How to win an election

With Britain about to go to the polls, Dominic Sandbrook reveals how 25 general elections from our recent history were won and lost...

This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

Thatcher enters Downing Street, 4 May 1979. © Getty
Thatcher enters Downing Street, 4 May 1979. © Getty
 

14 December 1918

At the end of the First World War, the coalition prime minister David Lloyd George called a so-called ‘khaki’ election in the hope of profiting from post-victory sentiment. This was the first election in which women could vote. With the Liberal party divided between pro and anti-coalition candidates, Lloyd George and Tory leader Andrew Bonar Law issued endorsements to candidates who backed the government. Even so, the Liberal vote collapsed, while Labour picked up more than 2 million votes and the Tories won 332 seats. But because Bonar Law and Lloyd George were keen to maintain the coalition, the latter stayed on as prime minister.

Why the Tories won: The Conservatives successfully played the patriotic card, while the Liberals split into competing factions.

 

15 November 1922

The Conservatives pulled the plug on the coalition in October 1922. With many senior Tories tarnished by their alliance with scandal-stained Lloyd George, Bonar Law returned as party leader and won a 36-seat majority (he was to die of cancer the following year). The Liberals collapsed again and Labour became the major opposition party for the first time.

Why the Tories won: The Liberals remained divided, allowing Conservative leader Bonar Law to hoover up middle-class votes.

 

6 December 1923

Keen to adopt protectionist import tariffs to boost British manufacturing, the new Tory prime minister Stanley Baldwin called a fresh election to win a popular mandate. But fears of higher food prices propelled Labour and the Liberals to 191 and 158 seats, respectively, while the Tories slumped to 258 seats. Ramsay MacDonald formed Labour’s first minority government, with tacit Liberal support.

Why no one won: Many former Liberal voters turned to Labour, resulting in electoral deadlock.

 

29 October 1924

MacDonald’s government lasted only 10 months before the Liberals brought it down. The campaign is best known for the Zinoviev Letter, a forged missive from Moscow calling for communist agitation in Britain. With the press making socialism a major issue, the Tory vote surged. The Conservatives won 412 seats, and Baldwin returned as PM.

Why the Tories won: Middle-class voters preferred Conservative leader Baldwin’s paternalism to the prospect of socialism.

 

30 May 1929

Baldwin was widely expected to win his second consecutive election. But the so-called ‘Flapper Election’ – the first in which all women over the age of 21 could vote – surprised many. Though Baldwin won the biggest share of the vote, his ‘Safety First’ campaign smacked of complacency, while MacDonald’s Labour promised to banish unemployment by spending millions on public works. The result was a hung parliament, with Labour ahead by just 27 seats. MacDonald returned to lead a second Labour minority government.

Why Labour won: Many voters were won over by Labour’s plans for public works.

A Conservative election poster depicts the clawed red hand of socialism, 1929. © Getty

 

27 October 1931

Two months earlier, the Labour government had split over the need for spending cuts to fight the Great Depression. But MacDonald stayed on at the head of a Tory-dominated National Government. In the ensuing election – effectively, the National Government versus the rest – Baldwin’s Tories won 11 million votes and 470 seats, while Labour and Liberal factions won only a few dozen seats each. Yet MacDonald retained his place as a figurehead PM.

Why the National Government won: The electorate preferred Baldwin and MacDonald’s talk of discipline to the left’s socialist rhetoric.

 

14 November 1935

The 1935 election was effectively a vote of confidence in the National Government, now led by Stanley Baldwin. The major issue was the government’s handling of the economy, which was now in recovery. Although Hitler had come to power, Baldwin knew that the public had not forgotten the slaughter of the First World War, and promised “no great armaments”. His reassurance did the trick: the government won 430 seats, the majority of them Conservatives, while Labour under Clement Attlee won just 154 seats.

Why the National Government won: The economy was beginning to recover from the rigours of the Depression, and Baldwin’s reassuring, paternalistic style had enormous popular appeal.

5 July 1945

Having led the country to victory in the Second World War, Winston Churchill was widely expected to win the first election in a decade. Instead, the result was the biggest shock of the century. While Attlee’s Labour party promised to build a New Jerusalem, nationalising major industries, introducing a National Health Service and building a welfare state, the Conservatives seemed oddly negative. In a notorious broadcast, Churchill even claimed that socialism in Britain would mean introducing “some form of a Gestapo”. The public were not convinced, and Labour won a handsome 146-seat majority.

Why Labour won: Millions of voters were drawn to Clement Attlee’s plans for social reform and a welfare state.

 

23 February 1950

The 1950 election saw the two-party system at its peak, with turnout at almost 84 per cent. Exhausted after five years of activism, which had seen the birth of the postwar welfare state and the independence of India and Pakistan, as well as the imposition of rigorous economic austerity, the Attlee government saw its majority cut to just five seats. The Conservatives campaigned vigorously against Labour’s plans for more nationalisation, and though Attlee held on to power there was a growing sense of weariness with rationing, austerity and social reform.

Why Labour won: Though many Britons were tiring of reform and austerity, Attlee had earned the gratitude of swathes of working-class Britain.

 

25 October 1951

The great mystery about the 1951 election is why Attlee called it when he did not need to. Many of Labour’s senior figures were old and tired, and there was now a distinct atmosphere of exhaustion. Once again the key issues were nationalisation, housing and economic controls, and Labour won the popular count with almost 14 million votes. But the electoral system handed victory to the Conservatives, squeaking in with a 17-seat majority. At the age of almost 77, Churchill returned as prime minister.

Why the Tories won: Attlee misjudged the date of the election and his government seemed exhausted. The Tories, though, adopted a moderate tone.

 

26 May 1955

After Churchill retired, his successor, Sir Anthony Eden, called a snap general election, winning a comfortable 54-seat majority. Rationing was over, the economy was booming and the Tories coasted to victory on the back of prosperity. Labour, with the 72-year-old Attlee still at the helm, were bitterly divided between leftwing Bevanites and centrist Gaitskellites, and the result was never seriously in doubt. Ironically, though, Eden only lasted another 18 months, resigning because of ill health after the debacle of the Suez Crisis.

Why the Tories won: Voters were beginning to enjoy postwar prosperity, while the new Conservative prime minister cut an enormously popular and attractive figure.

Eden on the campaign trail, Uxbridge, 1955. © Getty

 

8 October 1959

The 1959 election was another non-event. The great motor of affluence was roaring at full throttle – as the Tories’ new prime minister, Harold Macmillan, boasted, most people in Britain had “never had it so good”. Though Labour fought a slick campaign, their new leader, Hugh Gaitskell, remained a controversial figure inside his own party. After the Tories won their third successive election with a 100-seat majority, some commentators wondered whether rising affluence would make it impossible for Labour to win again.

Why the Tories won: Living standards continued to soar and the electorate saw no need to change horses, from Conservative to Labour, in midstream.

 

15 October 1964

After what he called “13 wasted years” of Conservative government, Harold Wilson took Labour back into power. Macmillan had resigned the year before; his successor, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, was a plodding, uninspiring figure, and many people expected the smart, technocratic Wilson to win comfortably. His campaign promised economic expansion, pledging to build a New Britain in the ‘white heat’ of the scientific revolution. But after Home staged a late comeback, Wilson won with only a narrow five-seat majority.

Why Labour won: While the Conservatives seemed painfully old-fashioned, Harold Wilson’s Labour party promised a heady blend of social reform and economic modernisation.

 

31 March 1966

After governing for almost 18 months with a wafer-thin majority, Wilson went to the country to secure a bigger mandate. The economic picture was bright, the government seemed united and the Conservatives had just dumped Home for the relatively little-known Edward Heath. The campaign was a complete non-event and, after coasting to victory on the slogan “You know Labour government works”, Wilson secured a majority of 96 seats.

Why Labour won: After less than two years in power, Harold Wilson’s popularity was still high. Voters felt that he should have the chance to govern with a proper working majority.

 

18 June 1970

The final years of the 1960s, dominated by a humiliating devaluation of the pound and a rift with the trade unions, had been damaging for Wilson. Even so, he was widely expected to stroll to victory against the lacklustre Heath in the sunshine of 1970. But complacency proved his undoing. A bad set of trade figures, as well as the sense of national disappointment after England crashed out of the World Cup, broke Labour’s momentum. In the last few days before the election, the housewives’ vote swung to the Conservatives and Edward Heath defied the polls to win a 30-seat majority.

Why the Tories won: Economic bad news reawakened memories of the late 1960s, and while Edward Heath channelled a kind of underdog spirit, Wilson seemed oddly complacent.

 

28 February 1974

After three and a half dramatic years, including five states of emergency, a three-day week and virtual civil war in Northern Ireland, Heath called a surprise early election, hoping to secure public support in his struggle with Britain’s striking miners. The election was fought against a bleak backdrop, with the economy in meltdown. The result was another shock: a hung parliament, with Labour winning 301 seats to the Tories’ 297. When the Liberals refused to prop him up, Heath resigned, and Wilson returned with a minority Labour government.

Why no one won: Hung parliament: voters blamed Heath for the economic chaos blighting the nation, while Labour seemed too divided to take full advantage.

Miners demand higher wages outside the National Union of Mineworkers HQ, London, 21 January 1974. © Getty
 

10 October 1974

Having given the miners the pay rise they wanted, Wilson called the second general election of the year in an attempt to secure a working majority. It was another grim, gloomy election, dominated by reports of the IRA bombing campaign on the British mainland. Heath tried to whip up public support for a government of national unity, but the polls were always against him. Instead Wilson’s reassuring manner secured him his fourth triumph in five elections, though Labour’s majority – just 3 seats – was narrower than many had expected.

Why Labour won: Having secured an end to the miners’ strike, Wilson presented himself as the only man who could guarantee prosperity.

 

3 May 1979

The 1979 election is often seen as a great turning point in Britain’s modern history: Margaret Thatcher became the first female prime minister. The polls had been tight until the end of 1978, and Labour’s experienced, avuncular James Callaghan was tipped to win a narrow majority. But then the Winter of Discontent – a wave of crippling strikes protesting Callaghan’s anti-inflation pay policy – brought the country grinding to a halt. After a slick campaign promising to rebuild the economy, Thatcher won a 44-seat majority.

Why the Tories won: Margaret Thatcher’s emphasis on reform struck a chord with millions of voters.

 

9 June 1983

Thatcher’s re-election in 1983 crowned an astonishing comeback. A crippling recession at the start of the decade had seen her reputation plummet to depths unequalled since records began. But victory in the Falklands, coupled with a reviving economy, turned her fortunes around. With the opposition divided between Labour and the new Social Democratic Party, the Tories won a 144-seat majority.

Why the Tories won: Voters rewarded Thatcher for sticking to her guns on the economy and in the Falklands.

 

11 June 1987

Labour had a new leader in Neil Kinnock and a slicker, television-led campaign. Yet the Tories’ emphasis on tax cuts appealed to voters in affluent southern England. Another big Conservative majority of 102 seats left Labour trailing well behind, while the Alliance – whose bid to break the two-party duopoly had clearly failed – finished a distant third.

Why the Tories won: The economy was booming and voters were not convinced by the idea of Neil Kinnock as prime minister.

 

9 April 1992

Labour were widely expected to return to power, but election night produced one of the century’s greatest surprises. The new Conservative leader, John Major, playing on his modest Brixton background and soapbox campaign style, won a majority of 21. Many commentators thought Labour’s campaign had taken victory for granted, exemplified by the flag-waving triumphalism of their Sheffield rally. The Tories’ relentless attacks on Labour’s tax plans swayed waverers, giving them more than 14 million votes – a record that still stands.

Why the Tories won: The middle class was drawn to John Major’s underdog style and promises of tax cuts.

 

1 May 1997

The Conservatives suffered the biggest collapse in modern political history. The economic debacle of Black Wednesday (1992) and a tide of scandals had blighted the Tories’ reputation, while Labour had a fresh-faced leader in Tony Blair, as well as a new, moderate image. The campaign saw Labour emphasise their economic responsibility, while the Tories tore themselves apart over Europe. Blair won a record 179-seat majority. 

Why Labour won: The Conservatives were discredited after five years of economic blunders and front-page scandals, while Labour leader Tony Blair cultivated a moderate, modernising image.

 

7 June 2001

In a replay of the 1997 election, Blair won a second successive landslide, giving him a majority of 166. The Tories’ new leader, William Hague, had originally flirted with modernisation but moved back to the right when the polls refused to shift. However, his emphasis on tax cuts, immigration and Europe failed to change voters’ minds. With the economy booming, Labour’s victory was never in serious doubt, and for the second time in four years the Conservatives were left to find a new leader.

Why Labour won: With the Tories lurching to the right, most voters were happy to give Blair another five years in office.

The Blair clan prepare for a second term in office. © Getty

 

5 May 2005

Despite the controversy over Britain’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq, Tony Blair won a clear majority of 66. Labour trumpeted Gordon Brown’s apparent success managing the economy, while the Tories’ new leader, Michael Howard, emphasised immigration and crime – campaigning under the slogan ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ The public clearly weren’t, and the Conservatives were left looking for a new approach and a new leader.

Why Labour won: With the economy doing well and the Tories still seen as unelectable, most voters continued to reward Labour.

 

6 May 2010

The Conservatives went into the 2010 election confident of victory. Not only did they have a new leader in David Cameron, but the financial crash of the late 2000s had badly damaged the reputation of Labour’s new PM, Gordon Brown. As so often, the economy was the major issue. But the campaign was dominated by the televised debates between the party leaders, from which the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg emerged as an unexpected winner. The result was the first hung parliament since 1974. Within days, Brown had resigned, leaving Clegg and Cameron to form the first coalition since the 1940s.

Why no one won: Hung parliament: the financial crisis shattered Labour’s majority, but the TV debates broke the Tories’ momentum, allowing the Lib Dems to emerge as kingmakers.

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and broadcaster whose books include Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974–79 (Penguin, 2013).

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