3 May 1979
The 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
A victorious Mrs Thatcher gave a speech from the steps of No 10...
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
Mr Callaghan was generous in defeat...
UK Vote Share (%)
GB Vote Share (%)
The Labour government that came to
power in 1974 (as a minority administration from February and
with a wafer thin majority from October) faced difficult economic
circumstances, with inflation and unemployment both running at
post-war record levels. The government also 're-negotiated' the
UK's terms of entry into the EEC and had this endorsed in the
1975 referendum. in April 1976, Prime Minister Harold Wilson was succeeded by Jim Callaghan.
Harold Wilson's successor as Prime Minister and Labour leader, Jim Callaghan
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
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
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
On returning from an international
economic conference in Guadeloupe, the Prime Minister showed himself
to be out of touch with the mood of the country. When asked about
the growing industrial crisis facing Britain, Callaghan denied
any crisis existed, leading to The Sun headline 'Crisis?
The Sun blasts Callaghan as out of touch
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.
The Prime Minister pours scorn on the opposition as they prepare a vote of confidence . . .
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Five weeks passed between the Labour
Government's defeat and polling day. Margaret Thatcher, who replaced
Edward Heath as leader of the Conservative Party in 1975, prepared
to go the electorate determined to pin the blame for the 'Winter
of Discontent' firmly on the Government's shoulders. From the
start of the campaign the Conservatives looked the likely winners,
running ten points ahead in the polls. The only worry for the
Conservatives was Thatcher's personal unpopularity when compared
Margaret Thatcher, elected Tory leader in 1975
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'.
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Despite Callaghan's warning that the
Tories 'were too big a gamble for the country to take', Margaret
Thatcher was returned as Britain's first woman Prime Minister
with a safe working majority. The Conservatives won 339 seats
compared to Labour's 269. The swing to the Conservatives of 5.2% was the largest since 1945.
The Liberals lost two seats taking
their total down to 11; their share of the vote
dropped by 5.3 points. The Scottish and
Welsh nationalists also fared badly, losing 10 out
of their 14 seats.
Margaret Thatcher, Britain's first woman Prime Minister
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.
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