Ask most people about elections and you get a shrug. Many see them as an imposition, others a waste of time. But most of us vote. The average turnout at general elections between 1918 and 2017 was 72.9 per cent.
That is because we know, however much we may resent that trip in the rain – or snow – to the polling station, no matter whether we regard politicians as self-serving, or even indolent, that elections are important. They do shape our lives, the way we feel, the way we think. We may not realise it at the time but in retrospect key events in our history and changes in the national mood can be traced back to the decisions we take every four or five years, or even, as now, every 30 months.
There have been four standout epoch-changing turning-point elections in the last 75 years: 1945, as the nation started to recover from war; 1964, which ended 13 years of unbroken paternalistic Conservative rule, signalling the demise of Empire and more state ownership of industry; 1979, replacing industrial strife and central planning with Thatcherism, a belief in free markets, a widening of the property-owning democracy, privatisation and smaller government; and 1997, which ended 18 years of Tory government with Blairism, a ‘third way’ combining social democracy and support for market economics.
But most of the others also made indelible marks.
Few read election manifestos. But perhaps they should. How many would have thought when they surprisingly elected Edward Heath in 1970 that Britain would have been in what is today the EU within two years? Surely the industrial troubles experienced by Harold Wilson and Heath as they prepared for elections in the 1970s produced a mood in the country and the main parties for the unions to be tamed.
Did the voters in 1983, when they thanked Margaret Thatcher for her strength of purpose in recovering the Falkland Islands, realise they were consolidating a period of ferocious trade union reform, deregulation of the City and the devastation of some manufacturing communities, including the mining areas? Was the anger those events sparked in the North eventually to surface dramatically three decades later in the revolt against the metropolitan elite that resulted in Brexit?
The electors, not the politicians, are in charge. Elections give the voters the chance – as in 1979 and 1997 – to call time on administrations that have gone on for too long. But when the electorate wants to, it can deny outright power to the big parties and ask them to sort things out in a hung parliament, as in February 1974, and then in 2010 and 2017.
As a young reporter in East Anglia, a political journalist with The Times for 43 years, and as a writer and broadcaster since then, I have covered a lot – I’m limbering up now for my 14th general election. These were the messages and lessons I took from the first 13, with my ratings (out of 10) of their significance.
1970: The view from Norfolk – and a shock Conservative victory
Just in my 20s, I roared my Ford Prefect round the villages of south Norfolk to record the inevitable re-election of Sir Ian Gilmour, the Tory MP who was later – inaccurately – to tell Margaret Thatcher in 1981 that her government was “heading for the rocks”. Nationally, Edward Heath defied the shaky polls and capitalised on Labour’s devaluation and failed trade union reform to overthrow Harold Wilson. England’s defeat just before the election by West Germany in football’s World Cup quarter finals was blamed by many for contributing to a collapse in national morale which prompted voters to punish the governing party. But Heath was given a mandate to negotiate Britain’s entry to Europe’s Common Market, and duly succeeded. The vote was given to 18-year-olds for the first time. Kenneth Clarke and Dennis Skinner arrived as MPs and stayed.
Result: Conservatives upset the odds with majority of 31.
Significance (8): Big – because voters, in returning Heath, opted for Europe.
1974 (February): Wilson squeaks back as Heath gamble fails
My first for The Times and one in which the industrial correspondents were as busy as their political comrades. The miners’ strike led Heath to impose a three-day week to conserve electricity generation and called the election on the slogan, “Who governs Britain?” The answer voters gave him was a muted, “Not you.” The miners had stayed on strike but behaved themselves. So voters worried instead about surging inflation and opted for a hung parliament. Wilson had four seats more than Heath, but Heath tried without success to do a deal with Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberals. Enoch Powell, notorious for his inflammatory “rivers of blood” anti-immigration speech in 1968, urged people to vote against Heath because he was taking Britain into a federal Europe.
Result: Wilson back in Number 10 with 301 seats.
Significance (7): The Tories – notably a young minister called Thatcher – decided the unions must be taken on.
1974 (October): Wilson returns as PM with a tiny majority
Reluctant voters were called back into action for a lacklustre, quiet campaign. Wilson formed a government, albeit with a majority of only three. Labour benefited from ending the miners’ strike and its tiny win turned out to be its last for 23 years. Heath was punished for losing three elections, Thatcher taking his place. She and her gurus including Sir Keith Joseph prepared the ground for a radical Tory alternative.
Wilson put EC – Common Market – membership to a referendum in June 1975, allowing his split cabinet a free vote. The country said Yes with a thumping 67 per cent voting in favour. Labour’s majority disappeared because of by-elections and defections, and Wilson suddenly resigned in 1976, but his successor James Callaghan somehow struggled on through more industrial strife to 1979 helped by pacts with the Liberals and others.
Result: Labour scrapes home with last victory for two decades.
Significance (6): Voters and unions pave way for Thatcherism.
1979: Thatcher begins the Revolution after Callaghan blows it
In the largest swing since 1945 Margaret Thatcher came to power with a 43-seat majority. It followed a serious miscalculation by Callaghan over election timing. He had a surprise poll lead but he dithered fatally. Those of us who heard him sing the music hall song at the TUC (Trades Union Congress) – “Can’t get away to marry you today, My wife won’t let me” – assumed he was pulling the expected poll but it was several days before he decided to delay. The ensuing Winter of Discontent led to rubbish piling up in the streets. Thatcher tabled a motion of no confidence in Callaghan, which he lost by one vote.
Helped by Saatchi & Saatchi’s “Labour Isn’t Working” slogan, Thatcher deliberately appealed to the skilled and unskilled working class by promising to control inflation and take on the unions. Thatcher’s minders had taught her the value of the photo-op. I recall her holding a calf for 13 minutes to satisfy the snappers, leading her husband Denis to remark: “Careful dear, you’ll have a dead calf on your hands.”
Result: Record swing to Conservatives as Thatcher wins by 43.
Significance (8): Beginning of era of economic and industrial change.
1983: Thatcher secures landslide after Falklands boost
Despite severe difficulties with her own cabinet ‘wets’ who disliked her monetarist zeal, rising unemployment and the threat of recession. Thatcher returned to popularity after sending Britain’s forces to recover the Falkland Islands. I spent the campaign in a press bus following her Battle Bus all over the country in what was essentially a safety-first exercise. She kept well away from us until her minders finally relented and gave us access to her at an impromptu press conference in the middle of Newbury racecourse on the final Friday. She presented us with a story by telling us she intended to play a big role on the world stage because of a “combination of one’s own style and one’s own experience”. She was fortunate in her opponent, Michael Foot, who was never taken seriously by the electorate. He was not helped by his general secretary Jim Mortimer. I was at the press conference when Mortimer suddenly announced that the campaign committee had decided that “Michael Foot is the leader of the Labour Party…” Oh dear!
Result: Thatcher storms to 144-seat majority.
Significance (9): Thatcher hardens mandate for union reform and privatisation.
1987: Thatcher’s second landslide after campaign ‘wobble’
Neil Kinnock became Labour leader with the awesome task of making his party electable again. The SDP and the Liberals teamed up in the Alliance under David Owen and David Steel, making advances during the parliament. But when it came to it Thatcher lost only 22 seats and secured a majority of 102.
Back on the road in the press bus it seemed to us Thatcher had only to go through the motions to win. But on the Thursday before polling she and her team seemed totally distracted. We found out why later on. During the day they saw an internal poll which suggested their lead over Labour had fallen to 2 per cent. There was a split among her advisers. According to his own memoirs, Lord Young got Norman Tebbit by the lapels and shook him, shouting: “Norman, listen to me, we’re about to lose this fucking election.” He was wrong but the furious cabinet dispute in 1986 over the future of the Westland helicopter company, leading to the resignation of Michael Heseltine, had sown the seeds for a dramatic denouement three years later.
Result: Three in a row for Thatcher.
Significance (5): Internal trouble looms.
1992: Major grabs fourth Tory victory
Europe finished Thatcher after Sir Geoffrey Howe struck. John Major was at the helm when Kinnock, having persuaded his party to abandon unilateralism and other unpopular policies, looked likely to end his party’s exile in 1992.
He led in the polls but a combination of factors, including holding out the prospect of a deal with the Liberal Democrats, and perhaps the triumphalist Sheffield rally, thwarted him.
I spent some of the campaign travelling with Major, as he went from town to town and addressed bemused shoppers from his soapbox. After the sound and fury of the Thatcher years there was something in Major’s homespun image that struck a chord. I spent the last Monday of the campaign with Kinnock and got an early warning that the polls might be wrong. First when my old friend Betty Boothroyd, who was to go on to be Speaker, told me when we called into her Midlands seat that “we are not going to make it” and then that night in Blackburn when at a rally Kinnock was not on his usual ebullient form. I asked his wife Glenys what was wrong and she replied: “We are worried.”
Result: Major holds off Labour advance in 21-seat triumph.
Significance (7): Labour defeat opens door to Blairism.
1997: Blair landslide and worst Tory showing since 1906
Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson reinvented their party as ‘New Labour’ and when the election came it felt something of a procession from the start.
The economy was improving but years of infighting over Europe, the memory of Black Wednesday when the UK crashed out of the exchange rate mechanism, and a series of personal ‘sleaze’ scandals had done for the Tories.
As Conservatives wrangled even as the campaign got under way Labour ran a slick operation and a combination of Blair’s promises to be tough on crime and Brown’s caution over tax rises and spending produced a centrist message that many traditional Tory voters lapped up.
Having lost four elections Labour were almost too careful in the way they approached the election and their early years. As I disclosed in my book Inside Story, Blair telephoned me on the night before the election to voice concern that The Times was running a poll suggesting a big landslide victory. He feared it would deter the voters from coming out. The long wilderness years had induced paranoia.
Result: Labour take 418 seats and win by 179.
Significance (8): Blair grabbed the centre ground.
2001: Labour pull off routine second landslide
If ever there was a foregone conclusion in a general election this was it. Labour was returned with only five seats less than its 1997 record and the Tories went up by one seat, still dogged by ferocious rows over Europe. The turnout of 59 per cent was the lowest since 1918.
We needed incidents to keep us interested. So thank goodness for John Prescott who threw a punch at a man who had thrown an egg at him, prompting a lengthy media debate about how ministers should conduct themselves in public.
And thank goodness for Sharron Storer, a Birmingham resident, who criticised Blair in front of the cameras about the state of the health service.
Result: Blair returned with majority of 160.
Significance (5): The Conservatives shown that voters hate division.
2005: Three in a row for Blair but Iraq takes its toll
Blair duly won a third successive victory but the election was dominated by the fallout from the Iraq war. The Conservatives were by no means ready to return to power, choosing two more leaders: Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. Blair was forever having to assure his internal opponents, and his expected successor Gordon Brown, that this election was his last having suffered massive blows to his authority because of the scale of the rebellion over the war. His own unpopularity over Iraq meant plenty of campaign appearances alongside Brown, as Labour after years of growth tried to keep the strong economy at the forefront of the public mind. It worked, with the Lib Dems picking up 62 seats and becoming the main beneficiary of the Iraq divisions. Blair himself would be gone within two years.
Result: Labour win with heavily reduced majority.
Significance (6): Three victories no guarantee that your party will love you.
2010: Tories back in power as Cameron teams up with Clegg
The liveliest campaign for 13 years. But for political correspondents the true interest came at the end when neither of the main parties had a majority, leading to tense negotiations.
Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg were leading their parties in an election for the first time, with Brown having finally elbowed out Blair. Cameron ended up 20 votes short of the 326 needed and Clegg, with 62 seats, was courted by both Cameron and Brown. Labour were well short and would have needed other small parties to form a pact with the Lib Dems that would work. Brown resigned as Labour leader to try to facilitate that but in the end Cameron went for broke with a full coalition offer to Clegg, who shined in the television debates during the campaign.
The campaign had its moments. Brown privately described a 65-year-old woman and Labour voter, Gillian Duffy, from Rochdale as a “bigoted woman” after she raised with him the problem of vulnerable people not getting benefits because eastern Europeans were. His remarks were recorded by a Sky News mic that he had inadvertently left on.
Result: Cameron forms coalition government in deal with Clegg.
Significance (9): Coalitions can work but junior partner usually takes the blame.
2015: Cameron pulls off surprise victory
David Cameron surprised the pollsters and probably himself by winning an outright majority of 12 when most had been expecting a second hung parliament. His victims were his coalition partners, the Lib Dems, who plummeted from 62 seats to a miserable eight, as many young voters punished them for what was seen as their betrayal on tuition fees.
It was an effective Tory campaign. Strategists had given the politicians a good attack line – Labour intended to get into power with the help of the Scottish nationalists. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader who beat his brother David to the crown, was far too slow in ruling out a deal. Crucially the Conservatives campaigned on a promise to hold a referendum on membership of the EU and immediately said it would happen before the end of 2017. I’ve always wondered if Cameron would have preferred another hung parliament, thus enabling the Lib Dems to stop the referendum.
Result: Cameron triumphs by 12 as Libs collapse.
Significance (9): Straight victory means Europe referendum will happen.
2017: May humiliated as majority disappears
Callaghan’s 1978 miscalculation was dwarfed as Theresa May, starting off with a working majority of 17, called an election to give herself more scope to implement Brexit and ended up losing rather than gaining seats.
Her own closest advisers and key cabinet ministers urged her to go to the country and she easily secured the necessary two-thirds margin of MPs to try to strengthen her hand.
But a dismal campaign by the Tories, and particularly by the PM, combined with a better than expected show on the stump from Jeremy Corbyn, plus his promise to abolish tuition fees, led to disaster for May.
May was also hit by the curious decision to launch a new policy requiring the elderly to pay for their social care at the start of the campaign. When it was withdrawn May confirmed her robotic image by continually claiming “nothing has changed.”
But much HAD changed including her tally of seats. As a result all her attempts to push through Brexit failed and she was forced to stand down.
Result: May needs Democratic Unionists to give her a working majority after election ploy fails.
Significance (8): A warning to others. Much can change in an election campaign.
Photographs Getty Images, David Rose/Panos