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What Happened in the 1997 General Election (UK)

Updated on February 26, 2013
The 1997 Labour winner Tony Blair PM doing what he does best.
The 1997 Labour winner Tony Blair PM doing what he does best. | Source

A Record Breaking Election

The 1997 general election was a special one for the UK, featuring a landslide victory for the Labour Party with Tony Blair as the Prime Minister.

Five important records were broken that election:

  1. The turnout was lower than it had ever been after WW2
  2. Labour achieved the largest amounts of seats it ever had: 419 (out of 651) as well as highest parliamentary majority: 179.
  3. The Conservatives saw their lowest share of the vote, 30.7%, since 1832 (165 years!) as well as lowest amount of seats in parliament (165) since 1906!
  4. A whole 10.5% of Conservative supporters switched to supporting Labour instead - a postwar record of swinging.
  5. The Liberal Democrats took the record for the best performing third party (post WW2)

What Changed, Man?

It can be said that the 1997 election was the beginning of the UK's dealigned electorate - people started supporting parties that weren't traditionally for their class.

  • Labour saw great increases in votes from every region, social class, gender, and age group (with the exception of 65+).

Meanwhile, the Conservative Party became a lot less popular, losing a record 4.4 million voters from the 14 million it had in the previous election (1992).

  • People felt that the Conservatives could not handle the economy properly, questioning their decision to increase taxes and exit the ERM.
  • The party was heavily divided over issues like Europe and so people felt like they could no longer rely on the party to act (pro or against, a divide means the chance of not getting what you want).
  • Negative stories such as the 'cash for questions' scandal where rich people - like the owner of Harrods - paid to have specific questions addressed in parliament also played a key role in the sharp dissatisfaction that the public had with the Conservative party.
  • John Major was considered by many to be a weak and incapable leader.
  • Many "Tory Press" papers (those that back Conservative views) abandoned their inclination towards the party.

Tactical Voting Against Conservatives

It would seem that 1997 was one of the first elections where people were very intelligent with their vote - in Conservative populated areas, Lib Dem and Labour supporters voted for the second most popular party, even if it wasn't their own, so that there wouldn't be a Conservative MP in that constituency.

This tactical voting started to happen a lot more because the Labour Party had recently gone under reform. These reforms were very public-orientated and incidentally, the Labour Party and the Lib Dems and their policies began to merge together.

Labour Popularity and its Reforms

With the death of John Smith, the Labour party was transformed into the "New Labour" party that we now know.

  • Clause IV was removed in 1995 and with it went the unpopular socialistic ideals that were bringing Labour down at the time.
  • This centralisation was more popular and allowed a broader range of people to vote for this reformed 'New Labour'. Drastic changes showed that Labour was willing to admit where it was wrong and was not afraid of improving itself - traditionally what the Conservative Party is not considered to be like.
  • As mentioned above, the centralisation of the Labour Party also allowed Lib Dem voters to tactically vote for Labour without giving up too many of their own ideals.


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