3 May 1979The general election of 1979 was to prove a political watershed. Most historians and commentators agree that the election of Margaret Thatcher marked a break in post-war British history. The era from 1945 - 1979 had been characterised by a 'consensus' style of politics, in which the main parties mostly agreed on certain fundamental political issues and concepts such as the mixed economy, the role of the trades unions, the need for an incomes policy and the nature of the provision of public services such as health and education. This was now to change. Most of all, Mrs Thatcher's election heralded a change in the politics of unemployment.
Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan was forced to go to the country after his government lost a vote of confidence. Callaghan had had the option of calling an election in the Autumn of 1978, but decided to carry on and face the country after the economy had improved. Unfortunately the "winter of discontent" that followed severely damaged the government's economic policy and its standing in the polls. Although the government picked up slightly in the polls during the campaign, on 3 May 1979 Margaret Thatcher became Britain's first woman prime minister.
Callaghan had been Chancellor and Home Secretary in the 1964-70 adminstration and served as Foreign Secretary from 1974. He remains the only Prime Minister to have served in all three 'great offices of state' before entering Number 10.
Callaghan's parliamentary position became increasingly precarious. By April 1976 the government had lost its formal majority. The immediate reasons were a by-election defeat, the defection of two of Callaghan's backbenchers to form a new 'Scottish Labour Party' and the defection of the maverick John Stonehouse.
However, Callaghan managed to survive, mainly because the other opposition parties did not seem ready to unite to defeat him. By March 1977, after further by-election losses, he agreed to a parliamentary arrangement with David Steel and the Liberal Party which became known as the 'Lib-Lab Pact'.
The Lib-Lab pact ended in August 1978. The pact had been unpopular with some activists in both Parties, and in any case, an election was expected soon.
Callaghan could have gone to the country in the Autumn of 1978. The economy was improving and the Government had recovered some of its popularity. There was considerable speculation and controversy in the Cabinet about when the best time to go would be. Callaghan sought to end the speculation by singing an old Marie Lloyd song 'Waiting at the Church' to the TUC Congress. This was misunderstood in some quarters and he put the country's mind at rest in a broadcast in which he confirmed that he would not call an election until 1979. He was expecting that another round of pay policy would demonstrate to the electorate the success of his economic policy.
In the event, the pay policy did not hold and the scenes of industrial unrest were to be remembered as the 'winter of discontent'. Callaghan hoped to keep public sector pay claims under 5%. When tanker drivers forced the Government to give them a 14% raise, the flood gates opened. By the end of January, water workers, ambulance drivers, sewerage staff and dustmen were involved in industrial action, heralding the 'Winter of Discontent'.
When the devolution referenda were held, Wales voted 'no' and while Scotland voted 'yes' the majority was insufficient to make the decision binding. On the same day, 1 March 1979, the Government lost two by-election seats to the Conservatives. The SNP now withdrew its support from the Government and a vote of no confidence (on an SNP motion on devolution) was passed on 28 March. Callaghan called the general election for 3 May.
One of the few surprises of the campaign was Thatcher's refusal to appear on the television programme Weekend World alongside Callaghan and Steel. Despite this, television coverage dominated the campaign as never before. All three major parties held morning press conferences co-ordinated for the cameras. Thatcher worked particularly hard to provide the media with photo-opportunities, whether it was by swinging her shopping basket, drinking tea in a factory or cuddling a new-born calf. David Steel was also camera friendly, although the media accused him of manipulating pictures by making sure he was filmed in narrow streets, giving the impression that he was surrounded by crowds of supporters.
The Government's manifesto, The Labour Way is the Better Way advocated an increase in pensions and tax cuts. However, opinion polls suggested the public believed the Conservatives were the party more likely to bring taxes down, spelling trouble for Labour. The Tory manifesto, The Conservative Manifesto 1979, promised to control inflation and keep the unions in check.
The one 'gaffe' of the campaign came from Sir Harold Wilson - the former Labour Prime Minister - who conceded in an interview with the Daily Mail that his wife might vote for the Conservatives, because their leader was a woman.
As the nation prepared to vote the Conservatives looked certain to win. They had put Callaghan through the wringer for Labour's handling of the economy. Their message was skillfully backed up by their advertising campaign directed by Saatchi and Saatchi, which claimed 'Labour isn't working'.
Shirley Williams lost her seat, as did Jeremy Thorpe, Emlyn Hooson, John Pardoe and Teddy Taylor, in what Margaret Thatcher called a 'watershed election'. John Major was among the new members returned at this election, as were Chris Patten, William Waldegrave, David Mellor, Ian Lang, Stephen Dorrell, John Gummer, and Frank Dobson. With a majority of 43, Mrs Thatcher had the opportunity to govern for a full term.