by Robert Philpot / 26 Oct 2012
This article is from the October 2012 issue of Total Politics
In July 1986, as Margaret Thatcher’s government limped towards the parliamentary recess, the Guardian’s political commentator, Hugo Young, paid a visit to Bob Worcester, the chairman of the MORI polling company. Worcester told Young he had changed his mind: two years ago, the pair had discussed Labour’s prospects, and the veteran pollster had concluded that the party could not win the next election. But, said Worcester, he had not reckoned on the prime minister doing “so many silly things”. Now he thought it virtually certain that Labour would lead the next government.
Worcester’s optimism about Labour’s chances was neither unique nor the result of wishful thinking. Several days earlier, a member of Thatcher’s cabinet, Kenneth Baker, suggested to Young that Labour was doomed. But it was the party’s prospects in government, rather than Neil Kinnock’s chances of making it to Downing Street, that the education secretary was assessing. Baker did not believe that the “kind of people nominated for most inner-city Labour seats” would “sit idly by while Kinnock fails to deliver a left programme”.
And yet, less than a year later, the Tories were returned to office for a third term – one of only two governments in the 20th century to achieve such a feat – with their majority barely dented. As David Cameron faces his first prolonged bout of unpopularity, what does the story of the Tories’ remarkable recovery from the mid-term blues of 1986 to triumphant re-election tell us about what it takes for a government to snatch unexpected victory from the jaws of apparent defeat? And what warnings should Ed Miliband heed?
A number of the key characteristics associated with mid-term blues were clearly evident in 1986, each serving to reinforce the other: unpopularity in the polls and at the ballot box; unrest within the governing party; and an apparent lack of direction and purpose.
In retrospect, what Young’s masterful biography of Thatcher, One of Us, termed the ‘nadir’ of the Tories’ second term was the night of 14 April 1986. US jets were, with the permission of the PM, taking off from Britain to bomb Libya in retaliation for a recent terrorist attack. In the House of Commons, the government’s plans to liberalise the Sunday trading laws were defeated by a huge backbench Tory rebellion. Days later, for the first – and only time – in the parliament, Labour achieved a double-digit opinion poll lead over the Conservatives.
While spring 1986 may have been the low point of Thatcher’s second term, the government suffered a prolonged – though not incredibly deep – period of unpopularity, stretching from its defeat of the miners in March 1985 to the close of the party conference season in autumn 1986. Tory MPs fretted primarily about the buoyancy of the Liberal-SDP Alliance, whose support averaged between 25 and 30 per cent and who had pulled off a series of by-election victories against the Tories over the parliament: in Portsmouth South, Brecon and Radnor, and Ryedale. The local elections in May 1986 saw the Tories lose nearly 1,000 seats, and, a month previously, Labour had secured its only by-election gain of the parliament after winning Fulham from the Tories.
And 1986 had begun badly for the Tories when the defence secretary, Michael Heseltine, and Leon Brittan, the trade and industry secretary, resigned in a row over the fate of the Westland helicopter company. At one point, Thatcher herself feared that she might also lose her job. Apart from the revolt over Sunday trading, the early months of the year saw plans to introduce student loans, the partial sale of British Leyland to General Motors, and the privatisation of the water industry scuppered by uneasy Conservative MPs.
Unsurprisingly, research by the Tories’ advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, indicated that while public attitudes had changed little since the party’s 1983 victory, the government was now viewed as directionless, harsh and uncaring and Thatcher was seen as “not forward-looking”.
Under the Saatchi-devised theme of ‘The Next Move Forward’, the autumn party conference became what David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh describe as the “launching pad for the party’s recovery”. Ministers were told to use their speeches to set out their future plans. The first formal campaign meeting in January 1987 decided that the manifesto should be “an essay on the future”. At 77 pages, The Next Moves Forward was, suggest Butler and Kavanagh, “the bulkiest post-war manifesto produced by any party [and] contained radical proposals for state education, local housing and local authorities”.
With a sense of purpose clearly communicated to the voters, the other key to the Tories’ re-election was the economy. Between 1985 and 1987, polls registered a sharp increase in optimism about the economy: in spring 1985, pessimists led optimists by 21 per cent; by the time of the election, optimists led by 17 per cent. In the four years running up to the election, average weekly wages rose by 14 per cent in real terms. No government had lost an election after presiding over real increases in personal disposable income in the two years before it went to the country.
Faced with evidence that health and education were the key issues for Tory supporters and likely defectors, Chancellor Nigel Lawson performed perhaps the government’s most remarkable volte-face in the 1986 autumn statement. Having made curbing public expenditure its overriding economic principle, Lawson announced £5bn of additional spending for 1987-88, most of it allocated to health, education and housing.
But mid-term blues are by no means unique to the Thatcher government’s second term. The short and shallow period of unpopularity experienced by Tony Blair’s governments between 1997 and 2005 are the exception, not the rule.
The names of infamous by-election defeats for governing parties – Orpington in 1962, Mid Staffordshire in 1990, Christchurch in 1993, and Crewe and Nantwich in 2008 – litter the pages of post-war political history.
The restoration of the Conservatives’ political health in autumn 1986 is by no means unique, either. Polling expert Lewis Baston has charted the recovery of governments’ fortunes from their mid-term low to the subsequent general election. During her first term, Margaret Thatcher was 13 points behind Labour and 27 per cent behind the newly formed Liberal-SDP Alliance in 1981 before winning by 15 per cent in 1983. The Tories staged a stunning 32-point comeback between March 1990 and their fourth consecutive victory in April 1992. Conservative governments in the 1950s pulled off similar feats, recovering from deficits of 10 and 19 points in the polls to win the 1955 and 1959 general elections respectively.
Indeed, even some governments which failed to win re-election still managed to stage a significant comeback as polling day approached. In May 1968, Harold Wilson lagged 28 per cent behind the Tories. Two years later, he appeared on course for victory before losing unexpectedly to Ted Heath by three per cent.
The second Thatcher government’s renewal in office stands in contrast with another radical government which ran out of steam: that of Clement Attlee.
Despite its remarkable string of achievements, the 1945 Labour government was politically, intellectually – and, in the case of a number of its leading ministers – physically exhausted by the time it went to the country in 1950. As Tony Blair suggested in a speech to mark the 50th anniversary of its election, the Attlee government’s inability to modernise itself was seen in its “tendency to look back to the problems of the 1930s rather than forward to the future challenges of the 1950s”.
The return of economic optimism and the Tories’ political recovery in 1986 was evidence of a common factor in a number of governments which manage either to win re-election or stave off a much greater defeat than has been predicted. Just as Nigel Lawson opened the public spending spigots, governments in 1958-59, 1962-64, 1969-70 and 1977-78 eased off on economic policy and saw their political fortunes improve. Harold Macmillan’s desire to cut taxes while increasing public spending led to the resignation of one chancellor, Peter Thorneycroft, in 1958 and the firing of another, Selwyn Lloyd, in 1962. On each occasion, however, this change of course played a key part in the government’s political recovery: Macmillan increased the Tories’ majority in 1959, while the Conservatives came within a whisker of depriving Labour of a majority in 1964.
But economic and political recovery do not always go hand in hand. John Major’s government won re-election in 1992 despite the country experiencing its longest recession since the 1930s. But, thanks to the collapse of their reputation for economic competence, the Conservatives presided over a voteless recovery during their fourth term, seeming to gain no electoral credit for the strong growth, low inflation and interest rates, and falling unemployment that the country was by then enjoying.
Major’s fate in 1992 and 1997 points to two other crucial factors in a government’s ability to revive its political fortunes. First, the role of leadership. The Tories managed to escape the blame for the 1992 recession because voters attributed much of it to Thatcher. Her departure in 1990 led many to perceive that a change of government had, in fact, already taken place.
Major’s mid-term replacement of Thatcher is not unique, either. Since 1945, while in office, the Conservatives have changed their leader on four occasions, while Labour has done so only twice. Winston Churchill’s replacement by Anthony Eden in 1955 saw the Tories rewarded with an increased majority. Likewise, Eden’s departure in 1957 in the wake of the Suez debacle gave Macmillan two years to restore the Tories’ fortunes and increase their majority still further in 1959. And despite his own lack of political appeal, Macmillan’s successor, Alec Douglas Home, managed to reduce Labour’s poll lead from 15 points when he took office in October 1963 to a near score-draw on election day a year later.
Following his election as Tory leader, Major was able to calibrate carefully the combination of continuity and change which such a transition requires. Promising “a country at ease with itself”, Major signalled a change of style at the top after the abrasive Thatcher premiership. And his decision to replace the politically damaging community charge with the council tax was a clear signal that he did not propose purely cosmetic changes.
By contrast, Labour’s two mid-term changes of leader – from Wilson to Callaghan in 1976 and Blair to Brown in 2007 – were less electorally successful. Nonetheless, the political reputations of both Brown and Callaghan may have been very different had they not chosen to delay going to the polls. Polls indicated that both would have won a mandate of their own had they called autumn elections in, respectively, 2007 and 1978.
Second, Major’s experience in 1992 and 1997 points to the importance of public perceptions of the government-in-waiting. Critical to Major’s success in 1992 was the fact that, despite the recession, Labour was not trusted to run the economy. By 1997, not only was the Tories’ reputation in tatters, but Blair and Brown had also convinced voters that Labour was economically competent.
There’s another important lesson from the 1992 election. Speaking during the waning months of Thatcher’s premiership, her environment secretary, Chris Patten, mused that oppositions win elections when, as in 1945 or 1979, there has been a sea change in public attitudes. However, implicitly acknowledging that such a moment may have been reached again, he questioned whether that theory held when the aspiring opposition “has nothing more to say than that it is opposed to the government”.
By 1992, Neil Kinnock’s policy review had successfully jettisoned many of the remnants of the Labour’s 1983 ‘suicide note’: unilateral nuclear disarmament, support for the closed shop, withdrawal from Europe. Its manifesto in 1992 was cautious and its spending commitments scaled down, even if the party remained deeply distrusted on tax. But neutralising issues was not the same as providing voters with a positive reason for supporting Labour, as New Labour proved in 1997 with the adoption of the new Clause IV, a promise not to raise income tax, and a series of modest but attractive pledges.
Labour’s long haul back to electability through the 1980s and 1990s suggests a final clue about the importance of parties understanding, and responding to, the kind of pivotal elections which occurred in 1945, 1979 and 1997.
By the time the country went to the polls in 1950, the Conservatives had broadly accepted the basic framework of Labour’s welfare state. While the party’s Industrial Charter, published in 1947, included traditional Tory commitments to hold down taxes and spending, it also pledged the party to maintaining “high and stable levels of employment”, and saw the government playing a strong role co-ordinating economic policy in tandem with the unions and business. Moreover, there would be no attempt to privatise nationalised industries. By contrast, Labour after 1979 did not accommodate the changed political landscape. It doggedly opposed popular Tory policies – the right to buy, trade union legislation and extending share ownership – and moved sharply to the left.
Political parties also have their own unique characters and cultures, and the Tory domination of 20th-century politics may, in part, be attributed to what Geoffrey Wheatcroft terms the party’s “ferocious survival instinct and endless capacity for reinvention”. Their self-confessed pragmatism allowed the Conservatives to adapt to new social and economic realities in a way that Labour has traditionally failed to match.
But, perhaps ironically, Thatcher’s re-election in 1987 may fundamentally have changed the character of the Tory party: having defied her critics and fought, and won, on a radical programme, the prime minister became ever-surer of the correctness of beliefs and instincts.
For her supporters, the contrast between her achievement and the humiliating mid-term U-turn executed by Ted Heath, which brought neither economic nor electoral reward, was instructive. Fortified by the belief that it had never been defeated at the polls, Thatcherism became, for many in its ranks, the ideology the party had always lacked. A belief that deviation from its core tenets – especially the former PM’s latter-day aversion to the European Union – should not be tolerated arguably helped to sink the administration of her successor. And, at least until Cameron’s election as Tory leader in 2005, it ensured that Labour never faced an opposition capable of exploiting or capitalising on its own mid-term blues.
Robert Philpot is the director of Progress