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9 June 1983

Margaret Thatcher's second election victory in 1983 was one of the most decisive in post-war Britain. The Conservatives benefited from a three horse race, in which votes for the opposition were split between the Labour Party and the Liberal/SDP Alliance. Mrs Thatcher saw her majority rise to 144 seats. In terms of share of the vote, Labour only just managed to come in ahead of the Alliance, in their worst election performance since 1918.

The "biggest election landslide since the war"...

Party Votes Seats Change UK Vote Share (%) GB Vote Share (%)
Conservative 13,012,316 397 + 58 42.4 43.5
Labour 8,456,934 209 - 60 27.6 28.3
Liberal/SDP 7,780,949 23 + 12 25.4 26.0
Others 1,420,938 21 + 5 4.6 2.2

The Campaign   The Result


The Conservatives entered the 1983 general election campaign in good shape. Although Margaret Thatcher was one of the most unpopular Prime Ministers in history during her first years in office, Britain's victory in the Falklands conflict in 1982 radically improved her personal popularity and that of the Conservative Government. Labour, on the other hand, were weakened by internal divisions and defections to the new Social Democratic Party (SDP).

"Maggie for me" was a popular Conservative campaign song...

Michael Foot became the new leader of the opposition, replacing Jim Callaghan in 1980. The election of Foot as leader represented a dramatic swing to the left, and served to polarise divisions in an already divided party. In 1981, former Cabinet ministers Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, Bill Rogers and David Owen left the Labour Party to form the SDP. Jenkins soon entered into a pact with the Liberals, forming a new political unit known as The Alliance.

Buoyed by the victory over Argentina in The Falklands, as well as an improving economic situation for some sectors of the electorate, Mrs Thatcher decided to go to the polls. The May local election results, and favourable opinion polls, encouraged her in this decision.

When she announced the election for 9 June, some opinion polls showed her running up to 18 points clear of Labour.

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The Campaign

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 inflation.

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 Result

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 Michael Fallon.

A total of 23 SDP MPs lost their seats.

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 radical agenda.

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