Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.
It would be remiss to let the year 2017 pass without writing something about 1987, the only other election to have taken place in a year ending in seven since Palmerston’s victory in 1857.
So, let us look back now – we were busy at the actual anniversary in June this year – at Margaret Thatcher’s third win, and the last election to date in which the Conservatives have won a comfortable majority.
The Conservatives endured a bit of mid-term blues in 1985-86, but were recovering well by the autumn. The party had a good conference. The opposition parties hit their own problems, and the economy was clearly picking up as 1986 ended, with growth rising and unemployment falling at last.
They took a lead in the polls in December 1986 and by May 1987 the announcement that there would be a general election on 11 June was no surprise.
The Conservatives’ theme was ‘The Next Moves Forward’. The intention was to dispel the idea that the government was running out of ideas and steam, and use political ascendancy to push the party’s ideas into new areas. The manifesto was a confident statement of the end of British ‘decline’ and ‘ungovernability’.
Remarkably for a third-term prospectus it made some bold ideological promises. The formula of ‘popular capitalism’ had been hit upon more or less by accident in the early stages of the Government, but the manifesto turned it into an ambitious project of dispersing ownership of capital – shares, houses and private pensions – and realising the dream of a property owning democracy.
It also promised the extension of markets and choice into more public services, particularly health and education. There were a couple of harbingers of trouble there as well: the manifesto proposed reforming local government taxation and introducing a flat rate charge that became known as the ‘poll tax’.
There was a blandly pro-European passage in the Conservative manifesto, noting that Britain has led the way in establishing a genuine common market, with more trade and services moving freely across national boundaries. Europe was little discussed in the campaign, but defence was a key point in this last campaign of the Cold War. The Conservatives gleefully attacked Labour’s policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament.
June 1987 should have been one of the easier general election campaigns. The traditional determinants of election results, namely recent economic performance and the popularity of the party leaders, were both pointing to a Conservative win. The opposition was divided and keenest at kicking lumps out of each other, such as the bitter Greenwich by-election in February 1987. The Tories had the enthusiastic support of nearly all of Fleet Street and the party’s coffers were overflowing with money.
Despite this, the Conservative campaign was famously scratchy and bad-tempered. There were rival power centres around Norman Tebbit at Central Office (backed up by Saatchi & Saatchi) and Lord Young, Tim Bell and the ‘exiles’. Labour waged a surprisingly vigorous campaign, thanks in part to Peter Mandelson’s presentational skills and a well-received film biography of Neil Kinnock.
The Conservatives’ nadir was on ‘Wobbly Thursday’ a week before polling day when one poll had their lead over Labour at only four points. Lord Young grabbed Norman Tebbit and berated him for the apparent failure of the campaign: “we’re about to lose this fucking election!” The party splurged massive amounts of money on full page newspaper advertisements in the final week, but the panic was unnecessary and other polls showed them cruising to the expected win.
On election night, the Conservative success was apparent early on as they fended off the Liberals in Cheltenham and Labour in Basildon. Their overall majority in the new House of Commons was 100 – not a bad result, as Tebbit quickly pointed out, for a supposedly poor campaign.
The voting was highly polarised. Most of the 21 net Conservative losses since 1983 were in Wales (6) and Scotland (11), with only four in England. In the south and east of England there were net gains. The Conservative share of the vote was 42.2 per cent, very similar to the party’s performance in 1983 (42.4 per cent) and 2017 (42.3 per cent). They were 11 percentage points ahead of Labour, meaning that Labour still had a mountain to climb.
Thatcher was perturbed by the relatively bad results in the inner cities – “we want them too next time” – and baffled by Scotland. Middle-class constituencies like Edinburgh South and Manchester Withington went Labour for the first time while the Conservatives won working-class Thurrock; Wolverhampton North East went Tory for the only time in its history since its establishment in 1885.
The London results were particularly startling. In 1987 (and again in 1992) London was a bit more emphatic in its support for the Conservatives than the nation as a whole. London’s strong economy, and the controversial and unpopular policies of some Labour councils, delivered for the Tories. It was not just that the Tories picked up two seats that Labour had held in 1983 (Battersea and, absolutely stupefying to the reader in 2017, Walthamstow), but that Tory majorities in normally Labour-inclined marginal seats were enormous.
In Hayes & Harlington, now John McDonnell’s stronghold, Terry Dicks – from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum – won by nearly 6,000 votes; I am reluctant to use an internet search to confirm or refute the story that he used the slogan ‘I love Dicks’. Ian Twinn, more decorously, held Edmonton by over 7,000 and Harry Greenway piled up a majority of over 15,000 over Hilary Benn in Ealing North.
The Commons bade farewell in 1987 to Jim Callaghan, the former Prime Minister, and Roy Jenkins, who lost his Glasgow Hillhead constituency to Labour’s George Galloway. Enoch Powell’s parliamentary career ended, as he prophesied, with failure in the form of defeat by the SDLP in South Down. The Conservative intake of 1987 continued to shift the party’s composition away from the aristocracy and towards business – from estate owners to estate agents, as the MP Julian Critchley put it.
Five of the 1987 intake went on to lead parties, and the book on that is still not quite closed. Menzies Campbell briefly led the Liberal Democrats in 2006-07; Alex Salmond had two ten-year stretches as leader of the SNP in 1990-2000 and 2004-14 and Ieuan Wyn Jones led Plaid Cymru from 2000 to 2012. Roger Knapman, Conservative MP for Stroud 1987-97, was leader of UKIP from 2000 to 2004 and George Galloway was leader of Respect.
John Redwood contested Conservative leadership elections in 1995 and 1997 but did not win. Nor did David Davis succeed in his attempt in 2005, although his chance may yet come round again if we are to believe The Sun and the Conservative Home leadership survey. Future Cabinet ministers Andrew Mitchell and Gillian Shephard were rather less right-wing members of the 1987 intake.
The 1987 election has had a number of intriguing consequences that reverberate to this day.
First, it was the moment at which it became clear and inescapable that Britain’s future would be shaped by Thatcherism: that the 1979-87 government had been about more than retrenchment and restoration of authority. There would be further travel in the direction of an economy, public sector, and society that reflected Thatcher’s vision, and that the opposition would be compelled to accept a lot of it.
Secondly, despite the emphatic Tory win, the 1987 election saved the Labour Party. The Alliance was seen off, and the tortured process of split and merger that followed meant that the Liberal Democrats were born as a third party, not a contender for government.
The 1987 defeat was sufficiently severe that Labour started on a path of radical reform of policy as well as presentation, with the Policy Review of 1989 repudiating unilateralism and most renationalisation. Kinnock supported the rise of ‘modernisers’ like the young Tony Blair, who as trade and industry spokesman ditched Labour’s support for the closed shop in 1989.
Thirdly, the election reinvigorated the politics of Scottish devolution and nationalism. The political difference between Scotland and England was getting too big to ignore. Scottish Labour had won a record landslide, and the Conservatives no longer had enough MPs to staff both the Scottish Office and the Select Committee. In 1989 the opposition and much of Scottish civil society signed a Claim of Right and established the Scottish Constitutional Convention that paved the way for devolution.
Fourthly, the 1987 election in London can be seen as the first battle in a cultural war. Norman Tebbit’s campaign was successful in its immediate aim of detaching white working class votes from Labour, and was followed up by Clause 28 of the Education Act the next year, but it did damage in the long run. There was a generation of gay people – some wealthy and entrepreneurial – who could not identify with the Tories. As with Powell and ethnic minorities in 1970, a short run win was paid for by the long term alienation of a community. As party chairman in 2002, Theresa May repudiated that strategy:
“Some Tories have tried to make political capital by demonising minorities instead of showing confidence in all the citizens of our country… You know what some people call us – the nasty party. I know that’s unfair. You know that’s unfair but it’s the people out there we need to convince – and we can only do that by avoiding behaviour and attitudes that play into the hands of our opponents.”
Fifthly, 1987 is a key piece of evidence for the thesis that election campaigns don’t matter; a government can run a poor campaign and an opposition party a good one but the public verdict will be different from the grades for artistic impression awarded by political commentators. The precedent gave false comfort to Conservative campaigners in 2017.
A final thought. From the establishment of two party politics in 1924 up to and including the 1987 election, the Conservatives won comfortable or landslide majorities on nine occasions, and a small majority once (1951). Labour won only two big majorities, and the other five Labour wins were either by narrow majorities or as the largest party in a hung parliament. Since then, the only big majorities have been the three Blair victories, and the Conservatives have either won small majorities (1992, 2015) or hung parliaments (2010, 2017).
The reasons for this lie deep, but 1987 is part of the story as the politics of region and identity gradually displaced class, a brashly self-confident government encountered mounting opposition, and some of the perverse outcomes of the popular capitalism project became apparent. There was, through all sorts of twists and turns, a Conservative century from 1886 until the late 1980s. It is unfamiliar to think of the Conservative landslide of 1987 as the onset of twilight, but that is how it now appears in electoral history.