Analysing The 1979 General Election And Thatchers Victory Politics Essay

The General Election were decided to be held on 3rd May 1979 and at first glance it appeared to be characterized by something new. First of all, British voters saw the first women to run the election for Prime Minister of the UK. Secondly, it was the first election since 1959 [1] to see three new leaders from the main political parties. The Labour Party’s candidate was James Callaghan, who became leader of the party on 5th April 1976; Margaret Thatcher won the Conservative Party’s leadership on 11th February 1975 and the Liberal Party drew up David Steel, who was leader of the party since 7th July 1976 [2] . Thirdly, for the first time the local councils for England and Wales were elected on the same day of the General Election. However, there is no evidence that this factor had influenced in some ways the final outcome.

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The period before the election day was characterized by a though electoral campaign with the Conservative Party making great efforts in order to lead its leader to the victory. On 11th April 1979 Margaret Thatcher presented her electoral manifesto whose main theme was “Time for a change”. Thatcher’s manifesto pointed out that Britain was facing a bitter situation and thus there was an urgent need for national recovery “based not on dogma, but on reason, on common sense, above all on the liberty of people under the law” [3] . Britain’s recovery could have been achieved, according to Thatcher, through the successful resolution of two fundamental issues: taxation and trade unions’ power. What can be considered a particular feature of Mrs Thatcher’s electoral campaign is the way in which the latter was led. According to Ivor Crewe and Donald D. Searing, Thatcher’s electoral campaign reversed the usual models since it was based on a rather than a “voter-driven” one. The practice of campaigning under the “politician-driven model” is based on politicians’ own fundamental values or ideas, rather than on an attempt to represent an existing consensus or simply to take positions that are popular in polls. Politicians try to move the voters toward their positions. This model can be seen as a way to “reshape the political thinking of the electorate” [4] , and Thatcher adopted it during her first electoral campaign. according to a research made by Searing Thatcher succeeded in shifting public opinion to the right with regards to the typically Labour issue of nationalization: the support for denationalization rose from 24% in 1974 to 40% by 1979 [5] .

Another peculiarity of Margaret Thatcher’s campaign was that it was based mainly on TV participation and on pseudo-events participation in order to get nice images to be broadcasted or printed. The advertisement agency Staatchi & Staatchi was given the Conservative Party’s public relations account. Furthermore, the TV producer Gordon Reece looked after Thatcher’s electoral campaign and above all Mrs Thatcher’s image. With Reece’s help Margaret Thatcher changed her hair, look and even her voice in order to be more effective on TV and generally in public. Thus, the campaign was accurately planned and “most of her supposedly informal meetings with the voters were minutely staged-managed” [6] . Political speeches were given few importance in favour of sound-bites and photo opportunities. During the electoral period British people could see many videos or photographs portraying the Conservative candidate both as a strong woman and as a tender housewife: in this period Thatcher visited a farm and was filmed while cradling a calf [7] . The press also played an important role with regards to the anti-Labour campaign, which was led above all by the newspaper Sun. The cost of such an organized campaign amounted at ?2.3 million, compared with ?1.6 million spent by Labour [8] . The Conservative Party led by Margaret Thatcher carried its political campaign above all in the strongholds of Labours in order to gain votes from the Labour Party’s voters, in fact during her speech in Cardiff, Margaret Thatcher stated that “in this campaign we’ll not only extend and consolidate Conservative support, we’ll carry the fight right into what were ones the castles and strongholds of Labour and in many places we’ll win” [9] . And the first women in the UK to be leader of one of the main political party, was right.

The results of the 1979 General Election were strongly in favour of the Conservative Party, which won the election with 13,697,973 votes and the result was decisive with a difference of about 2 million votes between the two major parties since 1945 [10] . Margaret Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister in Britain with 43.9% (with a swing toward the Conservative of 8.1% [11] ) of popular votes compared with 36.9% of votes for the Labour Party and 13.8% for the Liberals. The Conservative Party won 339 seats on a total of 635 seats, 62 more seats in comparison with the previous election. On the contrary, the Labour Party lost 50 seats and the percentage of popular votes fell by 2.3% compared with 1974 election.

Popular vote

11,523, 218





+ 8.1%

– 2.3%

– 4.5%

Table 1. Results of 1979 General Election.


Last Election

227 seats, 35.8%

319 seats, 39.2%

13 seats, 18.3%

Seats won



Seat change
+ 62



Table 2. Seats gained at the 1979 General Election.


The great outcome of the Conservative Party at the 1979 Election, was considered by some political analysts as the result of “special circumstances” [12] such as the disappointment brought by the “Winter of Discontent”. However, the thoroughness through which the electoral campaign was organized and led, and the shift in government policy and above all in economic policy experienced by Britain during Thatcher’s legislatures cannot be considered the product of serendipity. On the contrary, as Thatcher herself declared during the Debate on the Address on 15th May 1979, “it was indeed a watershed election” [13] . There are several reasons to consider the 1979 Election as a turn point in British politics. First of all, Britain saw for the first time (and the last time till today) a woman becoming Prime Minister. Furthermore, Margaret Thatcher was the bearer of a new Conservative ideology and she represented a change compared with both Labour and Conservative previous governments. That’s why the emeritus professor of British Government and Administration at the University of Leeds, Goffrey K. Fry, talks about a “Thatcher Revolution”, that is a shift in political and economic ideology. According to Ivor Crewe and Donald Searing, Thatcher’s Conservatism focused on three main political ideals: discipline, free enterprise and statecraft [14] . Discipline means obedience to rules implying an emphasis on law and order, the restoration of capital punishment and a more severe regime of sentences in the court system. Discipline is based on the notion of self-reliance, which should be the main characteristic of autonomous individuals living in a free society in which they are “independent enough to take risks and responsible enough to accept the consequences” [15] . The second political ideal is free enterprise which can be considered the principal aim of Mrs Thatcher’s policy. Free enterprise means the lack of state involvement in the economy, thus the opposition to the Labour policy of nationalization. Britain experienced an U-turn in economic policy with a shift toward Monetarism and the reject of Keynesianism supported by previous Conservative leaders such as Heath [16] . Thatcher strongly opposed Keynesianism based on the stimulation of economic growth by increasing demand through public spending, and supported Monetarism and the supply-side economics, and above all the idea that the government should intervene only to create a free market by lowering taxes, privatizing state industries and increasing restraints on trade unionism. Another peculiarity of Thatcher’s new ideals was the will of reducing Trade Union’s power and of lowering the state’s dependence on TUC. Finally, the third ideal embraced by the new Conservatism was statecraft. It could seem illogical talking about free enterprise and statecraft, however Thatcher’s ideal of a strong central government aimed to diminish the government’s influence over the economy and at the same time to increase its control over big-spending and too much powerful institutions such as Trade Unions. In fact another peculiarity of Thatcher’s new ideals was the will of reducing Trade Union’s power and of lowering the state’s dependence on TUC. In short, in Thatcher’s view, the State would “pull out of the economy, but strengthen its control in other areas” [17] .

Discipline, statecraft and free enterprise would characterize Margaret Thatcher’s policy throughout her three legislatures from 1979 to 1990. Thus, these features contributed to build the peculiar shape of Thatcher’s governments, which is regarded as “Thatcherism”.