1992 United Kingdom general election

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The 1992 UK general election was one of the more interesting results in recent history; where the incumbent Conservatives managed to win a historic fourth consecutive victory – one which the polls said wouldn't happen, and starting some twenty points behind in polling. During a recession. This contradiction led to the coining of the 'shy Tory factor' (echoing the earlier American phrase 'Silent Majority'); where polling had lowballed public support for the Conservatives due to a perceived response bias against them (something again noted in the 2015 election and later on in both 2016 and 2020 US Presidential elections).

The election itself was memorable for the new Conservative leader John Major's relatively old-school campaigning with soapbox and impromptu speeches,[1] the triumphalism of Labour's Neil Kinnock[2] and the claims by The Sun that it was behind the victory.[3] It was also the first general election being contested by the newly formed Liberal Democrats and the first to be covered by a dedicated news channel – Rupert Murdoch's Sky News.

Background[edit]

The early 1990s recession was global, but made worse in Britain due to a series of decisions by the Thatcher Government; such as a rapid deregulation of the finance sector, tax cuts for the rich and an overvalued currency. Thatcherites believed they were ushering in a new era of growth; instead they got a ballooning import bill, rapidly rising inflation and signs of a property bubble. What goes up must come down; by late 1990 interest rates were at 15%, millions experienced the joys of 'the dole' and even more got to learn what 'negative equity' meant.[4]

Thatcher almost certainly would have survived this, if she'd not become obsessed about the 'poll tax' in the meantime. Believing it was the sure-fire way of destroying Labour-run local councils through the purse-strings; she autocratically 'handbagged' any and all who opposed her – like her own Cabinet, who were warning her it was deeply unpopular.[5] After ignoring a few hints over months, the Conservatives decided to 'dump the pilot'[6] — replacing her with John Major, who soon after threw the poll tax out after her.

This – along with the end of the Cold War, a successful conclusion to the Gulf War and the fact Major was a relative unknown politically (allowing the portrayal of them as a 'new' government) led them to claw back enough public support to have them level-pegging with Labour as the election approached.

Campaign[edit]

The Conservative campaign was rather traditional in scope – taxes, inflation and the immigration – and primarily negative in nature, stating that Labour wanted to 'open the floodgates' and couldn't be trusted with the economy[7] (the current recession, naturally not being their fault at all).

Labour also followed a rather traditional pattern; focusing on the state of the welfare state (particularly the NHS) as well as the soaring inequality during the previous decade. Learning from the events of the two previous elections, Kinnock had given some effort to portray themselves as a 'government in waiting', with some success. The main thing remembered these days was the fact it was the last 'left wing' manifesto Labour would run on until 2017.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was the much smaller Liberal Democrats which 'won it' for the Tories. Their main policy was – as usual – that of 'electoral reform'. However, threats of a 'hung parliament' (due to the close polling) meant they'd be the kingmakers… except the Conservatives made it crystal clear there would be no change from the 'first past the post' system (and thus, no coalition/agreement). This meant that basically, a vote for Liberal Democrats was in actuality a vote for Kinnock to get into No 10.

This was disastrous. Not only did this scare off many 'classical liberal' voters to whom Labour was 'too socialist' but the fact Kinnock flip-flopped on the issue meant the Tories presented themselves as the 'only strong and stable' option, instead of the Lib-Lab 'coalition of chaos' (lines used again in 2015 and 2017).

Results[edit]

It was a shock result; the Conservatives win with a working majority of 21; even the exit polls had shown a hung parliament. While the Conservative vote generally held up well, a combination of a swing from the Liberal Democrats to Labour and some tactical voting meant the majority of seat losses were from the ruling party. The results showed the seeds of future decline; with the Conservative heartland increasingly concentrated in the Southern and Eastern parts of England – areas which had done well from the Thatcher era. Future Labour leader Tony Blair cited the need to appeal to this group, the aspirational 'Essex Man'Wikipedia as a prime justification for what would become New Labour.

Seats Change Vote % Change
Conservatives 336 -40 41.9 -0.3
Labour 271 +42 34.4 +3.6
Liberal Democrats 20 -2 17.8 -4.8
Other 24 +1 5.9 +1.5

References[edit]