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1997 General Election

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1997 General Election

The 1997 General Election result saw Tony Blair become the Labour Prime Minister in a landslide victory after 18 years of Conservative leadership. But what led to this rise of the Labour Party and the simultaneous catastrophic fall of the Conservatives?

1997 General Election Date and Summary

The 1997 General Election was held on 1st May 1997 and saw a landslide victory for the Labour party. They managed to secure 418 seats while the Conservatives gained only 165. Around 10.2% of the electorate shifted their vote from Conservative to Labour in this election compared to the 1992 General Election.

New Labour

New Labour was an ideological shift of the Labour party, first led by Tony Blair and comprised several key elements: the abandonment of nationalisation, legal restrictions on unions, and no mention of socialism.

1997 General Election Map

Let's look at the results in more detail - below, we see a map showing the distribution of Conservative and Labour support across the United Kingdom, as well as other parties.

Map of the 1997 UK general election, Wikimedia CommonsBlue = Conservative, Red= Labour

1997 General Election Results Table

PartySeats wonGain/loss Percentage of vote
Labour418+14543.2
Conservative165-17830.7
Liberal Democrat46+2816.8
Scottish National6+32.0
Ulster Unionist10+10.8
SDLP3-10.6
Plaid Cymru400.5
Sinn Féin2+20.4
Democratic Unionist2-10.3
Independent1+10.1
Speaker100.1
UK Unionist1+10
Source: House of Commons research paper 01/38

1997 General Election Demographics

Here is a brief breakdown of how people from different demographics voted for the two main parties in the election.

Demographics are the characteristics of the population, such as income or race

DemographicLabourConservative
Gender
  • 45% of men voted Labour
  • 44% of women voted Labour
  • 31% of men voted Conservative
  • 32% of women voted Conservative
Age

Gained more votes than the Conservatives in every age group

Those aged 55 and above were most likely to vote Conservative

Region

Labour gained the highest proportion of votes in the North with 62%

The Conservatives gained the highest proportion of votes in the South East at 41%

Ethnicity

70% of non-white voters voted Labour, as well as the majority of white voters

18% of non-white voters voted Conservative

Occupation

Manual and lower-paid workers were more likely to vote for Labour

Those in higher-paid careers were more likely to vote Conservative

1997 General Election Analysis

Before this election, the Conservative Party had been in power for 18 consecutive years. However, by 1997, many people had become increasingly disillusioned with the Conservative party and began to distrust the party, whilst Labour's modernisation and reforms gained them more popularity.

Modernisation

To modernise the means to bring it in line with the global frontiers of capitalist expansion. Increased globalisation is one example of modernisation.

The fall of the Conservative party

As much as the 1997 election was a victory for Labour, it was more so a defeat for the Conservatives - let's find out why the Conservative party lost so much popularity.

Thatcherism

Europe

Economic decline

Tory 'sleaze'

During the 1980s, the policies of Margaret Thatcher had divided the Conservative party.

This meant that the party struggled to unify behind Thatcher, making it difficult to stand up to their opposition.

The Conservative party was increasingly divided over Britain's position in Europe, split into pro-Europeans and Eurosceptics.

This divide severely weakened the party.

Britain experienced a recession at the beginning of both the 80s and the 90s.

Thatcher's policies increased unemployment whilst tackling inflation. Economic hardship made the Conservatives unpopular.

During John Major's government, several Conservative MPs were involved in scandals of corruption and illicit sexual affairs.

This made the public lose faith in the party.

Reputation of leaders

During an election, people are not only influenced by the party as a whole but by the leader - the potential Prime Minister - let's look at the Conservative and Labour leaders' reputations.

Margaret Thatcher (1979-90)John Major (1990-97)Tony Blair (1997-2007)
  • Her brand of conservatism was still strongly remembered by the British public.
  • The Conservative defeat in 1997 was a rejection of Thatcherite conservatism as well as support for the Labour party.
  • Major was a likeable, but bland and uninspiring character.
  • This was a pleasant change of pace after Thatcher's abrasive character.
  • Tony Blair had a great impression on the British public.
  • Compared to Major, Blair was younger, and captured the public's attention, spearheading the campaign of 'New Labour' in 1997.

New Labour

After years out of power, many Labour politicians began to see the need for a radical restructuring of the party. The restructure attempted to shift the party's focus towards the political centre, which was becoming more popular with the electorate.

The outcome of this restructuring was 'New Labour' - what did this involve?

  • Economic Policy: Anti-inflationary, limited government spending. Kept restrictions on trade unions, and made little effort to undo the privatisation of industry. Desire to create a 'stakeholder society', where everyone had government-protected investments and pensions.
  • Foreign Policy: Closer ties with Europe as well as maintaining a 'special relationship' with the USA.
  • Domestic policy: Committed to Devolution for Scotland and Wales

Devolution

The diversion of central or singular power to local and regional governments

Cool Britannia

A large part of 'New Labour' was the way that the Labour party presented itself to the public. They adopted the phrase 'Cool Britannia' to reflect the new direction of the party.

What was new about their image?

  • Labour MPs avoided using the term 'socialist' about the Labour party in order not to scare away voters.
  • Labour promised businesses that capitalism would be safe under New Labour.
  • Labour stopped presenting its policies in terms of a class struggle.

Tony Blair helped this image a lot. He was youthful and presented himself as a down to earth, 'normal' man, which the public loved. He also attacked John Major's government, leaning into the image of a 'tired' Conservative party that needed to be replaced by something fresh and new.

tony blair 1997 election studysmarterAn election poster for Tony Blair. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

1997 General Election Campaigns

The 1997 election campaign was one of the longest in British history. Parliament was dissolved on 8th April 1997, and the date of the 1997 general election was set for 1st May 1997.

Conservative campaign

ActionExplanation Impact
'You can only be sure with the Conservatives.'

This aimed to present the Conservatives as the safe choice for Britain.

It was ineffectual against a background of Thatcherism, economic decline and scandals.

Voter Appeal

The campaign targeted white, middle-class, white-collar workers, age 35+ - their usual voter base.

The highest proportion of the party's votes was from these groups, but this did not outweigh their overall loss in popularity.

Conservative values

Major promised a return to traditional values, such as a tax break for married couples when one partner stayed at home.

Whilst it was traditional, by 1997 these ideas were outdated.

Europe

The Conservatives promised to keep Europe at arm's length.

This promise did not have much credibility given the division over Europe in the party.

Devolution

The Conservatives attacked Labour's plans for Welsh and Scottish devolution, warning that it would break up the union.

This alienated potential voters in Scotland and Wales who supported devolution.

'New Labour, New Danger'

The Conservatives used this slogan to imply that Labour would be dangerous for Britain.

Despite posters depicting Tony Blair with devil eyes, the Conservatives did not actually state the dangers - this failed to sway voters.

'Stealing Tory Clothes'

The Conservatives accused Labour of stealing Conservative policies and ideas.

This created a contradiction - if Labour was stealing Conservative ideas, why was Labour dangerous?

Labour's Façade

Major attacked Labour by saying that 'New Labour' was a façade and they would revert to their old policies when in power.

This was ineffective for two reasons:

  1. The shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown promised this would not happen.
  2. In the 1992 campaign, John Major had promised to cut VAT but then had not done so - this seemed hypocritical.

tony blair 1997 election studysmarterThe 'New Labour, New Danger' poster was used by the Conservative party in 1997. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Labour campaign

Unlike the Conservatives, Labour ran a very organised campaign. Labour's campaign demonstrated that the nation needed more centrist leadership due to the major splits in the Conservative party.

ActionExplanationImpact
'New Labour, New Life for Britain'

This was used as a way to promote Labour's new centrist approach. It had reinvented itself as a modern party that would sweep away the Conservatives who were holding Britain back.

This campaign was quite effective- people were desperate for change after 18 years of a Conservative government, and the image Labour and Tony Blair presented was enticing.

Voter appeal

The campaign focused on the middle and lower-middle classes, which had become a large majority of British people, as well as maintaining their traditional working-class support.

This was very effective - the Labour party gained more votes than the Conservative party in every age, gender, and ethnic group and most regions of the UK.

Spin doctors

A key element of Blair's campaign was his use of spin doctors - their job was to judge the public mood and present government policies to the public in a favourable light - essentially 'spinning' a story.

Spin doctors were controversial. At their best, they were simply a form of public relations, but at their worst, they were a method of lying to the public.

Taxes

Tony Blair promised that there would be no income tax rises and that VAT would be cut.

These promises were enticing, but they became believable as Labour explained how these goals would be funded and achieved.

Unemployment

Labour emphasised reducing unemployment, especially among young people.

This was looked on favourably as unemployment was high, largely thanks to the recessions in the early 1980s and 1990s, as well as Thatcher's policies.

Welfare

Labour vowed to reduce the size of infant school classes and cut waiting times for the NHS.

This was effective as the Labour party explained how these policies would be put in place.

Crime

Labour promised to tackle crime rates, especially among young people.

This was one of the policies that helped to entice the middle-class voters who might have normally voted Conservative.

The Impact of the 1997 Election

The impact of the 1997 election can be summarised in the five points listed below:

  • Tony Blair won 418 seats in the House of Commons, the most in the history of the Labour Party, and the highest proportion of seats won by any party since 1935.
  • The political landscape of British politics shifted to a more centrist stance.
  • There was a 71% voter turnout- the most recent national election with over 70% turnout until the 2016 EU referendum.
  • New Labour's successes spanned over 13 years and continued up until 2010 under Gordon Brown.
  • The 1997 general election saw the Conservative party struggle to modernise its image for the next 13 years.

1997 General Election - Key Takeaways

  • The 1997 general election saw the Labour party win with a landslide majority, securing 418 seats to the Conservative party's 165, and the Liberal Democrats 46.
  • The Conservative party failed to win the election because they were worn out from 18 years in government, were internally divided over several issues, and were suffering from an image problem after a series of scandals.
  • Under the leadership of Tony Blair, the Labour party underwent a radical transformation into 'New Labour'. This appealed to many voters, especially those who were fed up with the Conservatives.
  • The Conservative electoral campaign was badly run and ineffective. Their promises were hard to believe, and their attacks on the Labour party were contradictory, hypocritical and ineffectual.
  • The Labour campaign was very effective, thanks to Blair's use of spin doctors and the party's emphasis on explaining how their promises would be achieved.
  • This election was significant as Labour gained the biggest majority in their history. The turnout was also very high for an election, standing at 71%.

Frequently Asked Questions about 1997 General Election

It moved the British political landscape to a centrist stance.

Labour managed to secure 418 seats to the Conservative party's 165, and the Liberal Democrats 46

The Conservative Party

May

 71.3% of the electorate

Final 1997 General Election Quiz

Question

What was the Labour majority in the 1997 election?

Show answer

Answer

The 1997 general election result saw the Labour party win with a landslide majority, Labour managed to secure 418 seats to the Conservative party's 165, and the Liberal Democrats 46.

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Question

What was the initial Conservative Party campaign?

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Answer

New Labour, New Danger

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Question

What was the title of the 1997 Conservative Party Manifesto?

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Answer

You can only be sure with the Conservatives

Show question

Question

What led to the Labour party's landslide victory?

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Answer

Many people had become increasingly disillusioned with the Conservative party and began to distrust the party and its politicians, this distrust coincided with the Labour party's modernisation and policy reforms.

Show question

Question

What were New Labour's economic policy reforms?

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Answer

The New Labour’s economic policy was based on a fusion of supply-side initiatives with an overwhelming emphasis on monetary stability as the key to low inflation.

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Question

How did the events of by-elections further weaken the Conservative party?

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Answer

The Conservatives lost their majority in the House of Commons in a series of by-elections, they had not won a seat since 1989.

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Question

What scandals did the Conservative party face in the run-up to the 1997 elections?

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Answer

Throughout Sir John Majors's leadership between the years 1990 and 1997, several conservative MP's were accused of financial scandals that fell under the category of corruption and bribery, whilst several other MP's came subject to accusations of sexual misconduct.

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Question

What is middle England?

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Answer

Middle England is a socio-political term used to refer to the middle class or lower-middle-class people of England, this group hold traditional, conservative about society and politics. Journalists use the term to describe the presumed views of mainstream English and British people. Middle Englanders tend to be white, heterosexual, middle class or lower-middle class, with a strong work ethic and are sometimes labelled as the silent majority

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Question

How did Thatcher contribute to the fall of the Conservative party?

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Answer

  1. Thatcher's outright refusal to consider the notion of devolution in Scotland and Wales had a dramatic effect on Tory party seats. In 1970 the party had 36 seats in Scotland and by 1997 they had none. 
  2. During Margaret Thatcher's tenure, divisions within the Conservative party began to emerge. These divisions were referred to as the split between the 'wets' and 'dries'.
  3. By 1982 Thatcher was considered one of the most unpopular PMs receiving around 27% support in a 1981 opinion poll.
  4. Margaret Thatcher was blamed for the alienation of the Conservative party's female voters. 
  5. Thatcher's policies had a polarising effect, and they seemed to be more divisive than good. by the time Major came into power in 1990, the party had lost its popularity with the electorate and had begun to experience divisions. 

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Question

What was Spin, and how did Blair use it to his advantage in the 1997 election campaign?

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Answer

The use of spin doctors was a hallmark of Tony Blair's campaign. A spin doctor is a term that refers to the use of special advisers who are employed by politicians to present their policies in the most favourable light. Blair relied on a team of advisers, and this severely aided his win in the 1997 general election.


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