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It is commonly thought that British governments can recover from mid-term unpopularity and go on to secure success in general elections. However, it is very difficult to gain a working majority for a full term, and then secure a further working majority for a further full term. In only three periods in the post-war period have administrations been able to do so: the Conservative 1950s, the Thatcherite heyday between 1979 and 1992, and New Labour's hegemony from 1997 to 2005.
If politicians think they can readily shake off the mid-term blues, post-war British history has some uncomfortable lessons for them.
The Conservative 1950s
The Conservatives dominated the 1950s, securing majorities of sixteen in 1951, fifty-nine in 1955 and ninety-nine in 1959. But to what extent was this dominance foreshadowed by the respective mid-term results?
The Conservatives were returned in October 1951, with Churchill once more Prime Minister, and the next three and a half years were plain sailing for the Tories. In particular, they fared well at parliamentary by-elections. Between 1951 and 1955, they did not lose a single Conservative-held seat. Opinion polls tell a similar story. Despite inevitable tribulations, the party was never far short of its 1951 performance.
In the 1955 general election, the Conservatives won 344 seats on a vote share of 49.7 per cent, with a fairly uniform 2 per cent swing from Labour. It seemed that a governing party, if it wished to be re-elected, needed to make sure that it kept its nose in front or, at least, not far behind.
The 1955–1959 administration encountered considerably more squalls, including the loss of Eden as PM in January 1957 following the failed Suez adventure. Despite these troubles, his successor, Harold Macmillan, was returned in October 1959 with 49.4 per cent of the vote.
But in mid-term, Labour was well ahead in the opinion polls. The Tories also had difficulties with by-elections. Twenty-three were held between June 1956 and May 1958. They lost three seats to Labour and one to the Liberals, with the average swing to Labour about 7 per cent. However, the results were not dire: twelve of the contests saw the Conservatives hold seats won in 1955, albeit with reduced majorities.
The Conservative 1950s therefore offer limited, if any, support for the notion that parties can readily recover from mid-term blues.
The Thatcherite heyday: 1979 to 1992
By 1979, the political scene had changed utterly from that of the 1950s and 1960s. Following the oil crisis of 1973/4, and the ensuing ‘stagflation’, both main parties shifted sharply away from the post-war consensus. The Conservatives embraced neoliberalism and Labour swung sharply leftwards. These developments rendered some on the pro-European right of Labour and the One Nation Tory left politically homeless. This gap was filled in early 1981, with the launch of the Social Democratic Party (SDP).
Even before this ideological realignment, the nature of the electoral contest had changed. Elections in the 1950s were quite a simple business: the two main parties took nearly all the votes (between 90 per cent and 97 per cent). In February 1974, by contrast, the two main parties received only 75 per cent of the votes.
The first Thatcher government experienced considerable resistance to its monetarist policies, but this did not translate in a straightforward fashion to support for Labour, the official opposition. And then, in 1982, the Falklands War produced an electoral boost just when it was needed, paving the way to the Conservative landslide of 1983.
The second Thatcher Administration did not need a war to secure re-election in 1987. Between June 1984 and June 1986, ICM's monthly polls showed the Conservatives on average about 1 per cent behind Labour. The governing party was, therefore, either in front of, or breathing down the neck of, the opposition throughout. In part, this represented the agonising difficulty for Labour of taking a stance on the miners’ strike, then at its height.
When problems emerged in the 1987-92 Parliament, the answer was to hand: the swift and ruthless removal of Thatcher in 1990. Conservative fortunes then revived in time for the 1992 election.
Looking at these thirteen years as a whole, it is easier to conclude that the Conservatives were fortunate and shrewd than that it was easy to recover from mid-term reverses.
New Labour's hegemony: 1997 to 2005
Labour won the May 1997 general election decisively, with a swing of 10 per cent and a vote share of 43.2 per cent. The economy then grew steadily, living standards rose and Labour remained broadly united around its modest programme. These strange political times were reflected in the mid-term opinion polls, in which the Tories were never ahead or even trailing by single figures.
New Labour's luck could not last forever: three months after the 2001 general election, the 9/11 attacks took place, and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars dominated the 2001–2005 administration. Despite this, Labour's opinion poll position remained robust. Indeed, Labour now benefitted from the three-party system, with anger over the war in Iraq tending to drain Labour votes away to the anti-war Liberal Democrats rather than to the Conservatives.
1997–2005 showed New Labour at the peak of its powers. There was no mystery to getting re-elected: you just had to get ahead of your main opponents and stay there.
This brief survey suggests that unpopularity in the mid-term usually presages defeat in the subsequent general election. From Attlee to May there is much more electoral failure than success. Indeed, if one removes from the picture the Thatcher and Blair periods, re-election looks much more the exception than the rule.
Within the three periods studied, the essential message to aspiring Prime Ministers seems straightforward. If you want a further working majority for a full term, then you need to outpace your principal opponents in national opinion polls throughout your term in office or, at worst, be close behind them.