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The 1979 UK general election took place on 3 May 1979, heralding a new era in the history of Modern Britain. The leading candidates for the 1979 general election were incumbent Prime Minister James Callaghan for the Labour Party, Margaret Thatcher for the Conservative Party, and David Steel for the Liberal Party.
Currently holding office.
The 1970s saw the breakdown of the post-war consensus. The election of Margaret Thatcher was the final blow that brought the consensus to a definitive end. The 1979 UK general election ushered in the tide of Thatcherism, which came to define the period from Thatcher’s win of the 1979 general election to 1990 when she resigned. It also marked the end of ‘Old Labour’. The politics of the Labour Party changed after Thatcher’s premiership: no longer was Labour the party of nationalisation and trade union power. In the late 1980s, a New Labour was formed in the long shadow of Thatcherism.
Callaghan’s lack of control over the difficulties faced by his government weakened support for the Labour Party and increased Thatcher’s chances. The 1979 general election was a turning point for British politics: the election saw a turn towards populism in the Conservative Party and an evolution in modern campaigning. The advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi played such a key role in the Conservative campaign.
Prime Minister James Callaghan initially postponed the 1979 general election, which meant he had to earn back the electorate’s trust after the Winter of Discontent.
Margaret Thatcher became Tory Party leader in 1975, replacing former Prime Minister Edward Heath, when he lost the third election – the October 1974 general election – during his time as Party leader. Thatcher’s triumph divided the Party’s One-Nation Conservatives, sceptical of Thatcher’s politics.
Thatcher had to work hard to earn the support of her Party, appointing Willie Whitelaw as her deputy leader. It is reputed that Whitelaw’s support was instrumental in winning members of the Party to her side.
Callaghan’s decision to defer the impending general election to the spring of 1979 surprised his cabinet ministers. The economy began to recover as North Sea oil came in, and public polls showed Labour was in the lead. Callaghan was, therefore, at his most popular in 1978, making this an advantageous time to call an election. However, the Labour Party’s private poll showed public support was not strong enough. This led Callaghan to put off the general election, hoping another year in government would boost public confidence in his ministry.
However, the decision to delay the election proved to be a disastrous political miscalculation, as the public lost faith in the Labour government during the Winter of Discontent.
The Winter of Discontent turned the tide against the Labour government, leading the Conservatives to outperform Labour in the opinion polls consistently. According to a Gallup poll, the Conservatives reached a 20 per cent lead over Labour by the end of the Winter of Discontent on 12 February 1979.
The Winter of Discontent came at the end of a decade marked by industrial strife. In 1978, public sector workers joined in with the industrial stoppages of private-sector unions, aggravating the disruption. Uncollected rubbish piled up, and bodies went unburied as dustmen and gravediggers struck. Images of the disturbance dominated the media and outraged the public.
Callaghan had hoped delaying the election would allow his pay policies – which limited wage increases to 5% – to speak for themselves. So they did, but unfortunately, they did not tell the tale he intended. Instead of illustrating Callaghan’s positive impact on the British economy, his pay policies pushed the industrial conflict over the edge. As a result, trade unions (on whose support the Labour Party relied) and the general public lost faith in him, opening the door for the Conservatives to thrive in the general election.
The media made much of Callaghan’s apparent obliviousness to the Winter of Discontent, with The Sun newspaper publishing the famous headline ‘Crisis? What crisis?’. Though the Prime Minister had never said these exact words, the public nonetheless had reason to believe Callaghan was out of touch with the hardship his policies had wrought.
Labour won the second general election of 1974 with a majority of only three seats, reducing the government’s power in Parliament and leading Callaghan to become reliant on cross-party cooperation with minority parties.
The Labour government formed a pact with the Liberal Party in 1977, known as the Lib-Lab pact. When this fell through in 1978, Labour turned to the support of the Scottish Nationalist Party.
The Lib-Lab Pact
The Lib-Lab Pact was a formal alliance between the Labour government and the Liberal Party, which entailed the government agreeing to consult the Liberal Party on critical issues, provided the Liberal Party voted with the government in the Commons.
On 1 March 1979, a referendum was held on the 1978 Scotland Act. The purpose was to gauge whether there was sufficient public support for the devolution of parliamentary powers to Scotland.
The referendum results were inconclusive, leading the government to repeal the Act. This fared badly with the Scottish Nationalist Party, whose support Callaghan’s government relied on.
As a result of the government’s refusal to see the devolution through, the SNP put down a ‘No Confidence’ motion in the Callaghan government.
Vote of No Confidence
If enough MPs do not support the existing government, a motion of No Confidence can be put forward. It requires a majority to pass. If the government loses the Vote of No Confidence, the existing Prime Minister usually calls a general election.
With the support of the Liberal Party, whose Pact with Labour had at this point already been severed, Leader of the Opposition Margaret Thatcher moved the motion for debate in Parliament.
The Vote of No Confidence in the Callaghan ministry took place on 28 March 1979. Previously on Callaghan’s side, both the Liberal Party and the SNP voted against him, and Callaghan lost the motion by one vote. He was thus forced to call a general election, setting the date for 3 May 1979.
Television and media coverage played a key role in the campaign, with all three major parties holding morning press conferences.
The Conservative campaign focused on earning the votes of traditional Labour voters, first-time voters, and voters in marginal seat constituencies. Margaret Thatcher’s campaign for the 1979 general election campaign revolved around cultivating a pristine image and highlighting the failures of the Labour Party under Callaghan’s leadership.
Margaret Thatcher’s campaign was managed by her publicity director and former TV producer, Gordon Reece, who employed the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. Together, they polished Thatcher’s public image, counterbalancing Thatcher’s hard convictions with a more softened image to broaden her appeal to the public. It was important to get her public image right, as Thatcher was a woman in a man’s world, which meant they had to work twice as hard to convince the public she was the right candidate for the job.
Thatcher was proud of her title as the Iron Lady. Still, it was difficult to ‘sell’ this image to the public, which led Thatcher’s publicity instructors to soften the prospective Prime Minister’s image. They also went about softening her voice, employing a voice coach to soften her speech. She was to appear friendly, the image of a good housewife – ‘the housewife’s friend’ – which increased her chances with the electoral demographic of working and middle-class housewives.
‘Photo ops’ for the media were arranged, and Thatcher was seen tea-tasting and holding a calf.
Traditionally, working-class housewives voted Labour, but Thatcher wanted to convince them she was one of them. This appeal to the working classes is known as populism.
Populism is a political strategy whereby politicians appeal to and identify with ordinary people’s concerns to win over their support. It was a useful strategy for the Conservatives, seen as part of the Establishment and as out of touch with working-class needs.
An election campaign marked by this kind of image control was unprecedented in British politics, marking a turning point in modern campaigning.
Saatchi & Saatchi’s ‘Labour isn’t working’ advertising campaign launched in 1978. The campaign poster depicted a snaking unemployment-benefits queue, with ‘Labour isn’t working’ in large capitals front and centre. The campaign aimed to highlight the weaknesses of the Labour government and its negative impact on the economy.
Weaknesses of the Labour Party
Historians have often remarked the Conservatives’ success in the 1979 general election had more to do with the Opposition’s weakness than with the strength of Thatcher’s campaign. The Labour government gave the Conservatives plenty of ammunition: the Conservatives’ anti-Labour campaign resonated even more strongly with the public when Callaghan allowed industrial relations to reach a boiling point in the Winter of Discontent. Thatcher was initially behind on popularity polls, but the Winter of Discontent earned her strong supporters.
Another key aspect of the Conservative campaign was its ‘broad-strokes’ approach. Thatcher focused mostly on general issues of the economy and reducing the power of trade unions. The main points of the manifesto were:
(1) To restore the health of our economic and social life, by controlling inflation and striking a fair balance between the rights and duties of the trade union movement.
(2) To restore incentives so that hard work pays, success is rewarded and genuine new jobs are created in an expanding economy.
(3) To uphold Parliament and the rule of law.
(4) To support family life, by helping people to become home-owners, raising the standards of their children’s education, and concentrating welfare services on the effective support of the old, the sick, the disabled and those who are in real need.
(5) To strengthen Britain’s defences and work with our allies to protect our interests in an increasingly threatening world.
Under the ‘helping the family’ section of the Conservative manifesto, Thatcher made specific promises pertaining to housing. Plans to implement the Right to Buy were outlined, which gave council house tenants the legal right to purchase their homes at discounted prices.
Its poor track record coming out of the Winter of Discontent hampered the Labour campaign.
In Labour’s manifesto, The Labour Way is the Better Way. The Labour manifesto outlined the following five priorities:
‘1. We must keep a curb on inflation and prices.’
‘2. We will carry forward the task of putting into practice the new framework to improve industrial relations that we have hammered out with the TUC.’
‘3. We give a high priority to working for a return to full employment.’
‘4. …Our policy will be to tilt the balance of power back to the individual and the neighbourhood, and away from the bureaucrats of town hall, company board room, the health service and Whitehall.’
‘5. We will use Britain’s influence to strengthen world peace and defeat world poverty.’
The manifesto also criticised Thatcher’s economic approach:
They are ready to gamble the people’s future on a return to the nineteenth century free market- despite its pitiless social consequences.
However, despite Labour’s promises to return to full employment, curb inflation and prices and improve industrial relations were less credible in the face of the economic and industrial crises that characterised the Wilson and Callaghan years. The Conservatives appeared more likely to deliver their promises of recovering the economy than Labour.
The Conservatives won the election with 43.9 per cent of the vote, with 70 seats over Labour and an overall majority of 43 seats.
Labour earned 36.9 per cent of the popular vote, which was close to its 1974 election percentage of 39.2 per cent. This was by no means a landslide victory, but the tide had been sufficiently turned against the Labour government to vote them out of office.
Thus, on 4 May 1979, Margaret Thatcher was elected the first woman Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
The most remarkable of the results was the 5.2 per cent swing in voter support from Labour to the Conservatives, the largest swing since the 1945 general election, won by Labour’s Clement Attlee.
The minority parties who had previously backed Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Party, also saw disappointing results in the election.
The Liberals lost a net 2 seats, losing 4.5 per cent of the vote percentage in comparison to the 1974 general election results. The SNP lost 9 of its seats in the general election being left with only 2 MPs in Parliament. Callaghan had warned of the consequences of the minority parties’ support of the Vote of No Confidence vote:
it is the first time in recorded history that turkeys have been known to vote for an early Christmas.
BBC’s politics editor, John Cole, highlights the shift in public opinion at the time: ‘the country feels in its bones when it is time for a change. It was just such a mood that determined the result of the 1979 election.’
On the other hand, a geographical analysis of the results argues that they point to the existence of a political divide between Southern and Northern England, known as the North-South Divide: ‘regional variations gave renewed impetus to the hypothesis of ‘two nations’ – a Conservative south and a Labour north – with regard to British party preferences’.¹
The results of the 1979 general election ushered in a period of UK history defined by Thatcherism and 18 years of a Conservative government.
1. R. J. Johnston, Regional Variations in the 1979 General Election Results for England, The Royal Geographical Society, 1979
The 1979 UK general election took place on 3 May 1979. At-the-time Prime Minister James Callaghan announced the election- He was forced to call a general election after Conservative Leader Margaret Thatcher put forward a Vote of No Confidence in the Callaghan government.
James Callaghan was the UK Prime Minister until 4 May 1979, when Margaret Thatcher replaced him following the results of the 1979 general election. James Callaghan was Prime Minister from 5 April 1976 until 4 May 1979, having replaced Harold Wilson as PM in 1974. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister from 4 May 1979 until 1990.
The 1979 general election Margaret Thatcher won saw 19 female Members of Parliament elected; eight of whom were Conservative Party members and 11 of whom were Labour Party members. They made up three per cent of Parliament. This was a decrease in women MPs from the previous general election of 1974 when 27 women MPs were elected.
Harold Wilson of the Labour Party won the 1974 general election.
Thatcher beat the incumbent Callaghan of the Labour Party and David Steel of the Liberal Party.
What was the 1979 UK general election?
What were the events leading up to the 1979 general election?
What was the Winter of Discontent?
What was the Lib-Lab Pact?
What was the impact of the 1979 devolution referendum on Callaghan’s government?
What was the 1979 Vote of No Confidence in the Callaghan ministry?
What was the Conservative campaign?
What was the Labour manifesto?
The Labour Way is the Better Way:
What were the results of the 1979 general election?
Why is the 1979 general election seen as a turning point in British politics and history?
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