The election of 1997

1 May 1997

John Major kicks off the campaign


When the Prime Minister, John Major, asked the Queen to dissolve Parliament on 18 March he claimed that elections, although hard work, were also "a lot of fun". The Prime Minister was right about one thing, he certainly had his work cut out for him.Mr Major was 20 points behind Labour in the opinion polls and was faced not just with an apparently popular new Labour leader in the shape of Tony Blair, but an entirely new political animal - New Labour.

Tony Blair unveils "New Labour" at the party's 1994 conference

Since becoming party leader in 1994, Tony Blair had in effect re-launched the Labour Party. He ditched many of the policies he believed had made Labour unelectable in the past, including Labour's historic commitment to nationalisation. He also weakened the party's links with the trade unions.

As Labour leader, Tony Blair drove forward the policy of modernisation that had tentatively begun under his predecessors, Neil Kinnock (1983-92) and John Smith (1992-94). The 'New Labour' project abandoned old-fashioned party policies such as nationalisation, tax increases and the strengthening of trade union powers, which might put off non-committed middle-class voters. Blair also gave off reassuringly tough signals on law and order, an issue that mattered to voters

following rising crime rates in the early 1990s, and emphasised his links to the business community. Crucially, Labour won the endorsement of the greater part of the press, including The Sun and The Times. The message was that New Labour was a moderate party with the interests of 'Middle England' at heart. As a sign of the party's desire to show how responsible it was, its 1997 platform stressed specific policy details where it promised to make a difference, such as reducing the size of primary school classes and cutting hospital waiting lists. There was no stark difference between Labour and the Conservatives.

After 18 years out of office Labour was hungry for power and party discipline, carefully enforced by campaign manager Peter Mandelson, was tight. By contrast the Conservatives were rent by internal divisions over Europe and dogged by scandal.

During the preceding five years, John Major's 21 seat majority had slowly been worn away by deaths and resignations. Shortly before calling the election, his government had become a minority administration, an indignity made all the more cruel by the size of Labour's victory in the Wirral South by-election, the last of the 1992-97 parliament. Normally a safe Tory seat, Wirral South fell to Labour on a 17.2% swing.

The Conservatives had an enormous amount of ground to make up if they were to win a record breaking fifth successive term in office, but things were not entirely gloomy. There was real economic evidence that Britain was, as their advertising posters said, "booming". Mr Major went into the campaign believing the Conservatives had everything to play for.

The Campaign

The 1997 campaign was one of the longest in history and one of the most negative. Both Labour and the Tories resorted to scare tactics and received the stern rebuke of Paddy Ashdown, the leader of the Liberal Democrats. He compared his two rivals' ritual abuse of each other to the antics of the sea-side puppet show characters Punch and Judy.Parliament was dissolved on 8 April and the election date was set for 1 May. The Prime Minister hoped that this would give the Tories enough time to grind down Labour's substantial lead. However, far from getting off to a flying start the Tory campaign was immediately dragged down into the mire.


The Lib Dems say "that's not the way to do it"

punch and judy

Neil and Christine Hamilton


By choosing to dissolve Parliament early the Prime Minister, whether intentionally or not, had prevented the publication of the report by the Parliamentary Commissioner, Sir Gordon Downey, into the cash-for-questions affair.Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats called foul. They quoted back at the Prime Minister his own remarks in which he made clear his intention to see cash-for-questions dealt with, "this side of a general election."By failing to honour his commitment the Prime Minister had ensured that accusations of 'sleaze' would now haunt the Conservative campaign throughout the election. Tim Smith, one of the two former ministers at the centre of the affair, resigned as a Conservative candidate to avoid embarassing the government.

Neil Hamilton, the second former minister involved in the affair and the Tory MP for Tatton, fiercely resisted the pressure on him to resign and has consistently denied any wrong doing. Despite the cloud which hung over Mr Hamilton, the Prime Minister was forced to back him, declaring him innocent until proven guilty.

The Conservative campaign received a severe blow when the normally staunch Conservative newspaper the Sun changed sides and backed New Labour, under the headline, "Give Change A Chance".

With a circulation approaching five million, the Sun claimed to have won the Conservatives the 1992 general election, in part due to its venomous attacks on then Labour leader Neil Kinnock. The loss of its support, and later that of its Murdoch stablemateThe News of World, was a serious blow to the Conservatives.

Piers Merchant refused to quit

The Sun began putting the boot into the Conservatives almost immediately, further humilating them when it published pictures of Piers Merchant, the Conservative MP for Beckenham, apparently involved in an adulterous affair with a 17-year-old Soho nightclub hostess.

The unwanted publicity generated by Piers Merchant was followed up by the shock resignation of the Scottish Conservative MP for Eastwood, Allan Stewart, after allegations surfaced about his private life. Further disasters befell the Tories north of the border when Sir Michael Hirst, the Chairman of the Scottish Conservative Party, also resigned over what he called "past indiscretions".

The Debate

The Tory chickenThe other main issue to dominate the early stages of the campaign, apart from sleaze, was the inability of the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats to agree on a format for a televised leadership debate. When the Conservatives came to an arrangement with the broadcasters that the other two parties refused to endorse, Mr Blair was labelled a "chicken" by Mr Major. To drive the message home the Conservatives paid a man in a chicken suit to follow Mr Blair. This Conservative publicity stunt was eventually foiled by a headless chicken sponsored by the Labour-supporting Mirror newspaper. The Mirror's chicken in turn was dismissed from the campaign after being wrestled to the ground by a Conservative party worker.

The Manifestos

The Prime Minister launches the Tory manifestoWith the publication of the main parties' manifestos in early April, the campaign ended its knock-about phase. The Conservative document You Can Only Be Sure With the Conservatives promised the voters a tax break for married couples where one partner stayed at home, and committed the Tories to establish a basic tax rate of 20 pence. It also pledged the privatisation of the London Underground and the Air Traffic Service, and contained a vow to keep Britain out of the European Social Chapter.Labour's rather cautious manifesto, New Labour Because Britain Deserves Better contained few surprises. Indeed, many of Labour's initiatives had already been made public including its five main pledges. These included welfare to work proposals, the speedy punishment of young offenders, reduction of NHS waiting lists, a reduction in class sizes and nursery places for three- to four-year-olds.

Labour also promised not to increase the basic and top rate of income tax, and pledged to take Britain into the European social chapter, grant Scotland devolution and establish a Welsh assembly.

The Liberal Democrats were the only major party publicly to come out in favour of higher taxes and campaign on what party leader Paddy Ashdown called a "menu with prices". Mr Ashdown set education firmly at the centre of the Lib Dems' pitch to the electorate. Their manifesto Make the Difference called for a penny increase on the basic rate of income tax, which would be used to turn Britain into an educational "super power".


Martin Bell enters the warzoneShortly after the launch of the manifestos, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, angered at the refusal of Neil Hamilton to stand down in Tatton, agreed an electoral pact. Both parties pledged not field a candidate there if a neutral figure could be found to run on an anti-corruption ticket.Eventually, the then BBC journalist and war correspondent, Martin Bell, came forward to stand against Mr Hamilton. The stage was now set for one of the most bitter contests of the election with Neil Hamilton and his determined wife Christine fighting tooth and nail to hold on to Tatton. They gave Mr Bell a tough introduction to campaigning in a famous confrontation on Knutsford Heath, when they gatecrashed a news conference he was meant to be holding. Initially, Mr Bell seemed bewildered by the speed of his entry into politics - at one point he claimed he would rather be back in "sniper's alley" in Sarajevo.


Sir James Goldsmith 

Conservative attacks on Labour throughout the campaign centred on the accusation that Tony Blair's commitment to sign up to the Social Chapter meant that he had his "foot on the accelerator" to a federal Europe. But unfortunately for Mr Major, the Conservatives proved equally vulnerable on Europe, if not more so.Sir James Goldsmith, the leader of the Referendum Party, had always promised to make Europe a key issue in the election, and by the time polling day arrived the three major parties had all agreed on some form of referendum on the issue of a single European currency.Finding themselves under threat from Sir James's anti-Europeans, many Conservative candidates believed the only way to avoid disaster at the polls was to come out against a single currency. This, however, was a position that would contradict the Government's official "wait and see policy".

When several Conservative MPs published their opposition to a single European currency in their election addresses Mr Major was forced to back down and allow them to come out firmly against it.

Mr Major then decided that only members of the government would be bound by the official policy. The first minister to defy him was John Horam, a junior Health Minister. When he too made plain his opposition to a single currency, Mr Major seemed to have no choice but to offer Tory MPs a free vote on the subject.

The opposition parties made much of the Tories' disarray over Europe and the fact that the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, had not been consulted on the change in policy. Tony Blair said the Tories were fighting "like ferrets in sack", while the Lib Dems commented that the Tory ship was sinking.

The Constitution

One subject on which Mr Major believed the Conservatives held the trump card was the constitution. He hoped he could repeat his unexpected victory in the 1992 election by attacking Labour on its plans for Scottish devolution and a Welsh assembly. Mr Major, a staunch believer in the union, warned voters that Labour's plans would amount to the end of 1,000 years of British history.

Mr Major's warnings on the subject met with little response from the voters in England and had the effect of alienating Conservative support in Scotland and Wales still further. However, Labour's plans to give the proposed Scottish Parliament tax raising powers saw Tony Blair make his biggest gaffe of the campaign. His comparison of a Scottish parliament to an English parish council angered Scottish nationalists, who were running second behind Labour in the Scottish polls.

The Scottish National Party, under leader Alex Salmond, was hoping for an historic breakthrough at this general election. With his party doing well in the polls, Mr Salmond hoped that Labour's lurch to the right and its focus on winning over middle England would push many Labour voters over to the SNP.

The Final Stages

Paddy Ashdown says Lib Dems are on the verge of "historic breakthrough"Two weeks before polling day, Labour attempted to whip up some urgency into the campaign by claiming the country had only 14 days to "save the NHS" from a fifth Tory term in office. Labour claimed the Conservatives would slowly disband the health service if returned to power. The party followed up this claim with the equally negative remark that the Conservatives would abolish the state pension. Labour's attempts to warn the voters about what lay in store for them if Mr Major was returned to Number 10 aroused the Prime Minister's most passionate outburst of the campaign. "I'd leave politics rather than abolish the state pension", he said.

The Conservatives attempted to put the issues of sleaze and disunity over Europe behind them by attacking Labour's links with the trade unions, its spending commitments, its desire to sign up to the European Social Chapter and its plans to grant greater independence to Scotland and Wales.

But Tory attacks on Labour's traditional image as a tax and spend party were undermined by Shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown's pledge not to raise income tax and by the government's own record on taxation. After pledging not raise VAT before the last election, the Conservatives had raised it after coming to power.

Comparing the approaching election to the Battle of Britain, Mr Major made a last-minute plea to the electorate by declaring the Conservatives had performed an economic miracle that "was too good to give up."

Paddy Ashdown finished the Liberal Democrat campaign in an upbeat mood. He told supporters that they were on the verge of an historic breakthrough. The Lib Dems had gained ground in the opinion polls during the campaign, mainly from Labour, and they seemed set to do well from tactical voting.

As the campaign entered its final days Labour's opinion poll lead, although down a little, was still huge. Some commentators expected a Labour landslide and the party spent its final hours of campaigning urging supporters not to take a Labour victory for granted. Party campaign managers including Peter Mandelson feared widespread predictions of a Labour victory could result in a low turnout among Labour voters. Mr Blair made his final plea to the electorate by echoing his earlier warnings about the health service, saying there was now only "24 hours" to save Britain from a fifth Tory term.

The Results

The new Prime MinisterThe nation woke up on 2 May to an entirely new political landscape. Labour had been elected by the biggest majority in its history. Labour won with a 10% swing and now had 419 seats and a majority of 170. The Labour landslide, predicted by the opionion polls, wiped the Conservatives completely off the political map in Scotland and Wales - the Tories had no MPs outside England.

John Major commiserates with Michael PortilloThe list of Conservative casualties was long. Cabinet ministers Malcolm Rifkind, Michael Forsyth, Ian Lang, William Waldegrave, Michael Portillo, Tony Newton and Roger Freeman all lost their seats. Other big-name casualties were chairman of the backbench 1922 committee Sir Marcus Fox former cabinet ministers David Mellor and Norman Lamont, and Neil Hamilton, who succumbed to Martin Bell.Peter Mandelson, Labour's campaign manager, re-working the Sun's famous headline after the 1992 election, claimed it was "New Labour what won it". Support for New Labour had undoubtedly won the election but the full extent of the Conservative defeat was down to tactical voting.

The Conservatives were left with only 165 MPs, their lowest number since 1906. The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand fulfilled Paddy Ashdown's prediction of a breakthrough, more than doubling their number of seats to 46 - their largest number since 1929.

In Scotland, the SNP did not achieve Alex Salmond's prediction of a "bucket-load" of seats, but did increase its representation to six seats, while in Wales Plaid Cymru held on to its four MPs. Most significant in Northern Ireland were the victories by Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. This allowed Sinn Fein to claim it had been given a mandate to participate in peace talks.

The new House of Commons boasted a record 120 women MPs, the first Muslim MP in Mohammed Sarwar, and the first wheelchair-bound MP, Anne Begg.