978, expecting James Callaghan to call an early election, they peppered Britain’s billboards with the picture of a snaking ‘dole queue’ and the slogan 'Labour Isn’t Working'. This drew attention to the crumbling of Labour’s traditional commitment to full employment. The unemployment rate, 2.7% when Labour won their second election in October 1974, was 5.9% in October 1978.The lapse from full employment had begun under the previous Tory government, with Edward Heath presiding over the headline rise to one million jobless in 1972 . Although the rate had risen after Labour was forced into budget deficit reduction measures in 1976, it was falling again after February 1979 .

The strikes of winter 1978/9 enabled them to blame the loss of work on ‘irresponsible’ trade unions, whose pay-claims were argued not only to fuel inflation but to reduce the number of jobs that private enterprise could create. The idea of helping people “price themselves into work” was displacing the belief that governments were capable of, or even responsible for, creating jobs for all

The Winter of Discontent was the period between November 1978 and February 1979 in the United Kingdom characterised by widespread strikes by private, and later public, sector trade unions demanding pay rises greater than the limits Prime Minister James Callaghan and his Labour Party government had been imposing, against Trades Union Congress (TUC) opposition, to control inflation. Some of these industrial disputes caused great public inconvenience, exacerbated by the coldest winter in 16 years, in which severe storms isolated many remote areas of the country

Margaret Thatcher, Britain's first woman Prime MinisterDespite Callaghan's warning that the Tories 'were too big a gamble for the country to take', Margaret Thatcher was returned as Britain's first woman Prime Minister with a safe working majority. The Conservatives won 339 seats compared to Labour's 269. The swing to the Conservatives of 5.2% was the largest since 1945. The Liberals lost two seats taking their total down to 11; their share of the vote dropped by 5.3 points. The Scottish and Welsh nationalists also fared badly, losing 10 out of their 14 seats.Shirley Williams lost her seat, as did Jeremy Thorpe, Emlyn Hooson, John Pardoe and Teddy Taylor, in what Margaret Thatcher called a 'watershed election'. John Major was among the new members returned at this election, as were Chris Patten, William Waldegrave, David Mellor, Ian Lang, Stephen Dorrell, John Gummer, and Frank Dobson. With a majority of 43, Mrs Thatcher had the opportunity to govern for a full term.