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1983 General Election

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1983 General Election

The 1983 General Election was a big moment in British history and memorable as a low point for the Labour Party.

1983 General Election Summary

On June 9th, 1983 the Conservative Party, under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, won the General Election with a majority of 144 seats. This marked the most decisive election victory since Labour's win in 1945.

Why was a general election held on this date?

It was at the request of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Although the start of Thatcher's premiership had been rocky, Britain's success in the Falklands War and economic improvements throughout the country had improved Margaret Thatcher's popularity amongst the people. This, alongside favourable opinion polls in May 1983, prompted her to call for a general election.

Calling general elections

Usually, elections take place every five years in the UK. However, leaders can call an election earlier than the end of their five-year term by calling the dissolution of parliament. Termed a 'snap election', the incumbent Prime Minister (PM in power) might decide to call an election early if it is an advantageous time for their party and they are confident this will help them win another term. They may feel confident enough to do this because one of their policies is particularly popular or they are doing well in the polls.

Labour’s flaws during the election

One of the main reasons this general election is memorable is that it was an electoral low point for Michael Foot and the Labour Party.

Labour leader Michael Foot led his party through what was said to be Labour's worst election performance since 1918. Foot’s campaign was described as uninspiring, with the party’s manifesto being dubbed as the "longest suicide note in history".

They made unrealistic and over-the-top pledges such as leaving the common market and destroying the House of Lords. This was far less popular than the Conservative manifesto, which discussed employment for the people, economic prosperity, and defence tactics for the country. The Labour Party also suffered from internal divisions and a bad public image after the Falklands War, in which they were seen as unpatriotic.

Conservative advantages

Margaret Thatcher was not popular during her first term as Prime Minister.

  • Since Thatcher came to power in 1979, unemployment rates had doubled to around 3 million UK citizens by 1983.
  • In 1981, Thatcher's government attempted to close many coal mines in Britain. The 1980 Coal Industry Act had withdrawn coal subsidies to British mines and imports were suppressing the industry in the UK. However, Thatcher negotiated with the disgruntled miners to keep the mines open.
  • Inflation had risen sharply in the 1970s to nearly 25%. To bring this down, Thatcher raised interest rates and cut public spending, resulting in her unpopularity.

So how did the Conservatives win so convincingly in 1983? Despite the new era of Thatcherism since 1979 creating discontent in Britain, the Conservative handling of the Falklands War in 1982 saw a significant rise in Thatcher's popularity.

1983 General Election British war graves on the Falkland Islands StudySmarterAlthough there were nearly 1000 deaths during the Falklands War, Britain's victory was a great success for the Conservative party. (Source: Wikicommons)

  • From 1976, Argentina was led by a brutal military dictatorship known as a junta.
  • Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands on 2nd April 1982 whilst many British citizens lived there. The Britons did not want to be under Argentina's control and pleaded that the British government protect them.
  • Thatcher sent a task force of over 100 ships from Britain to the Falklands on 4th April 1982 to defend the Islands.
  • Her quick and decisive response led to a surge in popularity for prioritising British citizens.
  • In 1976, Thatcher gained the nickname "The Iron Lady" after Russian propaganda published a piece criticising her, and since then the name has stuck with the British press. Following the events in the Falklands, the nickname began to be used to refer to Thatcher's resourceful and tough personality.

Although Thatcher's domestic policies had made her very unpopular, her handling of the Falklands War saw her popularity increase dramatically. She said in a 1982 interview:

We must recover the Falkland Islands for Britain and for the people who live there who are of British stock.1

Following this victory, Thatcher called the snap election in 1983 and rode the wave to win by a landslide victory.

1983 General Election Results

1983 General Election Portrait photograph of Margaret Thatcher StudySmarterThe Conservative Party's landslide victory at the 1983 general election firmly cemented Margaret Thatcher's place as Prime Minister and hailed in the period of Thatcherism. (Source: wikicommons.org)

The 1983 General Election was a proud day for the Conservative Party. Margaret Thatcher and her party benefitted from a 'three-horse race'. The opposition to the Conservative Party was split between Labour and the Liberal/Social Democratic (SDP) alliance meaning neither could secure a majority.

As a result, the Conservative Party left the election with a 144-seat majority, having received 397 seats out of the available 650. All other parties received a combined total of 253 seats. The overall voter turnout was 72.7%.

1983 General Election Results by Constituency

During this general election, there was quite a variation in turnout and votes across constituencies, but it was clear that in most constituencies the Conservative Party was favoured. Out of the ten regions that voted during the 1983 general election, only four of them favoured a party other than Conservative. The North of England, Wales and Scotland had a majority vote for the Labour Party, whilst Northern Ireland only voted for parties that were neither Conservative nor Labour.

CountryConservative SeatsLabour Seats
England362148
Wales1420
Scotland2141

The distribution of Conservative and Labour seats in England, Wales and Scotland - House of Commons, Public Information Office Factsheet 22: General Election Results, 9 June 1983 (1984) <https://www.parliament.uk/globalassets/documents/commons-information-office/m09.pdf>

1983 General Election Demographics

Lots of the things that affect voting behaviour are demographics.

Demographics

Characteristics of the population, such as income or race

During elections, three factors are said to affect one’s voting decision:

  • Religion
  • Gender
  • Class

Although these are said to be the main three, many other things can affect someone’s voting choices:

  • Voter loyalty
  • Each party's achievements
  • The candidate for Prime Minister

In the 1983 election, the occupation of the voter was said to be a particularly strong influence as members of the working class were less likely to vote Conservative than any other class. On the other hand, people who came from a background favouring Conservatives were more likely to vote Conservative out of loyalty.

PartyGeneral Election Results (seats)
1974 (February)
1974 (October)
19791983
Conservative297277339397
Labour301 (Hung Parliament)319269209
SDP14131123

Seats won at the 1974, 1979 and 1983 elections - UK Political Info, General Election results summaries, <https://www.ukpolitical.info/1983.htm>

Hung Parliament

In 1974 there were 635 seats in Parliament. To achieve a majority government, a party is required to gain more than half of these seats, which is 318. As Labour only had 301 seats, this was known as a hung parliament.

This meant that Edward Heath, leader of the Conservatives could have formed a coalition with other parties to achieve a coalition majority government. As neither Labour nor Conservatives were able to gain a majority of the hung parliament, the October 1974 general election was held, giving Labour the crucial 319 seats to form its majority government.

1983 General Election Voting Behaviour

There are many factors that influenced the 1983 General Election voting behaviour of the British voters. We will analyse them by demographics. First, you need to know what voting behaviour is.

Voting behaviour A form of electoral behaviour which influences one’s decision to vote

Tables on voting behaviour

The below tables allow us to draw some conclusions about the changing voting behaviours of five demographics in Britain: men, women, middle class, skilled working class, and semi/unskilled working class.

Party1974 (October), 1979, 1983 (% of voting demographic)
MenWomenMiddle ClassSkilled Working ClassSemi/Unskilled Working Class
197419791983197419791983197419791983197419791983197419791983
Conservative324342394746565955264140223433
Labour434030383526192416494132574941
Social Democratic Party181325201527211528201526161324

How different demographics voted in the 1974, 1979 and 1983 elections - IPSOS, How Britain Voted since October 1974, <https://www.ipsos.com/en-uk/how-britain-voted-october-1974>

PartyDifference between 1974 and 1983 (% difference of voting demographic)
MenWomenMiddle ClassSkilled Working ClassSemi/Unskilled Working Class
Conservative+ 10+ 7- 1+ 14+ 11
Labour- 13- 12- 3- 17- 16
Social Democratic Party+ 17+ 7+ 7+ 6+ 8
Percentage difference in how different demographics voted in 1974 compared to 1983 - Using data from IPSOS, How Britain Voted since October 1974, <https://www.ipsos.com/en-uk/how-britain-voted-october-1974>

The working class

Harold Wilson's Labour Government won the election in 1974, but over the course of his leadership, he began to lose support from the working class. In the 1974 election, on average over half of the working class voted Labour, with roughly a quarter each voting Conservative and SDP. In 1983, however, the Conservatives saw a historic increase of over 10% of the working class now voting for them.

Women

The voting behaviour of women also underwent significant changes between 1974 and 1983. In 1974, the proportion of women that voted Labour and Conservative was fairly evenly split (38% and 39% respectively), but during Labour's term in government, the Conservatives managed to snatch some of these votes, winning an extra 7% of female voters whilst Labour lost a damning 12%.

1983 General Election Case Study: How Did the Election Impact Britain?

1983 General Election Coal miners strike in London in 1984 StudySmarterCoal miners went on strike across the country to protest Thatcher's changes to the industry after her landslide success in 1983. (Source: wikicommons.org)

One of Thatcher's legacies as Prime Minister after her second successful election in 1983 was the privatisation of many of Britain's industries - moving them from public to private ownership. Let's look at the impact of the 1983 election on Britain's coal mining industry.

  • Trade Unions demonstrated their power against the government during the 1970s. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) were joined by other unions and led two successful strikes against Edward Heath's Conservative government in 1972 and 1974 resulting in wage increases for miners.
  • The "Winter of Discontent" ended the 1970s with over 2000 strikes causing James Callaghan's Labour government to call a general election.
  • Upon the 1983 general election victory, Thatcher appointed ruthless economist Ian MacGregor as the head of the National Coal Board (NCB), who released a plan to close "unprofitable mines" in Britain and eventually privatise the industry.
  • The NUM went on strike against mine closures on 6th March 1984, but Thatcher introduced revisions to the Trade Union Act in July 1984, enforcing the use of a secret ballot to be held before strike action is called. Arthur Scargill, leader of the NUM, had not called a secret ballot and so not every Union was on board - only half of British miners went on strike.
  • Thatcher had stockpiled coal in preparation for strikes, which allowed the country to keep running. The police were also better organised and used more force to prevent strikers from disrupting supply lines.
  • The strike was called off on 5th March 1984. Thatcher had diminished the power of trade unions and managed to continue shutting down the mines. In 1984, Britain had 174 mines, which had decreased to just 15 by 1994.

Thatcher's policy of privatisation did help to recover Britain's economy but resulted in civil unrest and mass unemployment. For many communities, the mining industry had been the primary or only source of employment, especially in rural areas in Wales and North England. By closing the mines, Thatcher destroyed these communities.

1983 General Election - Key Takeaways

  • On June 9th, 1983, a general election was held.
  • Under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership, the Conservative Party won a 144-seat majority.
  • This was an electoral low point for the Labour Party.
  • The Labour Party had a large internal divide at election time.
  • This was the second-largest majority vote in post-war Britain.
  • People were influenced by the conservative party’s involvement in recent events.
  • England was the only part of the UK with a majority Conservative vote.

References

  1. Margaret Thatcher, TV Interview for ITN on April 5, 1982, Margaret Thatcher Foundation, Foundation, https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/104913

Frequently Asked Questions about 1983 General Election

Nine general elections have been held since 1983, the last of which was in 2019.

The dissolution of parliament occurred on May 13th and the election was held on June 9th. The Conservatives were announced as the winners the next day.

Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party won the general election.

During the 1983 general election, Michael Foot was the leader of the Labour Party.

The Conservative Party had a 144-seat majority

Final 1983 General Election Quiz

Question

By what majority did the Conservative Party win the 1983 general election?

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Answer

144 seats

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Question

Who led the Labour party's campaign for the 1983 general election?

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Answer

Michael Foot

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Question

Roughly how many were unemployed in Britain following Thatcher's rise to power in 1979?

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Answer

3 million

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Question

By 1983, how much had inflation risen since the 1970s?

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Answer

25%

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Question

When was the Falklands War?

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Answer

1982

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Question

How did the Working class voting behaviour change for the 1983 election?

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Answer

More working class voted Conservative

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Question

When were the two significant miners strikes in the 1970s?

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Answer

1972

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Question

Who became the head of the National Coal Board following Thatcher's reelection in 1983?

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Answer

Ian McGregor

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Question

When was the Trade Union Act passed, introducing requirements for a secret ballot before undertaking strike action?

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Answer

July 1984

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Question

Britain had 174 mines in 1984, after Thatcher's changes to the industry, how many mines were in Britain in 1994?

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Answer

15

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