The Conservatives' manifesto was formed
around three pillars - defence, employment and economic prosperity.
The Tories remained committed to membership of the European Community,
an independent nuclear deterrent, trade union reform, further
privatisation, a long-term reduction in taxation and a war on
The Labour manifesto, New Hope for
Britain, was later dubbed "the longest suicide note in
history". At its core was a 12-point plan with firm pledges
including withdrawal from the Common Market, the abolition of
the House of Lords, the cancellation of the Trident nuclear programme
and the removal of Cruise missiles from Britain. The Alliance's
first manifesto, Working Together for Britain, advocated
proportional representation, devolution for Scotland and Wales
and multilateral disarmament.
A week into the campaign, Labour began
to falter. Denis Healey, Labour's deputy leader, voiced his opinion on
BBC's Newsnight that Britain's nuclear
deterrent would only be disposed of if the USSR made "adequate
concessions". This led Joan Ruddock, chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), to contend
that this did not amount to a non-nuclear policy.
The Conservatives remained on top
throughout the campaign. In an attempt to catch up, Labour tried
to promote the idea of a Tory "secret manifesto",
publishing private documents which, they believed, highlighted
the Government's real plans. These "revelations" included
the claim from Healey that Mrs Thatcher had lied about the trend
of unemployment. Neil Kinnock, the shadow Secretary for Education,
published a report by the National Economic Development Council
which he claimed Ministers had supressed to hide the truth about
Britain's economic performance.
Defence was the key to Labour's
downfall. Foot was forced to modify the manifesto's defence commitments,
saying Labour would "move towards" a non-nuclear defence
policy and the removal of nuclear bases. However, his speech was
shot down the next day by the former Labour Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan,
who said Polaris had been an effective deterrent and should not
be unilaterally given up.
Meanwhile, the Alliance made few in-roads.
Despite more television coverage than ever before the voters remained
disinterested. With a fortnight to go before polling day, they
decided to push David Steel into the spotlight but retain Roy
Jenkins as their Prime Minister-designate. With the polls about
to close, the Tories looked likely to romp home by benefiting from
the split in the opposition vote.
One voter tried to change his mind...
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The final result saw the Conservatives
win an impressive 397 seats, leaving Labour with 209 and the Alliance
with 23. Although the Conservative share of the vote fell to 42.4%
(from 43.9%), the government was returned with a landslide majority
of 144. Labour saw their share of the vote fall to just 27.6% -
only two points above the Alliance on 25.4%.
Nationally, there was a swing of 3.8%
from Labour to the Conservatives. The most pronounced regional
swings occurred in Southern England, where Labour won only
two seats out of a possible 110.
Those MPs who lost their seats included
Tony Benn, Shirley Williams, William Rodgers, Ann Taylor and Joan
Lestor. The victor of the Darlington by-election in March, Ossie
O'Brien, also left the Commons, losing his seat to the Conservative
A total of 23 SDP MPs lost their
Sir Harold Wilson , George Thomas
(The Speaker) and Jo Grimond retired from the Commons.
New members included the future leaders
of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, Tony Blair and Paddy
Ashdown, and the future Conservative Home Secretary Michael Howard. Edwina
Currie, Neil Hamilton and Clare Short also entered the Commons
for the first time.
The Conservatives had reaped the rewards
of Labour's divisions to win one of the largest majorities in
post-war history, second only to Attlee's Labour majority in 1945.
Margaret Thatcher was now firmly entrenched as Prime Minister
with a majority that would ensure the passage of her increasingly
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Past Elections Index