United Kingdom general election, 1979
Overview


The United Kingdom general election of 1979 was held on 3 May 1979 to elect 635 members to the British House of Commons. The Conservative Party
Conservative Party (UK)
The Conservative Party, formally the Conservative and Unionist Party, is a centre-right political party in the United Kingdom that adheres to the philosophies of conservatism and British unionism. It is the largest political party in the UK, and is currently the largest single party in the House...

, led by Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990...

 ousted the incumbent Labour
Labour Party (UK)
The Labour Party is a centre-left democratic socialist party in the United Kingdom. It surpassed the Liberal Party in general elections during the early 1920s, forming minority governments under Ramsay MacDonald in 1924 and 1929-1931. The party was in a wartime coalition from 1940 to 1945, after...

 government of James Callaghan
James Callaghan
Leonard James Callaghan, Baron Callaghan of Cardiff, KG, PC , was a British Labour politician, who was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1976 to 1979 and Leader of the Labour Party from 1976 to 1980...

 with a parliamentary majority of 43 seats. The election was the first of four consecutive election victories for the Conservative Party, and Thatcher became the United Kingdom's - and Europe's - first female head of government
Head of government
Head of government is the chief officer of the executive branch of a government, often presiding over a cabinet. In a parliamentary system, the head of government is often styled prime minister, chief minister, premier, etc...

.

The previous parliamentary term had begun in October 1974, when Harold Wilson
Harold Wilson
James Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, KG, OBE, FRS, FSS, PC was a British Labour Member of Parliament, Leader of the Labour Party. He was twice Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the 1960s and 1970s, winning four general elections, including a minority government after the...

 led Labour to a three-seat majority, but within 18 months he had resigned as prime minister to be succeeded by James Callaghan, and within a year the government's narrow parliamentary majority had gone.
Encyclopedia
February 1974 election
United Kingdom general election, February 1974
The United Kingdom's general election of February 1974 was held on the 28th of that month. It was the first of two United Kingdom general elections held that year, and the first election since the Second World War not to produce an overall majority in the House of Commons for the winning party,...

  MPs
October 1974 election
United Kingdom general election, October 1974
The United Kingdom general election of October 1974 took place on 10 October 1974 to elect 635 members to the British House of Commons. It was the second general election of that year and resulted in the Labour Party led by Harold Wilson, winning by a tiny majority of 3 seats.The election of...

  MPs
1979 election MPs
MPs elected in the United Kingdom general election, 1979
This is a list of Members of Parliament elected to the 48th Parliament of the United Kingdom in the 1979 general election, held on 3 May 1979. This Parliament was dissolved in 1983....

1983 election
United Kingdom general election, 1983
The 1983 United Kingdom general election was held on 9 June 1983. It gave the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher the most decisive election victory since that of Labour in 1945...

  MPs
MPs elected in the United Kingdom general election, 1983
This is a list of Members of Parliament elected to the 49th Parliament of the United Kingdom in the 1983 general election, held on 9 June 1983...

1987 election
United Kingdom general election, 1987
The United Kingdom general election of 1987 was held on 11 June 1987, to elect 650 members to the British House of Commons. The election was the third consecutive election victory for the Conservative Party under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, who became the first Prime Minister since the 2nd...

  MPs
MPs elected in the United Kingdom general election, 1987
This is a list of Members of Parliament elected to the 50th Parliament of the United Kingdom in the 1987 general election, held on 11 June 1987...



The United Kingdom general election of 1979 was held on 3 May 1979 to elect 635 members to the British House of Commons. The Conservative Party
Conservative Party (UK)
The Conservative Party, formally the Conservative and Unionist Party, is a centre-right political party in the United Kingdom that adheres to the philosophies of conservatism and British unionism. It is the largest political party in the UK, and is currently the largest single party in the House...

, led by Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990...

 ousted the incumbent Labour
Labour Party (UK)
The Labour Party is a centre-left democratic socialist party in the United Kingdom. It surpassed the Liberal Party in general elections during the early 1920s, forming minority governments under Ramsay MacDonald in 1924 and 1929-1931. The party was in a wartime coalition from 1940 to 1945, after...

 government of James Callaghan
James Callaghan
Leonard James Callaghan, Baron Callaghan of Cardiff, KG, PC , was a British Labour politician, who was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1976 to 1979 and Leader of the Labour Party from 1976 to 1980...

 with a parliamentary majority of 43 seats. The election was the first of four consecutive election victories for the Conservative Party, and Thatcher became the United Kingdom's - and Europe's - first female head of government
Head of government
Head of government is the chief officer of the executive branch of a government, often presiding over a cabinet. In a parliamentary system, the head of government is often styled prime minister, chief minister, premier, etc...

.

The previous parliamentary term had begun in October 1974, when Harold Wilson
Harold Wilson
James Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, KG, OBE, FRS, FSS, PC was a British Labour Member of Parliament, Leader of the Labour Party. He was twice Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the 1960s and 1970s, winning four general elections, including a minority government after the...

 led Labour to a three-seat majority, but within 18 months he had resigned as prime minister to be succeeded by James Callaghan, and within a year the government's narrow parliamentary majority had gone. Callaghan had made agreements with the Liberals
Liberal Party (UK)
The Liberal Party was one of the two major political parties of the United Kingdom during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a third party of negligible importance throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, before merging with the Social Democratic Party in 1988 to form the present day...

, the Ulster Unionists
Ulster Unionist Party
The Ulster Unionist Party – sometimes referred to as the Official Unionist Party or, in a historic sense, simply the Unionist Party – is the more moderate of the two main unionist political parties in Northern Ireland...

, as well as the Scottish
Scottish National Party
The Scottish National Party is a social-democratic political party in Scotland which campaigns for Scottish independence from the United Kingdom....

 and Welsh nationalists
Plaid Cymru
' is a political party in Wales. It advocates the establishment of an independent Welsh state within the European Union. was formed in 1925 and won its first seat in 1966...

 in order to remain in power. When the Scottish Nationalists withdrew support, a vote of no confidence was passed on Callaghan's government, triggering a general election.

The Labour campaign was hampered by the series of industrial disputes and strikes during the Winter of 1978-79, now referred to as the Winter of Discontent
Winter of Discontent
The "Winter of Discontent" is an expression, popularised by the British media, referring to the winter of 1978–79 in the United Kingdom, during which there were widespread strikes by local authority trade unions demanding larger pay rises for their members, because the Labour government of...

 and the party focussed its campaign on support for the National Health Service
National Health Service
The National Health Service is the shared name of three of the four publicly funded healthcare systems in the United Kingdom. They provide a comprehensive range of health services, the vast majority of which are free at the point of use to residents of the United Kingdom...

 and full employment. Callaghan had rejected calls the previous autumn for a general election to be held,at a time when opinion polls suggested that he could win.

The Conservative campaign employed the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi
Saatchi & Saatchi
Saatchi & Saatchi is a global advertising agency network with 140 offices in 80 countries and over 6,500 staff. It was founded in London in 1970 but now headquartered in New York. The parent company of the agency group was known as Saatchi & Saatchi PLC from 1976 to 1994, was listed on the London...

 and pledged to control inflation
Inflation
In economics, inflation is a rise in the general level of prices of goods and services in an economy over a period of time.When the general price level rises, each unit of currency buys fewer goods and services. Consequently, inflation also reflects an erosion in the purchasing power of money – a...

 as well as curbing the power of the trade union
Trade union
A trade union, trades union or labor union is an organization of workers that have banded together to achieve common goals such as better working conditions. The trade union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members and negotiates labour contracts with...

s. The Liberal Party
Liberal Party (UK)
The Liberal Party was one of the two major political parties of the United Kingdom during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a third party of negligible importance throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, before merging with the Social Democratic Party in 1988 to form the present day...

 was damaged by allegations that its former leader Jeremy Thorpe
Jeremy Thorpe
John Jeremy Thorpe is a British former politician who was leader of the Liberal Party from 1967 to 1976 and was the Member of Parliament for North Devon from 1959 to 1979. His political career was damaged when an acquaintance, Norman Scott, claimed to have had a love affair with Thorpe at a time...

 had been involved in a homosexual affair and had conspired to commit murder.

The Liberals were now being led by David Steel
David Steel
David Martin Scott Steel, Baron Steel of Aikwood, KT, KBE, PC is a British Liberal Democrat politician who served as the Leader of the Liberal Party from 1976 until its merger with the Social Democratic Party in 1988 to form the Liberal Democrats...

, meaning that all three major parties entered the election with a new leader at the helm.

The election saw a 5.2% swing
Swing (politics)
An electoral swing analysis shows the extent of change in voter support from one election to another. It is an indicator of voter support for individual candidates or political parties, or voter preference between two or more candidates or parties...

 from Labour to the Conservatives, the largest swing since the 1945 election
United Kingdom general election, 1945
The United Kingdom general election of 1945 was a general election held on 5 July 1945, with polls in some constituencies delayed until 12 July and in Nelson and Colne until 19 July, due to local wakes weeks. The results were counted and declared on 26 July, due in part to the time it took to...

, which Clement Attlee
Clement Attlee
Clement Richard Attlee, 1st Earl Attlee, KG, OM, CH, PC, FRS was a British Labour politician who served as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1945 to 1951, and as the Leader of the Labour Party from 1935 to 1955...

 won for Labour. Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, and Callaghan was replaced as Labour leader by Michael Foot
Michael Foot
Michael Mackintosh Foot, FRSL, PC was a British Labour Party politician, journalist and author, who was a Member of Parliament from 1945 to 1955 and from 1960 until 1992...

 in 1980. Results for the election were broadcast live on the BBC, and presented by David Dimbleby
David Dimbleby
David Dimbleby is a British BBC TV commentator and a presenter of current affairs and political programmes, most notably the BBC's flagship political show Question Time, and more recently, art, architectural history and history series...

, Robert McKenzie, David Butler and Robin Day
Robin Day
Sir Robin Day, OBE was a British political broadcaster and commentator. His obituary in the Guardian stated that "he was the most outstanding television journalist of his generation...

.

Background

Callaghan had succeeded Harold Wilson
Harold Wilson
James Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, KG, OBE, FRS, FSS, PC was a British Labour Member of Parliament, Leader of the Labour Party. He was twice Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the 1960s and 1970s, winning four general elections, including a minority government after the...

 as Labour Prime Minister after the latter's surprise resignation in April 1976. By March 1977 Labour's small 1974 majority had become a minority government
Minority government
A minority government or a minority cabinet is a cabinet of a parliamentary system formed when a political party or coalition of parties does not have a majority of overall seats in the parliament but is sworn into government to break a Hung Parliament election result. It is also known as a...

 after several by-election defeats, and from March 1977 to August 1978 Callaghan governed by an agreement with the Liberal Party
Liberal Party (UK)
The Liberal Party was one of the two major political parties of the United Kingdom during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a third party of negligible importance throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, before merging with the Social Democratic Party in 1988 to form the present day...

 through the Lib-Lab pact
Lib-Lab pact
In British politics, a Lib-Lab pact is a working arrangement between the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party.There have been four such arrangements, and one alleged proposal, at the national level...

. Callaghan then considered calling an election in the autumn of 1978 but ultimately decided that a possible economic upturn in 1979 could favour his party at the polls.

However, events would soon overtake the Labour government. A series of industrial disputes in the winter of 1978-79, dubbed the "Winter of Discontent
Winter of Discontent
The "Winter of Discontent" is an expression, popularised by the British media, referring to the winter of 1978–79 in the United Kingdom, during which there were widespread strikes by local authority trade unions demanding larger pay rises for their members, because the Labour government of...

", led to widespread strikes across the country and seriously hurt Labour's standings in the polls. When the Scottish National Party
Scottish National Party
The Scottish National Party is a social-democratic political party in Scotland which campaigns for Scottish independence from the United Kingdom....

 (SNP) withdrew support for the Scotland Act 1978
Scotland Act 1978
The Scotland Act 1978 was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom intended to establish a Scottish Assembly as a devolved legislature for Scotland...

, a vote of no confidence was held and passed
1979 vote of no confidence against the government of James Callaghan
The 1979 vote of no confidence in the government of James Callaghan was a vote of no confidence in the British Labour Government of James Callaghan which occurred on 28 March 1979. The vote was brought by opposition leader Margaret Thatcher and was lost by the Labour Government by one vote ,...

 by one vote on 28 March 1979, forcing Callaghan to either resign or call a general election. As the previous election
United Kingdom general election, October 1974
The United Kingdom general election of October 1974 took place on 10 October 1974 to elect 635 members to the British House of Commons. It was the second general election of that year and resulted in the Labour Party led by Harold Wilson, winning by a tiny majority of 3 seats.The election of...

 had been held in October 1974, Labour could have held on until the autumn of 1979 if it had not been for the lost confidence vote.

Margaret Thatcher had won her party's 1975 leadership election
Conservative Party (UK) leadership election, 1975
Edward Heath, leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom had called and unexpectedly lost the February 1974 general election...

 over former leader Edward Heath
Edward Heath
Sir Edward Richard George "Ted" Heath, KG, MBE, PC was a British Conservative politician who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and as Leader of the Conservative Party ....

.

David Steel
David Steel
David Martin Scott Steel, Baron Steel of Aikwood, KT, KBE, PC is a British Liberal Democrat politician who served as the Leader of the Liberal Party from 1976 until its merger with the Social Democratic Party in 1988 to form the Liberal Democrats...

 had replaced Jeremy Thorpe
Jeremy Thorpe
John Jeremy Thorpe is a British former politician who was leader of the Liberal Party from 1967 to 1976 and was the Member of Parliament for North Devon from 1959 to 1979. His political career was damaged when an acquaintance, Norman Scott, claimed to have had a love affair with Thorpe at a time...

 as leader of the Liberal Party
Liberal Party (UK)
The Liberal Party was one of the two major political parties of the United Kingdom during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a third party of negligible importance throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, before merging with the Social Democratic Party in 1988 to form the present day...

 in 1976, after accusations of homosexuality
Homosexuality
Homosexuality is romantic or sexual attraction or behavior between members of the same sex or gender. As a sexual orientation, homosexuality refers to "an enduring pattern of or disposition to experience sexual, affectional, or romantic attractions" primarily or exclusively to people of the same...

 and allegations of a conspiracy to commit murder
Murder
Murder is the unlawful killing, with malice aforethought, of another human being, and generally this state of mind distinguishes murder from other forms of unlawful homicide...

 forced Thorpe to resign (see Rinkagate). The scandals led to a fall in the Liberal vote after what was thought to be a breakthrough in the February 1974 election
United Kingdom general election, February 1974
The United Kingdom's general election of February 1974 was held on the 28th of that month. It was the first of two United Kingdom general elections held that year, and the first election since the Second World War not to produce an overall majority in the House of Commons for the winning party,...

.

Campaign

This was the first election since 1959 to feature 3 new leaders for the main political parties. The three main parties all advocated cutting income tax. Labour and the Conservatives did not specify the exact thresholds of income tax they would implement but the Liberals did, claiming they would have income tax starting at 20% with a top rate of 50%.

The Labour campaign reiterated their support for the National Health Service
National Health Service
The National Health Service is the shared name of three of the four publicly funded healthcare systems in the United Kingdom. They provide a comprehensive range of health services, the vast majority of which are free at the point of use to residents of the United Kingdom...

 and full employment
Full employment
In macroeconomics, full employment is a condition of the national economy, where all or nearly all persons willing and able to work at the prevailing wages and working conditions are able to do so....

 and focused on the damage they believed the Conservatives would do to the country. In an early campaign broadcast, Callaghan asked: "The question you will have to consider is whether we risk tearing everything up by the roots". Towards the end of Labour's campaign Callaghan claimed a Conservative government "would sit back and just allow firms to go bankrupt and jobs to be lost in the middle of a world recession" and that the Conservatives were "too big a gamble to take".

The Conservatives campaigned on economic issues, pledging to control inflation
Inflation
In economics, inflation is a rise in the general level of prices of goods and services in an economy over a period of time.When the general price level rises, each unit of currency buys fewer goods and services. Consequently, inflation also reflects an erosion in the purchasing power of money – a...

 and to reduce the increasing power of the unions
Trade union
A trade union, trades union or labor union is an organization of workers that have banded together to achieve common goals such as better working conditions. The trade union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members and negotiates labour contracts with...

 who supported the mass strikes. They also employed the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi
Saatchi & Saatchi
Saatchi & Saatchi is a global advertising agency network with 140 offices in 80 countries and over 6,500 staff. It was founded in London in 1970 but now headquartered in New York. The parent company of the agency group was known as Saatchi & Saatchi PLC from 1976 to 1994, was listed on the London...

. The Conservative campaign was focused on gaining support from traditional Labour voters who had never voted Conservative before, first-time voters and people who had voted Liberal in 1974. Mrs. Thatcher's advisers, Gordon Reece
Gordon Reece
Sir James Gordon Reece was a British journalist and television producer who worked as a political strategist for Margaret Thatcher during the 1979 general election which led to her victory over then prime minister James Callaghan...

 and Timothy Bell
Timothy Bell, Baron Bell
Timothy John Leigh Bell, Baron Bell is a British advertising and public relations executive, best known for his advisory role in Margaret Thatcher's three successful general election campaigns.-Early career:...

, co-ordinated their presentation with the editor of The Sun
The Sun (newspaper)
The Sun is a daily national tabloid newspaper published in the United Kingdom and owned by News Corporation. Sister editions are published in Glasgow and Dublin...

, Larry Lamb. The Sun printed a series of articles by disillusioned former Labour ministers (Reginald Prentice
Reginald Prentice
Reginald Ernest Prentice, Baron Prentice, PC was a British politician who held ministerial office in both Labour and Conservative Party governments...

, Richard Marsh
Richard Marsh, Baron Marsh
Richard William Marsh, Baron Marsh PC was an English politician and business executive.Marsh was educated at Woolwich Polytechnic and was elected as Labour Party Member of Parliament for Greenwich at the 1959 general election...

, Lord George-Brown
George Brown, Baron George-Brown
George Alfred Brown, Baron George-Brown, PC was a British Labour politician, who served as the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party from 1960 to 1970, and served in a number of positions in the Cabinet, most notably as Foreign Secretary, in the Labour Government of the 1960s...

, Alfred Robens
Alfred Robens, Baron Robens of Woldingham
Alfred Robens, Baron Robens of Woldingham CBE PC was an English trade unionist, Labour politician and industrialist...

 and Lord Chalfont
Alun Jones, Baron Chalfont
Alun Arthur Gwynne Jones, Baron Chalfont, OBE, MC, PC is a British politician.Jones was educated at West Monmouth School, and subsequently at the School of Slavonic Studies in the University of London. He was a Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1964 to 1970 and appointed to the...

) detailing why they had switched their support to Mrs Thatcher. She explicitly asked Labour voters for their support when she launched her campaign in Cardiff, claiming that Labour was now extreme. An analysis of the election claimed that the Conservatives gained an 11% swing among the skilled working-class (the C2s) and a 9% swing amongst the unskilled working class (the DEs).

Results

In the end, the overall swing of 5.2% was the largest since 1945 and gave the Conservatives a workable majority
Majority
A majority is a subset of a group consisting of more than half of its members. This can be compared to a plurality, which is a subset larger than any other subset; i.e. a plurality is not necessarily a majority as the largest subset may consist of less than half the group's population...

 of 43 for the country's first female Prime Minister. The Conservative victory in 1979 also marked a change in government which would continue for 18 years until the Labour victory in 1997. The SNP saw a massive collapse in support, losing 9 of their 11 MPs to the three main political parties alike. The Liberals had a disappointing night, as they were affected by the scandal involving former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe
Jeremy Thorpe
John Jeremy Thorpe is a British former politician who was leader of the Liberal Party from 1967 to 1976 and was the Member of Parliament for North Devon from 1959 to 1979. His political career was damaged when an acquaintance, Norman Scott, claimed to have had a love affair with Thorpe at a time...

. Thorpe lost his seat in North Devon
North Devon
North Devon is the northern part of the English county of Devon. It is also the name of a local government district in Devon. Its council is based in Barnstaple. Other towns and villages in the North Devon District include Braunton, Fremington, Ilfracombe, Instow, South Molton, Lynton and Lynmouth...

 to the Conservatives.

|}

All parties shown.
Government's new majority 43
Total votes cast 31,221,362
Turnout 76%


N.B. The Vanguard Progressive Unionist Party
Vanguard Progressive Unionist Party
The Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party , informally known as Ulster Vanguard, was a unionist political party which existed in Northern Ireland between 1973 and 1978...

 had folded in 1978. Of its three MPs, two joined the Ulster Unionist Party
Ulster Unionist Party
The Ulster Unionist Party – sometimes referred to as the Official Unionist Party or, in a historic sense, simply the Unionist Party – is the more moderate of the two main unionist political parties in Northern Ireland...

 (one held his seat, the other lost to the Democratic Unionist Party
Democratic Unionist Party
The Democratic Unionist Party is the larger of the two main unionist political parties in Northern Ireland. Founded by Ian Paisley and currently led by Peter Robinson, it is currently the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the fourth-largest party in the House of Commons of the...

) and the third defended and held his seat for the United Ulster Unionist Party
United Ulster Unionist Party
The United Ulster Unionist Party was a unionist political party which existed in Northern Ireland between 1975 and 1984.It emerged from a division in the Vanguard Progressive Unionist Party in the late 1970s...

.


James Kilfedder
James Kilfedder
Sir James Alexander Kilfedder was a Northern Ireland unionist politician.-Early life:...

 had been previously elected as an Ulster Unionist MP, but left the party, defending and holding his seat as an Independent Ulster Unionist. He subsequently founded the Ulster Popular Unionist Party
Ulster Popular Unionist Party
The Ulster Popular Unionist Party was a unionist political party in Northern Ireland. It was founded in 1980 by James Kilfedder, independent Unionist Member of Parliament for North Down, who led the party until his death in 1995....

 but did not use that label in this election.

Votes summary

Seats summary

See also

  • MPs elected in the United Kingdom general election, 1979
    MPs elected in the United Kingdom general election, 1979
    This is a list of Members of Parliament elected to the 48th Parliament of the United Kingdom in the 1979 general election, held on 3 May 1979. This Parliament was dissolved in 1983....

    .
  • United Kingdom local elections, 1979
    United Kingdom local elections, 1979
    Local elections were held in the United Kingdom in May 1979. The results provided some source of comfort to the Labour Party, who recovered some lost ground from local election reversals in previous years, despite losing the general election to the Conservative Party on the same day.Labour gained...


Manifestos

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